he quest to find the first bearer of the Gilbert surname in our line, focusing on the origins of one William Gilbert (1202/10 – 1270), finds me knee-deep in a gigantic meta-analysis of hundreds of potential ancestors. So far, I’ve studied about 150 individuals of what will likely be around 400 descendants of Gilbert “Crispin”, 2nd Count of Eu, 2nd Count of Brionne (c. 1000 – 1040). This man, bearing the first name ‘Gilbert’, is thought by some scholars to be the source of the Gilbert surname in Devonshire due to the popularity of ‘Gilbert’ as a first name among his descendants in that area. However, so far I have not found a single instance of a descendant of Gilbert “Crispin” taking the surname of Gilbert in the several generations between his lifetime and the year 1200 (about which time we see our William Gilbert arrive on the scene).
Around the late 1100’s and early 1200’s, when Anglo-Normans started taking surnames due to the new-fangled idea of personal taxation, we see the 150 descendants so far researched become around 80 separate families having surnames as varied as Malet, Peyton, Clare, Lacy, Neville, and Marshall. This goes to show that just because ‘Gilbert’ may have been a popular first name among the descendants of Gilbert “Crispin”, it does not necessarily mean ‘Gilbert’ would become anyone of their surnames. Adding to the difficulty in linking William Gilbert to Gilbert “Crispin” is that not everyone got recorded in history. Certainly, notable descendants (e.g. children who became barons, monks, or great warriors) got recorded in public records, but lesser children and those who had meager or no inheritances were not likely to show up in the tax rolls and deed records of the day. Our William Gilbert, if he indeed descended from Crispin, might have been one of these lesser children who married well by the high-born Elizabeth Champernowne, thereby establishing the Gilberts of Compton. Judging by the notable rate of illegitimate children among the Anglo-Norman aristocracy (William the Conqueror, himself, originally being known as William the Bastard), it is even possible our own William Gilbert was, himself, illegitimate. This gave me pause to consider the fanciful tale of one “Gilbert the Bastard” we find in Arthurian legend.
Sometime in the mid-1400s, while in prison, Sir Thomas Malory wrote Le Morte d’Arthur, the authoritative English version of the tales of King Arthur. In it is the weird, otherworldly, and highly symbolic tale of Sir Lancelot and his magical encounter with a knight by the name of Sir Gilbert the Bastard. It wasn’t an insult. Gilbert’s wife identified him thus, and added that he was “one of the best knights in the world”. Coincidental to our William Gilbert, Malory’s Gilbert lived in an old manor in the middle of a swamp – putting me in the mind of the claims that William or his near ancestors came from Manadon Manor in the middle of Dartmoor. Of course, no one knows why Malory chose that setting or even the name ‘Gilbert’ in his version. The original name of the knight, found in the source material Malory was working from called Perlesvaus (or The High History of the Holy Grail), was one Ahuret the Bastard. (My own theory: ‘Ahuret’, apparently being a name entirely unique to that story, may have derived from the Arabic الآخرة, meaning ‘the hereafter’, a concept brought back by the Crusaders. Malory, writing about 250 years afterwards, might have chosen ‘Gilbert’ as a more palatable name for the readers of his day – the tales of Arthur supposedly taking place around Devon and Cornwall and Gilbert being a popular name in the region.) Of course all of this is speculative, but still a fun and tantalizing thought of connecting the Gilberts to Arthurian Legend.