My genealogical researches have uncovered dozens of devout ancestors. This is the seventh installment of a series of posts titled “Doing God’s Work: Our Families’ Faithful”, documenting the lives of those who served God.
In the previous post of this series, I discussed the life of Ebles I de Roucy, my 30th great-grandfather. Now I will focus on Ela of Salisbury (my 24th and my 25th great-grandmother), who died on this day 24 August 1261.
Ela of Salisbury was born in 1187, in Amesbury, Wiltshire, England. She was the only surviving child of William FitzPatrick, 2nd Earl of Salisbury, Sheriff of Wiltshire, and Eléonore de Vitré.
In 1196, when Ela was only nine years old, her father died. With his death, Ela of Salisbury became the suo jure 3rd Countess of Salisbury and one of the most sought-after heiresses in the country.
Legend has it after her father’s death, Ela was kidnapped by her uncle and hidden away in a castle in Normandy in an effort to gain control of Ela’s inheritance. An English knight named William Talbot, dressed as a pilgrim and wandered Normandy for about two years, searching for Ela. When he located the young heiress, he exchanged his pilgrim’s garb for a troubadour’s apparel. He then joined the castle’s court and rescued Ela of Salisbury.
Ela then became a ward of King Richard II, who decided that he wanted Ela’s estate to stay within his family. The same year Richard II took Ela under his wing, he betrothed the young girl to his half-brother, William Longespée, the illegitimate son of Henry II and his mistress Ida de Tosney.
Despite the circumstances of their betrothal, it seems that their marriage worked. Together, William and Ela had at least eight children, including their elder son, William Longespée II (my 23rd great-grandfather), who was born in 1212, and their third child, Stephen Longespée (my 24th great-grandfather), who was born in 1216.
Throughout their marriage, Ela’s husband worked actively on behalf of several monarchs, despite the risks to himself. In 1214, King John of England began his final campaign to reclaim the Duchy of Normandy. William Longespée joined the fight. In July 1214, William Longespée was knocked out by the Bishop of Beauvais and captured at the Battle of Bouvines. He was then held for ransom by the French. In March 1215, William Longespée was exchanged for Robert of Dreux (my 26th great-grandfather), a prisoner of England’s King John (my three-times 25th and two-times 26th great-grandfather).
After returning to England, William Longespée became disillusioned with his half-brother, the king. On 15 June 1215, he signed the Magna Carta in 1215. However, William Longespée was not willing to give up on his monarch completely. That is until Louis le Dauphin de France invaded England and occupied London. The town of Winchester fell to the French in June 1216, and nearly half of England fell under le Dauphin’s control. At that juncture, like many other English nobles, William Longespée switched allegiances. The alliance only lasted a few months, however. With King John’s death in October 1216, many defectors deserted the Frenchman in favor of King John’s young son, Henry III. On March 1217, William Longespée swore fealty to Henry III (my multi-times great-grandfather, several times over).
That same year, William Longespée was appointed High Sheriff of Devon. Then, in 1224, he was appointed High Sheriff of Staffordshire and Shropshire. In 1225, William Longespée was shipwrecked off the coast of Brittany, upon returning from Gascony. He spent months recovering at a monastery on the Island of Ré in France.
On 7 March 1226, just a few days after returning to England, William Longespée died in Salisbury Castle, Wiltshire, England. Some claim that he had been poisoned by Hubert de Burgh, 1st Earl of Kent. With William I Longespée’s passing, Ela of Salisbury found herself a widow at the age of 39. For two years following her husband’s death, Ela of Salisbury held the post of Sheriff of Wiltshire. She also found solace in the church and was an ardent supporter of her faith.
In 1227, Ela of Salisbury founded the Carthusian monastery at Hinton, in accordance with her late husband’s wishes:
I, wishing for God’s sake to complete what my husband had begun well, in my liege power and widowhood after his death have given and granted and by this my charter confirmed to the Carthusian order all my manor of Hinton, with the advowson of the church and the park and all its other appurtenances without anything reserved to me or my heirs, in exchange for the aforesaid lands. I have done this for my husband’s soul, and the soul of Earl William my father, and for my salvation and that of my children, and for the souls of all my ancestors and heirs. Similarly I have granted all my manor of Midsummer Norton with the advowson of the church and all its other appurtenances, without any reservation to me or my heirs.
Two years later in 1229, Ela founded the Augustinian Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire:
I Ela and my heirs will warrant, defend and acquit to the nuns against all men and women for ever all the aforesaid manors, with the advowsons of the churches of Shrewton and Lacock, and with all their other appurtenances, as free and quit as any alms which can be given.
In 1237, on Ela’s entreaty, Henry III permitted the abbey to hold a fair to last three days—the day of the Feast of St. Thomas Beckett the Martyr (29 December), as well as the day before and the day after.
Although Ela of Salisbury was a stalwart benefactor of the Church, it seems that she was called to commit herself more fully to the Lord’s work. Consequently, in 1238, Ela entered the abbey as a nun. She excelled in this role; so much, in fact, that by 1240, Ela of Salisbury was elevated to Abbess of Lacock.
While serving as abbess, Ela obtained many rights for the abbey and the village of Lacock. In 1241, Henry III granted the Ela the right to hold a weekly market on Tuesdays. She obtained another royal grant to gather, once per week, one cart of dead wood from the Melksham Forest to fuel the abbey’s fires. She also received approval for the nuns to hold a fair on the vigil and feast of Saints Peter and Paul (29 June), including the six days afterward.
Sadly, however, it was during this time period (right before 1244) that daughter Isabella Longespée, wife of William de Vescy, Lord of Alnwick, died.
Ela of Salisbury leaned on her faith to help her cope. Her devotion to the Church was passed on to some of her children. Twice, son William Longespée II went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land (in 1240 and in 1247). Then in late 1249/early 1250, William Longespée II embarked on his third crusade.
Legend holds that on 7 February 1250, Ela of Salisbury had a vision the angels received William Longespée II into heaven as a martyr. The next day, 8 February 1250, her son was slain at the Battle of Al-Manṣūrah.
In 1252, two years after his death, William II’s remains were conveyed to Acre, Israel for burial at the Church of Saint Cross; his effigy was placed in Salisbury Cathedral, England, where his brother, Richard Longespée, served as clerk and canon.
In 1257, after 17 years of service, Ela of Salisbury stepped down as Abbess of Lacock.
Three years later, in 1260, son Stephen Longespée, Seneschal of Gascony and Justiciar of Ireland, passed away. The particulars of his death are unknown.
A year later, on 24 August 1261, Ela of Salisbury died at the age of 74. She was buried in Lacock Abbey. The inscription on her tombstone (translated from the original Latin) reads:
Below lie buried the bones of the venerable Ela, who gave this sacred house as a home for the nuns. She also had lived here as holy abbess and Countess of Salisbury, full of good works.
Even after her death, Ela was remembered for her kind heart and generous spirit. In fact, for many years afterward, the Lacock Abbey nuns commemorated Ela on the anniversary of her death. Ela has been described as having been “one of the two towering female figures of the mid-13th century”, the other one being Margaret de Quincy (my 25th great-grandmother).1
1. From the book, Portraits of Medieval Women: Family, Marriage, and Politics in England 1225–1350, written by Linda Elizabeth Mitchell↩