Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Tale of Two Gilberts (NZ234457)

Let’s get one thing straight before we start: the pronunciation is Witton Jilbert, not Gilbert. Sounds a bit French? That’s because it is – well, Norman, actually.

The village a few miles north-west of Durham City was originally called simply Witton (probably meaning ‘the white fortified settlement’ – perhaps containing whitewashed cottages), with roots in the Anglo-Saxon era. But then along came the Normans and things got a bit more complicated.

First there was Gilbert (Jilbert, remember) de la Ley, who lived in these parts as Lord of the Manor during c.1120-80. Many records survive which seem to indicate that this chap was something of a God-fearing philanthropist, using his wealth to good effect, including much work in connection with the local leper hospital and gifts given to the Prior of Durham.

Whilst there are many reasons to assume that it was this Gilbert whose name was affixed to the village’s name, there is, however, no record of the ‘name change’ until a good deal later (around 1300). And by this time another similarly-named individual had passed through the history books, namely, one Gilbert de la Latone, whose family had obtained the estate around 1200. Though the de la Latones only held sway in the area for a few short generations, the village attracted a great number of posh folk to its streets during this time as Witton Gilbert became a bit of a hot spot for countryfied second homes for the upper classes of nearby Durham City.

So which Gilbert should take the credit? Perhaps we shall never know for sure. But isn’t it strange how folk memory hangs onto the slightly unusual pronunciation of a local place-name for so many centuries?

Lots more info on the history of Witton Gilbert here.

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