The life of Ela, Countess of Salisbury

on Tuesday, 15 September 2015. Posted in Archives

Ela, Countess of Salisbury was a very interesting woman and this blog will look at her life, particularly relating to Lacock Abbey, which she founded in 1232.

Ela was born in Amesbury in 1187 and inherited the title of Countess of Salisbury as well as many lands and estates in 1196 when her father died, and at that time she was only nine years old. After her husband William died, she assumed the post of Sheriff of Wiltshire as well, which he had held.

Her early life is a bit blurred: following her succession to her father’s title, it appears she was taken to Normandy and imprisoned there. This may have been her mother’s family, so it may therefore have not been a prison: it is possible that she and her mother both travelled to Normandy and remained there with their family. Whatever the action, though, this was a secret place: it was not intended that she should be found. It has been suggested that the reason for this was to save Ela from possible danger from her father’s brother Philip. Bowles and Nicholls, in the book Annals and antiquities of Lacock Abbey, say that this suggestion “would account for her daughter’s confinement by an anxious and affectionate mother, that she might be placed out of reach of those who perhaps might have meditated worse than confinement”. Anyway, she was taken from the legal wardship of the King and hidden in Normandy. An English knight called William Talbot decided to go and rescue her and went to France dressed as a pilgrim. He then changed his disguise to enter the Court after he discovered where she was kept, and eventually managed to take her back to England where he presented her to King Richard. It was Richard who then arranged for her marriage to William Longspee, who was Richard’s illegitimate half-brother and probably about 13 years older than Ela.

William and Ela were probably engaged when her father died and she became the King’s ward, but weren’t married until she came of age. William then became Earl of Salisbury, taking his father-in-law’s title, and also Sheriff of Wiltshire. Together, they laid foundation stones for Salisbury Cathedral, in which William was buried a few years later.

It appears to have been a very happy marriage, despite being arranged, and Ela was devoted to her husband. At one time he was on a long voyage and needed to be on the sea to escape his enemies on land. Supposing William to be lost at sea, a knight called Reimund was sent to her to make her his wife, but she refused, believing that her husband was still alive. When William did die, she never remarried which again suggests devotion and loyalty to his memory. He died in 1226, soon after that voyage from which people thought he might not return. Having landed in Cornwall, he went to Salisbury and then to Marlborough where he complained to the King that someone had wanted to marry Ela whilst he was still alive. According to Bowles and Nicholls, the man who had arranged that was present at the time, and confessed to the crime, offering William reparations and therefore making peace. However, William was then secretly poisoned and died soon after. He was the first person to be buried in Salisbury Cathedral. The couple had four sons and four daughters.

Ela went into deep mourning after her husband’s death. As I have said, she did not remarry, which was strange at the time: usually women who had large estates were encouraged to marry again and not remain widows. Bowles and Nicholls have suggested that one of the reasons was because the Earldom of Salisbury was vested in her, so it reverted back to her after William’s death rather than passing to her eldest son. If she had remarried, her new husband would have become Earl of Salisbury and her son may then have lost out on the title. In fact, she survived her son and grandson, so the title wasn’t renewed in her family anyway. However, she did inherit the office of Sheriff of Wiltshire.

In 1232, Ela founded two monasteries in one day. She laid the foundation stone for Lacock in the morning, and then travelled 16 miles on horseback to Hinton in Somerset, where she laid the foundation stone for Hinton Charterhouse. She did this in memory of her husband. She had been planning the religious houses for about 3 years, as she gave her manor and the advowson of the moiety of the church to God for the building of an abbey. She then entered the abbey herself as a nun, in 1239, leaving her home of Salisbury. She then became the first abbess in 1242. She would have funded the abbey, at least to start with, and so it was promising to her that it seemed to flourish. She clearly took an active part in ensuring the abbey and its village had various rights and privileges. For example she got a charter from the King granting the right to hold a weekly market, and also a charter giving the abbess of Lacock the privilege of taking a cart round the forest of Melksham to collect dead wood for fuel. She ensured that the village surrounding the abbey was allowed to thrive, and early rental and manorial documents from the abbey mention a reeve, ploughmen, shepherds and wagoners, a swineherd, goatherd, fisherman and forester. These shows that even at this early time Lacock was a self-sufficient place, also shown by the markets that were enabled at the Here at these markets, local produce would have been sold as well as imported products such as metalware or salt. These markets show that Ela was keen to get Lacock on the map selling their own produce and getting involved in local trade.

Ela ceased being the abbess of Lacock five years before her death, though she remained in the abbey until her death in 1261. She was buried in the abbey church and given an honourable funeral, fit for a countess. When the church was demolished by Sir William Sharington after the dissolution, her tomb was moved to the cloisters, where it remains today.

Ela has been described by Linda Elizabeth Mitchell as “one of the two towering female figures in the mid 13th century”. She certainly was influential and this comes across in her title, political work and the effort she put in to the development of Lacock Abbey and the village. We can also see her influence in the fact that both she and William laid foundation stones for the new Salisbury cathedral.

Ally McConnell, Archivist


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