Gilberts and the Holy Grail


200px-gilbertarms_medium The quest to find the first bearer of the Gilbert surname in our line, focusing on the origins of one William Gilbert (1202/10 – 1270), finds me knee-deep in a gigantic meta-analysis of hundreds of potential ancestors. So far, I’ve studied about 150 individuals of what will likely be around 400 descendants of Gilbert “Crispin”, 2nd Count of Eu, 2nd Count of Brionne (c. 1000 – 1040). This man, bearing the first name ‘Gilbert’, is thought by some scholars to be the source of the Gilbert surname in Devonshire due to the popularity of ‘Gilbert’ as a first name among his descendants in that area. However, so far I have not found a single instance of a descendant of Gilbert “Crispin” taking the surname of Gilbert in the several generations between his lifetime and the year 1200 (about which time we see our William Gilbert arrive on the scene).

Around the late 1100’s and early 1200’s, when Anglo-Normans started taking surnames due to the new-fangled idea of personal taxation, we see the 150 descendants so far researched become around 80 separate families having surnames as varied as Malet, Peyton, Clare, Lacy, Neville, and Marshall. This goes to show that just because ‘Gilbert’ may have been a popular first name among the descendants of Gilbert “Crispin”, it does not necessarily mean ‘Gilbert’ would become anyone of their surnames. Adding to the difficulty in linking William Gilbert to Gilbert “Crispin” is that not everyone got recorded in history. Certainly, notable descendants (e.g. children who became barons, monks, or great warriors) got recorded in public records, but lesser children and those who had meager or no inheritances were not likely to show up in the tax rolls and deed records of the day. Our William Gilbert, if he indeed descended from Crispin, might have been one of these lesser children who married well by the high-born Elizabeth Champernowne, thereby establishing the Gilberts of Compton. Judging by the notable rate of illegitimate children among the Anglo-Norman aristocracy (William the Conqueror, himself, originally being known as William the Bastard), it is even possible our own William Gilbert was, himself, illegitimate. This gave me pause to consider the fanciful tale of one “Gilbert the Bastard” we find in Arthurian legend.

Sometime in the mid-1400s, while in prison, Sir Thomas Malory wrote Le Morte d’Arthur, the authoritative English version of the tales of King Arthur. In it is the weird, otherworldly, and highly symbolic tale of Sir Lancelot and his magical encounter with a knight by the name of Sir Gilbert the Bastard. It wasn’t an insult. Gilbert’s wife identified him thus, and added that he was “one of the best knights in the world”. Coincidental to our William Gilbert, Malory’s Gilbert lived in an old manor in the middle of a swamp – putting me in the mind of the claims that William or his near ancestors came from Manadon Manor in the middle of Dartmoor. Of course, no one knows why Malory chose that setting or even the name ‘Gilbert’ in his version. The original name of the knight, found in the source material Malory was working from called Perlesvaus (or The High History of the Holy Grail), was one Ahuret the Bastard. (My own theory: ‘Ahuret’, apparently being a name entirely unique to that story, may have derived from the Arabic الآخرة, meaning ‘the hereafter’, a concept brought back by the Crusaders. Malory, writing about 250 years afterwards, might have chosen ‘Gilbert’ as a more palatable name for the readers of his day – the tales of Arthur supposedly taking place around Devon and Cornwall and Gilbert being a popular name in the region.) Of course all of this is speculative, but still a fun and tantalizing thought of connecting the Gilberts to Arthurian Legend.

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Origins of Gilbert as a Surname in Devon


200px-gilbertarms_mediumThe name ‘William Gilbert’ arises from the mists of Dartmoor, a place I’d visited once – before I even knew it was likely the land from which the Gilbert surname originated. I was visiting friends in nearby Tavistock, back in 1999, and they took me exploring the surprisingly still-wild moorland full of castle ruins and stone monoliths. I didn’t know that just on the other side of the moor, about 25 miles, was Compton Castle, medieval seat of the Gilbert family. Closer yet lay the little parish of Ilsington. The conquering Normans wrote this as ‘Ilestentonia’ in the famous Domesday Book in 1086. Even earlier, the Saxons had divided their land in units called ‘hundreds’. The land around Ilestintonia was called the Hundred of Teignbridge. This Hundred encompassed the manor and lands called Manadon (now Manaton). This holding is the only connection, so far, to the possible origins of William Gilbert of Compton (1204/10 – 1270).

While I’m still in the process of tracking down the source document that identifies this first William Gilbert to more recent genealogists (probably the marriage record to Elizabeth Champernowne b. 1210), it is interesting to note that some sources claim the first mention of ‘Gilbert’ as a surname was in 1202. This much repeated claim is said to derive from the mention of one ‘Willelmus Gilberti’ (a commonly Latinized rendering of ‘William Gilbert’) in the Curia Regis Rolls for Wiltshire (a set of legal records) from the reign of King John. I have personally searched the Curia Regis for the period noted and found no such reference. (There may be another document more specific to Wiltshire that I’m not aware of yet, however.) I did, however, find one Willelmus Gislebertus (another common Latinization of ‘William Gilbert’) who, according to the Pipe Rolls of Normandy for 1198, was paying taxes. It was around this time in Europe, anyway, that people began using ‘last names’ due to the introduction of personal taxation. While this may be one of, if not the, earliest uses of ‘Gilbert’ as a surname, it is impossible to tell if this William is related to our William Gilbert in any way. (I am investigating an account in an 1899 volume on pre-Revolutionary American ancestry of a “Gilbert of Compton in the parish of Manadon, Devon, in 1068”, which I find dubious due to many large mistakes elsewhere in the work.)

Back to the land holdings near Compton Castle. Many sources quote an author named Wescott (unidentified so far) who said that the original Gilberts “…possessed lands in Manaton (in or near Dartmoor) in Edward the Confessor’s days.” The earliest reference I’ve found to this is in C.S. Gilbert’s An Historical Survey of the County of Cornwall, 1817, but I have not found Wescott’s original works or sources. If this is true, it puts the Gilbert surname in Dartmoor as early as 1042 to 1066. What we do know is that ‘Gilbert’, in its many forms, was a popular first name among a prominent Norman family in and around Dartmoor during that period. One exceptional source is the Domesday Book (1086), which tells us that two noble brothers, Baldwin “the Sheriff” Fitz-Gilbert (c. 1022 – 1090), and Richard Fitz-Gilbert (c. 1035 – 1090) controlled huge amounts of land in Devon. Baldwin himself built Okehampton Castle on the north edge of Dartmoor and held 159 manors in Devon, to include the one know as Manadon. It is more than likely that the genealogists and historians of more recent centuries were referring to these two brothers, who accompanied William the Conqueror in 1066 and were duly rewarded with holdings in Devon (Baldwin and his descendants being made perpetual sheriffs of Devon), when speaking of the origin of the Gilberts at Manadon.

While I have yet to find any direct genealogical link to the Fitz-Gilbert brothers, it is very likely that our William Gilbert of Compton descended from this family. One cannot discount the frequency with which ‘Gilbert’ and ‘Fitz-Gilbert’ (‘Fitz’ meaning ‘son of’) appear in their family tree, that tree having root in Devon – the home of William. It reasons geographically as well, Compton Castle (and the Lady Elizabeth) being only a few short miles from Dartmoor and positively surrounded by Fitz-Gilbert holdings. Perhaps William Gilbert, the taxpayer of 1198, is somehow a link in all of this.

Beginning the Quest for the First Gilbert


200px-gilbertarms_mediumConi’s previous work on the patrilineage of the Gilbert family makes my job a lot easier as I search for our most ancient ancestors. Her work has solidly identified the 15 generations of Gilberts who ascend from my children through Thomas Gilbert, the first of the line to immigrate to America. Considering the time of his arrival in Connecticut (probably the early to mid-1600s), and the ‘biblical’ names of two of his sons (Ezekiel and Obadiah), it is likely Thomas was part of the great Protestant exodus from England. Incidentally it was those two sons’ names, a conspicuous break from earlier Gilbert tradition, that helped Douglas Richardson (researcher for The American Genealogist) identify Thomas as being the son of Richard and Mary (Morken) Gilbert of Yardley, England. With the Atlantic Ocean thus crossed, research on the Old World Gilberts could begin.

Fortunately for me, the Gilbert line from which Richard descends is a very well-known, and thus well-researched, family. Again benefiting from the work of those who came before me, it is fairly clear that Richard is one of 12 more generations known collectively as the Gilberts of Compton Castle. These Gilberts, being landed gentry in Devonshire after the time of the Norman Conquest of 1066, would most certainly be of Norman-French heritage (the previous Anglo-Saxon landholders being thereafter almost entirely dispossessed). This Norman ancestry is also evident in the first names of these Gilberts (William, Geoffrey, Thomas, Otho, etc.), as well as the name ‘Gilbert’, itself (being a Norman first name originally).

While I’m still going through and verifying this earlier genealogy with source materials, I have little doubt that the line is fairly well established through a Sir William Gilbert (born either 1204 or 1210, and died in 1270). Because of William’s marriage to the high-born Elizabeth Champernowne (born around 1210 and descended from King Henry I “Beauclerc”, and therefore the House of Normandy, on her great-grandmother’s side), I am confident he existed. The mystery is this: Where did Sir William come from? Who was his father? Was he the first to bear the surname ‘Gilbert’? This is my genealogical challenge.

The next post will have my leads on the mysterious origins of Sir William Gilbert of Compton (1204/10-1270).