Original Wikipedia Article on the Gilberts of Compton


Some time ago I had created a Wikipedia article on the Gilberts of Compton, based on the research and sources cited in this blog. Recently, a Wikipedia editor took it upon himself to delete whole paragraphs from that article saying they were ‘irrelevant’. Comically (and amateurishly) , in the process of ‘fixing’ the article, he conflated several facts that were correct in the earlier article – even switching the birth order of people without seeming to notice. Specifically, the editor deleted the entire three paragraph section called “Origins” that discussed the strengths and weaknesses of various sources because (sigh) some of the sources were unreliable. That was sort of the point of the discussion. Also, he deleted the entire section “Myths and Legends” because, you guessed it, they were myths and legends. Rather than have a back-and-forth of editing and re-editing Wikipedia (aside from fixing the birth order mistake he made), I’ll just publish the original here since it summarizes the research completely to-date:

The Gilberts of Compton

The Gilberts of Compton were a noted Anglo-Norman family of knightly class,[i] having seats at both Compton Castle and Greenway Estate, Devon, England, who were prominent in the British colonization of the Americas during the Elizabethan era.[ii] 

Origins

There are conflicting origin stories of the Gilberts of Compton among antiquarians.  A popular story is that the Gilberts descended from Gilbert, Count of Brionne, through his sons Richard Fitz-Gilbert and Baldwin Fitz-Gilbert.[iii][iv]  While the Fitz-Gilbert brothers were active in Devon, there is no evidence to suggest that their progeny became the Gilbert family.  This claim is especially dubious considering the name Fitz-Gilbert was not, at that time, a hereditary surname under the Norman naming system. 

A second claim is that the Gilberts “possessed lands in Manaton, (in or near Dartmoor,) in Edward the Confessors’ days”, placing the Gilbert family in Devon before 1066.[v][vi][vii] Though surnames at that time were rare in Europe, it is possible that the name Gilbert existed as a contemporary surname as evidenced by Guillaume I Gilbert, Bishop of Poitiers.[viii][ix][x][xi]  However, the quote was likely a misreading of a passage from an earlier work: “This riveret parts Manaton, alias Magneton, and Lustlegh. Many have possessed lands here: in the Confessor’s time Gilbert; after Sauls, Horton, Le Moyn, and others”, itself based on entries in the Domesday Book.[xii]  This passage simply states someone named Gilbert, a popular first name at the time, lived in Devon.

What is more demonstrable is that the male line leading to the Gilberts of Compton likely rose from obscurity with the marriage of a William Gilbert of Devon to Elizabeth Champernowne of Clist, a descendent of William the Conqueror, sometime in the first few decades of the 13th century.  Their great grandson, Sir Geoffrey (Galfried) Gilbert (Member of Parliament for Totnes in 1326) married Lady Joan Compton, heiress of Compton Castle, thereby becoming “of Compton”.[xiii][xiv]

Notable Descendants

Little is known of the family’s activities during the Middle Ages aside from Sir Otho Gilbert of Compton serving as High Sheriff of Devon from 1475 to 1476.  It was descendants of this Otho Gilbert who would set out during the Elizabethan period on the family’s “hereditary scheme of peopling America with Englishmen”.[xv]  Most famous among these were the half brothers Sir Humphrey Gilbert and Sir Walter Raleigh, both famous explorers of the New World and perhaps infamous military figures in Ireland. Their lesser-known brother, Sir Adrian Gilbert of Compton, was nonetheless of the same cloth, having an especially savage military reputation in Ireland while also seeking a Northwest Passage to China under a patent from Queen Elizabeth I.[xvi]  Another brother, Sir John Gilbert, was Sheriff of Devon, knighted by Elizabeth I in 1571, and was Vice Admiral of Devon – responsible for defense against the Spanish Armada.[xvii]

 In the following generation, Bartholomew Gilbert named Cape Cod during his 1602 expedition to establish a colony in New England.  He was killed by a group of Algonquians during a voyage the following year in search of the missing Roanoke Colony.  In 1607, Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s son, Raleigh Gilbert, established a fortified storehouse he called Fort Saint George on the coast of Maine.  In the face of “nothing but extreme extremities”, this colony ultimately voted to return to England.  It is said that they were so resolute in this goal that they built a ship to facilitate the return voyage, which would probably have been the first oceangoing vessel built in America.[xviii]

Later, brothers Jonathan and John Gilbert would have a hand in establishing Hartford, Connecticut, acting as emissaries between the Governor in Hartford and the local indigenous tribes.  Jonathan was a skilled linguist of local tribal languages and served as a militia leader.[xix]  John’s young son, another John Gilbert, was famously captured by Narragansett, Wampanoag and Nashaway/Nipmuc tribes led by Monoco after their attack on Lancaster, Massachusetts.[xx]  In another unfortunate incident John’s sister-in-law, Lydia Gilbert, was sentenced to death for witchcraft in Windsor, Connecticut, in 1654.[xxi]  However Jonathan’s younger son, Captain Thomas Gilbert, was said to have been “a brave and successful officer, and a leading man in the primitive navy of the colony”.  Thomas commanded the twelve-gun ship, Swan, during King William’s War, capturing the French ship Saint Jacob.  He was captured in 1695, spending the rest of the war as a prisoner in France.[xxii]

Current Day

Compton Castle is still today in the hands of the Gilbert family.  Geoffrey Gilbert, a modern descendant, resides at Compton and administers the estate for the National Trust.  His wife, Angela Gilbert, was appointed High Sheriff of Devon in 2016.[xxiii]

Myths and Legends

According to one of the many purported versions of the Battle Abby Roll, a T. Gilbard (Gilbert) fought alongside William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.  This claim comes from a 1655 work called The church-history of Britain from the birth of Jesus Christ until the year M.DC.XLVIII, written by Thomas Fuller.  Fuller relied on source material provided by an antiquarian named Thomas Scriven, who was operating under the alias Mr. Fox. There is no evidence so far to corroborate this claim.[xxiv]

Another, more modern legend, is based in Adrian Gilbert’s noted intelligence and love for mathematics and alchemy, having served as laboratory assistant to Mary, Countess of Pembroke.  This new claim from the 2000 book Following the Ark of the Covenant, by Kerry and Lisa Boren, claims that the famous mathematician John Dee entrusted to Adrian the Arc of the Covenant to carry to the New World on one of his voyages.[xxv]


[i] A view of Devonshire in MDCXXX, with a pedigree of most of its gentry, Thomas Westcote, Exeter, 1845

[ii] Genealogical Memoir of the Gilbert Family in both Old and New England, J. Wingate Thornton, Boston, 1850

[iii] An historical survey of the County of Cornwall : to which is added, a complete heraldry of the same / by C. S. Gilbert., v.2 pt.1, Plymouth-Dock :J. Congdon,1817-1820

[iv] Genealogical Memoir of the Gilbert Family in both Old and New England, J. Wingate Thornton, Boston, 1850

[v] Burkes Landed Gentry

[vi] Magna Britannia

[vii] An historical survey of the County of Cornwall : to which is added, a complete heraldry of the same / by C. S. Gilbert., v.2 pt.1, Plymouth-Dock :J. Congdon,1817-1820

[viii] Dictionnaire universel, dogmatique, canonique, historique, géographique et chronologique, des sciences ecclésiastiques, Volume 6, 1765

[ix] Bibliothèque sacrée, ou Dictionnaire universel, historique, dogmatique, canonique, géographique et chronologique des sciences ecclésiastiques, 1827

[x] Archives historiques du Poitou, Volume 25, 1895, Societe des Archives Historiques du Poitou

[xi] Acte n° 3637  dans Chartes originales antérieures à 1121 conservées en France , Cédric GIRAUD, Jean-Baptiste RENAULT et Benoît-Michel TOCK, éds., Nancy : Centre de Médiévistique Jean Schneider ; éds électronique : Orléans : Institut de Recherche et d’Histoire des Textes, 2010. (Telma). En abrégé, citer : « Charte Artem/CMJS n°3637

[xii] A view of Devonshire in MDCXXX, with a pedigree of most of its gentry, Thomas Westcote, Exeter, 1845

[xiii] Devonshire wills: a collection of annotated testamentary abstracts, together with the family history and genealogy of many of the most ancient gentle houses of the west of England, Charles Worthy, Bemrose (.V Sons, LTD, 23, Old Bailey and Derby, 1896

[xiv] The visitations of the county of Devon : Comprising the herald’s visitations of 1531, 1564, & 1620 /

With additions by Lieutenant-Colonel J. L. Vivian. Vivian, J. L. 1830-1896. Exeter, 1895.

[xv] Genealogical Memoir of the Gilbert Family in both Old and New England, J. Wingate Thornton, Boston, 1850

[xvi] Genealogical Memoir of the Gilbert Family in both Old and New England, J. Wingate Thornton, Boston, 1850

[xvii] https://www.rammuseum.org.uk/elizabethan-silver-spoon-saved-for-devon/,  Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter City Council, Elizabethan Silver Spoon Saved for Devon, 19 September 2013

[xviii] Genealogical Memoir of the Gilbert Family in both Old and New England, J. Wingate Thornton, Boston, 1850

[xix] Genealogical Memoir of the Gilbert Family in both Old and New England, J. Wingate Thornton, Boston, 1850

[xx] Tragedies of the Wilderness, by Samuel Gardner Drake, 1844

[xxi] Taylor, John M.; The Witchcraft Delusion in Colonial Connecticut, 1647-1697; Grafton Press, New York, 1908.

[xxii] Genealogical Memoir of the Gilbert Family in both Old and New England, J. Wingate Thornton, Boston, 1850

[xxiii] http://www.englishrivieramagazine.co.uk/riviera-people-angela-gilbert-lady-castle/, English Riviera Magazine, Riviera People – Angela Gilbert, Lady of the Castle, Julian Rees, Aug. 9, 2016

[xxiv] The church-history of Britain from the birth of Jesus Christ until the year M.DC.XLVIII, written by Thomas Fuller

[xxv] Following the Ark of the Covenant, Kerry Boren, Lisa Boren, Cedar Fort, 2000

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