Ela of Salisbury was one of the most influential women of the thirteenth century. Ela was born at Amesbury in Wiltshire in 1187. She was the only surviving child – and sole heir – of William FitzPatrick, earl of Salisbury, and his wife, Eleanor de Vitré. Her father was a descendant of Walter, an ally of William the Conqueror, who had rewarded his support at Hastings with great estates which eventually passed to Ela. When her father died in 1196, Ela became Countess of Salisbury in her own right, and the most prized heiress in England.
There is a story that little Ela, only 9 years old at the time of her father’s death, was kidnapped by her uncle and hidden away in a castle in Normandy, so that he could gain control of the vast Salisbury inheritance. The tale goes, that an English knight, named William Talbot, toured the Norman castles in search of poor Ela, he would sing ballads beneath castle windows in the hope that the little Countess would hear him and join in with his singing. Whether a romantic legend or a true story, who can tell?
Whether she was rescued, or never kidnapped in the first place, we do not know. However, what we do know is that, on her father’s death, Ela’s wardship passed into the hands of the king himself, Richard I, the Lionheart. The king saw Ela as the opportunity to reward his loyal, but illegitimate, brother, William Longspée (or Longsword), by offering him her hand in marriage. The Salisbury lands were a suitable reward for a king’s son, especially one born out of wedlock.
William Longspée was the son of Henry II by Ida de Tosney, wife of Roger Bigod, earl of Norfolk, from a relationship she had with the king before her marriage. For many years, it was thought that Longspée was the son of a common harlot, called Ikenai, and a full brother of another of Henry’s illegitimate sons, Geoffrey, Archbishop of York. There were also theories that his mother was, Rosamund Clifford, famed in ballads as ‘the Fair Rosamund’. However, it is now considered beyond doubt that his mother was, in fact, Ida de Tosney, with two pieces of evidence supporting this. There is a charter in the cartulary of Bradenstoke Priory, made by William Longspée, in which he identifies his mother as the Countess Ida. There is also a prisoner roll from after the Battle of Bouvines, in which William Longspée is listed as the brother of Ralph Bigod (he was, in fact, Ralph’s half-brotehr).
Despite the misunderstandings over his mother, the identity of William Longspée’s father was never in doubt. He was Henry II’s son and served two of his half-brothers; Richard I and King John. At the time of his marriage to Ela, Longspée was in his early-to-mid-20’s, while his bride was not yet 10 years old; although she would not have been expected to consummate the marriage until she was 14 or 15.
William I Longspée had an impressive career during the reigns of his half-brothers, he served in Normandy with Richard between 1196 and 1198, and took part in John’s coronation in May, 1199. In 1213 he destroyed the French fleet off the Flemish coast. He commanded an army in northern France for John in 1214; and in July of the same year, he was captured at the Battle of Bouvines, after being clubbed on the head by the Bishop of Beauvais. Longspée was held for ransom and eventually exchanged, in March 1215, for John’s prisoner, Robert of Dreux, who had been captured at Nantes in 1214.
Longspée returned to England shortly afterwards and was one of the signatories of Magna Carta in 1215. He was still supporting John when Louis, the Dauphin, invaded England and took London; however, after Winchester fell to the French, in June 1216, Longspée defected to the Dauphin and remained in opposition to his brother for the rest of John’s life.¹
Following the death of King John in October 1216, Longspée swore loyalty to his 9-year-old nephew, Henry III in March 1217. He was part of William Marshal’s army at the Battle of Lincoln Fair, when Lincoln Castle and its formidable castellan, Nicholaa de la Haye, were finally relieved from a 3-month siege by the French under the Comte de Perche.
Although we know little-to-nothing of their married life, it appears to have been happy. The couple had at least 8 children together, if not more; 4 boys and 4 girls. Of their younger boys, Richard became a canon at the newly built Salisbury Cathedral, while Nicholas eventually rose to be Bishop of Salisbury and Stephen became Senschal of Gascony and Justiciar of Ireland. The oldest son, William II Longspée, 4th Earl of Salisbury, was married to Idonea, granddaughter and sole heiress of the formidable Nicholaa de la Haye, who held Lincoln Castle against the French. The Salisburys and Nicholaa de la Haye would spend several years in legal disputes over the inheritance of Nicholaa’s Lincolnshire holdings; Idonea could inherit the lands that had belonged to her grandfather, Gerard de Canville (Nicholaa’s husband), but not the lands Nicholaa held in her own right. Nicholaa, however, was forced to relinquish her position as sheriff of Lincolnshire to the earl of Salisbury, but retained her position as castellan of Lincoln Castle until she retired in 1226.
William II Longspée went on Crusade with Richard, Earl of Cornwall, in 1240-1 and later led the English contingent in the Seventh Crusade, led by Louis IX of France. His company formed part of the doomed vanguard, which was overwhelmed at Mansourah in Egypt, on 8th February 1250, and William was killed. William’s body was buried in Acre, but his effigy lies atop an empty tomb in Salisbury Cathedral. His mother is said to have experienced a vision of her son’s last moments at the time of his death.
Of Ela and William’s 4 daughters, Petronilla died unmarried, possibly having become a nun. Isabella married William de Vescy, Lord of Alnwick and had children before her death in 1244. Named after her mother, Ela married, firstly Thomas de Beaumont, Earl of Warwick and, secondly, Phillip Basset; sadly, she had no children by either husband. A fourth daughter, Ida, married Walter FitzRobert; her second marriage was to William de Beauchamp, Baron Bedford, by whom she had 6 children.
As a couple, William Longspée and Ela were great patrons of the church, laying the 4th and 5th, respectively, foundation stones for the new Salisbury Cathedral in 1220. In 1225 Longspée was shipwrecked off the coast of Brittany and a rumour spread that he was dead. While he spent months recovering at an island monastery in France Hubert de Burgh, 1st Earl of Kent and husband of Isabel of Gloucester, proposed a marriage between Ela and his nephew, Reimund. Ela, however, would not even consider it, insisting that she knew William was alive and that, even were he dead, she would never consider marrying below her status. It has been suggested that she used the 8th clause of Magna Carta to support her rejection of the offer; “No widow is to be distrained to marry while she wishes to live without a husband…”
As it turned out, William Longspée was still alive and eventually returned to his wife. However, he never seems to have recovered fully from his injuries and died at the royal castle at Salisbury shortly after his return home, on 7th March 1226. He was buried in a splendid tomb in Salisbury Cathedral.
Ela did not marry again. On her husband’s death, she was forced to relinquish her custody of Salisbury castle (although she did eventually buy it back), but was allowed to take over her husband’s role as Sheriff of Wiltshire, which he had held 3 times, holding the office continuously from 1213 until his death in 1226. Ela acted as Sheriff until 1228. She was known as a great patron of religious houses; she and her husband had co-founded Salisbury Cathedral and Ela herself founded 2 Augustinian religious houses. She managed to lay the foundation stones of both, at Hinton and Lacock, 16 miles apart, on the same day. The abbey at Hinton, Somerset, was endowed for monks, in memory of her husband, after they had found the original house, founded by Longspée at Hathorp unsuitable.
Lacock Priory was established in 1230 as a house for Augustinian canonesses at the village of Lacock in Wiltshire. Ela herself entered the priory in 1237 and became the first Abbess when it was upgraded to an Abbey in 1239. As Abbess, Ela was able to secure many rights and privileges for the abbey and its village. She obtained a copy of the 1225 issue of Magna Carta, which had been given to her husband for him to distribute around Wiltshire. She remained Abbess for 20 years, resigning in 1259. Ela remained at the abbey, however, and died there on 24th August, 1261.
Ela of Salisbury outlived both her eldest son and grandson. She was succeeded as Countess of Salisbury by her great-granddaughter, Margaret, who was the daughter of William III Longspée. Margaret was married to Henry de Lacey, 3rd Earl of Lincoln, and was the mother of Alice de Lacey, 4th Countess of Lincoln and the unfortunate, unloved wife of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, who was killed in rebellion against Edward II, at the Battle of Boroughbridge in 1322.
The 3rd Countess of Salisbury was described in the Register of St Osmund as “a woman indeed worthy of praise because she was filled with the fear of the Lord.”² Ela was not buried alongside her husband in Salisbury Cathedral, but within the Abbey that she had founded and ruled – and had called her home for the last 24 years of her life. Her tombstone demonstrates the high esteem in which she was held and records the words; “Below lie buried the bones of the venerable Ela, who gave this sacred house as a home for the nuns. She also had lived her as holy abbess and Countess of Salisbury, full of good works.”³
Ela’s story appears in greater detail in my book, Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England.
Footnote: ¹With thanks to Rich Price for clarification of events; Rich is currently translating King John’s letters; ²Ela, suo jure Countess of Salisbury, Jennifer C Ward, Oxforddnb.com, October 2009; ³ Ela of Salisbury stanfordmagnacarta.worpress.com
Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia
Sources: The Plantagenet Chronicles edited by Elizabeth Hallam; Brassey’s Battles by John Laffin; 1215 The Year of Magna Carta by Danny Danziger & John Gillingham; The Life and Times of King John by Maurice Ashley; The Story of Britain by Roy Strong; The Plantagenets, the Kings Who Made England by Dan Jones; England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings by Robert Bartlett; lincolnshirelife.co.uk; catherinehanley.co.uk; magnacarta800th.com; lothene.org; lincolncastle.com; The Sheriff: The Man and His Office by Irene Gladwin; Oxforddnb.com; stanfordmagnacarta.wordpress.com; A Year in the Life of Medieval England by Toni Mount; The Demon’s Brood by Desmond Seward; The Oxford Companion to British History, Edited by John Cannon; The Greatest Knight by Thomas Asbridge; Britain’s Royal Families by Alison Weir; chitterne.com
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Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III. Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available from Pen & Sword Books, Amazon in the UK and US, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.
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Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available in paperback and hardback from Pen & Sword, Amazon, Bookshop.org and from Book Depository worldwide.
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