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Historicity of Arthur

Nebuchadnezzar

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BBC 2 documentary last week...King Arthur’s Britain:The Truth Unearthed billed as “In this landmark history film, Professor Alice Roberts uses exciting new archaeological discoveries to decode the myths and medieval fake news, piecing together a very different story of this turning point in Britain's history”.

Presented by Professor Alice Roberts as revelatory, overturning a supposed accepted narrative. Summarising towards the end she stated with certainty that Arthur did not exist.

IMO I found it long winded, it didn’t really set out anything that was fundamentally new and it’s certainty about Arthur’s non existence seemed wrong to me.

The program put particular emphasis for the origin of the legend of King Arthur that we have today upon Geoffrey of Monmouth 12th century work Historia regum Britanniae(History of the King’s of Britain. This book indeed contains the basic elements of the story that thereafter developed into the full blown romance that we have today.

However, there are several references to Arthur or notable events associated with Arthur(here I deliberately say Arthur rather than King Arthur) long predate Geoffrey’s work;

1. Gildas’ De Excidio Britanniae(On the Destruction of Britain) written circa 500Ad. Reference to the victory by the British over the Saxons at Mount Badon but no mention of Arthur.

2. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People c 731. Again refference to the victory by the British over the Saxons at Mount Badon but no mention of Arthur.

3. Nennius’ Historia Brittonum(History of the Britons) c 829.....

Then Arthur fought against them in those days, with the kings of the Britons, but he himself was leader in the battles.
..... thereafter follows an account of 11 battles, and then the 12th....

The 12th Battle was made on the hill of Badon, in which 960 men fell in one charge by Arthur. And no one laid them low save he himself. And in all the battles he emerged the victor.
Two particular points about the passage. Firstly Arthur is not described as a king within the context with reference to kings.....he seems to be of lower rank than a king. Secondly the reference to Arthur killing 960 men has been taken by many to mean that he personally killed that number single handedly and thereby such and account superhuman capability consigns the rest of the account to the realms of fantasy. However, the account can just as easily be read within the context of the reference the ‘kings of the Britons’ working in conjunction with Arthur to distinguish the work of Arthur’s men from those of the ‘kings’.

4. Annales Cambriae(Annals of Wales) c 977. references to Arthur and Battle of Mount Badon.

I know I am biased, I would sincerely like to believe that there is at least some factual basis to the story of Arthur.

What do you think?

Ref....The Reign of Arthur. . Christopher Gidlow, 2004.
 


Nebuchadnezzar

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There is also the notable although oblique reference to a mighty warrior leader Arthur in the ancient bardic poem Y Gododdin(earliest dated to the 6th century).

More than 300 of the finest killed
In the middle and on the flanks he laid them low
Splendid before the host, most generous willed,
Bestowing horses from his own herd every winter’s snow.
He brought down black crows to feed before the wall
Of the city, though he was no Arthur.
Of men he was amongst the mightiest of all,
Before the fence of alderwood stood Guarurthur.
The subject of the poem is a hero Guaurthur who is similar but inferior to Arthur. Here we have a passing reference and comparison to Arthur...with no further mention of Arthur. The audience of this poem were expected to understand this ref to Arthur without any other reference. Arthur it seems was a famous warrior hero widely know at that time.
 

Dame_Enda

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There does seem to have been a leader called Ambrosius Aurelianius (probably a surviving member of the former Romano-British elite) who Gildas says 'certainly wore the purple', which may indicate either imperial family relations, or that he was a consul (I think in those days they got to wear purple too). I would be more sceptical about sources from 400 yrs later, though its possible the Anglo Saxons remembered names of enemy leaders. It does seem there is archeological evidence pointing to a temporary pause in the Saxon conquest of Britain after a battle of Mons Badonicus (or Badon Hill in English). Unclear if Arthur had anything to do with it. Complicating things further is that various Welsh dynasties tried to claim genealogical ties to Arthur and to Vortigern (including the Ellsig Pillar), the Romano-British leader who supposedly invited in the Saxons as mercenaries against the Picts, only to be killed by them later.
 

JimmyFoley

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Meh. Who knows? Maybe there was some powerful or influential dude on whom the fears and anxieties and desires and expectations and struggles of some people in Britain were placed by later generations, turning him from a mere mortal into a superman who did all kinds of incredible stuff. The echo of some kind of real history. A bit like David and Goliath.

Of course it's more likely that it's all just a myth. A bit like Moses.
 

Nebuchadnezzar

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There does seem to have been a leader called Ambrosius Aurelianius (probably a surviving member of the former Romano-British elite) who Gildas says 'certainly wore the purple', which may indicate either imperial family relations, or that he was a consul (I think in those days they got to wear purple too). I would be more sceptical about sources from 400 yrs later, though its possible the Anglo Saxons remembered names of enemy leaders. It does seem there is archeological evidence pointing to a temporary pause in the Saxon conquest of Britain after a battle of Mons Badonicus (or Badon Hill in English). Unclear if Arthur had anything to do with it. Complicating things further is that various Welsh dynasties tried to claim genealogical ties to Arthur and to Vortigern (including the Ellsig Pillar), the Romano-British leader who supposedly invited in the Saxons as mercenaries against the Picts, only to be killed by them later.
Ambrosius Aurelianius ~~ Arthur?

Perhaps but Gildas does not refer to him as victor at Badon(AFAIK Bede later takes it that Gildas inferred that he was) and also the context within which Gildas was referring to him should be kept in mind.....Gildas was using him to admonish his descendants, contrasting his worthiness with their bad behaviour.... ‘his grandchildren have greatly degenerated from their ancestors example’. That doesn’t exclude an overlap between Arthur and Ambrosius but it does signify that Gildas was writing for a narrow purpose rather than setting out a larger narrative.

Regarding his imperial pedigree....’his parents must have worn the Purple’.....Gildas may well have meant that they were Christian martyrs. Gildas elsewhere refers to slain Brittons on a holy alter ‘touched by the purple cloak, as it were, of their drying blood’ and also of their corpses ‘covered, as it were, with a purple crust of congealed blood’. This last description shortly precedes the ref to the death of the parents of Ambrosius and their wearing purple....’Ambrosius....had survived the shock of that notable storm(the Saxons) which had killed his parents, who had undoubtedly worn the purple’. He is also described as ‘vir modestus’.....of modest status.
 

Malcolm Redfellow

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Meh. Who knows? Maybe there was some powerful or influential dude on whom the fears and anxieties and desires and expectations and struggles of some people in Britain were placed by later generations, turning him from a mere mortal into a superman who did all kinds of incredible stuff. The echo of some kind of real history.
Fair enough: that's how mythology tends to work.

'Arthur' is a construct from the age of the chansons de geste. That doesn't mean we cannot find his analogues in 'real history'. We might start with Coel Hen, who has enough presence to be datable to c.350-c.420.

We now need to clear away that date of AD410, the supposed departure of the legions from Britain (which was given credence in the BBC2 documentary). School histories seem still to offer that as terminus ad quem for Roman Britain: it is based on nothing more than the Emperor Honorius (up to his neck in Alaric's Visigoths) admitting he hadn't resources to send to Britain. Ammianus Marcellinus (see books XX.1, XXVI.4 and XXVIII.3) describes in detail how, in AD367, the 'Barbarian Conspiracy' was destabilising any pretence of Roman imperial rule:
at that time the Picts, who were divided into two nations, the Dicalidones and the Vecturiones, and likewise the Attacotti, a very warlike people, and the Scots were all roving over different parts of the country and committing great ravages. While the Franks and the Saxons who are on the frontiers of the Gauls were ravaging their country wherever they could effect an entrance by sea or land, plundering and burning, and murdering all the prisoners they could take.
Another indication of Coel Hen's significance lies in the claims of several local dynasties to be his descendants (or Coeling): Urien of Rheged, Gwallog of Elmet, Clydno Eiddin (eponymously of Edinburgh).

Backtrack to that 'Barbarian Conspiracy'. A year later the Emperor Valens was done down by the Visgoths at Adrianople (9 August 368). Gratian summoned Theodosius, and appointed him co-emperor. And Theodosius had learned his soldiering trade suppressing the 'Barbarian Conspiracy', and re-establishing some semblance of Roman order in Britain. When Gratian went the way of all flesh, suppressing a mutiny (AD383), Theodosius bestrode the narrowing Roman world like a Colossus.

Into every apple of discord a worm must come: Theodosius' nephew (insert speculative query? — for Geoffrey of Monmouth has him also a nephew of Coel Hen) was a certain Flavius, who had been Gratian's fate somewhere near modern Paris. For Flavius was on his way to being Flavius Magnus Maximus Augustus, and self-appointed Emperor in Gaul and Britain. Flavius denuded Britain of Roman military to pursue his assault on the western Empire, until he surrendered in 388. He was executed and a sentence of Damnatio memoriae (the fore-runner of Stalinist 'liquidation') passed on him.

Yet here we approach another variant of the Arthurian myth. Flavius Magnus Maximus Augustus transmogrified into Macsen Wledig, the claimed ancestor of any Welsh/British petty dynasty worthy of the name. For the story went that Macsen Wledig's daughter was Sevira, and she was the wife of Vortigern.

All that done and said, the really, really significant suggestion in that BBC2 documentary was the dog that barked in the night. Or rather didn't, for it suggested there is no — repeat no — archaeological evidence for warfare between 'native' Britons and invading 'Anglo-Saxons'. Rather there is ample evidence of co-existence and integration.
 

McTell

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///

All that done and said, the really, really significant suggestion in that BBC2 documentary was the dog that barked in the night. Or rather didn't, for it suggested there is no — repeat no — archaeological evidence for warfare between 'native' Britons and invading 'Anglo-Saxons'. Rather there is ample evidence of co-existence and integration.

Likely that after a few centuries of seemingly peaceful assimilation, the remaining welsh speakers in wales and strathclyde were thinking "how the F did that happen?", and needed an unlucky hero who did his best, for their own self-esteem?

Y goddodin "of the 700s" exists in an MS of the 1300s.

Seems from the dna map that the welsh in wales are distinct and didn't "leave behind" any cousins in england. Likely that the welsh in wales had always lived there, and had not been pushed out of england.

Same as our conamara cousins had always lived there speaking their own dialect of irish.
 

Lumpy Talbot

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Could be a lot simpler than all that. Before the age of Bede most legend would have been of the oral variety, passed down from bard to bard.

People needed their heroes as they do today, so some characters become a codex for all the virtues the people might like and the Arthurian legend certainly contains a high degree of chivalry, justice and protection of the downtrodden and the poor against external enemies and internal anti-heroes.

From far later we have an example of that in the character of Robin Goodfellow or 'Robin Hood'. Most likely in the most easy on the ear rendition of the virtues Arthur grew out of the desire for him to have existed. As with all these things it is likely that certain kings or strongmen would have fostered an association with the legend as it made it easier to rule and played well with the people.

So instead of looking back through the dimness of early history for the definitive Arthur it is probably more likely that Arthur was a construct over a long time of many voices in a chinese whisper that snaked around many a local culture and added yet another whisper on top.

Look at the legend of the noble king in the east from not that long ago- Prester John. That legend was so enchanting that known kings in the west sent messengers and embassies to try and find his kingdom. Possibly born itself out of the legendary cities founded by Alexander in his travels.

Tristan and Isolde, Arthur, the great romances. They existed because they were needed and we are left with the echoes of them.
 

McTell

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//

Tristan and Isolde, Arthur, the great romances. They existed because they were needed and we are left with the echoes of them.

Sorry I can't >>like<< your post for tech reasons.

Archetypes, we got'em, before religions and writing, we had to be told in stories what was right and wrong.

Archetype - Wikipedia
 

Dame_Enda

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Fair enough: that's how mythology tends to work.

'Arthur' is a construct from the age of the chansons de geste. That doesn't mean we cannot find his analogues in 'real history'. We might start with Coel Hen, who has enough presence to be datable to c.350-c.420.

We now need to clear away that date of AD410, the supposed departure of the legions from Britain (which was given credence in the BBC2 documentary). School histories seem still to offer that as terminus ad quem for Roman Britain: it is based on nothing more than the Emperor Honorius (up to his neck in Alaric's Visigoths) admitting he hadn't resources to send to Britain. Ammianus Marcellinus (see books XX.1, XXVI.4 and XXVIII.3) describes in detail how, in AD367, the 'Barbarian Conspiracy' was destabilising any pretence of Roman imperial rule:

Another indication of Coel Hen's significance lies in the claims of several local dynasties to be his descendants (or Coeling): Urien of Rheged, Gwallog of Elmet, Clydno Eiddin (eponymously of Edinburgh).

Backtrack to that 'Barbarian Conspiracy'. A year later the Emperor Valens was done down by the Visgoths at Adrianople (9 August 368). Gratian summoned Theodosius, and appointed him co-emperor. And Theodosius had learned his soldiering trade suppressing the 'Barbarian Conspiracy', and re-establishing some semblance of Roman order in Britain. When Gratian went the way of all flesh, suppressing a mutiny (AD383), Theodosius bestrode the narrowing Roman world like a Colossus.

Into every apple of discord a worm must come: Theodosius' nephew (insert speculative query? — for Geoffrey of Monmouth has him also a nephew of Coel Hen) was a certain Flavius, who had been Gratian's fate somewhere near modern Paris. For Flavius was on his way to being Flavius Magnus Maximus Augustus, and self-appointed Emperor in Gaul and Britain. Flavius denuded Britain of Roman military to pursue his assault on the western Empire, until he surrendered in 388. He was executed and a sentence of Damnatio memoriae (the fore-runner of Stalinist 'liquidation') passed on him.

Yet here we approach another variant of the Arthurian myth. Flavius Magnus Maximus Augustus transmogrified into Macsen Wledig, the claimed ancestor of any Welsh/British petty dynasty worthy of the name. For the story went that Macsen Wledig's daughter was Sevira, and she was the wife of Vortigern.

All that done and said, the really, really significant suggestion in that BBC2 documentary was the dog that barked in the night. Or rather didn't, for it suggested there is no — repeat no — archaeological evidence for warfare between 'native' Britons and invading 'Anglo-Saxons'. Rather there is ample evidence of co-existence and integration.
Well on the Rescript of Honorius, it comes during a discussion about Italy so some historians thing the reference to Britain is a spelling mistake and was suppose to refer to Bruttium in southern Italy.

Without invasion how do you account for the almost complete absence of Celtic placenames in (except places conquered late like Cumbria and Cornwall) England? Even in the other settler societies like America or Australia there are many Amerindian place names.
 

Nebuchadnezzar

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Likely that after a few centuries of seemingly peaceful assimilation, the remaining welsh speakers in wales and strathclyde were thinking "how the F did that happen?", and needed an unlucky hero who did his best, for their own self-esteem?

Y goddodin "of the 700s" exists in an MS of the 1300s.

Seems from the dna map that the welsh in wales are distinct and didn't "leave behind" any cousins in england. Likely that the welsh in wales had always lived there, and had not been pushed out of england.

Same as our conamara cousins had always lived there speaking their own dialect of irish.
The peaceful assimilation theory seems to have replaced the genocidal invasion one. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. As Dame Enda points out the absence of any significant Celtic influence upon the English language is a major weakness in the peaceful assimilation idea. Granted them may have already been a sizeable Germanic presence(Belgae) in SE Britannia pre Anglo Saxon arrival but even so I think one would expect at least some notable Celtic input into the development of the English language but the arrival of the Saxons etc resulted in the virtual extermination of the resident language.


Y goddodin....Ok so the earliest surviving text dates to 1300 but it is of far earlier origin, as oral epic, with various sources contending various dates 7th to 11th century. I think it’s generally accepted that as an oral work it ‘evolved’ over time. However celtic historian and linguist John Koch dates the particular section that references Arthur to late 6th century based on the language, structure and rhyme. Also in defence of its authenticity is the lost of various heros in the work...many of these have no known descendants, for the later audiences/readers circa 1300 etc these references did not serve to boost the pedigree of who ever(similar point has been made about the Catalogue of Ships in the Iliad....various cities listed that in later textual times no longer existed).
 

Dame_Enda

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More likely that the Belgae were Celtic speakers though they may have had mixed Celtic Germanic origins. Caesar writes that their language was almost identical to that of the Britons.
 

Nebuchadnezzar

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Fair enough: that's how mythology tends to work.

'Arthur' is a construct from the age of the chansons de geste. That doesn't mean we cannot find his analogues in 'real history'. We might start with Coel Hen, who has enough presence to be datable to c.350-c.420.

We now need to clear away that date of AD410, the supposed departure of the legions from Britain (which was given credence in the BBC2 documentary). School histories seem still to offer that as terminus ad quem for Roman Britain: it is based on nothing more than the Emperor Honorius (up to his neck in Alaric's Visigoths) admitting he hadn't resources to send to Britain. Ammianus Marcellinus (see books XX.1, XXVI.4 and XXVIII.3) describes in detail how, in AD367, the 'Barbarian Conspiracy' was destabilising any pretence of Roman imperial rule:

Another indication of Coel Hen's significance lies in the claims of several local dynasties to be his descendants (or Coeling): Urien of Rheged, Gwallog of Elmet, Clydno Eiddin (eponymously of Edinburgh).

Backtrack to that 'Barbarian Conspiracy'. A year later the Emperor Valens was done down by the Visgoths at Adrianople (9 August 368). Gratian summoned Theodosius, and appointed him co-emperor. And Theodosius had learned his soldiering trade suppressing the 'Barbarian Conspiracy', and re-establishing some semblance of Roman order in Britain. When Gratian went the way of all flesh, suppressing a mutiny (AD383), Theodosius bestrode the narrowing Roman world like a Colossus.

Into every apple of discord a worm must come: Theodosius' nephew (insert speculative query? — for Geoffrey of Monmouth has him also a nephew of Coel Hen) was a certain Flavius, who had been Gratian's fate somewhere near modern Paris. For Flavius was on his way to being Flavius Magnus Maximus Augustus, and self-appointed Emperor in Gaul and Britain. Flavius denuded Britain of Roman military to pursue his assault on the western Empire, until he surrendered in 388. He was executed and a sentence of Damnatio memoriae (the fore-runner of Stalinist 'liquidation') passed on him.

Yet here we approach another variant of the Arthurian myth. Flavius Magnus Maximus Augustus transmogrified into Macsen Wledig, the claimed ancestor of any Welsh/British petty dynasty worthy of the name. For the story went that Macsen Wledig's daughter was Sevira, and she was the wife of Vortigern.

All that done and said, the really, really significant suggestion in that BBC2 documentary was the dog that barked in the night. Or rather didn't, for it suggested there is no — repeat no — archaeological evidence for warfare between 'native' Britons and invading 'Anglo-Saxons'. Rather there is ample evidence of co-existence and integration.
I suspect that the program exaggerated and simplified much of what the academics were trying to say. Maybe I remember wrongly (and I cannot access the link to watch again) but I think that they were setting out that there is no archaeological evidence of large scale war between the Saxons and Britons; that the Wrath of God kind of war set out by Gildas is not supported by the evidence of settlement and burials. However, that does not mean that there was not at least some notable level of conflict between them.

There is evidence in the few written accounts that we have. Many(you too I suppose?) now dismiss these as mostly fabrication written for later political or dynastic reasons. However, the fact is that we have accounts of conflict between these two groups from various distinct political/geographic sources. On the side of one the belligerents we have the British sources in Gildas and Y Goddodin and on the other we have several Anglo Saxon sources such as Bede, Historia Brittonum and The Anglo Saxon Chronicle. These all depict warfare Britons versus Germanics. Beyond that we also have Roman/Gaulish sources such as Chronica Gallica(452AD)

The British provinces, which to this time had suffered various defeats and misfortunes, are reduced to Saxon rule.
I think there are also Irish references to British Saxon conflict.


So, we have at least 3 perspectives involved in these early references to such conflict. I think some people have been too quick to dismiss the written/oral evidence and too quick to adopt this new peaceful assimilation theory.
 
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Dame_Enda

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There is also some archaeological evidence at three of the battle sites associated with either Vortigern or Vortimer, the son of Vortigern. Vortimer is supposed to have deposed his father as British Celtic king and driven the Saxons out, before being ousted by Vortigern who invited the Saxons back in.
 

Nebuchadnezzar

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There is also some archaeological evidence at three of the battle sites associated with Vortimer, the son of Vortigern. Vortimer is supposed to have deposed his father as British Celtic king and driven the Saxons out, before being ousted by Vortigern who invited the Saxons back in.
A British civil war ....which the later Arthurian romances echo.

Have you some detail on that evidence?
 

McTell

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Weren't the saxons invited in to help one side in a "celtic" civil war, then wouldn't leave? Shades of Strongbow.

Anyhows I see that Prof Roberts has graduated beyond the "occasional bumshot" category of nubile tv historienne.
 

Dame_Enda

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Weren't the saxons invited in to help one side in a "celtic" civil war, then wouldn't leave? Shades of Strongbow.

Anyhows I see that Prof Roberts has graduated beyond the "occasional bumshot" category of nubile tv historienne.
According to some sources, a king called Vortigern invited in the Saxons to help against the Picts. "Tigerno" was a Celtic name ending at this time, though the story is disputed. Gildas doesn't name Vortigern but does say they were invited in by a ruler he calls a "superbus tyrannus" (proud tyrant). Fortcheirn was also a common Irish name in the Middle Ages.
 
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Nebuchadnezzar

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Weren't the saxons invited in to help one side in a "celtic" civil war, then wouldn't leave? Shades of Strongbow.

Anyhows I see that Prof Roberts has graduated beyond the "occasional bumshot" category of nubile tv historienne.
Archetypes.....that same old story....

Wife runs away with other man.......husband upset.

Dervorilla leaves Tighernan O’Rourke for Dermot MacMurrogh, Norman’s invade.

Guinevere’s affair with Lancelot, Arthur’s just rule disturbed, civil war.

Helen elopes with Paris, Troy destroyed.
 

Dame_Enda

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Some archaeological evidence countering Malcolm Redfellow's scepticism of the Anglo Saxon invasion theory.

...At Stretton-on-Fosse II (Warwickshire), located on the western fringes of the early Anglo-Saxon settlement area, the proportion of male adults with weapons is 82%, well above the average in southern England. Cemetery II, the Anglo-Saxon burial site, is immediately adjacent to two Romano-British cemeteries, Stretton-on-Fosse I and III, the latter only 60 metres (200 feet) away from Anglo-Saxon burials. Continuity of the native female population at this site has been inferred from the continuity of textile techniques (unusual in the transition from the Romano-British to the Anglo-Saxon periods), and by the continuity of epigenetic traits from the Roman to the Anglo-Saxon burials. At the same time, the skeletal evidence demonstrates the appearance in the post-Roman period of a new physical type of males who are more slender and taller than the men in the adjacent Romano-British cemeteries.[147] Taken together, the observations suggest the influx of a group of males, probably most or all of them Germanic, who took control of the local community and married native women. It is not easy to confirm such cases of 'warband' settlement in the absence of detailed skeletal, and other complementary, information, but assuming that such cases are indicated by very high proportions of weapon burials, this type of settlement was much less frequent than the kin group model.[114]..
What happened to the Celtic men?

On the other hand in places that were conquered later on theres some evidence that some native elites may have survived by assimilation into Anglo Saxon culture. For example the line of the kings of Wessex has some Celtic sounding names for a while, like Cerdic, Ceawlin and Caedwalla (abdicated or died around 688). According to legend, Cerdic was one of the Saxon invaders. But that might have been invented. Wessex was next to the Celtic kingdom of Dumnonia which included modern Devon. Some have also argued that the name of one of the kings of Mercia, Penda, is Celtic, though a Germanic female name "Pendi" has been discovered too, which suggests a possible masculine form.
 
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