The Gilbert Surname: Even Older Than We Thought


My quest to discover the origins of the Gilbert family of Compton has been, so far, mostly comprised of proving the null hypothesis –that is, I’ve been debunking largely unchallenged legends and unsupported hypotheses.  (Chief among these was finding that there was probably no Gilbert of Manadon alive (apart from a guy’s first name) in 1066, and that the Gilberts of Compton likely did not descend from Gilbert Crispin of Brionne.)  However, the net result has been zero progress on actually identifying who the ancestors of William Gilbert (b.1204) might be, aside from generally lower nobility of Norman heritage.  I did, though, identify some slightly older references to the Gilbert surname in Wiltshire. Considering the source of William Gilbert is claimed by the Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland to be found in the Curia Regis Roles of Wilts as Willelmus Gilberti, the Devon line might just originate in Wiltshire.  Though I have not yet found the exact reference above, I did find in the 1916 Wiltshire Notes and Queries, under the heading ‘Sum of the Fees of the Abbess of Wilton’, the following entry:

“Will’us Gilberti et Marg’ Balun tenent in Swaleweclive duas partes feodi unius militis de Rob’to de Mandevill et ipse de Rege.”

Though the entry wasn’t dated, I cross referenced it with the Registers of the Board of Chalke, 1538-1780, and examined the other names in the text, and concluded the entry looks to be a snippet from a much older document called the Testa Nevill, covering transactions from 1198 to 1292.  I then did, in fact, find the exact entry in the Testa Nevill.  It is hard to be certain, but this William Gilbert from Wiltshire could be an ancestor of the one cited in the Curia Regis Rolls of Wiltshire, too.  (My Latin is crap, but I think the entry reads “William Gilbert and Margaret Balun held, in Swaleweclive, two knights fees of Robert de Mandeville and from the King.”) 

 Having seemingly exhausted my leads in Devon and Wilts, I decided to start looking for the Gilbert surname in Normandy and try to work from old-to-new to make family connections. After the above reference to Gilberts in England, this Testa Nevill entry being around 1235 or 1236, I was stunned to find even more and older uses of the surname in France.  Here are the ones I have found so far, bearing in mind that there is no connection to the Gilberts of Compton yet:

Ricardus Gillebertus (Richard Gilbert) – Mentioned in an 1198 Pipe Roll from Normandy and, according to another book, probably as early as 1180 in another Roll.

Willelmus Giselbertus (William Gilbert) – Mentioned in the same Pipe Roll as Ricardus Gillebertus, making him living in 1198.

 Galterius Gislebertus (Walter Gilbert) – He is mentioned in a short entry in the 1198 Pipe Roll, along with Ricardus and Willelmus, above.

 A fantastic find, and so far the oldest use of the Gilbert surname I’ve ever seen, was that of Guillaume I Gilbert de Ragoles, Bishop of Poitiers from 1117 to 1124.  Not to be confused with the more famous Gilbert of Poitiers (also Bishop of Poitiers 1142-1154), this Guillaume (William) Gilbert was said by at least one source to have been archbishop in Thouars, France, in 1098!  According to this same source, Archives Historiquesdu Poitou, 1895, Guillaume had a brother, Geoffroi (Geffrey) Gilbert, and came from a family in Parthenay, France. Not only did I not expect to find a reference to the Gilbert surname 100 years earlier than the last, but I did not expect such a well-documented find.  His rescue from obscurity was due to the meticulous record keeping of the early Catholic Church, referenced in sources I used such as the Dictionnaire universel, dogmatique, canonique,historique, géographique et chronologique, des sciences ecclésiastiques, Volume 6, 1765, a similar volume from 1827, and Chartes originales antérieuresà 1121 conservées en France

A drawing of Guillaume I Gilbert, Bishop of Poitiers, from 1221.  (Apologies for the resolution.)

My next enterprise will be to see if the decedents of any of these very early Gilberts can be traced. I’m suspecting that the father of William Gilbert, born 1204 according to Wiltshire records, may have been the William Gilbert mentioned in Testa Nevill around 1236, or at least a close relative. It’s also possible that these two are one and the same, the first not being born in 1204, but being mentioned in 1204. It may even be possible that Willelmus Gislebertus of Normandy, mentioned in 1198, was the same as the other 1198 William in Wiltshire, owning lands on each side of the English Channel.  My working hypothesis now is that the Gilberts of Compton descend from a line of Gilberts that moved from Normandy to Wiltshire sometime around the late 1100’s and eventually marrying into the Champernowne family in the early 1200’s in Devon.  There is some evidence suggesting that at least Roberto Gerebert (Robert Gilbert) was conducting business in both Wiltshire and Devon during that period (1189-1216), so it is entirely possible that the family had strong connections in both places, and likely across the Channel too.  It is even possible that Robert is the progenitor of the line.  All of these are possible leads, but for now I’m happy to have found a Gilbert (relative or no) alive as far back as 1098.

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