Leonard apparently lived in the sixth century, but his name did not become widely known until an account of his life was concocted in the 11th century.
Indeed, it was really only in the 12th century that Leonard’s fame began to spread. This was largely due to the fact
that the Limousin village of Noblac, where he had supposedly been a hermit, became a stopping point on the pilgrim route to Compostela.
It helped, too, that Bohemond, prince of Antioch, attributed his release from a Muslim prison in 1103 to the good offices of the saint.
By the later Middle Ages Leonard had become one of the most popular saints in western Europe. His specialities were the care of women during childbirth, and the charitable treatment of prisoners.
According to the Life, Leonard had been born into the Frankish nobility and had been converted to Christianity by St Remigius. His godfather, King Clovis, immediately offered him a bishopric, which was virtuously refused.
Instead, Leonard became a monk at Micy, near Orleans. Then, seeking greater solitude, he went to live in a forest near Limoges.
The story goes that King Clovis came hunting in the area, accompanied by his heavily pregnant queen. She and her child both survived a difficult labour, a happy outcome attributed to the prayers of Leonard.
The grateful Clovis granted him as much land as he could ride around in a night on a donkey. There, Leonard built an oratory dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
Various relations arrived from the north to join him, and eventually the oratory developed into the abbey of Noblac.
It seems that Leonard was never at a loss for an edifying sentiment. “A fare of dry bread, eaten in the joy of a pure conscience,” he held, “is of more worth than a house abundantly furnished, where quarrels and divisions prevail.”
Meanwhile, prisoners who invoked Leonard’s aid discovered that their chains and shackles miraculously fell from them. And it cannot have harmed his popularity that Clovis promised to release every prisoner of war whom the saint visited.
Yet Leonard’s death was followed by five centuries of oblivion. From the 12th century, however, his name was copiously invoked, not merely throughout France, but also in Italy and Bavaria.
In England, too, there were 177 churches dedicated to Leonard, many of them in Kent and Sussex. There were also several dedications in the west Midlands, notably at Bridgnorth and Bilston.
At York, the largest medieval hospital in northern England, run by the Augustinians, was placed under the care of St Leonard.
As for the little town of Saint-Léonard-de-Noblat, if it no longer attracts so many pilgrims it has, by way of compensation, served as a staging post in the Tour de France.