Leonard is the patron saint of midwives, and of prisoners: that’s why you’ll see a pair of broken fetters above the door at the rear of the sanctuary.
Leonard’s Life tells us (but if you believe everything that you read in the lives of medieval saints, you’ll believe many remarkable things) that he was a young man of noble birth who gave up court life in France to become a hermit in a forest. One day, the king came hunting in the forest, accompanied by his wife, who was shortly due to have a baby. If you go galloping around on horseback in the latter stages of pregnancy, there are likely to be sudden and dramatic consequences. By good fortune, Leonard was on hand to lend his assistance,and the baby was safely delivered. The king and queen were very grateful, and granted Leonard as much land as he could ride round on a donkey in the course of a night. Leonard used this land to establish a monastery.
Leonard’s interest in and concern for prisoners – both those held in jail, and those captured in war – isn’t illustrated by any such headline-grabbing stories, though he is said to have regularly urged the release of those he considered to be unjustly held, and to have protested against bad conditions of treatment. This aspect of Leonard’s work led to him becoming a popular and well-known saint in Europe from the 12th and 13th centuries. Crusading knights who had been captured in the Holy Land, when they returned home after rescue or ransom, often showed their gratitude by founding churches or hospitals dedicated to St Leonard, and his cult spread widely.
In Scotland, where today there are six or seven other St Leonard’s churches as well as our own St Leonard’s-in-the-Fields, there were St Leonard’s hospitals in Edinburgh and Dunfermline, both leaving traces in modern street or district names. In St Andrews, a former guest-house for pilgrims was converted into St Leonard’s College in 1512: intended to bolster the pre-Reformation faith, the new college became a breeding ground for new ideas, and over the next fifty years many of the leaders of Scotland’s Reformation “drank of St Leonard’s well”.The former college buildings now form the nucleus of the well-known school; you can still visit the restored St Leonard’s Chapel.
Perth had its own St Leonard’s priory and hospital, under the management of Cistercian nuns, and in existence before 1296, sited approximately where the railway station is now (hence Leonard Street and St Leonard’s Bank). In about 1429 King James I gifted this priory to the Charterhouse which he had recently established in Perth, and in 1434 St Leonard’s priory was suppressed. “Suppressed” may make us think there had been some scandal, but more probably the priory and hospital (perhaps with very few nuns) were no longer viable or had simply become surplus to requirements.
New churches, like new babies, need names. When in 1835 what would today be called a new charge development church was opened in King Street, it was most appropriate to Perth’s religious history that it should be given St Leonard’s name.
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