St Leger, it is disappointing to report, did not give his name to the classic race at Doncaster. That distinction belongs to a Colonel St Leger, whose moniker was attached to the third running of the event, in 1778.
The original St Leger, or Leodegarius, was a seventh-century ecclesiastic who suffered the most barbaric penalties after becoming involved in the power struggles of Merovingian France.
Born around 620, Leger began his career promisingly enough, as the nephew of the Bishop of Poitiers. By his early 20s he was an archdeacon.
At 35 Leger became abbot of St Maixent, in Poitiers, where he introduced the Rule of St Benedict. “Not having been softened by the joys of the flesh,” we are told, “he was strict in his treatment of sinners.”
After six years at St Maixent, Leger was summoned to the court of the Queen Regent Bathilda. This extraordinary woman had arrived in France as an Anglo-Saxon slave girl; eventually, though, she had married the Frankish Clovis II, ruler in northern France (“Neustria”) and Burgundy.
As Regent after her husband’s death, Bathilda appointed Leger Bishop of Autun, where he restored peace to a divided diocese, and supervised monastic reform.
Unhappily, though, Leger became caught up in factional struggles at the Neustrian court, supporting Childeric II, Bathilda’s son, against the ambitious magnate Ebroin. Childeric, though, married his first cousin without securing a dispensation, for which Leger roundly admonished him. The censorious bishop was obliged to flee from Autun, though he briefly returned to favour when Childeric was succeeded by his brother, Theoderic III.
In so far as it possible to untangle the political intrigues of that time it seems that Leger’s old opponent Ebroin wanted to reunite the kingdoms of Neustria and Burgundy and that Leger, wittingly or unwittingly, became the figurehead for Burgundian resistance to this plan.
When Ebroin raised an army to besiege Autun, Leger, conscious that the town’s inhabitants were suffering on his account, gave himself up.
The enemy acknowledged this gallant gesture by putting out his eyes, a torture he endured without giving any sign of pain. Thereafter he was for some time lodged in Champagne.
Ebroin next accused Leger and his brother Gerinus of having plotted the death of King Childeric II, and compelled Leger to be present as Gerinus was stoned to death. The blind bishop merely had his tongue mutilated and his lips cut off.
For two years Leger lived on in a monastery at Fécamp in Normandy; he even learned to speak again. Finally, in 679, he was condemned to death. The executioners begged their victim for forgiveness, which was readily given.
Three years later Leger’s body was buried in his first monastery in Poitiers.