The main high street to St Alkmund’s church in Whitchurch, Shropshire, was steep and we were relieved to have finally reached the top. Excited and flushed from our brisk walk we placed warm hands on the cold iron handle of the church door and twisted.
The scene which greeted us was filled with light cascading in from wide 18th century windows and large columns rose around us to carry the roof over our heads.
Birth of a Leader
In a dusty corner, at the far side of the church, a stone knight glared with lifeless eyes at our entry. This was John Talbot, former Earl of Shrewsbury, and one time Constable of France. Talbot had been born in Black Mere Castle, near Whitchurch, in 1383 and rose to the Order of the Garter in 1424 after daring and ruthlessness in the battle of Verneuil.
‘Famous and renowned English leader’ – Matthew d’Escourcy, French chronicler, referring to a sense of respect Talbot gained from his French adversaries.
Through luck, courage and determination, he became the leading English commander of the Hundred Years War (1337-1453), where the French opposed the English claim to the crown of France, earning respect from both his English troops and French adversaries.
‘Scourge of France’
Thundering across the fields of France for twenty-four years, Talbot applied the violent character he had acquired as a Marcher Lord oppressing the Welsh to crush the French many times in battle.
His success led to his appointment as Constable of France in 1445. But, by 1449, he was captured by the French at Rouen. Although later released, the French king forced Talbot to swear he would never again wear armour against the French king.
Talbot was true to his word, he merely led the English armies into battle whilst wearing no armour.
Fall of ‘Old Talbot’
By 1453, John Talbot had crossed fate too many times. He fell at the battle of Castillon, near Bordeaux, his army suffering a disastrous defeat at the hands of the French. With the fall of Talbot, came the fall of the English effort in France and the end of one hundred and sixteen years of conflict.
On the battlefield, as Talbot lay dying, he ‘charged his faithful guard of Whitchurch men’ to carry his heart back over the sea to England. This was to be ‘in memory of their courage and devotion’ and to bury his heart in the porch of their church, so ‘they and their children forever pass over it and guard it when dead’.
Whilst Talbot’s heart was buried in the church porch, his body was buried in a church near Black Mere Castle. Only in the nineteenth century was his body later moved to Whitchurch during which each of Talbot’s bones were found to have been wrapped individually in linen and his body buried not in a coffin but a strong chest.
However, Talbot was not to rest and tumble out of the minds of Englishmen, according to Shakespeare, who resurrected Talbot over a century later in his play, Henry VI. Talbot’s tale is now often reenacted on the stage and thus John Talbot has been forever immortalised in English literature.
‘Now my arms are young Talbot’s grave’ – John Talbot mourning the death of his son before dying shortly himself (Henry VI, Part 1 Scene VII).
A contemporary of Shakespeare noted this curiosity. Thomas Nashe, an Elizabethan polemist, stated ‘there is no immortality can be given a man on earth like unto plays’.
We left Talbot’s cold stone memorial to its corner, now illuminated by shafts of dusty light, and walked with trepidation over the tiles of the church porch. Who knows, had we listened more closely, if we could heard Talbot’s heart beating patiently under our feet, waiting to be guarded by the next generation of Whitchurchers.
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