Ela, only child of Eleanor de Vitre and William, 2nd Earl of Salisbury, from whom she inherited large estates in Wiltshire, was born (date unknown) at Amesbury. The estates, including Chitterne, had been held by Ela's great- great-grandfather, Edward, after William the Conqueror defeated King Harold.
Ela's grandfather, Patrick, constable of Salisbury, was created Earl of Salisbury in 1149 by Empress Matilda whose steward of the household he was.
Ela's father, William, succeeded to the title and estates in 1168 upon the
death of Patrick, who died whilst returning from a
crusade. William was a captain in the King's
army in Normandy in 1195 and keeper of the charter for licensing tournaments.
William the Conqueror giving English landed estates to one of his followers.
At her father's death in 1196, Ela succeeded to the title and estates, but here her story becomes blurred. According to Canner, she was:
"secretly taken to Normandy by her relations and there brought up in close and secret custody.....An english knight, named William Talbot, undertook to discover the place of the youthful heiress's concealment.... Talbot dressed as a pilgrim, went to Normandy, and after wandering to and fro for two years, at length found the Lady Ela of Salisbury. He then exchanged his pilgrim's dress for that of a Harper or travelling Troubadour, and in this disguise entered the Court in which the maid was detained. As he acted his part well he was kindly received and treated as one of the household. At last after two years of search his undertaking was fully accomplished and having found a convenient opportunity for returning to England brought the young heiress with him and presented her to King Richard..... Ela, countess of Salisbury in her own right, then became the wife of William Longespee, son of Henry II".
In the past there has been much conjecture about just who was William Longespee's mother and you may still find her wrongly named as Rosamund Clifford. But:
"it has been now proven without a doubt that she (William's mother) was Ida de Tosney, Countess of Norfolk and wife to Roger Bigod. Before she married Roger, she was Henry II's concubine. There is a military prisoner roll from the Battle of Bouvines that states that William Longespee and his brother Ralph Bigod are among the prisoners, and there is also a charter in the cartulary of Bradenstoke Priory where William mentions his mother the Countess Ida."I am grateful to Elizabeth Chadwick for this information, which slots another piece of the puzzle into place.
Since the Earl of Salisbury was dead, and his heiress was a child, Ela became a royal ward; who should take her hand in marriage was for King Richard to decide. The king chose to betroth her to his half-brother William Longespee, thereby solving two problems: keeping Ela's landed estates at close hand and providing one of his father's royal bastards with the means to an income. William was probably in his twenties and Ela a mere eight or nine years old when they were betrothed. This was not an unusual age gap at the time amongst the aristocracy where the marriage of daughters was useful for forging alliances. William and Ela would not have lived as man and wife until Ela was capable of bearing a child.
All agree that Ela was pious and a woman of strong character. While William, a skilled commander, was often away fighting for his half-brother the king. She and William each laid a foundation stone of the new Salisbury Cathedral. During one of William's long journeys abroad, when others feared he had been lost, Ela refused to marry any of the suitors who had their eye on her fortune and steadfastly believed in her vision of his return. She was proved correct.
On his death, William was the first to be buried in the new Salisbury Cathedral and his fine tomb stands in the nave. Ela founded two Augustinian religious houses in his memory, one for men at Hinton Charterhouse and the other for women at Lacock pictured right. It is said that she laid the foundation stones for both on the same day, 16 April 1232, requiring a journey of 16 miles.
She bore her husband eight children, four girls and four boys. Her eldest son, William, who donated his lands at Chitterne to the Abbey, was later killed on a crusade and also has a tomb in Salisbury Cathedral.
Her youngest son, Nicholas, became Bishop of Salisbury (1292 - 1297) and his heart was buried at Lacock, his body at Salisbury. The photo right shows Nicholas' marble heartstone, inscribed with ecclesiastical regalia, which is on display at Lacock Abbey.
One of Ela's daughters visited the convent in 1287 and two of her granddaughters became nuns there.
Ela joined Lacock Abbey as a nun in 1238, and in 1241 became it's first abbess, it had started with fifteen nuns under a prioress. She was abbess for fifteen years and died at seventy-five in 1261. She was buried in the choir of the Abbey church before the High Altar. Upon the demolition of the church her tombstone was moved to the centre of the Cloister Court, and from there in 1895 to it's present position in the cloister walk, see left and below. It's inscription, which may date from the eighteenth century reads (latin translation):
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.
During her time Ela had obtained many rights for the Abbey, where French was spoken until the dissolution, and for the village of Lacock. She was also Sheriff of Wiltshire for two years following her husband's death.