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Talbot, George, sixth earl of Shrewsburylocked

(c. 1522–1590)
  • Elizabeth Goldring

George Talbot, sixth earl of Shrewsbury (c. 1522–1590)

by unknown artist, 1582?

Talbot, George, sixth earl of Shrewsbury (c. 1522–1590), nobleman, was the elder and only surviving son of Francis Talbot, fifth earl of Shrewsbury (1500–1560), and his first wife, Mary (d. 1538), daughter of Thomas, second Lord Dacre of Gilsland. In 1538 he took the title of Lord Talbot, which he continued to use until he succeeded to the earldom twenty-two years later. On 28 April 1539, in London, he married Lady Gertrude (d. 1566/7), eldest daughter of Thomas Manners, first earl of Rutland, and his second wife, Eleanor, daughter of Sir William Paston of Paston, Norfolk. Talbot's early years were marked by the rapid acquisition of honours from the crown, many of which reflected his family's historic prominence in the north. On 20 February 1547, at the coronation of Edward VI, he was made a knight bachelor. In May 1549 he became a member of the council of the north, a position which he would continue to hold until his death. On 1 November 1549 he was named high steward of the honour of Pontefract and constable of Pontefract Castle. On 21 June 1553 he signed the instrument settling the crown on Lady Jane Grey, an act for which he was pardoned later that same year. On 30 May 1557 he was appointed captain-general of the footmen in the army in the north, and in 1561 he was elected a knight of the Garter. In July 1565 he was made joint lieutenant-general in the north, and the following month he was named lord lieutenant of the counties of Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, and Derbyshire. The steep trajectory of these early years—in which one honour rapidly followed another—was not to be sustained. Although he continued to play a leading role in the politics of the north, he would never fully realize the promise of his early career at court.

Two events occurred in the late 1560s which had far-reaching and not altogether pleasant consequences for Shrewsbury. The first was his decision, in the wake of his wife Gertrude's death, to remarry. His second wife, whom he married in London on 1 November 1567, was the thrice-widowed Elizabeth, Lady St Loe [see Talbot, Elizabeth, countess of Shrewsbury (1527–1608)], better known to posterity as Bess of Hardwick. At the time of their marriage Shrewsbury was one of the richest men in England; his property included the castles of Tutbury, Pontefract, and Sheffield, as well as a manor house at Sheffield and a lodge at Handsworth, hunting lodges at Tutbury and Worksop, and the converted monastic buildings at Rufford Abbey. Although cynics then and now have suggested that Bess's interest in him was purely—or at least primarily—motivated by a desire for financial and social gain, the marriage none the less seems to have begun happily enough: his early letters to Bess address her warmly as 'my owne sweet heart', 'my dear', or 'my jewel' (Collinson, 16). Relations between the earl and countess, however, deteriorated rapidly. By the late 1570s Shrewsbury was describing Bess as 'my wyked and malysyous wyfe' and 'so bad and wicked a woman'. In the mid-1580s the couple endured an acrimonious and rather unprecedented separation, complete with a prolonged legal battle over their respective assets.

The other momentous event of the late 1560s was the queen's selection of Shrewsbury to be the custodian of Mary, queen of Scots. This post commenced in February 1569, when Mary was delivered to him at Tutbury. He remained Mary's keeper until September 1584, during which period the Scottish queen was moved on forty-six occasions between his many properties. The reasons behind Elizabeth's selection of Shrewsbury for this task were many and varied. That he owned numerous large houses made him one of a handful of aristocrats who could accommodate Mary and her extensive entourage of servants and guards. That these houses were located in the north—which is to say at some remove from the queen—no doubt added to their (and Shrewsbury's) appeal. That his properties were relatively remote from both Scotland and the sea—and thus posed comparatively few security risks—must also have been a factor. His religion was also in his favour. Although he was a protestant, he was not a militant, and was probably perceived as ideally placed ideologically to mediate between Elizabeth and Mary. Perhaps the most important point in his favour, however, was his enormous personal wealth. To feed, house, and guard Mary and her entourage was an undertaking which the famously parsimonious queen no doubt realized would best be executed by someone with deep pockets.

This last issue became a central theme in Shrewsbury's correspondence during his years as gaoler to Mary. In the beginning Elizabeth provided him with an allowance of £2700 per year for the cost of feeding, clothing, and guarding the Scottish queen, although he considered this sum insufficient. On 15 January 1570 he wrote to the marquess of Winchester and Sir Walter Mildmay complaining of the expenses incurred after just one year as Mary's keeper:

The charges daily that I do now sustain, and have done all this year past, well known by reason of the Queen of Scots, are so great therein as I am compelled to be now a suitor unto you … my earnest trust and desire is that you will now consider me with such larger proportion in this case as shall seem good unto your friendly wisdoms.

Lodge, 1.490

Pleas such as these are frequent in Shrewsbury's correspondence both with the queen and with courtiers acting as intermediaries. His requests, however, seem to have fallen on deaf ears. Rather than increasing his allowance, the queen eventually reduced it to £1560 per annum and then to nothing at all. Even during the years in which he was meant to have received a royal allowance, the payment was often woefully overdue. He claimed that the expense of being the Scottish queen's custodian forced him into extensive borrowing. Increasingly, he came to despair both of his own financial situation and of the queen's estimation of him: 'the worlde must nedes thinke that eyther my desertes have ben very small, or else her Majestie doth make very small accompt of me' (Kershaw, 268). Yet this is difficult to reconcile with the evidence, which suggests that he was both 'the leading aristocratic industrialist of the Elizabethan period' and 'the most active entrepreneur' of the era (Stone, 328, 375). His wealth derived from a diversity of interests including farming, coal, lead, iron, steel, and shipping. It has been suggested by one historian that the salient fact to remember when assessing his finances is that 'he felt poor' (Kershaw, 269). In addition to providing for the Scottish queen and her entourage, he also had to contend with the increasing debts of his son Gilbert and the financial demands of his wife, Bess, the latter engaged in expensive building works at Chatsworth and Oldcotes.

If Shrewsbury's anxiety about his finances seems to have been ill founded, his sense that his status at court was slipping was rather more accurate. In marked contrast to his promising early career at court, his later years saw him increasingly marginalized. Although he was made a privy councillor in 1571, the appointment was no springboard to greater things, largely because his duties as gaoler to Mary, queen of Scots, conflicted with his duties as a counsellor. Guardianship of the Scottish queen required Shrewsbury to supervise her every movement, with the result that he travelled south only once between 1571 and 1584, the year in which he was relieved of his duties with regard to the Scottish queen. This long absence from court had disastrous effects on his reputation and on any future chances of preferment. When he finally took up his seat on the privy council in 1584, he found that rumours were circulating to the effect that he had been disloyal to the English queen by taking up Mary's cause.

The notion that Shrewsbury had betrayed Elizabeth was not unrelated to the rumour circulated by his wife, Bess, that he had been inappropriately intimate with the Scottish queen. Whether this claim had any basis in fact is doubtful. In any event, it brought to a head the animosities that had long festered between the earl and countess of Shrewsbury. Although Queen Elizabeth attempted to enforce a reconciliation between the couple, they in effect lived separate lives from 1584 onwards. There was an ongoing dispute—settled in court in Bess's favour in 1587—regarding the ownership of Chatsworth, the Derbyshire house built by Bess and her second husband, Sir William Cavendish. The court ruling of 1587 also awarded Bess a substantial income from her husband. The financial squabbles that had plagued Shrewsbury in life did not cease with his death on 18 November 1590 at Sheffield Manor. His eldest surviving son and heir, Gilbert, alleged that his father's mistress, Elinor Bretton, had stolen considerable sums of cash from the bedside of the dying earl.

Of Shrewsbury the man we know that he was possessed of one of the more illegible hands in Elizabethan England, a result of his battles with both gout and arthritis. It also has been suggested, in the light of his persistent belief that nearly everyone in his life was at one time or another plotting against him, that he may have suffered from a form of paranoid dementia. As for his legacy to English history, it is probably fair to say, as Alan G. R. Smith has done, that he owes his fame primarily 'to his relationships with three remarkable women, his wife Bess of Hardwick, his sovereign Queen Elizabeth, and his involuntary “guest” Mary Queen of Scots' (Smith, 10). It is not, one suspects, the fame for which Shrewsbury himself would have wished.

Shrewsbury was buried on 13 January 1591 at St Peter's, Sheffield. He had seven children with his first wife: Francis, Lord Talbot, who in 1562 married Anne, daughter of William Herbert, first earl of Pembroke, but who pre-deceased his father; Gilbert Talbot (d. 1616), who became the seventh earl; Henry; Edward, who succeeded his brother Gilbert as the eighth earl; Catherine, who in 1563 married Henry, Lord Herbert; Mary, who married Sir George Savile of Barrowby, Lincolnshire; and Grace, who married Henry, eldest son and heir of Sir William Cavendish of Chatsworth. Although Shrewsbury had no children with his second wife, his son Gilbert and daughter Grace married children of Bess's from her second marriage, to Sir William Cavendish.


  • GEC, Peerage, new edn, vol. 11
  • P. Collinson, The English captivity of Mary, queen of Scots (1987)
  • A. G. R. Smith, ed., The last years of Mary queen of Scots: documents from the Cecil papers at Hatfield House (1990)
  • E. Lodge, Illustrations of British history, biography, and manners, 2nd edn, 3 vols. (1838)
  • S. E. Kershaw, ‘Power and duty in the Elizabethan aristocracy: George, earl of Shrewsbury, the Glossopdale dispute and the council’, The Tudor nobility, ed. G. W. Bernard (1992), 266–96
  • L. Stone, The crisis of the aristocracy, 1558–1641 (1965)
  • The state papers and letters of Sir Ralph Sadler, ed. A. Clifford, 2 vols. (1809)
  • M. Girouard, Robert Smythson and the Elizabethan country house [new edn] (1983)
  • CSP dom., 1581–90
  • A catalogue of the Arundel Castle manuscripts … with an appendix of a calendar of Talbot letters (1965)


  • Arundel Castle, Sussex, corresp.
  • BL, Harley MSS, corresp. and papers
  • BL, Cotton MSS, corresp., etc.
  • BL, family papers, Add. MSS 46454–46464
  • Bodl. Oxf., letter-book and corresp.
  • Coll. Arms, Shrewsbury and Talbot MSS
  • Hatfield House, Hertfordshire, letters and papers
  • Hunt. L., letter-book
  • LPL, corresp.
  • LPL, corresp. and papers
  • Sheff. Arch., corresp.
  • BL, corresp. and papers relating to Mary, queen of Scots, Add. MS 33594
  • Folger, letters to Richard Bagot
  • Folger, letters to his wife, Bess of Hardwick
  • Sheffield Central Library, corresp. with B. Franks


  • M. Gheeraerts senior, group portrait, etching, 1576 (Procession of the Garter Knights), BM
  • R. Lockey?, oils, 1582, Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire
  • chalk drawing, 1582, NPG [see illus.]
  • tomb effigy, 1590, cathedral of St Peter and St Paul, Sheffield
  • British school, oils, 17th/18th, Tate collection
  • watercolour (after R. Lockey?, 1580), NPG
Historical Manuscripts Commission
G. E. C. [G. E. Cokayne], , 8 vols. (1887–98); new edn, ed. V. Gibbs & others, 14 vols. in 15 (1910–98); microprint repr. (1982) and (1987)