I’m pretty sure I upset an English genealogist, who specializes in the Gilberts of Compton, by strongly suggesting that the dearly-held theory that the family descends from the Fits-Gilbert brothers of Devon is probably untrue. I know he was upset because he stopped responding to my email! This might be just one way we students of the Gilbert line have been tricked by earlier sources who, well, just didn’t have the tools that we have today. One way in which I’ve been misled over the last year or so of research is that some Gilberts are referred to as ‘of Greenway’. A pretty simple search reveals that Otho and Katherine (Champernowne) Gilbert (this Otho not being the Otho who was Sheriff of Devon) had built a home on this height overlooking the River Dart. Famously, this manor, if not the original Tudor structure, became the home of Agatha Christie in 1938. Also famously, half-brother adventurers Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Humphrey Gilbert (both Katherine’s sons) resided there.
However, books such as the 1866 A Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Landed Gentry of Great Britain & Ireland, drawing from much older sources, state “This Otis or Otho Gilbert [High Sheriff of Devonshire] inherited Greenway, about four miles from Dartmouth.” This was obviously erroneous as the text goes on to identify this same man as the father of Sir Humphrey Gilbert, which he was not. Nonetheless, I kept seeing older Gilberts, whose lives predated the earliest mention of Greenway, as named ‘of Greenway’. Ascribing this obvious anachronism to the aforementioned mistaken 1866 text, repeated throughout later sources, I ignored all pre-1493 mentions of Greenway (1493 being where sources place the first mention of Greenway on Dart). This was my own mistake.
My lovely theory started to unravel in another somewhat conflated but ultimately hard to ignore text. This was the Magna Britannia (1806-1822) which stated “The manor of Greenway, which had been given by William the Conqueror to Walter de Douay, was for many descents in the family of Gilbert” and “The ancestor of this ancient family [Gilbert], who was of Greenway in the reign of Edward II…” That would have placed Greenway in the hands of the Gilbert family between 1308 and 1327. I puzzled over this entry because it didn’t seem to be a simple repeat of the usual mistake. This seemed like a claim I had never seen before. I decided to track own the source.
To me it was clear that any reference to land grants by William the Conqueror to one of his knights (in this case, Walter de Douay who likely accompanied him at Hastings) would be recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086. A relatively simple search of electronic versions of Domesday revealed that the Conqueror had, in fact, dispossessed one unfortunate Anglo-Saxon by the name of Athelsige of Greenway Manor and handed it to Walter de Douay. That substantiated a bit of the Britannica’s claim, and immediately seemed to make other claims to the earliest mention of Greenway moot. However, I noticed that this Greenway was listed in Domesday under Axminster Hundred (a ‘hundred’ being an ancient administrative district). The Greenway overlooking the River Dart was clearly located in the Haytor Hundred, while Axminster would be in the vicinity of modern day Luppitt in Devon. These two places are about 60 miles apart. A perusal of The Manors & Origin of the Name Luppitt: An Extract from the book ‘Luppitt: Parish, Church and People‘ and Nikolaus Pevsner & Bridget Cherry’s The Buildings of England confirmed, however, that there is indeed a second Greenway near Luppitt, it was called Grenoveia in Domesday, it was owned by de Douai, and that it is still represented in the name of a large farm there.
So, it turns out that there are, in fact, two Greenways located in Devon. One, near Dartmouth in the old Hundred of Haytor, is well documented to have been in Gilbert hands around Tudor times. The other, represented by a country farm and estate near Luppitt in the old Axminster Hundred, was handed to a Norman knight by William the Conqueror just after 1066. The latter, while not definitively tied to the Gilbert name, may be crucial in identifying the family’s origins. An examination of the deeds, taxes, and owners of this less-famous Greenway may provide clues to where William Gilbert (b.1204) came from.