My quiz last week asked what you would do with a talbot, if you had one.
A couple of you thought it was an early bicycle, a tool for gardening, a measurement of land or a folk name for a tree. I agree that all of these do sound possible, and when I was dreaming up these options I almost started believing them myself!
However, the truth is that the talbot is – or was – a breed of dog. Now extinct, it is thought to have resembled a bloodhound, maybe smaller in size, short-legged with a big head and pendulous ears. Its coat was most commonly white, but it is often depicted with black spots like a dalmatian, and there are instances of black talbots as well.
Talbot is the family name of the Earls of Shrewsbury, and can be traced back to Normandy where there is a link with William the Conqueror. Around 1449 Henry VI is reputed to have called John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, ‘Oure good dogge’; this may have been a simple compliment about his loyalty, or it could have referred also to his name and coat of arms, which bears a picture of a white talbot. It is unclear whether the dog was named after the family, or vice versa!
According to one source, the talbot originated in France in the 8th century and was brought to England by William I. Known for their sensitive nose rather than their speed, the dogs were useful for following a scent, not only of quarry such as deer and boar, but also of escaped criminals and soldiers deserting a battlefield. There is a story that, during the Scottish Wars of Independence, Robert the Bruce’s talbot was captured by the English. It was then set free and followed by a group of soldiers, who hoped it would lead them to its master. The dog did indeed find its way back to Robert the Bruce, but the ensuing battle was a victory for the Scots.
It’s thought that the talbot died out around the end of the 18th century, along with two other breeds – the northern hound and the southern hound. There is still some debate about whether it is a direct ancestor of the present-day bloodhound.
One of the only dogs used in heraldry, the talbot represents courage, vigilance and fidelity, and is usually displayed with its tongue hanging out, as if panting after a chase. Also known as the ‘sleuth hound’ and ‘lime hound’, it became popular among the wealthier families who even trained the dogs to run under or behind their carriages – possibly to discourage highwaymen. Their connection with carriages may be why many public houses (former coaching inns) are named ‘The Talbot’.
While I was exploring Much Wenlock a few weeks ago, I came across a good example of a ‘Talbot’ pub. Amazingly, the building dates back to 1360, when it was an almshouse and a hostel for travellers, and its sign shows the dog with a white coat and black spots. The surname ‘Talbot’ is an old one in Shropshire, and I imagine it is pretty widespread in the Midlands.