John Marshal (1105 – 1165)
History records John Fitzgilbert, Marshal, who is said to have died at Rockley as the father of "The Greatest Knight" (William Marshal), his second son by his second (forced) marriage. John attracted a very bad press in mediaeval times: "a scion of hell and root of all evil". By 1130 John had succeeded his father, Gilbert Giffard ("Chubby Cheeks"), as Henry I’s "Master-Marshal", a post which although minor was considered to be one of the "great offices" of the King’s household. John successfully asserted, in active trial by combat, his right to have and hold the post and title of Marshal. He owned a cluster of houses close to Winchester’s royal palace and parcels of land in south west England, especially Hampstead Marshall in the Kennett valley and at Rockley. He married a minor Wiltshire heiress, Adelina, with whom he had two sons.
When Henry I died in 1135, John supported Stephen of Blois’ accession to the throne and by 1138 had been granted the Castellany of Marlborough castle, one of the most significant strongholds in the West Country. However, when the empress Matilda arrived in 1139 to challenge Stephen, John switched allegiance and for the duration of the Anarchy which followed, tended to play one side off against the other. One episode highlights John's cavalier approach: in 1140 Robert Fitzhubert (a Flemish mercenary) captured Devizes castle by subterfuge and declared for himself. Lured by John into Marlborough castle, Robert was summarily hung by John, who seemingly was keen to acquire Devizes castle for himself.
Whilst supporting Matilda in 1141 and assisting her flight from Winchester, not only did he insist on her riding astride her horse (the decorous side saddle was slowing the party) but at Wherwell he fought a rearguard action which allowed her to escape Stephen’s forces. During this action he sought sanctuary in the nunnery but this was torched by Stephen’s men and John was badly burned by molten lead from the roof, losing an eye in the process.
A few years later John built Ludgershall castle, a direct threat to Earl Patrick of Salisbury, who eventually forced John’s submission. As part of the treaty between them John was forced to divorce Adelina and marry Earl Patrick’s sister, Sybil, with whom he sired four sons and three daughters. The second son was William who rose to be "The Greatest Knight" and power behind five English thrones. Some sources place William’s birth in Rockley, but Marlborough Castle seems more likely.
John’s fortitude (or cruelty, depending on your point of view) was shown in 1152 when Stephen invested a fortified outpost near Newbury which John had built to control a major crossroads. Reaching a stalemate, John offered his son William (five years old) as a hostage if Stephen would retreat. As soon as Stephen’s troops withdrew John hastily re-fortified and garrisoned the outpost. In the ensuing second siege Stephen’s forces threatened to kill William to which his father John responded: "He did not care about the child, since he still had the anvils and hammers to forge even finer ones". Fortunately for William his captor Stephen had taken a liking for the boy and he was spared. In the following year peace was agreed between Stephen and Matilda and with the death of Stephen, in 1154, Henry II (Matilda's son) acceded to the throne.
In 1155 John granted the Knights Templar one Hide of land (approximately 30 modern acres) near Rockley, which the Templars used to establish a preceptory ( an administrative centre) which survived to at least 1338. The memory lives in in the local place names: Temple Bottom, Temple Farm etc.
The support that John had given Matilda ensured his power and position as Marshal to Henry II and in 1164 he sued Thomas a Becket (as Archbishop of Canterbury) over the church's seizure of lands which John had gained during the Anarchy. On his elevation to Archbishop, Thomas put all the skills he had shown as Henry's Chancellor to the pursuit of regaining lands which he considered had been stolen or extorted from the Church, a trait which had been levelled at John. The latter had "acquired" land at Mundham, part of the archiepiscopal manor of Pagham in Sussex. Having failed in his case at the Archbishop's court, John appealed to the King's Chief Justice, having obtained a writ to force Thomas to appear in Court. In the event the latter refused to appear and a jury of twelve found in John's favour.
John died "on the 29th September 1165 in Rockley, Ogbourne St Andrew" although exactly where and why remain a mystery. He had lived a "colourful" life. Described as "brutal, aggressive and despotic" by his detractors, his actions must be considered against those of his peers, which were no less terrible. He did, however, sire William who not only set the standard of "Chivalry" but also was the guidance and power behind five English kings.