Ela, 3rd Countess of Salisbury

Owner 1232 - 1261

born c.1187, Amesbury Wilts

died 24th August 1261, Lacock Abbey


Ela, 3rd Countess of Salisbury was an interesting and powerful woman in a time of male domination during the 13th Century. That she rose to a position of such power and influence is a testimony to her undoubted strength of character.

Ela (B c1187, D 1261) was the only child of Eleanor de Vitré and William FitzPatrick, 2nd Earl of Salisbury. On her father's death in 1196 she inherited considerable lands in Wiltshire and the title of 3rd Countess of Salisbury.

There is a story that following her father's death, she was taken to Normandy by some of her father's relatives and imprisoned in a castle, as they wished to take her title and wealth for themselves. According to legend, Ela was eventually rescued by an English knight, by the name of William Talbot, who had gone to France where he sang ballads under windows in all the castles of Normandy until he received a response from her. He then had to wait for an opportune moment to escape with the young heiress and return her to the protection of King Richard I.

Marriage and Children

On her father’s death, Ela now 3rd Countess of Salisbury in her own right and only nine years old, became a ward of King Richard I. He decided that Ela should be married to William Longespée, who was the illegitimate son of Henry II and was half-brother to King Richard and the future King John. So, Ela found herself betrothed to a twenty-something William, although they would not have lived as man and wife, until she reached child-bearing age.

There are differences in the records of the number of offspring William and Ela produced, but best estimates seem to suggest that there were at least eight :

  • William II Longespée, Earl of Salisbury (c.1209-1250)

    • Married in 1216 Idoine de Camville, daughter of Richard de Camville and Eustache Basset, by whom he had four children.
    • William was killed while on crusade at the Battle of Al Mansurah, Egypt in February 1250.
  • Richard Longespée, clerk and canon of Salisbury.

  • Stephen Longespée, Seneschal of Gascony and Justiciar of Ireland (1216–1260)

    • Married c.1243/1244 Emmeline de Ridelsford, daughter of Walter de Ridelsford and Annora Vitré, by whom he had two daughters: Ela, wife of Sir Roger La Zouche, and Emmeline (1252–1291), the second wife of Maurice FitzGerald, 3rd Lord of Offaly.
  • Nicholas Longespée, Bishop of Salisbury (died 28 May 1297)

  • Isabella Longespée (died before 1244)

    • Married on, or about 16 May 1226, William de Vescy, Lord of Alnwick
  • Petronilla Longespée, died unmarried

  • Ela Longespée

    1. Married Thomas de Beaumont, 6th Earl of Warwick
    2. Married Philip Basset
  • Ida Longespée

    1. Married Ralph, son of Ralph de Somery, Baron of Dudley, and Margaret, daughter of John Marshal
    2. Married William de Beauchamp, Baron of Bedford, by whom she had six children, including Maud de Beauchamp, wife of Roger de Mowbray

Later Life and Lacock

In 1225, Ela's husband William was shipwrecked off the coast of Brittany, upon returning from Gascony. He spent several months recovering at a monastery on the Island of Ré in France. Eventually returning to England, he died a few days later at Salisbury Castle on 7 March 1226. He was the first person to be buried in the new Abbey of Salisbury, having laid a foundation stone, together with Ela some years before. There is some circumstantial evidence that William may well have been poisoned, encouraged by the discovery when his tomb was opened in 1791, that a rat's body was inside the skull carrying traces of arsenic. Although the dead rat itself is now on display in the Chapter House of Salisbury Cathedral, it is by no means conclusive, as there are so many ways that the arsenic could have been introduced after death.

William had been High Sheriff of Wiltshire and on her husband's death, the post passed to Ela. She held the post on a temporary basis until 1227 and succesfully applied for the post in 1231, holding it until 1236. She eventually retired to Lacock Abbey to became a nun in 1238, and eventually Abbess in 1240.

It seems that Ela was considering founding a religious order in memory of her late husband for some time and that her original intention was that Lacock Abbey was to have been a community of Cistercian nuns. However, in 1228 the general chapter of Cîteaux had confirmed an earlier prohibition any further convents of women.

In 1229 Ela gave the land on which the Abbey was subsequently built to the church and on the 20th April 1230 the Bishop of Salisbury formally approved the foundation, but stipulated that the nuns should be Augustinian. It is likely that, having finally got official sanction, this was the moment that construction work on the Abbey finally began.

The actual date of the foundation of the Abbey seems to be confused in several publications, but according to the pair of cartularies digitised on the British Library website, the Augustinian Abbey was actually founded on the 16th April 1232. On that day Ela famously founded Lacock Abbey for women in the morning and then rode fifteen miles to Hinton Charterhouse in the afternoon to found an Abbey for men.

The main structure of the Abbey in Snaylesmede Meadow, Lacock would seem to have been largely complete by 1247, but building work was almost certainly still continuing in 1285, long after Ela's death.

In 1238, she entered Lacock Abbey as a nun, bringing her papers from Salisbury, which included the Wiltshire copy of the definitive 1225 Magna Carta, which her late husband had witnessed. This remained at the Abbey, through the Dissolution and many private owners, finally being presented to the British Museum in 1945. At that time it was thought to be the only remaining legible copy and can be seen today on display in the British Library in London.

Ela was made Abbess of Lacock in 1240, and held the post until 1257, when she retired to being an ordinary nun. She eventually passed away on 24 August 1261 at the age of seventy-five and was buried in the church of Lacock Abbey. The inscription on her tombstone, which now lies in the southern walk of the cloisters and originally written in Latin, reads:

Below lie buried the bones of the venerable Ela, who gave this sacred house as a home for the nuns.

She also lived here as holy abbess and Countess of Salisbury, full of good works

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Ela’s tombstone in Lacock Abbey cloisters

Ela’s Timeline

The significant dates in her life

Date Event
1187 Ela, future 3rd Countess of Salisbury is born
1196 Father William, 2nd Earl of Salisbury dies
1198 Marries William Longespée
c1209 First child born
7th March 1226 William Longespée dies
1229 Gives land at Lacock to the Church
20th April 1230 Bishop of Salisbury grants permission for a Nunnery at Lacock
1231 Becomes High Sheriff of Wiltshire
16th April 1232 Founds Lacock Abbey
1238 Retires to Lacock to become a nun
1240 Becomes Abbess
1257 Retires from Abbess role
24th August 1261 Ela, 3rd Countess of Salisbury dies aged 75
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Ela’s Seal