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.