Doppelgangers, Mistakes, and Lies


200px-gilbertarms_mediumA few articles ago, I talked about the possibility that a 200 year old assumption about the origins of the Gilbert surname might be erroneous. The well-repeated story is that since the Gilberts of Compton came from Devonshire, and Devonshire was also home to two famous brothers bearing the name FitzGilbert, then naturally these brothers are the progenitors of the surname. I do not assert that this is impossible, but after looking at about 280 descendants of these brothers (what I estimate to be about 80% of the number of actual descendants in the 8 generations I looked at), there is just no evidence. So, we come upon a major problem in the discovery of the Gilbert family origin: trusted sources might just plain be wrong.

In the example above, a manuscript written between 1573 and 1620 contained a passage that said someone called Gilbert (not necessarily a surname) possessed a Devonshire manor called Manaton sometime between 1042 and 1066. Later writers pointed out that the Domesday Book of 1086 showed the above FitzGilbert brothers (FitzGilbert not being a surname) came to own Manaton sometime after 1066. Despite the previous manuscript’s assertion that other men followed Gilbert in owning the manor sometime after 1066, the above described error was stamped into many peerage and pedigree books. Gilbert was just a popular first name at the time of no last names, and FitzGilbert just meant ‘son of Gilbert’. This is just one of several big errors out there.

Another major issue with source material on the Gilberts of Compton is that there appears to have been two women named Elizabeth Champernowne, and both had fathers named Oliver! However, they were born roughly 120 years apart. How can this be? Well at the time Elizabeth and Oliver were pretty common names, and it seemed to be the habit among Anglo-Normans to honor ancestors by passing names down for generations. For example, just in my single patrilineage, there are seven Williams, four Thomases, and four Johns (including this one). Both Elizabeths appear to descend from the Dukes of Normandy, and married into the Gilbert line at two points five generations apart. The younger Elizabeth (1334-1380) appears to be the elder Elizabeth’s (ca. 1210 – ?) great grandniece. The elder appears to have married the mysterious William Gilbert (1204/1210-1270), and the younger his great-great grandson, Sir William Gilbert (1327-1380). Sources continuously conflate these two women.

A final obstacle to building a clear understanding of the true relationship of these ancestors is simple: people lie. Not only are many ancestors simply overlooked in historical records (for example, even King Henry I’s illegitimate son, Gilbert FitzRoy (1130-1142), has no substantial record), but the stories of what child belonged to whom might be questionable. In a time of multiple mistresses among the landed gentry, one might assume this to be commonplace. For the Gilberts of Compton, one of our biggest claims to fame is the explorer Sir Humphrey Gilbert (1539-1583). His mother, Katherine Champernowne (1519-1594) remarried after the death of his father, Otho Gilbert of Compton (1513-1547). She married a Member of Parliament named Walter Raleigh. Their son was the famous explorer Sir Walter Raleigh, half-brother to Humphrey but not a blood relation to the Gilberts of Compton – or so the story goes. I leave you with this portrait of a young Sir Walter Raleigh next to my son, the 20th descendant of Sir Otho Gilbert, Sheriff of Devon (1418-1492) who is also Raleigh’s half-brother Humphrey’s great grandfather:

lach raleigh2

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