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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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

Seal of Bishop William Gilbert I from
Sigillographie du Poitou jusqu’en 1515 : etude d’histoire provinciale sur les institutions, les arts et la civilisation d’apres les sceaux; Francois Eygun; 1938 Poitiers : Au siege de la Societe des antiquaires de l’Ouest, pl.LXIII f.1208 (courtesy of University of Pennsylvania’s Digital Library)

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.

The Two Greenways


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.

Surprising Dip in the Gene Pool


200px-gilbertarms_mediumI’ve recently received an ancestry composition report from 23&Me and, much as I expected based on earlier paper-based research, my genetics are mostly Northwestern European in origin – to the tune of about 83%. Of course, English/Irish ancestry dominates the scene, the venerable old Gilbert line being of English origin 800 years ago. Naturally, Scandinavian and French weigh in, the Gilberts being of Norman French, and therefore some Viking, descent. And, perhaps ho-humedly, German comprises a huge chunk of my DNA, with families recently contributing to my line having names like Scheetz, Krouse, and Kahl – pretty standard for Northern Indiana. However, just as some white supremacists have recently discovered African or Jewish ancestors in their DNA, I had several surprises of my own: no Native American showed up, but I’m probably 15% Bohemian!

Like many Americans, we presume to have at least some trace ancestry that links us with the extirpated-yet-not-gone Native American peoples. These days, since the reexamination of race relations throughout the 60s and 70s, it is not only acceptable but downright a matter of pride to be of Native blood. However, this was not always the case. Apparently, in some circles anyway, Native ancestry was something to conceal as a social stigma. Weirder yet, it may have been the case that descendants of immigrants from poorer countries would actually tell their children that they were of Native American stock to conceal their humble or embarrassing roots in the Old World. While it might be the case that today’s genetic testing services self-select to exclude Native DNA samples from their databases due to cost, and therefore cannot identify such in my own sample, the family legend was that Great Grandma Tarant was Blackfoot. The significant Balkans/Central European component to my genetic profile, however, along with the absence of Native American ancestry, compelled me to track down where that came from and where the Native American went. As it turns out, Coni possessed the document written in Great Grandma’s hand that lists her parents as having both been born in Bohemia. So, surprisingly, I have Slavic ancestry – news to me.

A little cherry on top of all this genetic testing came as I searched 23&Me’s quite useful ‘Genetic Relatives’ database. This is an opt-in database where people can share their 23&Me results with whomever else is on the same database and shares at least some component of their DNA. Most of the 1056 people sharing my genes on there are people I never heard of and have no idea of how we would be related. I did come upon one Ulrich surname on there, which intrigued me since one of my oldest and closest friends shares that name. From chatting with this person, I found out her family is originally from Northern Indiana and Southwest Michigan. Happily, then, I am likely distant cousins with the woman I’ve been calling “Little Sis” all these years! This, along with all my other genealogy research has really enlightened me to a single important fact: the farther back you go, the bigger your family gets!

Doppelgangers, Mistakes, and Lies


200px-gilbertarms_mediumA few articles ago, I talked about the possibility that a 200 year old assumption about the origins of the Gilbert surname might be erroneous. The well-repeated story is that since the Gilberts of Compton came from Devonshire, and Devonshire was also home to two famous brothers bearing the name FitzGilbert, then naturally these brothers are the progenitors of the surname. I do not assert that this is impossible, but after looking at about 280 descendants of these brothers (what I estimate to be about 80% of the number of actual descendants in the 8 generations I looked at), there is just no evidence. So, we come upon a major problem in the discovery of the Gilbert family origin: trusted sources might just plain be wrong.

In the example above, a manuscript written between 1573 and 1620 contained a passage that said someone called Gilbert (not necessarily a surname) possessed a Devonshire manor called Manaton sometime between 1042 and 1066. Later writers pointed out that the Domesday Book of 1086 showed the above FitzGilbert brothers (FitzGilbert not being a surname) came to own Manaton sometime after 1066. Despite the previous manuscript’s assertion that other men followed Gilbert in owning the manor sometime after 1066, the above described error was stamped into many peerage and pedigree books. Gilbert was just a popular first name at the time of no last names, and FitzGilbert just meant ‘son of Gilbert’. This is just one of several big errors out there.

Another major issue with source material on the Gilberts of Compton is that there appears to have been two women named Elizabeth Champernowne, and both had fathers named Oliver! However, they were born roughly 120 years apart. How can this be? Well at the time Elizabeth and Oliver were pretty common names, and it seemed to be the habit among Anglo-Normans to honor ancestors by passing names down for generations. For example, just in my single patrilineage, there are seven Williams, four Thomases, and four Johns (including this one). Both Elizabeths appear to descend from the Dukes of Normandy, and married into the Gilbert line at two points five generations apart. The younger Elizabeth (1334-1380) appears to be the elder Elizabeth’s (ca. 1210 – ?) great grandniece. The elder appears to have married the mysterious William Gilbert (1204/1210-1270), and the younger his great-great grandson, Sir William Gilbert (1327-1380). Sources continuously conflate these two women.

A final obstacle to building a clear understanding of the true relationship of these ancestors is simple: people lie. Not only are many ancestors simply overlooked in historical records (for example, even King Henry I’s illegitimate son, Gilbert FitzRoy (1130-1142), has no substantial record), but the stories of what child belonged to whom might be questionable. In a time of multiple mistresses among the landed gentry, one might assume this to be commonplace. For the Gilberts of Compton, one of our biggest claims to fame is the explorer Sir Humphrey Gilbert (1539-1583). His mother, Katherine Champernowne (1519-1594) remarried after the death of his father, Otho Gilbert of Compton (1513-1547). She married a Member of Parliament named Walter Raleigh. Their son was the famous explorer Sir Walter Raleigh, half-brother to Humphrey but not a blood relation to the Gilberts of Compton – or so the story goes. I leave you with this portrait of a young Sir Walter Raleigh next to my son, the 20th descendant of Sir Otho Gilbert, Sheriff of Devon (1418-1492) who is also Raleigh’s half-brother Humphrey’s great grandfather:

lach raleigh2

American Knights


200px-gilbertarms_mediumIt’s been close to thirty years since I last read Plato’s Republic. In it, if memory serves, he uses the terms ‘soldier’ and ‘warrior’ interchangeably. That’s understandable since in his day and land roughly every able-bodied man of military age served as a ‘warrior’ in the army. However, I have always found a slight incongruence when applying this to our time. In America, where roughly one percent of the population serves in the military, this Ancient Greek idea inadequately encompasses what surely must include women who are warriors, soldiers who are not warriors, and warriors who are not soldiers. It is this latter category, the warriors we find in every day society outside of the army, to which the subject of genealogy seems most salient at the moment. To discover the near-universal struggle of our warrior ancestors, who carved out our nations and gifted us our very lives, infuses our more mundane modern existence with a new sense of purpose.

For Americans especially, we inheritors of individualism from the Enlightenment, a great gap exists in family histories. Our immigrant ancestors came here throwing off old values, old systems, old traditions, and sometimes even old names, to embrace the new. Disposing of Old World notions of inherited status, titles of nobility, and class by birthright, these young Americans sought success through individual effort. An unfortunate side effect of burning bridges across the Atlantic was that a part of us remains adrift in history, detached from where we came from and devoid of identity. In leaving behind religious persecution and congenital dictatorships, Europeans also left behind what may have been noble about a family name. In being rent from their lands as property, Africans lost touch with their pasts wholesale. In the inexorable Westward expansion, Native Americans were marched away from their ancestry at gunpoint. This is the condition we find ourselves in, and if ever there were a source of our current social woes this is it. As Butch tells the cab driver in Pulp Fiction, “I’m an American, honey. Our names don’t mean shit.”

Take heart. Our nation is still young. We the People have invented the modern world, including amazing powers of genetic research and the astounding instrument of the Internet. We can use these tools to link ourselves with the past warriors in our ancestry, who carried on and built their societies even in the face of plague, invasion, natural disasters, and some man-made ones. This is of urgent importance to the nation’s youth, who too often feel themselves detached, isolated, and that their names “don’t mean shit”. A little research can enlighten them to the struggle that got them this far, and to share in that pride. While the 800 year old Gilbert line has been noted as being “of much estimation [esteemed]” and “of knightly rank”, it is not necessarily the wielders of the sword who are the warriors. Anyone may be such in their daily lives. I believe a warrior is anyone who has seen farther and finds it incumbent upon him or herself to protect those who haven’t. If we are diligent, we still have time to patch the hole in our history.

Sons and Daughters of Crispin?


200px-gilbertarms_mediumThe most often-repeated claim about the origins of the Gilbert surname in Devonshire might not be true. This claim is that the family took its last name from the two prominent Norman landholders who were known to possess a huge amount of property in the area (according to the Domesday Book and other records around the year 1086). These two nobles, Richard Fitz-Gilbert, 1st Earl of Clare (1035-1090), and Baldwin Fitz-Gilbert, Sheriff of Devon (1022-1090), were the sons of the murdered Gilbert “Crispin” of Brionne and Eu (979-1040). Crispin was, in turn, the son of Count Geoffrey of Brionne and Eu (953-1015) who was the illegitimate son of Richard I, Duke of Normandy. (Incidentally, “Crispin” was a nickname given him due to his hair being so curly as to stand up as the branches of a pine tree.) Crispin’s two sons, Richard and Baldwin, accompanied William the Conqueror in his 1066 conquest of England and were richly rewarded with lands in Devonshire and other areas. However, a meta-analysis I just completed on the descendants of these two men strongly indicates that they were not likely the forefathers of the Gilbert line.

The root source of this erroneous claim is probably a misreading of the manuscript called View of Devon and Cornwall, by an author named Westcot. It has been cited in many subsequent books and webpages as claiming the Gilberts “possessed lands in Manaton, (in or near Dartmoor,) in Edward the Confessors’ days”. The original passage in the manuscript reads:

“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.”

Clearly, Westcot simply states someone named “Gilbert” possessed lands there. Further, “Edward the Confessor’s days”, which were 1042-1066, were at a time when there were likely no “Gilberts” as a family, surnames not being a Norman practice then.

I looked at around 280 individuals who were known to have descended from Richard and Baldwin Fitz-Gilbert between their time and about 1200, when we see our first William Gilbert of Compton appear on the scene. This accounts for what I estimate to be about 80-90% of all their descendants over seven or eight generations, some descendants being hard to account for, illegitimate, etc. By the year 1200, these people descended into around 145 different family or house names – not a single one being “Gilbert” or even “Fitzgilbert”. This is due not only to the daughters marrying into other houses (accounting for at least 50% of the descendants), but also the Norman naming convention at that time that did not favor transmitting a single ‘family name’ down successive generations. For example, Baldwin Fitz-Gilbert’s children became known as ‘Fitz-Baldwin’. Richards became “Fitz-Richard”. A grandchild named Geoffrey would have children named ‘Fitz-Geoffrey’ and so on. Of course, there were instances of grandchildren receiving the first name of Gilbert from time to time, and whose children would be known as ‘Fitz-Gilbert’, but again that Gilbert name would simply disappear in the next generation. This process over 130 years or so, when people started taking surnames, resulted in the descendants of Richard and Baldwin becoming families and houses as varied as Boplande, Munchensy, Walter, Pendergast, St. Leger, Houghton, and Marshal – not a single Gilbert family.  [Note:  I have since received some comments that have read this to mean I’m implying the Fitz-Gilberts were the progenitors of the above-mentioned families.  I apologize for not having been clearer, but I mean to say that the descendants of the Fitz-Gilberts seemed to have dissolved into these already-existing family lines, each having origins elsewhere.]

Of course it is entirely possible that one of the lesser-known descendants, perhaps not being recorded in the tax rolls and deed registers due to little or no inheritance, decided to take great-grandpa Crispin’s name as a surname to honor him. However, this is unlikely in view of what we do know about naming conventions of the time. There were four descendants of the Fitz-Gilbert brothers, who were alive right before or around 1200, who had ‘Gilbert’ incorporated into their name somewhere. Two of these, though, have had their descendants accounted for (the lines terminating through marriage into the houses that became such families as de Neville, de Monmouth, de Briwere, de Wyesham, de Builli, de Bussey, and de Wahull, or becoming other families through the male lines, such as Claire and FitzWalter). One of the others, Gilbert de Vere, Prior of the Knights Hospitaller, Oxford (1122 – ?), son of Avice FitzGilbert de Clare (1091 – 1163), would likely have had three or four generations of descendants before 1200 – likely losing all reference to his first name in the process. The remaining person, Gilbert de Clare de Strigull, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, (1173 – 1185), son of Richard de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, Tonebridge (1130 – 1176), died in childhood. Considering the 145 descendants I could identify alive around the late 1100’s to 1200, and a likely 15 or so unaccounted for in that same generation, the odds of any being the progenitor of the Gilbert surname are about 29:3 in the wrong direction.

In addition to this, there is good evidence that Gilbert was in use as a surname already by people not found on the Crispin family tree. For one, a Robert Gilbert witnessed the signing of a deed sometime between 1199 and 1216. From Westcot’s manuscript:

“Sciant presentes et futuri, quod ego Willielmus de Vernon comes Devon dedi Deo et Ecclesie Sancti Michaelis de Brumor, &c. Hiis testibus Mabilia Comitissa, Abbate Quarar, Roberto Gerebert, Rich. Cottle, Samp- son Clerico de Plympton, cum multis aliis”

(John Prince, citing Westcot in his work, The Worthies of Devon, 1810, went on to claim that this Robert Gilbert was actually the Richard Fitz-Gilbert found in the Domesday Book – a mistake placing Richard 100 years in the future!) Another example is one I mentioned in an earlier article, a William Gilbert cited in the Pipe Rolls of Normandy in 1198. These two are further evidence that some Normans not in the Crispin line were using the surname Gilbert already.