John, ‘Old Talbot’, the first earl of Shrewsbury, was among the most successful military leaders during the first half of the 15th century. He was Shropshire born with Norman, Welsh and Irish ancestry. His father died whilst he was a child.
John’s mother’s second marriage to Thomas Neville brought the family closer to the centre of power.
Thomas’ older brother, Ralph Neville, 1st earl of Westmorland, was one of the most senior nobles in the north of England. Ralph also married twice, and his second wife was Joan Beaufort, eldest daughter of John of Gaunt. One of Joan’s daughters, Cecily Neville, married Richard, Duke of York, and became the mother of Edward IV and Richard III.
Old Talbot’s first marriage was to his stepfather’s daughter, Maud which brought extensive Neville land into to the family. Maud died in 1422.
His second marriage (1425) was with Margaret Beauchamp daughter of Richard Beauchamp, 13th Earl of Warwick. Margaret’s sister, Eleanor, was married to Edmund Beaufort who became the 2nd Duke of Somerset and King Henry VI’s closest adviser.
Old Talbot was trained for a life of military service with a high level of command which began around the Welsh border When in Ireland his devastation was likened to that of King Herod. He accompanied Henry V on his last two campaigns in France in 1420-22 during which Henry died of dysentery.
John was recalled to France, after his second marriage, to serve with the duke of Bedford, Regent of English-controlled France. Talbot became feared by the French for his ruthlessness in pursuing military success. He was captured and imprisoned but later swapped for a French noble of similar standing. This type of prisoner exchange of high net worth nobles and gentry was part of the chivalric code observed by the knightly class. The custom helped to preserve the class structure of the nobility and knights.
John spent most of the rest of his life fighting in France to maintain English control of land granted to Henry VI by the Treaty of Troyes (1420). After the death of Bedford, Talbot was appointed Marshal of France with particular responsibility for the eastern areas including Gascony and Bordeaux. These had been possessions of English Kings since the 12th century (Henry II and Queen Eleanor). His creation as earl of Shrewsbury came in 1442. He and the duke of York were then given roles in France and Ireland as the most senior military commanders.
After his return to France with his brother-in-law Somerset, military reverses began to pile up. By 1450 Normandy had been lost to the French. In 1453 he attempted to recover Bordeaux but was killed as a result of cannon fire at Castillon. His son by his second marriage, John, Viscount Lisle, died with him.
News of the deaths of the Talbots and the loss of Bordeaux is said to have been the cause of the sudden and lengthy collapse of King Henry VI into a catatonic state. This lasted for about a year and a half. During this time the queen bore a son, Edward of Lancaster, the only heir in the direct Lancastrian line.
Several members of the Talbot family were involved in 15th century politics and warfare.
Their upwardly mobile social progress was partly the result of well-planned marriages and partly due to military skill. Judicious loyalty firstly to the Lancastrians, then the Yorkist and, finally, the Tudors aided their fortunes.
John and Maud’s eldest son, also John, became 2nd Earl of Shrewsbury on the death of his father. He benefitted from the death of his half-brother, Viscount Lisle, and also from the downfall of the duke of Somerset. By gaining land and property he was able to accept prominent place in government and became Treasurer. He fought on the Lancastrian side at Northampton (1460) and was killed.
Old Talbot and Maud’s daughter Eleanor Talbot is the person allegedly secretly married to Edward Plantagenet, before he married Elizabeth Woodville. This is the ‘pre-contract’ which led to the constitutional crisis of 1483. Edward V and his siblings were formally declared to be illegitimate and their uncle became King Richard III.
John, 2nd earl’s eldest son, another John, married Katherine Stafford daughter of the 1st duke of Buckingham. John fought on the Lancastrian side at Towton (1461) and survived. He then held various minor offices under Yorkist government until his death in 1473.
One of his sons, Sir Gilbert Talbot, fought on the side of Henry Tudor at Bosworth, survived and was given high office under Henry VII.
John, 3rd earl’s son George, 4th earl, made an early marriage into the Yorkist family of William Lord Hastings. He was too young to fight at Bosworth but afterwards found favour under the Tudors. He was given prominent roles under both Henry VII and Henry VIII and died very wealthy.
A modern link with Old Talbot and Maud is that she brought to the marriage the land of Alton Towers theme park.