John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury
Born: c. 1387
Whitchurch, Shropshire, England
Died: July 17, 1453
Castillon, France (Age c. 66)
Talbot in History
John Talbot is the epitome of the late medieval, aristocratic soldier. He spent more of his time on the battlefield than tending to his own lands at home, and when he was home, quarreled violently with those around him. By the time Talbot was a teenager he was fighting in wars. He most likely fought in the Battle of Shrewsbury for King Henry IV against the Percy family of the north and established himself in the Welsh wars that were continuously going on through most of Henry IV's reign. By the beginning of the new King Henry V's reign in 1413, Talbot seemed to be becoming restless at home and quarreled with several men in his native Shropshire, including the Earl of Arundel. To distract his attentions, Henry V awarded Talbot with the position of lieutenant of Ireland, a land that he would stay in for the next five years. By 1419, King Henry had recalled Talbot from Ireland so that he may join him in France to fight in the Hundred Years War that had been renewed in 1415. It was in France that Talbot would truly make a name for himself. He participated in several sieges under Henry V's command, including at Meaux, where the king met his end at the hands of dysentery.
After a brief return to Ireland, Talbot was recalled to France by the Duke of Bedford (Henry V's brother), who had been assigned the task of regent of France under the new infant King Henry VI. France was increasingly becoming a volatile region, and the French united themselves under their new King Charles VII and a young woman soldier named Joan of Arc. Talbot fought valiantly for the English cause but was only one man. He was captured by the French at Patay in 1429 and would remain their prisoner for four long years. For a majority of the remainder of Talbot's life, he would be the great English defender of Normandy. He defended the region with great courage, but the English were clearly starting to lose the war. Joan of Arc had been burnt at the stake in 1431, but 1435 saw bigger losses for the English with the death of Bedford and the Duke of Burgundy's defection back to the French. Talbot and his generals are certainly the ones to give credit to in preserving the English presence in Normandy throughout the 1430s and 40s, and he was rewarded with the Earldom of Shrewsbury in 1442.
Unfortunately, the situation was becoming quite overbearing for the English who were also being weakened by debilitating factions at court. By 1450, all of France was lost except for Calais (which would remain in English hands until 1558) and a small part of Gascony. Talbot, already a man well into his sixties, was disillusioned with the quarrel between the Dukes of York and Somerset that tore apart the court of Henry VI and chose to do what he did best to distance himself from the situation. In 1453, Talbot journeyed back to France to embark on one last ditch effort to save what little the English still controlled. The city of Bordeaux (in English control since 1154) had been taken by the French in 1451, but was retaken by Talbot and his forces the following year. Charles VII, however, was determined to win back all of France and would not allow the English to remain any longer. In the summer of 1453, Charles invaded Gascony and forced Talbot to do battle with him at Castillon. The battle was hardfought, but in the end the French were victorious (thanks in large part to their use of cannons, as opposed to Talbot's more traditional tactics), and the seemingly omnipotent Talbot was killed on the field along with his son John, bringing about an end to the lengthy Hundred Years War. Talbot's death is looked at as the end of the age of chivalry, with Talbot himself being portrayed as the last of the medieval knights. His fall in battle certainly brought on a new breed of warfare, one that was very different from that of old.
Talbot in Shakespeare
Appears in: Henry VI, Part 1
The figure of John Talbot is all but immortalized by Shakespeare, and 1 Henry VI is largely based upon his deeds in France during the war. At the play's beginning we find that Talbot has been captured by the French (after the historical Battle of Patay) due to the cowardly actions of one Sir John Fastolf (a man who later deserts Talbot for a second time and is subsequently humiliated by the brave warrior for his despicable actions). Bedford makes sure that Talbot is immediately ransomed (although historically Talbot remained a French prisoner for four years). Talbot continues to fight for the English, appearing at the sieges of Orleans (where his friend Salisbury is killed) and Rouen, even fighting in single combat with Joan of Arc. For his bravery he is created Earl of Shrewsbury by King Henry. In the end, Talbot's life is tragically cut short when he is deserted by the armies of the Dukes of York and Somerset, who are quarreling over who should relieve the earl against the French. After first seeing his son die in battle, Talbot himself dies and is mocked by the French. Talbot is most certainly the tragic hero of the play, fighting against insurmountable odds and only losing because of the disreputable actions of his own countrymen.
In addition, the figure of Talbot represents one of Shakespeare's biggest historical inaccuracies. Historically, Talbot was killed in battle in 1453. By the end of play, he has deceased and there are several characters that are still alive who had predeceased him, such as: the Duke of Suffolk (d. 1450); Gloucester and Cardinal Beaufort (d. 1447); and, most significantly, the Duke of Exeter (d. 1426). There can be no doubt that Shakespeare was well aware of these facts. However, he chose to create a better drama by making 1 Henry VI about the loss of France and Talbot's downfall and 2 Henry VI about the downfalls of Gloucester, Winchester and Suffolk, as well as the beginning of the Wars of the Roses.
Pollard, A. J. ‘Talbot, John, first earl of Shrewsbury and first earl of Waterford (c.1387–1453)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, Oct 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/26932, accessed 1 Dec 2009]