Talbot, Charles (1660–1718), 15th earl and 1st duke of Shrewsbury , was born 24 July 1660, eldest surviving son of Francis Talbot, 14th earl (c.1623–68), and first son with his second wife, Anna Maria, daughter of the 2nd earl of Cardigan. Two elder half-brothers died before Charles was born, and a younger full-brother was killed in a duel in 1686. The Talbots were an old catholic family, in great favour at the restoration court; Charles himself was the king's godson. But his parents became embroiled in scandal: in 1668 the earl died from wounds received in a duel with his wife's lover, the duke of Buckingham. The psychological effects of this tragedy on the young Talbot may have been long-lasting. The excessive caution he displayed in later life, which detractors saw as vacillating and pusillanimous, was diagnosed by some observers as a reaction to the fatal recklessness of his father and brother. A second personal crisis occurred in 1679. After several years travelling on the continent, he returned to find England gripped by the hysteria of the ‘popish plot’. Tutored by Thomas Tillotson, the future archbishop of Canterbury, he renounced his ancestral faith and conformed to the established church. The conversion had been carefully considered, but his friend Bishop Burnet felt it to have been politically inspired, regarding him as in general ‘sceptical in matters of religion’.
Shrewsbury's conduct in James II's (qv) reign, however, showed a resolute commitment to protestantism, and an uncharacteristic audacity. One of the ‘immortal seven’ who signed the invitation to William of Orange (qv) in June 1688, he mortgaged his own property to raise funds to finance the prince's invasion, and went over to Holland to deliver them in person. He returned with William and played an active part in the Glorious Revolution, after which he was made a privy councillor and secretary of state (February 1689). Within six months he was asking permission to resign on grounds of ill-health, and eventually did so in June 1690. While the reason he offered was genuine enough, his real motivation was distaste for the predominantly tory ministry. Shrewsbury was now a committed whig, as his speeches in parliament made clear.
He returned to office in March 1694 as secretary of state for the southern department in the ministerial reshuffle that brought the whig junto to power, though he required persuasion and refused the king's first offer. He also gained a dukedom (April 1694). At about this time he figured in Jacobite correspondence. Possibly his mother, who had maintained her religion and legitimist political sympathies, drew him in; or he may have been authorised by William to enter into negotiations as a diversionary manoeuvre. Whatever the truth, the cost to Shrewsbury was the risk of exposure, and the arrest in 1696 of the conspirator Sir John Fenwick threatened to make public any dealings with the Jacobites. Although Fenwick was executed without implicating him, Shrewsbury's political resolve was broken. He stayed in the country and begged to resign. Because of his influence and reputation (and personal charm), the king was unwilling to lose him, and various offers were made, including the chief governorship of Ireland (1696, 1698, 1700); he refused them all. Having for two years exercised the powers of secretary of state by deputy, he was prevailed upon to exchange this burdensome office for the post of lord chamberlain in October 1699, but was equally unhappy there and resigned all responsibilities in June 1700.
He went abroad for his health, settling in Rome. Malicious rumours naturally arose, and he was obliged to deny that he had reconverted to catholicism. In September 1705 he married an Italian widow, Adelaide Roffeni, the daughter of the Marquis Paleotti. Vivacious and irredeemably vulgar, she made a splash in society when the couple returned to England in 1707, but inevitably the novelty wore off, and she became more of a hindrance than a help to her husband; ‘the constant plague of [his] life’, according to Burnet. Soon after their return Shrewsbury's name was mentioned again in connection with high office. Lord Treasurer Godolphin, anxious to keep the Irish viceroyalty away from the hotter whigs, briefly considered him as an alternative. But instead, Shrewsbury, who had become alienated from the junto, joined in the intrigues of the moderate tory Robert Harley. His reappointment as lord chamberlain (April 1710) was one of the first significant moves in the ‘palace revolution’ that toppled Godolphin and installed Harley at the head of the ministry. Shrewsbury's value to Harley lay in his unimpeachable whig credentials, which reassured foreign allies and investors in the public funds. In 1711 he was commissioned to open preliminary negotiations for peace, and from November 1712 to August 1713 served as ambassador extraordinary in France.
After the difficulties endured by the tory viceroy, 2nd duke of Ormond (qv), in the Irish parliamentary session of 1711, Shrewsbury was Harley's first choice as a replacement, in the hope that this would appease the whiggish parliamentary opposition in Dublin. On the other hand, his appointment risked provoking the tories in England, and in particular the influential Lord Anglesey, who, an Irishman himself, entertained ambitions of his own to succeed Ormond. So the change was not announced until September 1713, and a month later Shrewsbury went to Ireland to preside over a new parliament.
Calling a general election was intended to assist his ‘moderating scheme’, and in so far as the result of the election was a broad equality between whig and tory parties in the commons, the outcome seemed promising. But the election itself had polarised opinion in Ireland, and when Shrewsbury arrived he found affairs ‘in a high ferment’. He was not helped by the stubborn refusal of tories on the Irish privy council (led by Anglesey and the lord chancellor, Sir Constantine Phipps (qv)) to settle the Dublin mayoralty dispute, which had poisoned Irish politics. When the parliament met, neither side was willing to compromise. Grievances were rehearsed at length, and little business done, so that by Christmas there was no agreement on a subsidy, and the prospect that the whigs in the commons (their voting strength increased by the adhesion of a number of moderate tories) would run riot after the recess. Shrewsbury summoned the whig leaders to the castle, but made no impression. The parliament was prorogued, and did not meet again. He returned to London in February 1714, leaving Phipps and the high-church archbishops, Thomas Lindsay (qv) and John Vesey (qv), as lords justices.
On the dismissal of Harley as lord treasurer in July 1714, Shrewsbury was a surprising choice to succeed, a stop-gap to prevent an extreme tory alternative. He enjoyed the office only a few days, before Queen Anne died. Having paid his court to the Hanoverians, he was rewarded with appointment to the commission of regency (August 1714), and then, having left the viceroyalty in September 1714, as lord chamberlain once more. As a whig, he did not suffer automatic political proscription. But his close connection with Harley, and in particular his involvement in the making of the treaty of Utrecht, rendered him unacceptable to the English whigs. Disenchantment with the new regime, and his chronic ill-health, induced his resignation in 1715.
He now circulated between his several seats: country estates in Oxfordshire and Shropshire, and his town residence, Warwick House. Desultory contacts were resumed with the Jacobites. He became steadily weaker, and died 1 February 1718, at Warwick House, when his asthma was exacerbated by inflammation of the lungs. His widow, a lady of the bedchamber to Caroline, princess of Wales, died in 1726. There were no children. The dukedom perished with him, but a cousin succeeded as 16th earl. Shrewsbury sat for Lely and Kneller, whose portraits of him can be seen at Charterhouse and the National Portrait Gallery, London, respectively. The remains of his private papers, formerly held among the Buccleuch muniments at Boughton House in Northamptonshire, have been removed to the Northamptonshire Record Office.