Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni who led an indigenous Briton uprising against the Roman invaders.
“She was huge of frame, terrifying of aspect, and with a harsh voice. A great mass of bright red hair fell to her knees: She wore a great twisted golden necklace, and a tunic of many colors, over which was a thick mantle, fastened by a brooch. Now she grasped a spear, to strike fear into all who watched her……”
-Dio Cassius (Dudley and Webster, 54)
The story of Boudicca, celebrated Celtic queen, wife, and mother is destined to remain in the gray shadows of history. Written histories of Boudicca, and of early Britain in general, are found in two classical manuscripts, which were most likely derived from the same original source. The historian Tacitus wrote his history only fifty years after the events of 60 CE, and it has been said that his father-in-law Agricola was able to give an eyewitness account of the rebellion. Dio Cassius also gives his account of the events. Although both are biased accounts, they lay down the basic chronological framework of early Roman Britain. Attempts to turn to archaeological discoveries to help pinpoint the exact events has been frustrated, since much of the data was destroyed during pillaging and a significant amount of the land has never been excavated due to a lack of funds, therefore information is limited. The only thing possible at this point is an outline of the uprising of Boudicca and the indigenous people of Britain.
Some time between 43 and 45 CE, Boudicca was married to Prasutagus, King of the Iceni. (The Iceni were a Celtic tribe located in an area of southern Britain known as East Anglia.) In the upper eschelons of Celtic society, women held positions of prestige and power. Many took prominent roles in political, religious, and artistic life. Women also owned land and could choose their spouses and initiate divorce.
Although they were relatively protected by geographic advantages, the Roman threat to the Iceni’s peaceful existence was very real. The Iceni had remained passive and watched while the Roman Emperor Claudius and his army conquered large parts of Britain in 43 CE. Since Claudius was founding strong military colonies all over the island, the Iceni knew they couldn’t remain independent forever from Roman domination. In an attempt to avoid conflict, and in an act of compliance, King Prasutagus went to the city of Camulodunum to become a client/king. This forced him to have to answer to the Roman ruling class, but enabled his tribe and their culture to remain relatively unfettered.
Upon his death Prasutagus left his kingdom to be shared by his two daughters and the new Roman emperor, Nero, believing that this would ensure tranquility for his family and kingdom. Roman law, however, did not allow royal inheritance to be passed to daughters, and co-ownership of a kingdom with a woman was unacceptable according to Roman standards. Kinsmen of the royal house were enslaved. Boudicca was flogged and then forced to witness the public rape and torture of her two daughters, who were believed to have been roughly 12 years old at the time of the rebellion.
The roman campaign stretched over the entire area. The Romans were experiencing difficulty in the north-east attempting to take the headquarters of Druidism, the Isle of Mona. The Romans feared the Druids as they had been behind rebellions against Caesar in the past. This territory had become the geographical center for anti-Roman and pro-Briton activities. The troubles in the north occupied Seutonius and caused him to overlook Boudicca and the growing threat in the south.
While by Roman law Boudicca had no real claim to succession after her husband’s death, her people regarded her as their natural leader, and their neighboring tribes were willing to support any anti-Roman uprising. The indigenous people had suffered under Roman taxation for years. They were also driven off their own land and subjected to lives as prisoners and slaves. Sometime between 56 and 60 CE the Temple of Claudius was erected in Colchester to commemorate the life of the Roman emperor who had destroyed the majority of the Celtic culture; this immediately became an object of strong derision for the British. They were also angered by the attack on the headquarters of the Druidic religion. These realities urged neighboring tribes, among them were the Trinovantes, to join Boudicca in her rebellion, which has been said to have been 100,000 people strong, against Roman forces. They began by storming the Roman cities of Camulodunum and Colchester, then proceeding to the growing trade center of Londinium (London), and ending in a final catastrophic battle.
One underlying question about the rebellion asks how the Iceni were able to remain unnoticed for so long. There are a few reasons why they were able to succeed as long as they did. The overconfidence of the Romans may have caused their negligence. They had preconceived notions of the “barbarians”, and were ill-equipped to deal with small bands of warriors slipping quietly through the thick forests. The Celts excelled in small-scale guerilla warfare while the slow-moving Roman units were at an obvious disadvantage in the forest. The British Celts also used chariots, which had become obsolete on the continent. They were remarkably small and light, and the driver and warrior were protected by wicker screens on all sides.
Tacitus gives an account of the final battle that tells of the women running about frantically, hair wild, naked and screaming. The Celtic chief was adorned in barbaric splendor with highly ornamental shields and armor. The rest of the army would be only with sword and a small shield, otherwise stripped except for body paint and tattooing. Trumpets would be blaring in an attempt to confuse and intimidate the enemy. Meanwhile, the Druids were standing nearby with their arms raised to the sky and calling on the gods to aid them. The overall appearance of this chaotic scene was initially terrifying to the Romans, who would stand in awe before battle: however, this is a typical ploy of Roman military writing which portrays the enemy as uncivilized animals as opposed to Roman law, order, and civilization.
At this point the three principle cities of the province had been captured, and the inhabitants brutally massacred. Tacitus gives a count of roughly 70,000 casualties before the final battle. No one is sure exactly when and where this final confrontation took place. Both sides struggled with famine and disease. Boudicca was having a difficult time keeping order among her troops after victory with its accompanying looting and burning.
The British were fighting for their country and their families, while the Romans were still fighting for greed. Tacitus gives us what was supposedly Boudicca’s final battle cry to her troops:
“The Britons were used to the leadership of women, but she came back before them not as a queen of a distinguished line, but as an ordinary woman, her body cut by the lash avenging the loss of her liberty, and the outrages imposed on her daughters. Roman greed spares neither their bodies, the old or the virgins. The gods were on our side in our quest for vengeance, one legion had already perished, the others are cowering in their forts to escape. They could never face the roar of our thousands, least of all our charge and hand to hand fighting. When the Romans realize their small force and the justice of our cause, they will know it is victory or death. This is my resolve, as a woman- follow me or submit to the Roman yoke” (Webster, 99).
The British army was immense, but the Romans were at an advantage for the first time with more armor and shorter swords. The Celts had longer slashing swords and little to no armor. Unintimidated by the barbaric chaos, the Roman army advanced rapidly into the British mass. The Romans swords proved to be deadly at close quarters, while the British were crushed so close together their longer weapons were rendered useless. Under the command of Seutonius, the Romans massacred the Celts. Fearing capture, Boudicca escaped and fled back to her kingdom where she ended her life by taking a poison. A few months later fire and sword ravaged the previously untouched Iceni territory.
The rebellion of Boudicca has an established and monumental place in British history. While over time she has been viewed in many different lights, she is most commonly seen as the obvious; not a queen, but a mother, wife, and warrior defending her country. Throughout history all-powerful men are seen as threatening, but all-powerful women such as the late queen of the Iceni are awe-inspiring. In numerous written accounts both on stage and off, as well as through works of art, Boudicca has been both disparaged and lauded. Her name and history will consistently serve as a brutal yet remarkable reminder of Britain’s past.
How we could do with the spirit of the Celts today in Britain. While the Roman invasion adds to our unique cultural identity along with those of the Anglo Saxons and Vikings, the spirit to resist foreign tyranny is ingrained in the indigenous British people. In modern times, the British, like so many other European nations are completely unaware of their unique and remarkable history. The blood, sweat and tears that have forged the greatest Nations in the history of the world, which have evolved into the most cultured, successful, and civilised societies in the history of mankind. The spirit, hardships and achievements of our ancestors have been removed from our collective mental psyche but they still live on in our blood. Now we face a different and more cunning enemy, an almost invisible cowardly enemy that surrounds us everywhere, even among our own people. Read Boudiccas final battle cry one more time and be inspired to carry on the good fight.