Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Beowulf the Wilber

About six months ago I took a course on the history of the English language. While I had trouble keeping a few of my friends awake through it, there were several parts that I thought were genuinely interesting. One of those was the origin of English names. My family on my Dad's side is English, so it prompted me to do some research into the history of Wilber. 

Most English last-names it seems, are either trade names like Miller, Baker, Forester, Cooper etc. or Norman (aka French) Aristocratic names like Stewart, Williams, etc. Wilber, it turns out, is neither of those things. It isn't Norman. William Wilberforce, for instance, was part of the British House of Commons, not the House of Lords, meaning that he wasn't a "Lord," suggesting being of non-Norman descent.

Further research turned up a book, The Wildbores in America, published by John Reid Wilbor in 1869. It is the only attempt I know of to list a complete genealogy of the family, and contains the info for all Wilbers, Wilburs and Wilbors living in the U.S. before 1869. All the variations in spelling, according to the book, derive from the original form, Wildbore.

Wildbore or Wyldbore is an Old English word, thus confirming my belief that it isn't Norman––Old English predates the Norman Conquest of 1066. And it means just what it sounds like: Wild Boar. In fact, according to Roger-Cyndy Wilber––who just happened to be superviser for the NYS Research Library's preservation unit––the 1st edition of The Wildbores in America (which I have unfortunately been unable to find online) contains the Wildbore family crest––"two wild boars on either side of a trefoil."

While I was happy to find out Wilber was Anglo-Saxon, not Norman (I mean really, who likes the Normans?), the meaning of the name brought up a whole new range of questions. As I said before, Wild Boar doesn't really seem likely as a trade name. So if the Wild Boars weren't Norman overlords, but were important enough to have a family crest, and apparently were interesting enough to not be named after some form of menial labor, it begs the question: Who were these people?

The only key I could think of had to be in the place the wild boar––the animal itself that is––held in pre-Norman Anglo-Saxon culture. According to everything I read, the boar was considered to be the most ferocious beast in the forest of Ancient Briton and played an important, if not central role in pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon and Norse Mythology. It was also a popular symbol for warriors.

So there. Anglo-Saxon Warriors. If the Wildbore family crest is a shield with boars on it, Wilber is an Anglo-Saxon name, and there were specific Anglo-Saxon clans or even individual warriors who shared the boar insignia on their armor, then it seemed the logical step in finding out the origin of the Wilber Family would be to see if there were any records of who these warriors were.

I searched for documents containing 'Wild-Boar+Saxon+Warrior,' and can you guess what turned up across the board? Beowulf. While there were a few other results, such as a Viking warrior cult of the Svinfylking and an account King Alfred in battle, the earliest, and most pervasive one was the famous Old English Warrior Epic, Beowulf.

In the story, Beowulf's battle helmet is described as "wonderfully formed, beset with swine forms so that it then no blade nor battle-swords to bite were able...." (John Porter's translation, lines 1452-1454).

So Beowulf was my ancestor? Well... probably not. I have to qualify by saying I realize Beowulf was most likely not a real person. Rather the story of unknown authorship was probably based on the archetypes set by multiple people.

I do feel it's at least probable though, that if a number of warriors did exist who were Anglo-Saxon, and used what they in their own language would have called the Wildbore as their symbol, that some of them were the founders of the Wilber family as it exists today. And being descended from ancient pagan Anglo-Saxon warriors is pretty cool––even if it isn't possible to prove they were Beowulf.

And on the other hand, maybe it won't always be impossible to prove. More and more evidence has been discovered that validates the stories within Beowulf, like the viking burial ships that have been discovered in the UK that scholars previously thought were only a myth. Or this Anglo-Saxon battle helmet. It has a Wildbore on top.


Rebecca said...

I KNEW it! This explains those dreams I have of running through an ancient Celtic forest and suddenly being surprised by a wild beast. Obviously that imagery is about your father. Thank you for figuring that out for me!

Andrew said...

LOL... it's a good thing I wasn't around to publish this shocking exposé before you married into the family.

Maryah said...

So that's why I freakishly loved the story of Beowulf last year....seriously, this is some awesome research Andrew, never would have considered it a possibility to be related to my favorite warrior of all time. :-]

overthinker said...

i find that fascinating. and yeah, who likes the Normans? i thought i was the only one who despised them in history...haha.

yeah, it was a real adventure. crazy. still trying to get my heart back in this country!

Unknown said...

Hi, could you point me in the direction of your sources? I'm dedicated to uncovering our family history. There may be as many as three separate and independent origins of the name including Willeburro which is Norman. It becomes more plausible when you remember the double L is usually silent in French. There is also evidence of a Lord of the Manor in Lancashire. And there is some speculation that the name York may have derived from a Viking word for Wild Boar. The Viking and Anglo-Saxon mythology are very similar too.

Chris Wildbore

Andrew said...

Hi Chris, thanks for your comment. It's great that you are interested in researching the name... one of the things that prompted me to start looking into the subject of this post was that it seemed almost no one in my family knew anything about the name's origins.

As far as sources go, my main source for background information on English and English names was "The Adventure of English" by Melvyn Bragg. It unfortunately doesn't reference Wildbore/Wilber, but is a good read and is where most of my dates, references to events come from.

One for the name itself is "The Wildbores In America ( ) which suggests that all the Wildbores, Wyldbors Wilbers, Wilburs, etc, in America before 1907 come from the same origin. That said, it's entirely possible that it could be wrong, as I've heard complaints about inaccuracies in it before.

I had not heard of the Willeburro connection, but that does sound very plausible (and very French, which would blow my theory about of the water, lol).

As far as the name having Saxon/Norse origins, the general consensus seems to be that there are references to Wyldbore/Wyldbar before 1066 (Norm. Conquest) and that it is Old English. I say consensus because while I have found many websites about surnames that make that claim, none of them list original sources for it, which is somewhat frustrating to me. Here are links to a few of them:

Like I said, they all agree with each-other about it being an Old English word, but don't say where they get that from.

Sorry I can't offer anything more scholarly or primary source based, but I hope some of that may at least lead you to finding better sources.

PS. if you find anything more out, feel free to let me know. What I talked about in this post is, at the end of the day, just a theory, and I'd love to find out more about where the name came from.

Unknown said...

Thought you would like to know that a Matthew or John Wildbore Esq. built the Manor of Glinton in England. Finding more and more info.

pdubya1 said...

Great read, thanks! You can find The Wildbores In America in Little Compton, Rhode Island Historical Society, sometimes. Also, here:

patrick wilber