Origins of Gilbert as a Surname in Devon


200px-gilbertarms_mediumThe name ‘William Gilbert’ arises from the mists of Dartmoor, a place I’d visited once – before I even knew it was likely the land from which the Gilbert surname originated. I was visiting friends in nearby Tavistock, back in 1999, and they took me exploring the surprisingly still-wild moorland full of castle ruins and stone monoliths. I didn’t know that just on the other side of the moor, about 25 miles, was Compton Castle, medieval seat of the Gilbert family. Closer yet lay the little parish of Ilsington. The conquering Normans wrote this as ‘Ilestentonia’ in the famous Domesday Book in 1086. Even earlier, the Saxons had divided their land in units called ‘hundreds’. The land around Ilestintonia was called the Hundred of Teignbridge. This Hundred encompassed the manor and lands called Manadon (now Manaton). This holding is the only connection, so far, to the possible origins of William Gilbert of Compton (1204/10 – 1270).

While I’m still in the process of tracking down the source document that identifies this first William Gilbert to more recent genealogists (probably the marriage record to Elizabeth Champernowne b. 1210), it is interesting to note that some sources claim the first mention of ‘Gilbert’ as a surname was in 1202. This much repeated claim is said to derive from the mention of one ‘Willelmus Gilberti’ (a commonly Latinized rendering of ‘William Gilbert’) in the Curia Regis Rolls for Wiltshire (a set of legal records) from the reign of King John. I have personally searched the Curia Regis for the period noted and found no such reference. (There may be another document more specific to Wiltshire that I’m not aware of yet, however.) I did, however, find one Willelmus Gislebertus (another common Latinization of ‘William Gilbert’) who, according to the Pipe Rolls of Normandy for 1198, was paying taxes. It was around this time in Europe, anyway, that people began using ‘last names’ due to the introduction of personal taxation. While this may be one of, if not the, earliest uses of ‘Gilbert’ as a surname, it is impossible to tell if this William is related to our William Gilbert in any way. (I am investigating an account in an 1899 volume on pre-Revolutionary American ancestry of a “Gilbert of Compton in the parish of Manadon, Devon, in 1068”, which I find dubious due to many large mistakes elsewhere in the work.)

Back to the land holdings near Compton Castle. Many sources quote an author named Wescott (unidentified so far) who said that the original Gilberts “…possessed lands in Manaton (in or near Dartmoor) in Edward the Confessor’s days.” The earliest reference I’ve found to this is in C.S. Gilbert’s An Historical Survey of the County of Cornwall, 1817, but I have not found Wescott’s original works or sources. If this is true, it puts the Gilbert surname in Dartmoor as early as 1042 to 1066. What we do know is that ‘Gilbert’, in its many forms, was a popular first name among a prominent Norman family in and around Dartmoor during that period. One exceptional source is the Domesday Book (1086), which tells us that two noble brothers, Baldwin “the Sheriff” Fitz-Gilbert (c. 1022 – 1090), and Richard Fitz-Gilbert (c. 1035 – 1090) controlled huge amounts of land in Devon. Baldwin himself built Okehampton Castle on the north edge of Dartmoor and held 159 manors in Devon, to include the one know as Manadon. It is more than likely that the genealogists and historians of more recent centuries were referring to these two brothers, who accompanied William the Conqueror in 1066 and were duly rewarded with holdings in Devon (Baldwin and his descendants being made perpetual sheriffs of Devon), when speaking of the origin of the Gilberts at Manadon.

While I have yet to find any direct genealogical link to the Fitz-Gilbert brothers, it is very likely that our William Gilbert of Compton descended from this family. One cannot discount the frequency with which ‘Gilbert’ and ‘Fitz-Gilbert’ (‘Fitz’ meaning ‘son of’) appear in their family tree, that tree having root in Devon – the home of William. It reasons geographically as well, Compton Castle (and the Lady Elizabeth) being only a few short miles from Dartmoor and positively surrounded by Fitz-Gilbert holdings. Perhaps William Gilbert, the taxpayer of 1198, is somehow a link in all of this.

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