Gilberts of Compton

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The Gilberts of Compton were a noted Anglo-Norman family of knightly class,[1] having seats at both Compton Castle and Greenway Estate, Devon, England. They were prominent in the British colonization of the Americas during the Elizabethan era.[2]


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.[3][2] 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.[4][5][3] Though surnames at that epoch were rare in Europe, it is possible that the surname Gilbert existed quite early as evidenced by Guillaume I Gilbert, Bishop of Poitiers from 1117 to 1124.[6][7][8] The quote was likely based on 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.[1] The other names listed are surnames, suggesting 'Gilbert' is as well in this instance. Taken with the fact that Manaton is a mere 15 miles from Compton Castle, the suggestion is that these Gilberts may have been the progenitors of the line. However, there is so far no direct evidence of this being the case.

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 descendant 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”.[9][10]

Notable Descendants[edit]

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”.[2] 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 due to their military exploits there. 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.[2] 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.[11]

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.[2]

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.[2] 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.[12] In another unfortunate incident John's sister-in-law, Lydia Gilbert, was sentenced to death for witchcraft in Windsor, Connecticut, in 1654 during the infamous Connecticut Witch Trials.[13] 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.[2]

Current Day[edit]

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.[14]

Myths and Legends[edit]

According to one of the many purported versions of the now lost 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.[15]

Another, more modern legend, plays on Adrian Gilbert's noted intelligence and love for mathematics and alchemy. His studies brought him into the social circles of contemporary scientists and occultists such as John Dee and Mary, Countess of Pembroke (having even served as her laboratory assistant for a time). From this premise, the 2000 book Following the Ark of the Covenant, by Kerry and Lisa Boren, claims that Dee entrusted to Gilbert the Arc of the Covenant to carry to the New World on one of his voyages.[16]


  1. ^ a b Westcote, Thomas. A View of Devonshire in MDCXXX, with a Pedigree of Most of its Gentry. Exeter, 1845.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Thornton, J. Wingate. Genealogical Memoir of the Gilbert Family in both Old and New England. Boston, 1850.
  3. ^ a b Gilbert, C.S. An Historical Survey of the County of Cornwall : To Which is Added, a Complete Heraldry of the Same. London, Congdon, 1820.
  4. ^ Burke, Bernard. Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Landed Gentry of Great Britain & Ireland. London, Harrison, Pall Mall, 1875.
  5. ^ Lysons, Daniel and Samuel Lysons. Magna Britannia: Being a Concise Topographical Account of the Several Counties of Great Britain. London, 1817.
  6. ^ Dictionnaire universel, dogmatique, canonique, historique, géographique et chronologique, des sciences ecclésiastiques, Volume 6. 1765.
  7. ^ Bibliothèque sacrée, ou Dictionnaire universel, historique, dogmatique, canonique, géographique et chronologique des sciences ecclésiastiques. 1827
  8. ^ Archives Historiques du Poitou, Volume 25. Societe des Archives Historiques du Poitou, 1895.
  9. ^ Worthy, Charles. 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. London, Bemrose & Sons, 1896.
  10. ^ Vivian, J.L. The visitations of the county of Devon : Comprising the herald's visitations of 1531, 1564, & 1620, With additions by Lieutenant-Colonel J. L. Vivian. Exeter, 1895.
  11. ^ "Elizabethan Silver Spoon Saved for Devon", Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter City Council, September 19, 2013.
  12. ^ Drake, Samuel. Tragedies of the Wilderness. Boston, 1844.
  13. ^ Taylor, John M. The Witchcraft Delusion in Colonial Connecticut, 1647-1697. New York, Grafton Press, 1908.
  14. ^ Rees, Julian. "Riviera People – Angela Gilbert, Lady of the Castle", English Riviera Magazine, August 9, 2016.
  15. ^ Fuller, Thomas. The church-history of Britain from the birth of Jesus Christ until the year M.DC.XLVIII. London, 1655.
  16. ^ Boren, Kerry and Lisa Boren. Following the Ark of the Covenant. Springville, Cedar Fort, 2000.