The Irishman who was one of Britain’s most prominent spies
James Talbot, from Malahide, coordinated a spy network that stretched from St Petersburg to Lisbon
Malahide Castle, the home of the Talbot family. James Talbot would inherit the castle in 1849 following the death of his older brother. Photograph: William Murphy/Wikimedia Commons
When we’re asked to picture a spy in our minds we often conjure up a tuxedo clad agent confidently navigating a world of megalomaniacs, futuristic gadgets and vodka martinis. It’s fair to say that a small coastal village in northern Dublin isn’t usually what springs to mind. Yet Malahide, specifically its Norman castle, was the birthplace of one of the British government’s most prominent spymasters of the late 18th century.
James Talbot, a member of the influential Anglo-Norman Talbot family, was born at Malahide Castle between 1768-1774, the second son of Lady (Later Baroness) Talbot née O’Reilly and her husband Richard Talbot. Like many sons of the landed gentry he attended Trinity College Dublin, graduating in 1788 before moving to London to study law at Gray’s Inn two years later. There, after leveraging his familial ties to the Temple dynasty, he was introduced to some of the most influential figures in British politics, including the foreign secretary Lord Grenville, who was a distant cousin. After his studies ended he managed to secure an appointment as secretary of legation at the British embassy in St Petersburg, a role he was due to take up in 1796.
The progress of the French revolution dominated discussions in the foreign office; war raged across Europe, revolts were breaking out throughout France and the economic repercussions were being felt as far away as North America. King Louis XVI had been executed in 1793 and the subsequent “Reign of Terror” overseen by Maximilien Robespierre had come to an end a year later. All the while Great Britain, Russia, Prussia and Austria, alongside a number of smaller states, had formed an alliance to oppose the revolutionaries and since 1792 had fought what has become known as the “War of the First Coalition”.
By 1796 the war was not going well for the allies. The Dutch stadtholder William V had been forced into exile and a republic proclaimed in the Netherlands, Prussia and Spain had signed separate peace treaties with the French. The Austrian and Sardinian forces had also been beaten decisively at the battle of Laono in northern Italy. Fearing a potential French invasion, the British government dispatched Lord Malmesbury to Paris to negotiate a peace treaty. Talbot travelled with him as the delegation’s official secretary.
The party arrived in the French capital a week late. This led Edmund Burke, then the leader of the hawkish lobby in Westminster, to wryly note that Malmesbury must have “went the whole way on his knees”. The negotiations proved fruitless but they did provide Talbot with his first direct experience of high level diplomacy. Malmesbury had been impressed by his character and ability, and Grenville saw fit to appoint him deputy head of the British embassy in Switzerland, then the centre of British intelligence on the continent.
Talbot proved a natural and soon established links with royalist and anti-revolutionary factions throughout France. During a return visit to London at the end of the year, he received official approval for a covert assassination attempt against the five-man directory then heading the French government that he dubbed “a very violent plan of mine”.
Officially appointed to the Russian post he had been due to take up the previous year, he returned to the continent in 1797 under the alias “James Tindal, ” accompanied by his brother who acted as his secretary. When the French army invaded Switzerland in early 1798, Talbot secretly distributed funds to the Swiss resistance. However, his most ambitious scheme to assist the leading members of the French revolutionary government was aborted by Lord Grenville in January 1799. This caused Talbot immeasurable distress as he had already paid out large sums of money to the parties due to carry out the task, which they refused to return.
He became an increasingly well-known figure, which made his job that much harder. Dispatched to Sweden in 1801, he was refused permission to reside in the country and instead was forced to move to Copenhagen in Denmark. When the Treaty of Amiens was signed between France and Great Britain in 1802, Talbot was transferred to Paris but had to flee the following year when war broke out once more. He would remain in Britain, marrying in 1804 and fathering 12 children. Upon the death of his brother in 1849 he succeeded him as the third Baron Talbot of Malahide, dying himself the following year.
Talbot gained the trust of his superiors in the British government and effectively coordinated a spy network that stretched from St Petersburg to Lisbon during the height of the French Revolutionary Wars. King George III trusted in his abilities and was keen to see him kept in the field, remarking “the sooner he returns to the continent the better”. He may very well be one of the earliest members of what his contemporaries were just then beginning to be referred to as “his majesty’s secret service”.
This Extraordinary Emigrants article was written by Nathan Mannion, senior curator of EPIC The Irish Emigration Museumin Dublin’s Docklands, an interactive museum that tells the story of how the Irish shaped and influenced the world.