Talbot, James (c.1768–1850), 3rd Baron Talbot de Malahide, diplomat and spy, was born at Malahide Castle, Co. Dublin, second son among seven sons and five daughters of Richard Talbot, soldier, and Margaret Talbot (née O'Reilly). Educated at TCD, James graduated BA (1788) before entering Gray's Inn (1790). While in London, he began his diplomatic career, his rise helped by his family's distant connection to the powerful and numerous Temple political dynasty, which included the foreign secretary, Lord Grenville (qv). He was proposed as secretary of legation at St Petersburg, but before this was approved he travelled to France in October 1796 as official secretary to the unsuccessful peace mission led by Lord Malmesbury. It was on this mission that he was initiated into the world of secret service, and his activities aroused much suspicion and hostility. Although generally regarded as arrogant and humourless, he impressed Malmesbury with his character and ability. Returning to England in December, he was visited by Grenville, who informed him that he had been appointed secretary of legation in Switzerland under William Wickham (qv), the effective head of British intelligence on the Continent.
Switzerland was the centre for British secret service activity, and Talbot, although somewhat naive politically, showed an immediate aptitude for the work. Before returning to London at the end of the year he received official sanction for an ambitious scheme for the assassination of the French directory, what he called ‘a very violent project of mine’ (Sparrow, ‘Swiss and Swabian agencies’, 870). In 1797 he received the St Petersburg appointment that had been intended the previous year; this was a cover to enable him to continue his covert activities around Switzerland, with King George III insistent that ‘the sooner he returns to the Continent the better’ (Sparrow, Secret service, 151). Using the alias ‘James Tindal’, Talbot set out for Swabia, accompanied by his younger brother Robert, who acted as his secretary and confidential courier. Directing the transfer of secret service funds between various committees and agencies, in 1798 Talbot helped finance Swiss activity against France. The scheme to assassinate the directory was aborted by Grenville in January 1799, creating much consternation as large sums had already been transferred for that purpose and were now recalled. Unable to control the committees, or their expenditure, Talbot was helpless to prevent, and may even have been responsible for, a major diplomatic incident in April 1799 when the French delegation at Rastadt (Rastatt, in Baden) was assassinated. Meanwhile Talbot's own diplomatic career was damaged irrevocably by his inability to replace the missing sums, which the treasury now demanded; Grenville intervened to protect him as much as possible, but the accounts were still a source of controversy in 1809.
Dispatched to Sweden as a diplomatic envoy in 1801, Talbot was preceded by his reputation for spying, and was ordered out of Stockholm and forced to go to Denmark. With the establishment of the embassy of Lord Whitworth (qv) in Paris in 1802, Talbot was appointed first secretary, a cover for his espionage activities. After the resumption of war with France (1803) he was forced to flee the country, destroying all his secret papers at Boulogne to prevent discovery in case of capture. Returning to London, he appears to have drifted into retirement. On 26 May 1831 his mother was created Baroness Talbot de Malahide and Lady Malahide de Malahide; this was undoubtedly in recognition of her various sons’ achievements; her husband had died in 1788. She died 27 September 1834, and James's brother Richard Wogan succeeded as 2nd Baron Talbot in the peerage of Ireland. On his death (29 October 1849) James Talbot succeeded as 3rd Baron Talbot de Malahide. He died 20 December 1850 at Evercreech House, Somerset, England.
He married (26 December 1804) Anne Sarah, second daughter and co-heiress of Samuel Rodbard of Evercreech House; they had seven sons and five daughters. On his death their eldest son, James Talbot (qv) (1805–83), a noted antiquarian, succeeded as 4th Baron Talbot de Malahide in the peerage of Ireland; in 1856 he was created 1st Baron Talbot de Malahide in the peerage of the UK. The siblings of the older James also had distinguished careers: of his younger brothers, Sir John Talbot (c.1769–1851) became an admiral in the Royal Navy and Thomas Talbot (qv) (1771–1853) a colonial administrator; his elder brother, Richard Wogan Talbot (1766–1850), was MP for Co. Dublin (1807–30).
James Talbot's secret service career as director of British espionage on the Continent went unknown and unacknowledged for almost two centuries. The Talbot manuscripts at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, became available in 1987, and are perhaps the single most important collection in revealing the workings of what was, even then, being referred to in official records as ‘his majesty's secret service’.