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By Elizabeth Chadwick
Introduction: The great William Marshal had an equally great father, but his reputation does not have the burnish of his son’s. Indeed, John’s reputation it has somewhat suffered at the hands of modern mindset in my opinion and from misunderstood motives. John Marshal had his flaws, he was no ‘perfect, gentle, knight,’ but neither was he a callous, treacherous robber baron, indifferent to his small son’s life. Professor David Crouch, senior authority on the Marshals in the academic community says of him.
‘John Marshal was a formidable model for his son: astute, physically powerful, an easy companion in the royal chambers, and a cool warrior in the field…he was no coarse bandit and played the great game of politics with talent and perception…John Marshal was ‘a definitive man of standing in his son’s eyes.’
John Marshal was probably born in the South West of England (most likely Wiltshire or Berkshire) around the year 1105. His father was a marshal at the court of King Henry I and we know his name was Gilbert Giffard. The appellation is a fairly common Norman one, meaning ‘chubby cheeks.’ John had a brother too, named William, who entered holy orders and had the living of the church of Cheddar in Somerset. He went on to become chancellor to the Empress Matilda. If there were any other siblings, they have not come down to us in history. We also don’t know who his mother was although one of the dubious genealogy sites online suggests that his mother was a de Venoix and for once it actually makes sense. Venoix is very close to Caen in the Calvados region of Normandy where many of William the Conqueror’s followers haled from, and there was a royal marshal called Robert de Venoix, so perhaps the families by association of work, formed a closer bond.