Lacock Abbey was a monastery founded at Lacock, in the county of Wiltshire in England, in the early 13th century by Ela, Countess of Salisbury, as a house of AugustinianCanonesses regular. It was seized by the crown in 1539 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII. It then became a country house, Lacock Abbey, notable as the site of Henry Fox Talbot‘s early experiments in photography.
It seems that the monastery‘s foundation was resolved upon by Ela, Countess of Salisbury in 1226. Ela was the only child and the heir of William FitzPatrick, 2nd Earl of Salisbury, and at his death when she was still a child, became Countess of Salisbury in her own right. When still a child of nine she had been married to William Longespée, an illegitimate son of King Henry II.
It was shortly after her husband’s death that Countess Ela decided on the foundation. Her eldest son, the heir, also William being a minor, the plan was delayed until he could give his consent. However, in 1229, the foundress made her move by giving her manor of Lacock, together with the moiety of the advowson of the church, to God and the Blessed Mary and St Bernard, toward the building there of an abbey of nuns to be called “locus beate Marie” (“the place of the Blessed Mary”), with the consent of her son, and this was subsequently confirmed by charters of King Henry III, on 31 January 1230 and 26 February following.
Countess Ela laid the abbey’s first stone on 16 April 1232, in the reign of King Henry III at a site on Snail’s Meadow (“Snaylesmede”) lying between the village and the River Avon. The first of the nuns were veiled that same year 1232, the very first being Alicia Garinges, who was probably previously a nun of the English Augustinian house Goring Priory, in Oxfordshire, a house which had been established before 1181. When Burnham Abbey was established in 1265/6 by Richard, Earl of Cornwall, an entire community of nuns was brought from Goring.
From the dedication it is fairly clear that the founder’s intention at first had been to found a nunnery that would belong to the Cistercian Order. However, this was preempted by a decision of the 1228 Cistercian general chapter to confirm its opposition to accepting responsibility for any more convents of women. Moreover, when Robert Bingham, Bishop of Salisbury gave his formal approval to the foundation on 20 April 1230, he enjoined upon the nuns the following of the Rule of St Augustine. This made of the house one of the relatively few Augustinian nunneries in England.
It is most likely that Ela intended from the first to become abbess of her own foundation, a sign of this being the fact that the house was ruled in the initial period by a prioress, Wymarca. Advised apparently by Saint Edmund Rich, Archbishop of Canterbury, she took the habit as a nun in late 1237 or early 1238 and was elected at the latest by the feast of the Assumption (15 August) of 1239, receiving the bishop’s blessing as abbess for some reason at Sherston. She remained abbess until 31 December 1257, when she resigned in favour of Beatrice of Kent. She died on the feast of St. Bartholomew, 24 August 1261, and was buried in the choir of the abbey church.
To the initial endowment of the manor and village of Lacock, were added eventually by Ela and her son, among other properties, the manors of Hatherop, Bishopstrow, Chitterne, Upham in Aldbourne and Woodmancote.