St Leonard’s Chapel

John R Barrett - as publsihed in 2022 Moray Field Club Bulletin

The legend of St Leonard is well known, though nothing is certainly known about the saint. The earliest Vita is an eleventh-century concoction that scholars agree is historically worthless.i

The ‘Life’ asserts that Leonard was a nobleman. (Early-medieval saints were usually aristocrats.) He was a courtier in the entourage of Clovis, king of the Franks (481 - 511). Leonard was converted to Christianity by Remigus of Rheims, and he left the king’s court to take up a monastic life at Micy near Orléans. Leonard’s Christian zeal drove him to seek a more ascetic route to salvation. Following the example of the desert fathers, Leonard retreated from the world to live as a hermit – establishing his cell in a forest near Limoges. His reputation for sanctity attracted others who joined him in his seclusion forming the nucleus of a Benedictine monastic community. Meanwhile, Leonard became especially sympathetic with the suffering of captives and prisoners; and King Clovis released into his care any prisoners for whom he petitioned. These prisoners swelled the ranks of Leonard’s community, offering prayers of thanks for their deliverance and doing penance for past sins.

Leonard’s first patron, Clovis, died in 511. The kingdom was divided among four sons: Theodoric in Austurasia; Chlodomer in Orléan; Childebet in Paris; Chlotar (who later claimed the dignity of king of the Franks) in Soissons. The names of Theodoric, and his successor Theodebert, both declared their acceptance of Christianity. And King Theodebert (533 - 548) seems to have been a particular patron of Leonard’s community. Legend describes how Theodebert and his queen Misigard were hunting in the forest near Leonard’s oratory, when the queen went into labour. Leonard acted as midwife and Misigard’s child was safely delivered. This was hardly a miracle. Nonetheless, the grateful king granted Leonard as much land as he could ride round in one night on his donkey. This estate became the possession of Leonard’s monastery of Noblat (now Saint-Léonard).

Leonard died around 559. A rash of miracles attributed to Leonard’s intercession proved him to be a saint. Leonard is considered the patron saint of locksmiths, prisoners, pregnancy and childbirth. In Bavaria Leonard is assigned special responsibility for cattle. St Leonard’s festival in the medieval church calendar was celebrated on viii idus Novembris (6 November); and the day was observed as a half-holiday, with an obligation to hear mass and refrain from all work except ploughing. St Leonard is conventionally depicted holding an open Bible and a length of chain. A skull and bones said to be the remains of Leonard were preserved at Noblat.


The cult of St Leonard was probably introduced to England by followers of William I from 1066 onwards. And Leonard became especially popular among aristocratic crusaders (from 1095 onwards) – who might pray for the saint’s aid when captured and held for ransom by the infidels. The cult of St Leonard was especially promoted under Richard I who was captured while returning from the Holy Land in 1192, and held as a political pawn in a complex haggle involving the Emperor Henry VI, King Philip of France and Richard’s brother Prince John. Richard was eventually ransomed for the staggering sum of 150,000 marks – raised by swingeing taxation of his English subjects. The king, however, attributed his deliverance to the intercession of St Leonard, and gave thanks at his shrine.

Scotland was not involved to any significant extent in the crusades, but received Leonard – and a gaggle of continental saints – as part of the Anglo-Norman cultural package that was intruded during a northward flow of English, French and Flemish immigrants. A first influx of Anglo-Norman immigrants had been welcomed to Moray by King Macbeatha (1040 - 1057). But more significant waves – of clerics, merchants and landholders – arrived as colonial settlers to secure the conquest of Moray by kings of Scots after Macbeatha’s death. The leading figure in this expansion of royal power was David I (1124 - 1153). David himself was deeply involved in the Anglo-Norman world. He was brother-in-law to the English king, Henry I, and also a leading English courtier in his role as earl of Huntingdon. David’s successor and grandson Malcolm IV (1153 - 1165) was also close to the English court. He joined Henry II on a military expedition to France in 1159; and was knighted by the English king. David’s second grandson, William I, king of Scots (1165 - 1214), expanded the Anglo-Norman influx into Scotland; and was himself deeply involved in English affairs: as earl of Huntingdon; and variously as an ally, an enemy and a prisoner of Henry II.

David I created – and his successors secured – an exemplary Anglo-Norman cultural zone extending through the Moray lowlands, from the Cromarty Firth to the Deveron.ii It seems likely that St Leonard came to Moray under David I, in company with other Continental saints including Lawrence and Giles – who were adopted as patrons of the new burghs of Forres and Elgin (founded around 1150). Certainly prayers would have been addressed to St Leonard during the captivity of William I in 1174.

Dedications to St Leonard are to be found in thirty-three English counties; many of these dedications are associated with leper hospitals. At least two dozen dedications to St Leonard have been identified in Scotland. Chiefly Leonard was the tutelary saint of lesser chapels. Leonard was not sufficiently popular to be adopted in parish church dedications; though chapels within parish churches were dedicated to Leonard at Dundee (jointly with St George), Finhaven, Forfarshire, and Aberdeen. This may suggest that the cult of Leonard arrived in Scotland after the establishment of organised parishes (a reform largely completed by the 1150s). St Leonard was especially adopted as patron of hospitals: including bedehouses (Dunfermline) and resting-places for pilgrims (St Andrews, Peebles). Several hospitals and chapels dedicated to Leonard in Scotland developed into nunneries (Perth, Halystan, St Andrews). At Eshiels, near Peebles, Leonard was combined in a joint dedication with St Lawrence.iii


St Leonard’s chapel at Forres, stood a short half-mile to the south of the burgh. The chapel stood on a small eminence above the Mosset Burn. This site might be regarded as a suitable stance for an early Christian oratory. (A fragment of Pictish symbol stone was found nearby.) It is tempting to infer (on the basis of no evidence) that Leonard and a reformed Catholic priest displaced a native cleric and Celtic dedication during the reform of ecclesiastical institutions that supported the conquest of Moray and the establishment of burghs after 1150. Leonard’s chapel stood close to the main route leading south from Forres to Dallas and thence to Speyside. There is no evidence, though, that the chapel served a hospital for travellers. However, it is likely that the chapel would benefit from alms given by travellers and traders: giving thanks for safe arrival at the burgh; seeking a blessing for the journey home. And it seems possible that the chapel might have been a burial place for local suicides, excommunicated sinners and unbaptised infants – who were disqualified from full Christian burial rites performed by the parish priest at St Lawrence church.

The chapel of St Leonard at Forres is thinly documented. The chapel site beside the improved farm of Chapelton was surveyed by the first Ordnance Survey in 1868.iv The OS plan showed a rectangular outline, but no upstanding walls, aligned roughly east-west. Two deciduous trees grew on the north side; two more deciduous trees were planned – one at the southeast and one at the southwest corner of the feature. South of the chapel site was a garden planted with rows of trees and criss-crossed by a grid of paths. The site was resurveyed in 1904. v The chapel was again depicted as a rectangular outline with no upstanding walls. The four trees had been removed. The garden to the south had also disappeared. The chapel stance and garden site formed an unbroken area of rough grass.

Deeper map regression is frustrated by a lack of information. John Wood’s plan of Forres (1823) does not extend as far as the chapel. The Military Survey of Scotland (‘Roy’s map’, 1747 - 1755) shows no settlement or other feature on the site of St Leonard’s chapel. Robert Gordon’s map of Moravia in Joan Blaeu’s Atlas Maior (1654) shows a place named Chappeltoun – indicated with a small open circle suggesting an ordinary rural township, with no hint of an ecclesiastical building. Timothy Pont’s manuscript map (c. 1590), principal source for Gordon’s map, shows a place named Chappeltoun – indicated by a circle with a central dot suggesting an ordinary rural township. There is no earlier cartographic source.

The Forres historian, Robert Douglas, recognised:

When Roman Catholicism became the prevailing form of religion there was established at Forres a parsonage dedicated to St Laurence with chapels at Chapelton (St Leonard’s) and at Logie (St John’s) vi

Douglas reported, ‘There is practically no written record to help one in forming any opinion as to this ancient Chapel’, but included a couple of documentary references. Accounts of the sheriff of Forres in the Exchequer roll recorded in 1337:

Et Capellano diuina celebrabti in capella Sancti Leonardi; tercia parte firme de Mundole superius onerate viii. S xd alia vice ii. S vi. d

And in 1456:

Et capellano beati Leonardi celebranti in capella ejusdem prope Forres percepienti annuatim quinque libras de firmis vice comitatus de Fores de termino hujis compoti ipso fatente per literas suas receptum super compotum 50s

Douglas added ‘The earl of Moray seems to have been a patron of St Leonard’s Chapel and to have aided materially its support’.vii

St Leonard’s chapel is not referred to in Registrum Episcopatus Moraviensis. This register of charters records the granting of endowments belonging to many other chapels (and most of Moray’s parish churches) to support the cathedral dignitaries in Elgin. But it seems that St Leonard’s chapel at Forres remained in private hands, financed by lay patrons, during the Middle Ages.viii

This continuing independence is confirmed by The Books of Assumption of the Thirds of Benefices, which recorded ecclesiastical incomes redistributed during the Reformation.ix The survey included St Leonard’s hospitals at Edinburgh and Peebles; also St Leonard’s chapel, Polton. The entry for St Leonard’s chaplainry at Forres suggests that the chapel remained in use, and was served by a priest, under the patronage of the earl of Moray:

‘Ane cheplanrie callit Leonardis chapel perteyning to Master Johnne Dumbar, to the quhilk cheplanrie the taxman of the earldome of Murray aucht to pay’ £5 yearly ‘and I gat never payment thairof thre yeris bigane’x

This record is the latest documentary evidence for St Leonard’s chapel, which was clearly in decline – money due to the chaplain unpaid for three years – in 1561. St Leonard’s chapel does not seem to have continued as a place of worship or veneration for long after the Reformation: the kirk session was not obliged to rebuke any Forres parishioners for engaging in superstitious activities on the site. The registers of abbreviates of feu charters of kirklandsxi (recording titles to former church property) do not record any St Leonard’s chapel property in lay hands.

However, St Leonard was not forgotten in the burgh. The burgh of Forres had enjoyed the right to an annual St Lawrence Fair and to a weekly market held on a Monday – probably since its foundation around 1150.xii It is likely that by the sixteenth century the weekly markets had been rationalised into nine market days spread through the year. Markets might be held on Sunday until 1595. In 1586 St Leonard’s day (6 November) fell on a Sunday: a fracas in the street reported on Monday 7 November was said to have disturbed the peace of St Leonard’s market.xiii The revised pattern of market days was itemised in 1647. By this date Sunday markets had been suppressed; but neither Reformation nor Covenanter fundamentalism, had been able to suppress the traditional Roman Catholic church-calendar market-day names: Midsummer/St John and St Peter on 24 and the penultimate Monday in June; St Lawrence and St Rufus (Máelrubha) on 10 and 27 August; St Leonard (6 November); St John’s day at Yule (27 December); Candlemas (2 February); Lady Day – the nativity of the BVM (9 September); St Mark (Tuesday after Easter).xiv In 1747 the Easter (St Mark), Midsummer, St Lawrence and St Leonard markets were enlarged to extend over two days each. The number of markets was reduced to eight and market day was shifted to Wednesday in 1803: St Leonard’s market was held on the third Wednesday in November. The old pattern (and church-calendar names) were finally abandoned in 1863 when monthly Tuesday markets (and weekly Tuesday corn markets) were initiated.xv

Meanwhile, the burgh’s registers of sasines, recording titles to property lying along the road leading south out of Forres, routinely described boundaries in terms of ‘the road leading to St Leonard’s chapel’. This formula persisted through the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth.xvi This wording is, though, probably a conventional reiteration by a careful lawyer of descriptions from earlier title deeds rather than evidence of an upstanding chapel. However, the formula ensured that the chapel, abandoned after the Reformation, was not forgotten. Meanwhile the Early-modern township of Chapetoun had been regularised as an improved farm that retained the township name as Chapelton Farm. And when street naming became fashionable (and necessary for administrative and postal purposes) in the nineteenth century, ‘the road to St Leonard’s chapel’, became officially ‘St Leonard’s Road’.

St Leonard’s chapel, Forres, was, it seems, overlooked by most antiquarians, whose attention was diverted to the more stimulating spectacle of Sueno’s Stone. The sole antiquarian notice of St Leonard’s chapel is by H. B. Mackintosh in the 1920s, who noticed:

The farm of Chapelton, the site of a chapel dedicated to St Leonard, but the remorseless hand of time has spared neither chapel nor burying-ground, and only traces of the enclosure walls are visiblexvii

Since Mackintosh the chapel has been ignored – its history obscure, its secrets shrouded by bracken, scrub and neglect.

John R Barrett BA, MSc, PhD, FSA Scot


i D. Attwater, The Penguin Dictionary of Saints (Harmondsworth, 1965); E. S. Towill, The Saints of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1978); A. Butler, The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs and Principal Saints - usually referred to as Butler’s Lives of the Saints - (London, 1883)

ii The conquest of Moray is described in J. R. Barrett, The Civilisation of Moray: burghs in the landscape and the landscape of burghs, c.1150 – c.1250 (unpublished MSc dissertation, University of Aberdeen, 2019)

iii J. M. Mackinlay, Church Dedications in Scotland: non-scriptural dedications (Edinburgh, 1914) pp. 337-44

iv OS, 1:2500, Elginshire sheet XI.9, surveyed 1868, published 1874

v OS, 1:2500, Elginshire sheet XI.9, surveyed 1904, published 1905

vi R. Douglas Annals of the Royal Burgh of Forres (Elgin, 1934) pp. 241

vii Ibid. Pp. 261-2

viii C. Innes, Registrum Episcopatus Moraviensis (Edinburgh, Bannantyne Club, 1838)

ix NRS: E48/1/1, 2; NLS: Adv MS; 31.1.13; 31.3.16; Edinburgh University Library: MS Dc.4.32

x J. Kirk (editor) The Books of Assumption of the Thirds of Benefices (Oxford, 1993) p. 484

xi NRS: E14

xii Moray Council Archives, charter by James IV, 23 June 1496, ZBFo A1/1 (with translation by D. Iredale, 1996)

xiii Moray Council Archives, Forres burgh court book, ZBFo B2; Douglas, pp. 339-40

xiv Moray Council Archives, Forres Town Council minutes A2

xv ibid

xvi Moray Council Archives, ZBFo A52

xvii H. B. Mackintosh, Pilgrimages in Moray: a guide to the county (Elgin, 1924) p. 52

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