The Earl of Shrewsbury, head of the great Norman house of Talbot, held the second oldest existing English earldom. John, the Catholic 16th Earl of Shrewsbury succeeded to his uncle’s titles and property in 1827 and moved the principal family seat from Heythrop to Alton Abbey, which he transformed into ‘Alton Towers’, where the Founder visited him on the occasion of his 1850 journey to England. Newman also visited there soon after his conversion: ‘A house full of company, and I looking like a fool’. But he found Lord Shrewsbury was ‘most kind’. Disraeli in his novel Coningsby, first published in 1844, paints an idealized picture of Alton, which he calls ‘St. Genevieve’. O’Donnell remarks: “The Earl’s house parties at Alton Towers were like a Catholic summer school.”
His views on the rapid changes that were taking place in the Catholic Church in England were reactionary. O’Donnell writes: “… he viewed the clergy as his chaplains. No matter how individually compliant, as a body the clergy were engaged in freeing themselves from precisely the lay domination which Shrewsbury represented.”
Known as ‘Good Earl John’ to the Catholics of the English Midlands, he had a great zeal for church building, fuelled by his friend Ambrose Mark de Lisle Phillipps. His donations for this purpose were immense. He also helped many of the clergy financially. One of the churches he built was St. Wilfrid’s, Cotton. The Founder refers to it in his letter dated July 1, 1850 to Father Tempier. Shrewsbury gave it to the followers of Fr. F.W. Faber, who shared with him the cost of building it. When Faber vacated it, it was offered to the Oblates but not accepted.
Personally frugal, the Earl ‘slept in a garret set in surroundings of feudal splendour’ [Watkin]. The Earl and his wife spent their summers in Italy. As he explained to his friend Ambrose Lisle March Phillipps, each summer abroad saved him £2000, which represented ‘half a small church or a whole monastery, or indeed all you want for your own church at St. Bernard’s.’ The Earl seems to have passed by Marseilles quite frequently and would be entertained to dinner by the Founder. When in Rome the Shrewsbury’s lived in Palazzo Colonna.
The Early died unexpectedly of malaria in Naples on 9 November 1852. In his will he provided that if he had no Catholic heir his property would go to Ambrose Lisle March Phillipps and another convert. He also left these two an unconditional legacy of £40,000 each. In the event his title passed to his cousin and adopted son Bertram, a young man not yet twenty and unmarried, ‘of singularly mild and gentle disposition’ and a Knight of Malta. Two letters of his, written in January 1854 to Father Arnoux, show an interest in benefiting the Oblates and are printed in Missionary Record, 4  pp.257-259: see also p.380-1. Bence-Jones writes: “The young Bertram, whose health had always been delicate, died unmarried in Lisbon [in 1856]; the will of the previous Lord Shrewsbury was immediately disputed by the Protestant Earl Talbot. After a lawsuit lasting many months, the costs of which were so enormous that poor Ambrose Phillipps received only £11,000 out of his £40,000 legacy, Lord Talbot succeeded in claiming the Shrewsbury estates as well as the title.”
In his letter to Bertram Talbot, the Founder mentions the Talbot-Tyrconnel lineage of the Countess of Vintimiglia. The following from an old edition of Burke’s Peerage casts light on this: “The castle and lordship of Malahide, on the sea coast, near Dublin, have been possessed by the family of Talbot, from a period contemporary with the first introduction of English government into Ireland…” In the 17th century Colonel Richard Talbot was created first Earl, then Marquis and Duke, of Tyrconnell. ‘The duke, by Frances, Countess Hamilton, left two daughters, of whom, Charlotte, was married to the Prince de Vintimiglia, and had issue two daughters…” [p.523)
Michael Hughes, o.m.i.