The spot is one of the most peaceful, and the sweetest in fair and fertile England. At a distance over the wood rises the high and lonely arch of Malmesbury Abbey, and not very far off are the nuns of Bradenstoke Abbey. A fairer scene can scarcely be found than this home of the Talbot family, and a very charming and romantic story is attached to it, for it was founded by a lady whose singular adventures began in her early childhood.
The Lady Ela was the only child of William, Earl of Salisbury, a great noble of the court of Richard the Lionhearted She was born at Sarum Castle, and lived there for some years in princely state. Her father was the licenser of tournaments; and a wide plain, which was one of the appointed places for these military spectacles, is still shown in front of the site of Sarum.
Ela was only seven years old when her father died, and she became possessor of his great estates and feudal power - a terrible position for a girl in those days, when the king trafficked in the marriages of royal wards, and their hand was bestowed by the sovereign either on some favourite or on some political opponent that he wished to gain. It was not very wonderful, therefore, that the widowed countess should feel anxious for the future of her little daughter, around whom also other perils were gathering.
Immediately after her father's death, therefore, the Lady Ela disappeared - was lost - no one knew how.
Every search was made for her imaginable; knights and servants explored every brake and hollow of the downs, and every peasant was questioned; but in vain. The mother showed only a feigned anxiety. She knew, in fact, that her husband's next brother, though a monk at Bradenstoke, had induced the Pope to absolve him from his vows of poverty, and that he had come forth into the world as a claimant to the family wealth and honours.
Well might the widowed countess fear for the safety of the frail little life that stood between an ambitious man and his wishes. She acted with promptitude and wisdom, as we have seen. She sent her child to Normandy, where she was carefully concealed and closely guarded. But King Richard intended the heiress of Salisbury for his brother, William Longsword, the son of Fair Rosamond, and he resolved on finding her. An English knight named William Talbot volunteered to undertake the adventure, of which Blondel had first shown the feasibility. Attired in the garb of a pilgrim, with staff and cockle shell, he landed in Normandy, and for two years wandered from shrine to shrine, sometimes in lonely forests, sometimes in cities, never failing, after he had paid his vows, to question every one he met as to the presence of an English child in the neighbourhood; but he could learn nothing from them. At length, while seated one day by the sea, he saw some children come forth from a castle on the coast, one of whom possessed the golden hair and blue eyes of the English. Talbot concealed himself behind a rock, and heard the small maiden, as she gathered shells, speak of the fair land from which she had come, and saw her look wistfully across the sea. Feeling certain that he had now found the little Lady Ela, he changed his pilgrim dress for that of a troubadour, and thus easily gained admission to the castle. Then, in the presence of the English girl, he sang of the sweet pastures and green forests of England, and of the glories of her king, and told to his harp the story of Blondel's discovery of the royal captive.
The child understood him, and he succeeded in bearing her away from her guardians, and placing her in her mother's arms. Richard at once caused her to be married to Longepee, and bestowed on him her father's title. William was then only a youth, and Ela but ten years old; but the marriage in the end proved one of the happiest on record Talbot became the dearest friend Longepee possessed, and was long an inmate of his castle.
King John all too soon filled the throne of the chivalrous Richard; but, heartless tyrant as he was, he was sincerely attached to Lord Salisbury, and in his turn Longepee was very faithful to the king. It was probably out of affection for the earl that John erected a tomb to the memory of Rosamond. It was embossed with fine brass, and had an inscription on the edge. A beautiful drawing of it used to be kept in the Chamber of Records at Salisbury Cathedral. At Runnimede, even, the banner of Salisbury floated over the camp of John; and only for a brief interval was his allegiance shaken by the murder of Arthur.
Longepee founded the beautiful cathedral of Salisbury, the first stone of which was laid by the bishop in the name of Pope Honorius, the second in that of the Arch bishop of Canterbury, the next by Longepee himself, and the fourth by the Countess Ela.
King Henry III.'s brother having received the order of knighthood with the earldoms of Cornwall and Poitou, it was resolved that he should begin his military life under the guidance of Lord Salisbury, and the Lady Ela was left to rule the princely patrimony of the Salisburys while her lord fought in France. The expedition successfully achieved, the warriors embarked for home; but a violent storm ensued, and the ships were driven to the Isle of Rhe, about three miles from Rochelle. As they reached the coast an old abbey was observed not far from it, and the earl boldly asked shelter there, from the foes into whose very teeth the tempest had driven him. The abbot received him and his followers with gracious hospitality; but the island was held for the French king by Savaric de Maloleone, and he would undoubtedly have seized the earl, had not one of his retainers warned Salisbury of his danger, and advised instant flight. Again, therefore, the Englishmen embarked on a raging sea, and for three long months they had to struggle against adverse winds and raging waves before they gained sight of land.
Meantime the people in England gave him up for lost, and the hand of the wealthy and beautiful countess became the aim of the greedy courtiers. Hubert de Burgh, who stood high in favour with Henry III., asked the king to give her to his nephew; and Henry consented, with the proviso that he should first win the lady's assent. But Ela rejected him with scorn, considering the mere offer an insult.
About the 15th January the earl reappeared in his home, heard his wife's tale, and the next day went to the king, who was at Marlborough, and complained to him of the insult offered to his consort by De Burgh. He said that if the sovereign would not cause full reparation to be made by De Burgh, he would himself seek redress. The justiciary Hubert, who was present, at once apologised for his nephew's conduct, beseeching the earl to pardon him, and in proof of it to accept some chargers and other costly gifts; and Salisbury consented to forgive the De Burghs. Some little time afterwards he was invited by De Burgh to dine with him, but was taken ill immediately after dinner, and had to return home. There was a very natural suspicion that he had been poisoned, but De Burgh's character stood too high for such a rumour to gain ground. The earl had indeed been worn out by his military exertions and his long sufferings at sea. He died, after days of prayer and penitence, and was buried in the cathedral that he had founded. The king, much grieved by the death of his noble kinsman, would never suffer the Lady Ela to be again insulted by offers of marriage. The boon of a free widowhood was conferred on her - a rare favour, as ladies of great wealth were seldom allowed to remain unmarried. She therefore exercised the office of Sheriff of Wilktshire and Castellan of Old Sarum, even when her son came of age, and, by her wish, asked for the investiture of the earldom. The king could not, however, grant it, in accordance with the principles of the feudal law, till his mother's death; and the Lady Ela held her great power for so long that, surviving her son and grandson, the title at her death passed from the family. For seven years she de. voted herself to her maternal duties; then, her children being all provided for, she founded the nunnery of Lacock, in which she took the veil, and at last died, an exceedingly old lady, in the "0 our of sanctity."
Another legend belongs to Lacock. Olivia, a daughter and a co-heir of Sir Henry Sherington, of Lacock, fell in love with John Talbot, a younger brother of the Earl of Shrewsbury; but her father refused his consent to the match. The lovers, however, continued faithful, and sometimes on moonlight nights young Talbot, like a second Romeo, wooed his lady from below, while she stood and listened on the battlements of the adjoining church.
One night she said to him, "I will leap down to you." He replied that he would catch her if she did, believing that she spoke only in jest. However, she actually kept her word and leaped; a high wind inflating her dress, partly checked her fall, and Mr. Talbot caught her in his arms; but she knocked him down, and he lay unconscious. Believing that she had killed him, she shrieked for help; the youth was taken into the abbey, and with some difficulty recovered. "Her father," says Aubrey, "told her that since she had made such a leap she should e'en marry him." And thus a mad and foolish action ended more happily than might have been hoped. Olivia Talbot inherited Lacock, and it has ever since remained the property of that branch of the Talbots.
Sir John Talbot of Lacock was the person who received Charles II. in his arms upon the king's landing at the Restoration.
The scientific Henry Fox Talbot, Esq., discovered the beautiful art of photography at Lacock Abbey.