Saint-Léonard-de-Noblat was home to the shrine of one of the Compostelan pilgrimage’s most popular saints, whose relics were kept in the collegiate church built over the original oratory this confessor saint had founded in the sixth century.
The origins of Léonard’s cult remain mysterious but by the twelfth century it had spread all over Europe and the saint was regarded as a special protector of prisoners and protector of Crusaders.
Léonard was born into a noble Frankish family in the early sixth century but he renounced his privileged background to become a follower of Saint Remigius, following him to Rheims and assisting him in his charitable work for prisoners. According to the saint’s legend he was donated an area of forest by the Frankish king Clodoveus. Léonard had come across the king’s wife in the midst of birth pangs alone in this forest and had delivered the king’s son. The king’s donation was a gesture of gratitude and Léonard lived there a “celibate and hermit-like life with frequent fasts and plentiful vigils amid cold, nudity and unspeakable labours”.
The small shrine at Nobiliacum, Léonard’s oratory, allegedly so named in deference to its donor, Clodoveus, remained unmentioned in any clerical text until a passing reference by the chronicler of the abbey of Saint Martial of Limoges, Adhemar de Chabannes, in about 1020. Some time after that another cleric of Limoges wrote to abbot Fulbert of Chartres seeking his advice on whether any history of the saint existed. Apparently none did, however in 1030 a substantial hagiography was produced and this is the source for the extensive chapter on Saint Léonard which is included in the Pilgrim’s Guide.
As happened the length and breadth of the Compostelan pilgrimage roads, a saint acquired new status by virtue of the flow of pilgrims passing through their shrine.
This seems very much the case for Noblat, where in the twelfth century a large pilgrimage church was built with an ambulatory to allow visitors in numbers to pass by the relics.
The church at Noblat was filled with the many instruments of capitivity which had been left there by grateful pilgrims freed by Léonard’s intercession, “their iron chains, more barbarous than one can possibly recount, joined together by the thousands have been appended in testimony of such great miracles all around his basilica.”