For this latest post in my Royal People series I go back a lot further than most of my posts have focused on so far, to Roman Britain. Boudica is one of the most famous women in English history, and as I grew up in one of the towns she burnt to the ground, I knew about and admired her from an early age. She was one of the first bad-ass women that I learnt about that made me question what I had been taught about the meek, oppressed women of the past.
Alex Kingston portraying Boudica in the 2003 film “Warrior Queen”
Boudica was a member of the Iceni tribe, a celtic tribe whose territory included present-day Norfolk and parts of Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. In 45 AD the tribe allied with Rome under Claudius’ conquest of Britain, although by 47 AD they began to tire of Roman influence on their affairs which led to a revolt. They retained some independence under their King, Prasutagus (Boudica’s husband), until his death around 60 AD. At this point, the Romans once again tried to exert control over the Iceni – in his will, Prasutagus had left his kingdom jointly to his daughters and the Roman Emperor. Tacitus, a Roman senator and historian writing towards the end of the first century, wrote that Boudica was flogged and her daughters raped as a way for the Romans to exert control.
Boudica was very aware of her rights and power under celtic tradition; it is clear that she was a member of royalty, not just through her marriage, but she was also of royal descent herself. She was described by Cassius Dio, another Roman statesman and historian who was born the following century from Boudica, as “possessed of greater intelligence than often belongs to women” (giving and taking with the same hand). He says she was tall, with tawny hair that went below her waist. He wrote that she tended to wear a large golden necklace, which may have been a torc, a colourful tunic, and a thick cloak fastened by a brooch.
An imagining of Boudica from Alamy.
As well as the harm done to Boudica and her daughters, it appears that the lands of leading Iceni men were also confiscated, and Iceni lands pillaged. Cassius Dio suggests that the instigator of the violence was a man named Seneca who was an advisor of the emperor Nero. As a result of these actions against them, the Iceni had to respond, and Boudica was the one who took control. Boudica and her followers took inspiration from previous successful campaigns which drove Romans out and they got neighbouring tribes to join their cause.
The first place they targeted was Colchester which was occupied by Romans who mistreated the locals and had forced them to pay for a temple dedicated to the former emperor Claudius. This had made the city a focus for resentment by the natives. The Romans appealed for help but only two hundred auxiliary troops were sent and so Boudica’s army destroyed the city. A legion from the Roman army was sent to relieve the city, but it was wiped out—only the commander and some of his cavalry escaped.
The destruction of the Temple of Claudius from Colchester Guide
The current Governor, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, had travelled to London, a fairly recent settlement but one that thrived under traders and merchants, after news of the rebellion reached him. However, once he heard of the crushing defeat of the Roman legion, he decided he did not have sufficient forces to defend London from the rebels and fled. Boudica’s rebels burnt it down, slaughtering anyone who had not evacuated with the Governor. Archaeological digs have shown a thick red layer of burnt debris covering coins and pottery dating before 60 AD within the bounds of Roman London; this was a devastating attack. Cassius Dio says that the noblest women were impaled on spikes and had their breasts cut off and sewn to their mouths, “to the accompaniment of sacrifices, banquets, and wanton behaviour” in sacred places, and Tacitus highlights that the rebels had no interest in taking prisoners, only in death by gibbet, fire, or cross.
After Boudica destroyed London, her forces converged on the nearby settlement of Verulamium, known today as St Albans. Verulamium was in the territory of the Catuvellauni tribe, and it was the second-largest town in Roman Britain after London. Verulamium suffered the same fate as London, being sacked and burnt to the ground, and once again a black ash layer has been recorded by archaeologists which lines up with the dates of the attack, giving proof of the damage.
Remains of the Roman wall of Verulamium, St Albans
Whilst Boudica was laying waste to St Albans, the Roman forces were mobilising – Suetonius amassed a force which included his own legion, as well as any spare troops from other legions. Altogether, he managed to gather around 10,000 men for the task, a huge number. However, by now the rebel forces were said by Cassius Dio to have numbered 230,000 (although this number is probably an exaggeration that ancient writers were prone to). It is not known exactly where the two forces took battle, though it was probably in the West Midlands somewhere along Watling Street. Boudica led her troops from her chariot, with her daughters beside her.
“Tacitus gives her a short speech in which she presents herself not as an aristocrat avenging her lost wealth, but as an ordinary person, avenging her lost freedom, her battered body, and the abused chastity of her daughters. She said their cause was just, and the deities were on their side; the one legion that had dared to face them had been destroyed. She, a woman, was resolved to win or die; if the men wanted to live in slavery, that was their choice.” (taken from Wikipedia)
A statue of Boudica and her daughters in their chariot was erected in Westminster in the nineteenth century
Despite their numerical advantage and previous victories, the space was bordered by woods and this lack of large open space meant that the numbers could not be utilised to Boudica’s advantage. Moreover, the Roman troops that had been mobilised were extremely skilled and had plenty of experience, as well as superior weaponry and armour. The Romans began to slaughter the rebels, and in terror the Celts tried to flee. However, in one of the most infamous battle failures, the rebels had brought trains of their relatives and possessions in wagons at the edge of the battlefield. When the warriors tried to flee, they could not escape as the wagons pinned them in, and a mass slaughter ensued. Tacitus states that almost 80,000 Britons fell compared with only four hundred Romans.
Boudica’s fate is unclear; Tacitus’ Annals state that Boudica poisoned herself, although in a piece he wrote two decades prior he mentions nothing of her suicide. Cassius Dio says she fell sick and died and then was given a lavish burial. No historical records tell us what happened to Boudica’s two daughters. Suetonius began a policy of punishment against the native people, but Nero replaced him with a more reconciliatory governor after fear that Suetonius’ policy would provoke further rebellion. The historian Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus said that the crisis almost persuaded Nero to abandon Britain.
An estimated 70,000–80,000 Romans and British were killed in the three cities by those led by Boudica. There were no real winners from Boudica’s rebellion – the rebels were ultimately defeated, and the Romans suffered great losses themselves, not least of all to their pride. It is clear from the events, however, that Boudica was certainly a remarkable woman; although little is known of her apart from the rebellion, to inspire such a large number of people to follow her in rebellion – and be remarkably successful – was quite a feat.
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