From Abbeys, Castles and Ancient Halls of England and Wales, Their Legendary Lore and Popular History, by John Timbs, Volume II, re-edited, revised, and enlarged by Alexander Gunn; Frederick Warne and Co.; London; pp. 13-15.
The ancient forest of Chippenham has long been destroyed, and the Abbeys of Stanley and Lacock, within three miles of the town, are changed in their appropriation: the former is converted into a farmhouse; the latter has fallen into the hands of the Talbot family, who have preserved it, and made it their family seat.
The Nunnery of Lacock, situate in a level meadow watered by the Avon, has a chivalrous origin besides its holier history. It was founded in the year 1232 by Ela, Countess of Salisbury, in her widowhood, in pious remembrance of her husband, William Longspé (in her right Earl of Sarum), who was the eldest natural son of Henry II. by Fair Rosamond. Ela was reared in her childhood in princely state; her father Earl William, held a place of honour under Richard the Lion-hearted, and licensed tournaments, one of the appointed fields for which is to this day pointed out in front of the site of Sarum Castle. At a very early age after the death of her father, Ela was secretly taken into Normandy, and there reared in close custody. An English knight, William Talbot, in the garb of a pilgrim, during two years sought for the Lady Ela; in the guise of a harper, or troubadour, he found the rich heiress, and presented her to King Richard, who gave her hand in marriage to his brother, William Longspé, Earl of Salisbury, she was then only ten years old. The Earl was in frequent attendance upon King John, and was present at the signing of the Magna Charta. After the death of John, the Earl returned to his Castle at Salisbury, and assisted in founding the Cathedral. Here he died in 1226, it was suspected by poison. Six years after, Ela, directed by visions, founded the monastery at Lacock, and in 1238 took the veil as abbess of her own establishment. Five years before her death she retired from monastic life: she died at 1261, aged seventy-four, and was buried in the choir of the monastery. Aubrey states that she was above a hundred years old, and outlived her understanding, which account is disproved. Of her family we have only space to relate that her second son perished in battle in the Holy Land, and the monkish legend adds that his mother, seated in her abbatial stall at Lacock, saw, at the same moment, the mailed form of her child admitted into heaven, surrounded by a radius of glory.
Lacock was surrendered in 1539: the church was then wholly destroyed, and the bones of the foundress and her family scattered; but her epitaph in stone was preserved, with the cloisters and cells of the nuns, and the ivied walls. Lacock was sold in 1544: thirty years later it was visited by Queen Elizabeth. Aubrey relates that “Dame Olave, a daughter and co-heir of Sir [Henry] Sherington of Lacock, being in love with [John] Talbot, a younger brother of the Earl of Shrewsbury, and her father not consenting that she should marry him, discoursing with him one night from the battlements of the Abbey church, said she, ‘I will leap down to you.’ Her sweetheart replied he would catch her then, but he did not believe she would have done it. She leapt downe; 15 and the wind, which was then high, came under her coates, and did something break the fall. Mr. Talbot caught her in his arms, but the struck him dead. She cried out for help, and he was with great difficulty brought to life again. Her father told her that, since she had made such a leap, she should e’en marrie him.”
We do not find this romantic story in the Rev. Canon Bowles’s exhaustive History of Lacock; but it is thought to be authentic, and an old tradition lingers about the place, that “one of the nuns jumped from a gallery on the top of a turret into the arms of her lover.” Mr. Britton notes, in Aubrey’s Natural History of Wilts, the heroine of the anecdote, Olave, or Olivia Sherington (one of the family who bought the Abbey), married John Talbot, Esq., of Salwarpe, in the county of Worcester, fourth in descent from John, second Earl of Shrewsbury. She inherited the Lacock estate from her father, and it has ever since remained the property of the branch of the family* now represented by the scientific Henry Fox Talbot, Esq., the discoverer of photography, to which beautiful science we are indebted for some charming Talbo-types of Lacock Abbey, whereat the discovery was matured. Here is preserved “The Nuns’ Boiler,” from the Abbey kitchen: it was made at Mechlin in the year 1500, and will contain sixty-seven gallons.
* Sir John Talbot, of Lacock, was the person who received King Charles II. in his arms upon his landing in England at the Restoration. In the Civil War, Lacock Abbey was taken possession of by the Parliamentarian Colonel Devereux, September, 1645.