He was a legendary figure. Unyielding on the battlefield, the French came to see him as England’s Achilles, a figure shrouded in legend and draped in victory.
Meet John Talbot, the 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, a man of indomitable spirit and fearsome reputation. Amidst the tumultuous upheaval of the Hundred Years’ War, Talbot emerged as a towering figure, striking terror into the hearts of the French.
His valor and military prowess became the stuff of legends, echoed in the hallowed plays of Shakespeare. But as fate would have it, his grandeur met a tragic end, forever marking the passing of an age steeped in chivalry. This is the tale of a true warrior.
Who was John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury?
Talbot was perhaps the greatest English military commander during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France. He was born at some point between 1384 and 1387 and was the son of Richard Talbot, 4th Baron Talbot of Goodrich Castle, and the lady Ankaret, the daughter of another powerful noble.
Talbot’s early career wasn’t particularly heroic. He served from 1404 to 1413 with his elder brother, Gilbert, fighting the Welsh during the rebellion of Owain Glyndŵr, an attempt to free Wales from English rule.
He then served as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland from 1414 to 1419. During this time, he didn’t make many friends, starting long-running feuds with several high-profile lords and nobles over various inheritances. During his time in Ireland complaints were made against him for his harsh governance of the country and acts of violence he carried out in Herefordshire, a county bordering Wales.
He had gained a reputation for being a tough but also stubborn and sometimes cruel man. This led to him being mostly used as a “Marcher Lord.” This was a noble whom the king sent to trouble spots where a firm hand and a willingness to cross certain lines were beneficial.
Things began to change for Talbot when he was sent to France in 1427. He fought with distinction at the Siege of Orleans, often seen as a major turning point in the war and was captured at the Battle of Patay on 18 June 1429.
He was held for a long four years until he was finally exchanged for Jean Poton de Xaintrailles, one of Joan of Arc’s top lieutenants. He returned home in May 1433 but didn’t stay long, returning to the fight in July of the same year.
Talbot soon became famous for his daring and aggressive tactics. He and his men were eager to take on the most dangerous missions, happy to intercept French advances head-on. Talbot’s military exploits were marked by his relentless pursuit of victory, often against overwhelming odds. His exceptional leadership and tactical genius allowed him to achieve remarkable triumphs.
He was given an opportunity to demonstrate his tactical brilliance on 2 February 1436, when he defeated La Hire (another important French commander) and Xaintrailles at the battle of Ry, despite being severely outnumbered. Not long after, he marched his men into eastern Normandy and took back vast chunks of land that had been lost only a few months earlier.
Then on the morning of 13 February 1437, he shook Paris by capturing its Northern neighbor, Pontise, in a brutal surprise attack. He then went on to the commune of Crotoy, where he sent a much larger army from Burgundy fleeing with its tail between its legs.
The English Achilles
His successes in France earned Talbot various nicknames such as “The Terror of the French” and most famously, “the English Achilles”. Like Achilles, Talbot was renowned for his unmatched bravery, strength, and combat prowess. He was a formidable presence on the battlefield, leading from the front lines and inspiring his troops with his unwavering determination. His fearlessness and unmatched martial abilities made him a symbol of heroism and invincibility.
Talbot’s military successes during the Hundred Years’ War drew further parallels to the legendary exploits of Achilles. Just as Achilles was feared by the Trojans, Talbot struck fear into the hearts of the French. His tactical brilliance and strategic acumen allowed him to achieve remarkable victories against formidable odds, further reinforcing his reputation as an extraordinary warrior.
The comparison to Achilles also underscores Talbot’s larger-than-life persona and the mythical status that surrounded him. His feats of valor and his significant impact on the course of the war elevated him to legendary status, making him a subject of admiration and awe both during his lifetime and in subsequent retellings of his story.
Of course, Achilles eventually fell in battle, and this was true of Talbot. His heroics ended on 17 July 1453 at the Battle of Castillon near Bordeaux where he suffered a crushing defeat. Ultimately, it was Talbot’s rashness that killed him.
At the battle, he decided to lead an ill-advised cavalry charge against French field artillery. It was a disaster and Talbot’s forces were quickly overwhelmed by enemy fire. Reportedly, Talbot’s horse was hit by cannon fire, and he became trapped beneath it. A nameless French soldier was then able to finish off the great hero with his battle axe.
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The manner of his death, leading a reckless charge against field artillery, became emblematic of the changing nature of warfare and the waning influence of traditional chivalric ideals. Talbot’s final moments came to symbolize the passing of an age steeped in honor, bravery, and knightly valor, giving rise to the notion that the age of chivalry was ending.
A Mixed Legacy
In death, Talbot was revered as a hero by both his enemies and allies. His body was taken back to England and his heart was buried in St Alkmund’s Church, Whitchurch, Shropshire. For their part, the French generals who had spent so many years fighting Talbot created a monument field called Notre Dame de Talbot.
But views change over time and not everyone is convinced that Talbot was the great hero his contemporaries believed him to be. In particular, it’s been stated that what many believed was bravery could be described as rashness or foolhardiness.
For example, he lost to the French in Patay in 1429 after being explicitly told not to start a fight there by his commander Sir John Fastolf. Talbot had been sure that his fearsome reputation would be enough to defeat the French, who were normally cautious in approaching English positions. But he hadn’t accounted for the boost in French fighting spirit that had been caused by Joan of Arc.
Likewise, at Castillon, rather than waiting for his full force to arrive and back him up, Talbot chose to race headlong into French artillery fire with a vastly outnumbered force. That time his rashness proved fatal.
So, what do we make of this man? Was he everything the French feared him to be, or was it his reputation alone, combined with his rashness, which carried him to these great heights?
Known for his quarrelsome nature, he was certainly a tough and sometimes cruel man. His final charge against field artillery in the Battle of Castillon highlighted his daring spirit but proved ill-advised.
Talbot’s death marked the end of an era, symbolizing the fading chivalric ideals. Despite his faults, his heroics and larger-than-life persona continue to captivate, leaving an indelible legacy on the pages of history. It would seem he was exactly the right man for the job, even if it eventually led to his death.
Top Image: John Talbot’s rash charge at the Battle of Castillon was entirely in character, but this time it cost him his life. Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France / Public Domain.