Gilberts at Hastings


On October 14th, in the year 1066, an army from Normandy fought a single battle against the Anglo-Saxon defenders of England near Hastings in East Sussex.  By that very afternoon, the English king was dead, William the Bastard became William the Conqueror, and the Normans were in England to stay.  What followed was the wholesale dispossession of the Anglo-Saxon ruling class in favor of Norman aristocracy.  The newest among this class were Normans of relatively humble birth who had accompanied William during his great victory.  While it is certain that hundreds of high-born Normans (as well as Flemish, Breton, French, and others) were among William’s companions that day, thousands of much more humble origins served in the rank and file.  To share in such glory was to immediately propel one’s family into high status and new opportunity.  To this day, 953 years later, studies show that English families bearing Anglo-Norman last names are financially slightly better off than their Anglo-Saxon-named countrymen.  The names of some of these men who were there on that fateful 11th century day were said to have been written on a list. Called the Battle Abbey Roll, it supposedly hung in an abbey William had erected on the very spot King Harold was killed during the battle.  The original (if not a complete fiction) has been lost since the 16th century.  What we have are incongruent and partial lists of varying reliability.  On one of those lists is the name T. Gilbard.

The Battle of Hastings, from the Bayeux Tapestry

There is a fantastic renaissance work called The church-history of Britain from the birth of Jesus Christ until the year M.DC.XLVIII, written in 1655 by Thomas Fuller.  In it, Fuller pulls together a collection of supposed Battle Abbey Rolls and other references to the companions of William.  It is on the list provided by one Mr. Fox, an alias of an antiquarian named Thomas Scriven, we see T. Gilbard astride 243 other names.  Gilbard, of course, is one of the many early spellings of Gilbert (pronounced something like jeel-BARE then and in France today).  Immediately there appear to be several problems with the claim that someone with a Gilbert surname was on the Battle Abbey Roll.  First, hereditary family names in such a first-name-last-name format were rare in 1066 Europe.  Second, this is the only mention of a Gilbert on any of the other versions of the rolls I have seen (outside of the well-known and probably-not-related Richard and Baldwin Fits-Gilberts).  Third, construction of the Battle Abbey itself took until 1094, so any list would have been at least 18 years after the battle.  Finally, any remnants of rolls we have can only be sourced to the 1500s at best. 

The last of the two problems cannot be well addressed here because of the immutability of the facts.  However, scholars have established beyond doubt that between 20 and 40 individuals appearing on the various lists were indeed at Hastings.  That suggests the rolls contain at least some measure of truth.  The problem of only a single mention of Gilbard from among the several versions of the lists is a bit of a tough one, but not insurmountable.  Again I point to the very low numbers (scores out of hundreds) of named individuals who have actually been verified as having been at Hastings.  This only points to the importance of those individuals, being mentioned elsewhere in contemporary accounts and rosters – such venerable names as Robert de Beaumont, Walter Giffard, and Odo, Bishop of Bayeux.  It is entirely possible that the combination of nonstandard spellings and lack of fame could cause individual names to fall off of some lists and be included in others.  Either way, a lesser-known or lower-born member of the soldiery would not be as likely to show up in other records of the time.

Looking into the problem of hereditary names brought to light some surprising lessons, modifying my own view of when the usage of such took place.  Studies strongly suggest that the oldest true heritable surname in Europe is O’Brien, having origins in the early to mid-1000’s in Ireland.  Even Fuller notes that, while not universal in Europe until the late 1100s, these kinds of family names predate Hastings buy as much as 40 years.  Importantly, he asserts that this new widespread use of surnames was a French invention.  The claim seems to be supported, at least a little, by my earlier studies of William Gilbert de Ragoles, Bishop of Poitiers from 1117 to 1124, whose siblings shared the last name Gilbert.  To further investigate the matter, I counted up how many ‘modern’ surnames appeared on Mr. Fox’s list.  I found that 46 out of 244 had surnames without the older-fashioned ‘d’, ‘de’, ‘de la’, ‘Fitz’, or other titular and place references.  That amounted to about 19%.  Studies of other near-contemporary lists of names showed similarly small, yet definitely real, percentages that we might consider modern surnames.  Therefore, it is at least possible that someone with a name like T. Gilbard could have been at Hastings in 1066 without being an anachronism. 

Briefly onto the first name, the initial ‘T’ is tantalizingly without explanation in Fox’s list.  Luckily for our research, French first names at the time seldom started with ‘T’, so it is easier to narrow down.  Typical of the era are Thomas, Thosetus, Trutgaudus, Tassilo, Theoderic, Theudebald, Thorismund, and Toustan among a few obscure others and variations of each.  Out of pure popularity, Thomas seems the most likely candidate for our T. Gilbard. 

So, while not verifiable, it is at least plausible that a Norman-French warrior of lower status named Thomas Gilbard came over with William the Conqueror in 1066.  This Thomas would be of about the same generation of Bishop William Gilbert’s parents, possibly being at least distant kin of this Parthenay family.  Whereas there is no evidence of name-bearing progeny from the Bishop or his siblings, it is some fraction of possible that Thomas established himself and the Gilbert line in England after Hastings.  Thirty years thereafter, tax records start showing Gilberts like Richard, Walter, Robert, and William transacting around Wiltshire and Devonshire.  Eventually, some of this clan may have started marrying up into the venerable Champernowne family beginning in the early 1200’s, establishing the Gilberts of Compton.  Acknowledging this has as many points of data as your typical conspiracy theory, it is at least not out of the realm of possibilities.  Whether or not even being in the line leading to the Gilberts of Compton, the existence of Thomas Gilbard would push the origin of the surname back to about 950 years ago.

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