01 August 2022

The ‘Scourge of France’ and
the former Talbot Inn on
High Street, Stony Stratford

The site of the former Talbot Inn at 81-83 High Street, Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

I was musing last week about Shakespeare’s links not with Stratford upon Avon, but with Stony Stratford.

Shakespeare uses this town as the setting for one of the events in his telling of the story associated with the Princes in the Tower. ‘I hear they lay at Stony Stratford,’ it is said in Richard III, Act II, Scene IV, when the uncrowned Edward V is abducted in the Rose and Crown at the other end of the High Street, at Nos 26-28.

I wondered too about the site on High Street of the Horseshoe or Lyon and Horseshoe Inn mentioned in ‘Sir John Oldcastle’, a play once attributed to Shakespeare.

But, I suggested then that perhaps the one true link with Shakespeare on the High Street is the choice of name for the Talbot, a mediaeval pub that once stood at 81-83 High Street, beside the Fox and Hound and close to the corner with York Street.

The pub no longer exists and the ground floor premises are now divided between an estate agent’s and an antique shop, Michael Graham and the Siren Vintage, with flats on the first floor. But the name of the Talbot may date back to the late medieval period and the end of the time of chivalry.

John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, in 1445 … a detail from the Talbot Shrewsbury Book … note the white talbot at his feet to the left

The talbot was a popular hunting dog in mediaeval England, and became popular as the heraldic symbol of many English families, including the Comberford and Wolseley families in the Tamworth, Lichfield and Rugeley corners of Staffordshire.

Talbot was also the family name of one of the powerful political families in the Midlands, with extensive estates in Shropshire, Staffordshire and Hereford. In Buckinghamshire, Sir Gilbert Talbot held the church of Loughton at his death in 1399, and other Talbot manors and estates in Buckinghamshire included the Grafton estate, the former hamlet of Addingrove, and the manor of Pollicott in Ashendon.

However, the origins of the name of both the family and the hunting dog are uncertain. Which came first? In a quotation from about 1449, the king referred to John Talbot (1387-1453), 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, as ‘Talbott, oure good dogge.’

John Talbot was the very model of the late mediaeval, aristocratic soldier, and he is praised lavishly in the plays of Shakespeare. His military prowess was such that he was known as the ‘English Achilles’ and the ‘Terror of the French.’ He spent much of his career on the battlefield he quarrelled so violently with all around him that his feud with the Butlers of Kilkenny over rival claims to lands in Co Wexford, threatened Crown rule in Ireland.

In his teens, Talbot may have fought in the Battle of Shrewsbury for King Henry IV against the powerful Percy family. By the beginning of the reign of Henry V in 1413, he was quarrelling with several leading figures in his Shropshire and in Herefordshire, where he was a friend of Sir John Oldcastle, the Lollard who gave his name to the play once attributed to Shakespeare and that refers to the Horseshoe or Lyon and Horseshoe Inn in Stony Stratford.

Henry V appointed Talbot Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1414, and he stayed in Ireland for the next seven years. Initially, he seemed a good choice for Ireland as he had a claim to the lordship of Westmeath, his elder brother was titular lord of Wexford, while another brother, Richard Talbot (1390-1449), would became Archbishop of Dublin (1417-1449). Their grandfather was Gilbert Talbot (1332–1387), 3rd Baron Talbot; their grandmother, Lady Petronella Butler, was a daughter of James Butler, 1st Earl of Ormonde.

However, Talbot soon had a dispute with James Butler, 4th Earl of Ormond, over the inheritance of the Lordship of Wexford, which Talbot inherited at the death of his niece in 1421. The Butler-Talbot feud dominated Irish politics for decades and seriously weakened the authority of the Crown in Ireland.

Henry IV recalled Talbot from Ireland to fight in the Hundred Years War in France. Talbot made a name for himself, taking part in several sieges, including at Meaux, where Henry V died of dysentery.

Talbot was lord lieutenant in Ireland again for a short time in 1425. But he was recalled to France by Henry V’s brother, the Duke of Bedford, who had become Regent of France under the new infant King Henry VI.

Henry VI giving John Talbot the Sword of the Constable of France

The French united under the new King Charles VII and Joan of Arc. Talbot fought valiantly but was captured at Patay in 1429 and remained a prisoner for four years.

Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake in 1431. But there were bigger losses for the English in 1435 with the death of Bedford and the Duke of Burgundy’s defection to the French. Talbot and his generals are credited with preserving the English presence in Normandy throughout the 1430s and 1440s, and he was rewarded when he was made Earl of Shrewsbury in 1442.

Talbot was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland again in 1446-1447, and on this occasion was made Earl of Waterford and Wexford and hereditary Lord High Steward of Ireland. During this period in Ireland, the feud between Talbot the Ormonde Butlers reached its height, with every senior official in Ireland taking sides in the quarrel. Friendly relations were finally secured with the marriage of Talbot’s son and heir to Ormond’s daughter, Lady Elizabeth Butler.

By 1450, all of France was lost apart from Calais – which would remain English until 1558 – and a small part of Gascony; Bordeaux was taken by the French in 1451. Talbot, then his 60s, was disillusioned with the quarrel between the Dukes of York and Somerset that tore apart the court of Henry VI and he returned to France to launch one last effort to save what little the English still controlled.

Talbot retook Bordeaux in 1452. But in the summer of 1453 Charles VII invaded Gascony and engaged Talbot in a hard-fought battle at Castillon. Talbot’s more traditional tactics were no match for the French use of cannons, Talbot was killed on the field along with his son John, and the Hundred Years War came to an end.

The death of John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, at the Battle of Castillon in 1453, from a French manuscript of ca 1484

Talbot’s death marks the end of the age of chivalry, and many portray him as the last of the great mediaeval knights.

Shakespeare based Henry VI Part 1 largely on Talbot’s deeds in war in France. Talbot is the tragic hero of the play, fighting against insurmountable odds and losing only because of the actions of his own countrymen.

At the play’s beginning, Talbot has been captured by the French after the Battle of Patay, due to the cowardly acts of Sir John Fastolf, who later deserts Talbot for a second time and is humiliated himself by Talbot for his 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 at Orleans, where his friend Salisbury is killed, and at 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 cut short when he is deserted by the armies of the Dukes of York and Somerset, who are quarrelling over who should relieve the earl against the French. After first seeing his son die in battle, Talbot dies and is mocked by the French.

The figure of Talbot represents one of Shakespeare’s major historical inaccuracies. Historically, Talbot was killed in battle in 1453. By the end of play, he has dead and several characters who are still alive had died before him, including the Duke of Suffolk (died 1450), the Duke of Gloucester and Cardinal Beaufort (died 1447), and the Duke of Exeter (died 1426).

Shakespeare was aware of these facts. But he chose to create a better drama by making Henry VI Part 1 about the loss of France and Talbot’s downfall. Henry VI Part 2 is about the downfalls of Gloucester, Winchester and Suffolk, as well as the beginning of the Wars of the Roses.

John Talbot’s fame brought the Talbot name to pubs and inns throughout England (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Long before Shakespeare lionised Talbot as ‘the scourge of France’ and ‘the terror of the French’, he was a popular figure throughout England. As Bryan Dunleavy, Ken Daniels and Andy Powell discuss in their book, Inns of Stony Stratford, it is likely that Talbot gave his name to the Talbot Inn on High Street, making the place much older than its recorded history suggests, probably dating from the 16th century.

There was probably a central entrance at one time, although this has now been filled in. It has not been inn since 1762, and it was substantially rebuilt in the 18th and 19th centuries, although some mediaeval timbers survive in the roof. Today, the building is separated into two separate premises.

Talbot probably gave his name to other inns and pubs in the Milton Keynes area. The Talbot Inn on London Road in Loughton is a public house and restaurant dating from the l7th century with l8th century re-fronting, added when the coaching trade was at its peak.. Despite many later alterations, the Talbot in Loughton has retained a large inglenook fireplace with a cambered lintel.

The arms of the Talbot family, Earls of Shrewsbury, represented on the doors of Saint Giles’s Church, Cheadle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

As for the Talbot connection with Wexford, John Talbot (1791-1852), 16th Earl of Shrewsbury, also used the titles of Earl of Waterford and Wexford. He lived at Alton Towers in Staffordshire, and in 1814 he married Maria Talbot, eldest daughter of William Talbot, of Castle Talbot, Co Wexford, and the favourite niece of John Hyacinth Talbot MP, of Ballytrent, Co Wexford.

Lord Shrewsbury’s patronage led to Pugin rebuilding Alton Towers and designing great works of architecture including Saint Giles’s, Cheadle, and Saint Mary’s, Uttoxeter. The patronage of Lady Shrewsbury’s uncle brought Pugin to Wexford the following year. The Talbots of Castle Talbot were patrons of Pugin too and for generations claimed close kinship with the Talbots, Earls of Shrewsbury, in a way that parallels the claims of the Comerford family in Ireland to kinship with the Comberford family in Staffordshire.

Pugin died when he was only 40 in 1852; Lord Shrewsbury died later that year. But church architecture and church decoration would never be the same again – in England or in Ireland.

There is a Talbot Street in Dublin and there is the Talbot Hotel in Wexford. The present holder of the family title, Charles Benedict Crofton Chetwynd Talbot, is 22nd Earl of Shrewsbury. He has profited from the hereditary title of Lord High Steward of Ireland, and ‘created and preferred’ the supposedly hereditary positions of ‘Deputy High Steward of Ireland’ and ‘Lord Steward of Waterford,’ titles that have constantly been offered for sale at auctions.

The Talbot Hotel, Wexford, … remembering the link between two branches of the Talbot family and their patronage of AWN Pugin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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