Talbot is the Earl of Shrewsbury, a small noble, however he is the scourge of the French. The play is in some ways more about Talbot than Henry VI. Talbot is a grizzled war veteran who has great humility. He knows without his men he is nothing, and treats them accordingly. His honor and valor show through in his language to the French. While they resort to name calling, he does not, though he has no problems cursing Joan, who he sees as unnatural. Talbot cannot stand a man who is not true to his title or his oath, as shown in his rant against Fastolf.
The following information is quoted from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, written by A. J. Pollard.
Talbot, John, first earl of Shrewsbury and first earl of Waterford (c.1387–1453), soldier, was the second son of Richard Talbot, fourth Baron Talbot, of Goodrich, Herefordshire, and of Ankaret, sole heir of Richard, Baron Lestrange of Blakemere, near Whitchurch, Shropshire. His father died in 1397, when he was about ten years old. Four years later his mother married Thomas Neville, Baron Furnival, a younger brother of Ralph Neville, first earl of Westmorland, as part of a double contract which involved Talbot's own marriage to Furnival's sole daughter, Maud (c.1392–1422), heir to his estates and title. The alliance was propitious, for it brought together two families that had long been prominent in the service of the house of Lancaster, and linked Talbot with a man high in Henry IV's favour. Thomas Neville died in 1407; Talbot seems immediately to have entered his inheritance, based on the lordship of Sheffield, and to have been summoned as Lord Furnival to the next parliament, called in 1409.
Early career, 1404–1427
By the time his father-in-law died Talbot was already embarked on the military career that would occupy his life. It is possible that, despite his youth, he fought alongside Furnival at the battle of Shrewsbury, on 21 July 1403. He was soon fighting in the Welsh wars. His first command, in December 1404, was of the English garrisons at Montgomery and Bishop's Castle. More or less continuously in action thereafter, he participated in the sieges of Aberystwyth in 1407 and 1408, and Harlech in 1409, being appointed captain of Caernarfon that same year. Five years of military inactivity following the pacification of Wales were brought to an end by his appointment as lieutenant of Ireland in February 1414. His family had long-standing links with the lordship, kinsmen in the Talbots of Malahide, and a claim to the lordship of Wexford which he was subsequently to make good. He immediately proved himself a vigorous and belligerent viceroy, succeeding through a series of devastating raids into the lands of the Gaelic chieftains in improving the security of the English lordship. One Gaelic annalist remembered that ‘from the time of Herod there came not anyone more wicked’ (Curtis, 292); a view that the Welsh might have endorsed, and certainly the French soon would. But his longest-lasting legacy to the colony was the internal disarray into which it was plunged through his feud with the leading Anglo-Irish family, the Butlers, and its head the earl of Ormond. When he was recalled by Henry V in 1419 he left his brother Richard Talbot, who had been provided archbishop of Dublin in 1417, to maintain the family cause.
Talbot's violent and quarrelsome reputation was already well established before he went to Ireland. Indeed it was a feud with the earl of Arundel, which seriously disrupted the peace of Shropshire in 1413, and led to a spell in the Tower of London, that had prompted Henry V to appoint him lieutenant in the first place. Later Talbot was to be at the centre of disturbances in Herefordshire in 1422–3, involved again in upheaval in Shropshire, entangled in a parliamentary precedence dispute with Lord Grey of Ruthin, and in 1425–7 implicated in Warwickshire in a feud with Joan, Lady Bergavenny, the earl of Ormond's mother-in-law, during which Talbot's brother William was killed. Given this record of disturbing the peace, it is not surprising that Henry V and subsequently the minority council of Henry VI directed Talbot's attention away from his fellow subjects against the king's enemies.
Talbot was first summoned to France by Henry V in 1419, although he was not mustered there until 1420. He took part in the siege of Melun (July–November) and then returned to England with the king. Having participated in the coronation of Queen Catherine he accompanied Henry V on his royal progress, before sailing once more to France and serving at the siege of Meaux which was to cost the king his life. He returned yet again to England before the town fell to deal with personal matters. He had inherited the barony of Talbot from his child niece in February 1421, and his own wife had died on 31 May 1422. In 1424 he was back in Ireland as the second in command to Edmund (V) Mortimer, earl of March. But the earl died in January 1425 and Talbot returned to England in May. He had already married, c.1424, Margaret Beauchamp [see below], eldest daughter of Richard Beauchamp, earl of Warwick (1382–1439), and Elizabeth Berkeley (c.1386–1422). In 1427 the duke of Bedford retained him to serve in France once more. He was already forty years old, and about to find his true vocation.
The war in France, 1427–1445
Talbot made his name as an independent commander in France in the recovery of Maine (1427–8), in which he showed the hallmarks of his generalship that were win him fame over the next twenty-five years: decisiveness and ruthlessness. He was the master of the punitive raid, the surprise assault, and, above all, the use of terror for military ends. He joined the earl of Salisbury on the march to the Loire in the summer of 1428, but was apparently not present in the force besieging Orléans when the earl was killed in October. He did, however, move up as joint commander of a second army in November and pressed the siege throughout the winter. He, and his fellow commanders, were unable to prevent the city's relief by Jeanne d'Arc and withdrew in May. The English army divided, and it was in command of one of its divisions that Talbot was surprised and overwhelmed at Patay on 18 June 1429. For the next four years he was a prisoner, and it was only after his father-in-law, the earl of Warwick, took Talbot's own captor prisoner that his release could be arranged. He was exchanged in July 1433.
Talbot returned at once to the wars, campaigning in eastern Normandy with the duke of Burgundy in 1433. In 1434, having returned to England to settle his affairs, he was made lieutenant-general for the conduct of the war on the eastern front, with special responsibility for the defence of Paris, now threatened on three sides. For eighteen months he operated out of Paris, clearing the lower Oise valley of French garrisons. In the summer of 1435 he was once more back in England, raising reinforcements. In that time St Denis had fallen; his immediate target therefore in the late summer was its recovery. But before St Denis was safely back in English hands Burgundy had made peace with France at Arras, and the duke of Bedford had died. In the autumn Talbot withdrew to Rouen, effectively abandoning Paris to its fate. His presence in Normandy was needed, for in the winter a popular rising in the Pays de Caux, north of Rouen, rapidly reinforced by French troops, led to the loss of most of upper Normandy. But when Rouen itself was threatened, Talbot counter-attacked, routing the French at Ry, 10 miles east of the city, and securing Caudebec downstream. While he could do nothing to save Paris in April 1436, a surprise attack on Gisors took further pressure off Normandy. In June the garrison was finally relieved by the duke of York with reinforcements from England. Talbot had saved Rouen.
For the next seven years Talbot saw almost unbroken action, summer and winter, in defending the frontiers of Normandy. His promotion to marshal of France in May 1436 made him the senior field commander, but as lieutenant-general of the land between the Seine, the Oise, and the sea he retained his particular responsibility for the eastern front. His daring recapture of Pontoise by surprise in February 1437, when his troops crossed the ice at dawn on Ash Wednesday before the garrison had recovered from the celebration of Mardi Gras, secured the Seine valley and opened up a possible threat to Paris. His main objectives were to prevent the remaining outlying posts of the conquest (Creil, Montargis, Meaux, and Le Crotoy) falling into enemy hands (despite frequent revictualling he could save neither Montargis nor Meaux); and to recover the principal towns downstream of Rouen that had fallen early in 1436, a task completed with the recovery of Harfleur in 1440. The drudgery of these sieges was relieved from time to time until 1439 by raids into the relatively untouched lands of the duke of Burgundy beyond the Somme. Nevertheless, the boundaries of Lancastrian Normandy were slowly pushed back; Dieppe was never recovered; and the French were able to establish a new salient south of the Seine. The last Herculean effort was the attempt to save Pontoise in the summer of 1441, during which Talbot narrowly failed to take Charles VII prisoner. In England in 1442 for the first time since 1435 to raise reinforcements, Talbot was created earl of Shrewsbury. But by now the war effort was petering out. A mutiny forced him to abandon a siege of Dieppe in 1443. In 1444 he welcomed the truce of Tours. To Shrewsbury, with his fellow generals, lords Fauconberg and Scales, should go much of the credit for preserving Normandy in Lancastrian hands after 1435.
The last years, 1445–1453
In March 1445 Talbot returned to England in the entourage of the new queen, Margaret of Anjou, and in the following June participated in the negotiations for peace at Westminster. He had already been reappointed lieutenant of Ireland. Leaving the government in the hands of his brother the archbishop of Dublin he delayed his journey to Ireland for over a year, arriving in the autumn of 1446. He stayed for barely a year, and apart from one campaign in the marches did little. By now his quarrel with the Butlers had been patched up. At the end of the year he was replaced by Richard, duke of York, and could return to Normandy with its new governor, his brother-in-law Edmund Beaufort, now duke of Somerset, in 1448.
In the past three years the English administration and military organization in Normandy had begun to disintegrate. Shrewsbury, who was given virtual independent command of Lower Normandy, attempted to restore discipline, but the garrison was not ready for a renewal of war. Nevertheless, Shrewsbury was fully involved in the attack on Brittany which precipitated an all-out French onslaught in the summer of 1449. Even Talbot seems to have been helpless in the face of overwhelming odds. Having avoided pitched battle he withdrew to Rouen, where he gave himself up as a hostage for the fulfilment of the terms of surrender. Treated honourably, he was not released until July 1450 when the whole of Normandy had been lost. Before returning home he went on pilgrimage to Rome.
The England to which Shrewsbury returned at the end of 1450 was in turmoil. He was immediately co-opted onto judicial commissions which toured Kent punishing rebels. Once released from this he took up his countess's cause against the Berkeleys. He was careful, however, not to become involved in the quarrel between York and Somerset. From York he received substantial annuities; with Somerset he was bound by family ties. At Dartford in 1452 he stood firmly beside the king—his presence perhaps a decisive deterrent to York. On the other hand he was acceptable to York as a mediator. He was no doubt relieved in the summer of 1452 to be preparing to go to war again. It is likely that the initial plan was for a raid on Normandy, but in September, in response to communication from Gascon dissidents, Shrewsbury set sail for Bordeaux as the king's lieutenant of Guyenne. With the help of collaborators, the city was easily taken and much of the Bordelais rose in the English cause. The real test was to defend in 1453 what had been recovered in 1452. The decisive engagement took place at Castillon on 17 July. The town, besieged by the French, appealed for help. Shrewsbury dashed to the rescue and threw his troops against a strongly fortified artillery park into which the besiegers had retreated. Underestimating the strength and preparedness of the defence, the assault faltered and fell back. The Anglo-Gascon army was cut down by artillery fire at close range. The veteran commander was himself killed endeavouring to rally his troops. His trampled and disfigured body was found and identified by his herald on the following day.
The ‘Terror of the French’
Talbot died heroically. The manner of his death, leading a charge against artillery, has come to symbolize the passing of the age of chivalrous warfare. He himself—‘the Terror of the French’, ‘the English Achilles’—was long remembered in France and England as the last of the old chivalric breed, and was celebrated as such in Shakespeare's ‘Talbot’ play, 1 Henry VI. It is a reputation he deserved, both for his loyal service to the failing Lancastrian cause and for his prowess on the field of battle. He was not a ‘great’ general, but he was a soldier's soldier, whose finest hour was the saving of Normandy in 1436. He himself took the chivalric tradition seriously, as the collection of romances and treatises that he brought together and subsequently presented to Margaret of Anjou in 1445 reveals. A knight of the Garter since 1424, he accused Sir John Fastolf of dishonouring the order by his flight from the field of Patay. He donated ornaments decorated with the Garter to the altar of the church of the Sepulchre in Rouen, for use on St George's day. Shrewsbury was conventionally religious. Two small books of hours made for him and his countess have survived as Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 40–1950, and NL Scot., Blairs College, MS 1. He and his countess had licence for mass to be performed from a portable altar, at which perhaps the books of hours were designed to be used. The instruction in his will that a collegiate chapel dedicated to Our Lady and St George be established in the parish church at Whitchurch was not followed. He was a hard, ruthless, violent man, no doubt in need of as many prayers for his soul as could be mustered after his death as soldiers who had been mustered in his service during his life.
Shrewsbury spent relatively few of his sixty-six years in England. His closest attachment was to his native Shropshire, the county from which he took his title, and where his principal estates lay. With lands to the value of over £1500 per annum he was well able to support the dignity of an earl. He also traded on a significant scale, owning at least five ships at the time of his death. In 1446 he assumed the title of earl of Waterford; and, as his will indicates, he also believed that after the death of Anne Beauchamp in 1449 he had a right, through his countess, to the earldom of Warwick. During 1450–52 they contested, with some success, the settlement of the entire Beauchamp inheritance on Richard Neville. He was also generously rewarded in titles, lands, and offices in France, not all of which would have yielded an income in the later stages of the war. Nevertheless, it was calculated in 1447 that the marshalcy of France rendered over £800 per annum in wages and fees. Despite the heavy burden of his ransom, he was probably able to make a small net profit from the war which was invested in purchases of property mainly in Shropshire.
With his first wife, Maud Neville, Talbot had four children: John Talbot, who succeeded him as earl; Thomas, who died young; Christopher, a renowned jouster, who was killed in suspicious circumstances in 1443; and Joan, who after her father's death married James, first Baron Berkeley. With his second wife, Margaret Beauchamp, he had five children: John, Viscount Lisle, who died beside him at Castillon, Humphrey, Lewis, Eleanor, and Elizabeth. Lady Eleanor [Lady Eleanor Boteler (d. 1468)], the elder of the two daughters, has attained a certain posthumous fame as the alleged object of the affections of Edward IV, whose supposed betrothal to her, as Lady Eleanor Boteler, was used in 1483 as justification for the illegitimization of his two sons and the usurpation of Richard III. Her date of birth is unknown, but she was married in 1450 to Sir Thomas Boteler, a son of Ralph Boteler, first Baron Sudeley. Boteler died in 1461, and it may be that Eleanor's claims for dower brought her to the attention of the young king, a notorious womanizer and a bachelor at that time. But it is equally possible that the allegation derived from knowledge of discussions between Shrewsbury and York concerning a family alliance. In any case, the tendentious nature of the evidence makes it impossible to regard either the fact or the nature of the liaison as established. Eleanor died in 1468, and was buried in the Carmelite priory at Norwich.
Margaret Talbot [née Beauchamp], countess of Shrewsbury (1404–1467), was a formidable woman—well matched to her husband. John Rous later recalled that all who swore in her house, including her own children, she put on a diet of bread and water. Her life was dominated by her ambition to carve out a substantial inheritance for her eldest son. This involved both the partition of the Talbot inheritance and the seizing of the lordship of Berkeley to add to her own Lisle inheritance. The partition of the Talbot inheritance began in 1434, shortly after Talbot's release from captivity. It would seem that it was the price paid for Warwick's support. Eventually all the Shropshire estates and the manor of Painswick in Gloucestershire were earmarked for John the younger. But after the deaths of her husband and son at Castillon the countess was unable to enforce the partition, and had to be content with her dower alone. Her hopes were revived following the death of the second earl of Shrewsbury at Northampton in 1460. With the support of the new regime she occupied Blakemere and Painswick. However, she was forced to compromise in 1466, when she surrendered Blakemere to the third earl, who in exchange released all his claims to Painswick. In the event only Painswick passed into the Lisle inheritance.
The dispute over the Berkeley inheritance, between James, Lord Berkeley, and the three daughters of Elizabeth Berkeley and Richard Beauchamp, of whom Margaret was the eldest, was decidedly more violent. A division had been agreed upon in 1426, but James Berkeley reopened the issue when Warwick died in 1439. Further arbitration in 1448 failed to settle the dispute, which erupted into all-out war in 1450. In 1451 the Talbots seized Berkeley Castle, imprisoned Lord Berkeley in it, and forced him to accept the proposed settlement of 1448. In 1452 Margaret went a stage further and claimed the whole inheritance, but the deaths of Shrewsbury and Lisle at Castillon took the wind from her sails; by stages she abandoned her claims, an agreement with James Berkeley finally being reached in 1463, four years before her death. The death of her grandson Thomas Talbot, Lord Lisle, in combat with the Berkeleys at Nibley Green in March 1470, signalled the final extinction of Margaret Talbot's ambitions.
It has been argued that the Devonshire tapestries, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, were commissioned by John and Margaret Talbot, and contain contemporary portraits of them. Less controversial are the portraits of John Talbot, in profile, in the Shrewsbury book (BL, Royal MS 15 E.vi). He and his countess are also portrayed at prayer in their books of hours. A sixteenth-century portrait, or copy of an earlier portrait, of the earl hangs in the College of Arms; it supposedly hung above the memorial to the countess in Old St Paul's and was rescued from the fire in 1666.
John Talbot was first buried on the field of battle at Castillon. Forty years later his body was brought back to England by his grandson, Sir Gilbert, and interred, according to the terms of his will, in St Alkmund's, Whitchurch. Such was the respect with which he was regarded by his enemies that a chapel was built on the site of his death, dedicated to Our Lady. This was destroyed during the revolution, but a memorial still stands there. His tomb was opened in the late nineteenth century and his skull was found to have been fractured, thus seeming to endorse one early account of his death.