The owner of this great historical name, who accompanied the Conqueror to England, was apparently the son of Robert le Bigod, the first of the name of whom we have any notice, and who was a witness to the foundation of St. Philibert-sur-Risle, in 1066. Wace, in his enumeration of the leaders in the host at Hastings, designates the member of this family simply as the ancestor of Hugh le Bigot, Lord of Maletot, Loges, and Canon.
"L'Ancestre Hue le Bigot
Ki avoit terre a Maletot,
Etais Loges et a Chanon."
Roman de Rou, I. 1377.
Maletot is near Caen, Canon (Chanon) is in the arrondissement of Lisieux, and Loges may have been either Les Loges, near Aunay, or another commune of the same name in the neighbourhood of Falaise. (Le Prévost: Notes to Le Rom. de Rou, vol. ii, p. 256.) The possession of these lands in Normandy by "the ancestor of Hugh le Bigot" is a curious fact, taken into consideration with the account the monk of Jumièges gives of this ancestor. Robert le Bigod, he tells us, was a knight in the service of William Werlenc, or the Warling, Comte de Mortain, and so poor that he prayed his lord to permit him to go and seek his fortune in Apulia, where his countrymen were establishing themselves and acquiring wealth and dignity under the leadership of Robert Guiscard. The Count bade him remain, assuring him that within eighty days he (Robert) would be in a position to help himself to whatever he desired in Normandy.
Whether the Count contemplated the deposition of Duke William, or was privy to the design of others, may never be known, but Robert le Bigod, inferring from this advice that some rebellious movement was projected, repaired to Richard Goz, Vicomte of the Hiemois, who was at that moment highly in favour with the Duke, and requested him to obtain an audience for him. Richard, who, according to the same authority, was a kinsman of Robert -- it would be interesting to learn how -- readily complied, and Le Bigod having repeated to the Duke the words of the Warling, the latter was instantly summoned to attend him, accused of treason, banished the country, and the Comté of Mortain was bestowed upon the Duke's half-brother Robert, the son of Herleve by Herluin. That William jumped at this opportunity to rid himself of a possible competitor whose claim to the duchy was clearly stronger than his own, and at the same time to advance one of his own family who would have no such pretensions, there can be no doubt. The truth or falsehood of the story told to him by Robert le Bigod has never been established. The defence of the accused, if he made any, has not been recorded; and even Mr. Freeman admits that the Duke's "justice, if justice it was, fell so sharply and speedily as to look very like interested oppression." (Norm. Conq., vol. ii., p. 290.) We have seen in the previous notice of Raoul de Gael what opinion was held in his own days of this suspicious act of the Conqueror. From that moment Robert le Bigod became a confidential servant of his sovereign, and his son Roger was the companion of the Conqueror, who for his services at Senlac received large grants of land in the counties of Essex and Suffolk, six lordships in the former and one hundred and seventeen in the latter.
Mons le Prévost remarks that Wace, always inclined to treat the present as the past, has attributed to Roger the office of seneschal, which was only enjoyed by his second son William. With all deference, I think the learned antiquary has misunderstood his author. Wace is not speaking of Roger le Bigod, the father of Hugh and William, but of "the ancestor of Hugh," Robert, as I take it, "who served the Duke in his house as one of his seneschals, which office he held in fee."
Mr. Taylor remarks that there is no authority for this statement, yet we find that Roger, who was one of the privy councillors and treasurer of the Duke, was seneschal or steward to Henry I, after the decease of his father, and that both William and Hugh, his sons, succeeded each other in that high office, which is a fair corroboration of the assertion that it was held in fee. If Wace be in error it is in his intimation, as I understand him, that it was Hugh's grandfather Robert, and not his father, Roger, who accompanied Duke William to Hastings.
As we have no means at present of ascertaining the age of Robert when he accused his lord of treason, it is not improbable that he, as well as his son Roger, was at Senlac. The latter survived the Conquest forty-three years, and may have been a young man in 1066, and his father not too old to bestride a war steed and lead his retainers into action. Whether father or son, we are told that "he had a large troop, and was a noble vassal. He was small of body, but very brave and daring, and assaulted the English with his mace gallantly." (Roman de Rou, I. 13, 682-87.) We hear nothing of him during the reign of the first William, but at the commencement of that of the second, Roger le Bigod is found amongst the adherents of Robert Court-heuse, fortifying his castle at Norwich and laying waste the country round about: whether eventually reconciled to Rufus, or what was the result of the suppressed rebellion to him personally, we are without information; but in the first year of the reign of Henry I, being one of those who stood firm to the King, he had Framlingham, in Suffolk, of his gift.
In 1103, by the advice of King Henry, Maud the Queen, Hubert Bishop of Norwich, and his own wife, the Lady Adeliza, one of the daughters and co-heirs of Hugh de Grentmesnil, seneschal of England, he founded the Abbey of Thetford, in the county of Norfolk, and, dying in 1107, was buried there.
By the Lady Adeliza he is said to have had seven children -- William, his son and heir, who by his charter, confirming his father's gift to Thetford, informs us that he was "Dapifer regis Anglorum;" 2. Hugh le Bigod, the first earl; 3. Richard; 4. Geoffrey; 5. John; 6. Maud, wife of William de Albini Pincerna; and 7. Gunnora, who married, first, Robert of Essex, and, secondly, Hamo de Clare. William perished in the fatal wreck of the White Ship, and Hugh, his brother and heir, in his turn steward of the King's household, was eventually created Earl of Norfolk; his descendants, by a match with Maud, the eldest daughter and co-heiress of the Marshals, Earls of Pembroke, becoming marshals of England, an office enjoyed to this day by the Dukes of Norfolk.
The name and origin of this family, Mr. Taylor remarks, seem more worthy of consideration than has hitherto been given to it. (Notes to Rom. de Rou, p. 230.) The name is spelt indifferently Bigod, Bigot, Bihot, Vigot, Wigot, Wihot, and Wigelot, generally with the prefix of "le." The Normans are represented by the French to be "Bigoz and Dranchiers;" the latter term is understood to mean consumers of barley -- perhaps beer-drinkers -- and the former presumed to have been given them from their constantly taking the name of the Almighty in vain. Anderson, in his "Genealogical Tables," says, without quoting his authority, that Rollo was styled "Bygot," from his frequent use of the phrase. This derivation receives some support from the well
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Poitevin, "le Scot," &c., and in this category I think we may class "le Vigot," an abbreviation of "le Visigot," spelt, as we find it, indifferently with a "B" or a "W" (Bigot and Wigot), according to the particular dialect of the writers. The application of the name to the Normans generally, while it proves that it was not derived from any hereditary possession or personal peculiarity, as in other cases, also testifies to the purity of the family, which was distinguished amongst its own people by the designation of that great Gothic stock whence they commonly proceeded.
A signet ring was dug up some few years ago on one of the estates in Norfolk which had belonged to this family, exhibiting the figure of a goat, with the word "By" above it, being a punning device or rebus "By Goat." It is engraved in Mr. Taylor's translation of the Roman de Rou (p. 235, note), but of the legend round it the word "God" is alone distinguishable. This, however, is merely a mediaeval curiosity of no importance to the question of derivation. To settle that question we must learn to labour and to wait.
Added to this site through the courtesy of Fred L. Curry, who provided a photocopy of the section.