By Expert Contributor, Sharon Bennett Connolly
While writing Ladies of Magna Carta I came across the stories of many incredible women, one of the most remarkable was Ela of Salisbury, an heiress who was countess in her own right, was only the second ever female sheriff in England, and a respected abbess who once founded two religious houses in one day!
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. Her grandfather, Patrick of Salisbury, was killed by the dastardly Lusignans in an ambush from which Eleanor of Aquitaine barely escaped and which saw Patrick’s young nephew, the famous William Marshal, captured.
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; in order that he could gain control of the vast Salisbury inheritance. Another theory suggests the kidnapping was instigated by Ela’s own mother, to prevent the young heiress being married off to an unscrupulous lord who wanted her only for her lands. 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 yet illegitimate, brother, William Longspée (or Longsword), by offering him her hand in marriage. The Salisbury lands and titles were certainly a suitable reward for a king’s brother, especially one born out of wedlock. 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 reached 14 or 15.
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, named 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, Longspée himself has put it beyond doubt that his mother was, in fact, Ida de Tosney, with a charter in the cartulary of Bradenstoke Priory, made by William Longspée, in which he identifies his mother as the Countess Ida. This is supported by a prisoner roll from after the Battle of Bouvines, in which William Longspée is listed as the brother of Ralph Bigod.
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. 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 and in 1214 commanded an army in northern France for John. 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 Robert of Dreux, who had been held prisoner in England since being captured at Nantes in 1214.
Longspée returned to England shortly afterwards and was one of the signatories of Magna Carta in 1215. Longspée was still supporting John when Louis, the French Dauphin, invaded England and took London; however, after Winchester fell to the French, in June 1216, Longspée defected to the Dauphin. Less than 6 months after King John’s death in October 1216, Longspée came back into the royal fold, swearing loyalty to his 9-year-old nephew, King 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 Longspée and Ela’s married life, it appears to have been happy. The couple had at least 8 children together, if not more; at least 4 boys and 4 girls survived to adulthood. Of their younger boys, Richard became a canon at the newly built Salisbury Cathedral, while Nicholas eventually rose to be Bishop of Salisbury; Stephen became Seneschal 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 in 1217. Longspée and Nicholaa de la Haye would spend several years in legal disputes over the inheritance of Nicholaa’s Lincolnshire holdings.
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. 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 the couple’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 foundation stones, respectively, 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 so far below her status, a right enshrined in clause 6 of Magna Carta; ‘Heirs shall be given in marriage without disparagement…’. It has been suggested that Ela used the clause 8 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 7 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 at Hathorp, founded by Longspée, unsuitable.
Lacock Priory was established in 1230 as a house for Augustinian canonesses at the village of Lacock in Wiltshire. Ela herself entered this 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 held the position of abbess for 20 years, resigning in 1259; she remained at the abbey, however, and died there on 24 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.
Ela, 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.’1 Linda Elizabeth Mitchell describes her as ‘one of the two towering female figures of the mid-thirteenth century.’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
1Ela, suo jure Countess of Salisbury, Jennifer C Ward, Oxforddnb.com, October 2009
2Ela, Countess of Salisbury, medievalwomen.org
3Ela of Salisbury stanfordmagnacarta.worpress.com
Sharon Bennett Connolly has been fascinated by history her whole life. She has studied history academically and just for fun – and even worked as a tour guide at historical sites. For Christmas 2014, her husband gave her a blog as a gift – http://www.historytheinterestingbits.com – and Sharon started researching and writing about the stories that have always fascinated, concentrating on medieval women. Her latest book, Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England, released in May 2020, is her third non-fiction book. She is also the author of Heroines of the Medieval World and Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest. Sharon regularly gives talks on women’s history; she is a feature writer for All About History magazine and her TV work includes Australian Television’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?‘