The house stands on the site of a mediæval Augustinian nunnery, founded in the early 13th century by Ela, Countess of Salisbury.
Lacock Abbey, dedicated to St Mary and St Bernard, was founded in 1229 by the widowed Lady Ela the Countess of Salisbury, who laid the abbey's first stone 16 April 1232, in the reign of King Henry III. Lady Ela retired to the nunnery in 1238. Her late husband had been William Longespee, an illegitimate son of King Henry II. The abbey was founded in Snail's Meadow, near the village of Lacock. The first of the nuns were veiled in 1232.
Generally, Lacock Abbey prospered throughout the Middle Ages. The rich farmlands which it had received from Ela ensured it a sizeable income from wool.
Early modern period
Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the mid-16th century, King Henry VIII sold the estate at Lacock to Sir William Sharington for £783, and he converted it into a house starting in 1539, demolishing the abbey church. Few other alterations were made to the monastic buildings themselves: the cloisters, for example, still stand below the living accommodation.
About 1550 Sir William added an octagonal tower containing two small chambers, one above the other; the lower one was reached through the main rooms, and was for storing and viewing his treasures; the upper one, for banqueting, only accessible by a walk across the leads of the roof. In each is a central octagonal stone table carved with up-to-date Renaissance ornament. A mid-16th century stone conduit house stands over the spring from which water was conducted to the house. Further additions were made over the centuries, and the house now has various grand reception rooms.
In the 16th and early 17th centuries, Nicholas Cooper has pointed out, bedchambers were often named for individuals who customarily inhabited them when staying at a house. At Lacock, as elsewhere, they were named for individuals "whose recognition in this way advertised the family's affinities": the best chamber was "the duke's chamber", probably signifying John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland, whom Sharington had served, while "Lady Thynne's chamber", identified it with the wife of Sir John Thynne of Longleat, and "Mr Mildmay's chamber" was reserved for Sharington's son-in-law Anthony Mildmay of Apethorpe in Northamptonshire.
During the Civil War the house was garrisoned by Royalists. It was fortified by surrounding it with earthworks. The garrison surrendered (on agreed terms) to Parliamentarian forces under the command of Colonel Devereux, Governor of Malmesbury, within days of Oliver Cromwell's capture of the nearby town of Devizes in late September 1645.
The Abbey also underwent alterations in the 1750s under the ownership of John Ivory Talbot in the Gothic Revival style. The architect was Sanderson Miller.
Fox-Talbot and beyond
The house eventually passed to the Talbot family.
The house is most often associated with amateur scientist and inventor William Henry Fox Talbot, who in 1835 made what may be the earliest surviving photographic camera negative, a view of the oriel window in the south gallery of the Abbey. Talbot's experiments eventually led to his invention of the more sensitive and practical calotype or "Talbotype" paper negative process for camera use, commercially introduced in 1841.
The Abbey houses the Fox Talbot Museum devoted to Talbot's pioneering work in photography.
Lacock Abbey and the surrounding village were given to the National Trust in 1944. The Trust market the abbey and village together as Lacock Abbey, Fox Talbot Museum & Village.
The Abbey in film
Lacock has provided a filming location for a number of films and television programmes, amongt them:
| ("Wikimedia Commons" has material|
about Lacock Abbey)
- Location map: 51°24’53"N, 2°7’2"W
- Lacock - Fox Talbot Museum & Village information at the National Trust
- Lacock Abbey Garden — a Gardens Guide review
- Bowles and Nichols 1835, p 171
- Date given by Bowles and Nichols 1835 p 81
- Lacock (Wiltshire County Archives) accessed 28 September 2009
- Mark Girouard, Life in the English Country House 1978, p 106.
- Girouard 1978, p 248.
- Nicholas Cooper, Houses of the Gentry 1480–1680 1999:265.
- Wroughton 2011.
- Bowles & Nichols 1835, p. 359.
- Anthony Feldman, Peter Ford (1989) Scientists & inventors p.128. Bloomsbury Books, 1989
- William H. Fox Talbot, inventor of the negative-positive process p.95. Macmillan, 1973
- BBC – History – Historic Figures: William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877) BBC
- Bowles, William Lisle; Nichols, John Gough (1835), Annals and antiquities of Lacock abbey: in the county of Wilts, J.B. Nichols and son, p. 359
- Wroughton, Dr John (17 February 2011), The Civil War in the West, BBC, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/civil_war_revolution/west_01.shtml
- Rogers, K. H., ed. (1979), "Lacock abbey charters", Wiltshire Record Society 34