French Origins of the Gilbert Surname

Let’s take a moment to look at ‘Gilbert’ simply as a word, rather than as a surname.  As such, Gilbert has ancient Germanic origins as a combination of the words ‘gisil’ or ‘gisel’ and of ‘berht’, ‘behrt’, or ‘beraht’.  This first part is where we get ‘Gil-‘, and could mean pledge, hostage, or arrow shaft – basically some sort of issued or given thing.  The last part, the source of ‘-bert’, means famous or bright.  These kinds of two part names (a kind of ‘kenning’) were common in Northern Europe in the Late Iron Age and early Middle Ages.  This is attested to by such contemporary names as Beowulf, the hero, and Ulfbehrt, a famous type of sword whose name derives from the Frankish personal name “Bright Wolf”.  Gilbert, too, was a personal name, just like today’s John, Robert, or Donald.  Sometime in Western Europe around the 1100’s and 1200’s, when the idea of personal taxation started taking hold, it became necessary to more precisely identify landowners.  One strategy to do this was to identify people by adding their father’s given name to their own.  For example, it was not enough to say ‘William, living in Wiltshire, owed so-and-so some money’.  To more precisely identify that person, the records might say “William, son of Richard, owed so-and-so”.  This is where we ultimately get ‘Richardson’ as a last name – literally ‘Richard’s son’.  Likewise, you get from our earlier personal name examples ‘Johnson’, ‘Robertson’, and ‘Donaldson’.  These kinds of names, taken from the father’s first name, are a kind of ‘patronymic’ surname.  Gilbert, as a surname, is one of these, having been a very popular first name at the time.  This is why in addition to Gilbert, we see ‘Gilbertson’ and ‘FitzGilbert’ (from the Norman ‘fils Gilbert’, meaning ‘son of Gilbert’) as last names to this day.

Various spellings of Gilbert occur, not only in families having different origins, but within the same families on different documents at different time periods.  One of the reasons for this is that English spelling was not necessarily a standardized thing until surprisingly recently in history – less than 250 years.  So, even comparatively recent American ancestors might spell their names ‘Gilberde’ or something similar.  Adding to the confusion is that medieval records were usually written in Latin, so Gilbert was written accordingly, with adjective endings that tended to mean ‘of Gilbert’ or ‘Gilbert-ish’.  Thus, we see ‘Gilbertus’, ‘Gislebertus’, and ‘Gilberti’.  To be clear, these were not alternative spellings of Gilbert, but rather formal and legal spellings.  Notably, this affected first names, too, so we get Willelmus = William, Ricardus = Richard, Roberto = Robert, etc.  In yet another layer of obfuscation, we have to consider that the names they were Latinizing at the time were neither standardized in English nor strictly English!  As we mentioned, Gilbert has ancient Germanic origins and had various spellings across Europe and France at the time.  So, we start out with raw material such as ‘Gisilbehrt’, ‘Gisalbehrt’, ‘Gislebert’, ‘Guilbert’, ‘Gerebert’ and ‘Gileberte’ before even the beginnings of established last names, let alone standard English spelling.  Now, consider that my Anglo-Norman ancestors started out speaking a dialect of French and pronounced the name something like ‘Jil-bare’ before ‘becoming’ English, and you’ll see yet another source of variation.

It was from France that the name Gilbert really found its way to England.  Though the Domesday Book mentions at least one pre-Norman landowner as being named Gilbert (likely a single, personal name), the Norman conquest in 1066 ushered in the near-wholesale replacement of Anglo-Saxon names such as Aldwyn and Aethelwold with the French names that we call English today – John, William, Robert, Amy, and Joan.  This was at a time when the Anglo-Normans were just beginning to shift from the convention of using ‘fils-‘ or ‘fitz-‘ in front of the father’s given name to identify the child, to the use of true family names –kept and passed down through the male line.  It is shortly thereafter, in the very beginning of the 1200’s that we see the true English Gilbert surname start to be recorded, establishing the family that would come to be known as the Gilberts of Compton.  Interestingly, we don’t know if these forbearers were the first in their line to take the name.  They may have been inheritors of a family name established one or more generations earlier.  Also, we don’t know if these Gilberts even took their name from a progenitor named Gilbert.  It is entirely possible that they could have taken the name, instead, in honor of the then famous and revered Saint Gilbert of Sepringham who founded the Gilbertine Order in England in 1130.  It may even be possible that the name was taken in honor of Gilbert Universalis, Bishop of London until his death in 1134.

While looking into the French origins of the Gilbert name, I examined a few place names hoping for a lead:  Pregilbert, Moulins-Engilbert, Montgilbert, Chateau de Montgilbert, and Nesles-la-Gilberde.  Pregilbert, in Bourgone, is documented to have been named after the aforementioned Gilbert Universalis – demonstrating again the extent of cross-Channel culture at that time.  Moulins-Engilbert, also in Bourgone, has only scant information.  Most notably, it was in the territories of the Counts of Nevere at the end of the 12th century, and Bonne d’Artois, widow of Philip of Burgundy, married Philip the Good at the castle of Moulins-Engilbert in 1424.  (Incidentally, the castle has been carbon dated to the end of the 10th or beginning of the 11th centuries.)  Another castle, the 13th century Chateau de Montgilbert, is strangely not in Montgilbert.  Little information is available about either place.  Nesles-la-Gilberde, however, is known to have a 12th century church.  Beyond the names themselves, there is little connecting any of these places to the Gilbert surname. 

One place of interest, however, is located in Normandy proper (unlike any of the above).  It is La Mesnil-Gilbert, the word ‘mesnil’ coming from the Latin meaning ‘a little dwelling’.  Today it is a tiny administrative area, akin to an American village or township, having a small church called Notre Dame du Mesnil-Gilbert.  According to “l’Histoire du diocèse de Coutances et d’Avranches”, Coutances 1878, page 379 (t. 2), this church was donated in 1082 to the holdings of the Collegiate Church of Mortain by one Robert, Count of Mortain, 2nd Earl of Cornwall.  Another Robert, this one Count of Meulan, had (according to “Dictionnaire historique de toutes les communes du département de l’Eure histoire, géographie, statistique”) some dealings with a man called “Gilbert du Mesnil”, or ‘Gilbert of Mesnil’ around the 1170s or 1180s.  This Gilbert, however, could have come from anywhere, since ‘mesnil’ could refer to a number of locations in Normandy.  The bottom line is there is no solid connection between little Mesnil-Gilbert and the Gilbert surname so far, but it is interesting. 

As I mentioned in a previous writing, a surprisingly early use of Gilbert as a surname sprang up from my studies of French origins.   This was Guillaume (William) Gilbert, Bishop of Portiers from 1117 to 1124.  Records show his family included parents Gilbert and Elizabeth, a brother Geoffrey, and a sister Petronille.  They are, according to some sources, “from an old family of Parthenay”.  Nothing is known about the parents except that they had a house there, but with a father named ‘Gilbert’ it is nearly certain that this particular patronymic line starts with him.  Geoffrey Gilbert, however, was well known as one of the great Lords of Gatine, France, being a knight of Lord Lamaire, owning land all over, and dying childless.  Petronille Gilbert, however, married William Chabot around 1070, having children Briant Chabot, Guillaume Chabot, and Gilbert Chabot.  While clergy was not officially directed to celibacy until 1139, I can find no record of possible offspring from Bishop William Gilbert.  With his brother being recorded as leaving no heirs, and his sister marrying into the Chabot family, we lose sight of any further descendants. 

A quick family tree of Guillaume I Gilbert, Bishop of Portiers

The best leads I have so far for a possible French (rather than purely English) origin of the Gilbert line that would become the Gilberts of Compton are the correctly-spelled and Normandy-located Le Mesnil-Gilbert (with its church from at least 1082), and mentions of a Richard Gilbert, Robert Gilbert, and a Walter (Galterius) Gilbert in Norman pipe rolls that predate the establishment of the Gilberts of Compton and possibly allude to holdings on both sides of the Channel.  Add to this a well-documented use of Gilbert as a surname in Western France as early as 1098 (the first mention of Bishop William Gilbert when he was Archbishop of Thouars), and we can say that it is certainly possible that a Gilbert line was created and continued to exist in Northwestern France from the late 1000s (be it of Bishop William’s descendants or not).  This line, or some branch, could have crossed the Channel sometime between then and the very early 1200s, establishing the Gilberts of Compton when the great grandson of William and Elizabeth Gilbert (again, not the only coupling of a William Gilbert with an Elizabeth Chambernowne), one Sir Geoffrey Gilbert, married lady Joan Compton – heiress of the Compton and de la Pole families.  It would be nice to make a definite connection to a well-known subject like Bishop William, but further insight at this point would be impossible without something like DNA testing – he is buried just to the left of the altar at Fontevraud Abby…


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