t’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.
he 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.
he 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.
The 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.
Coni’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).