Important People #5: Boudicca

We take a look at the woman who very nearly forced the Romans out of England.

She has been hailed as a patriotic heroine for defending Britons against the invading Romans, but she also exacted such destruction upon London that it took almost a hundred years to rebuild. We take a look at the woman who very nearly forced the Romans out of England.

When Roman emperor Claudius decided to add Britain to his list of conquests in 43 AD, it was divided into almost 30 different kingdoms, or tribes. Each tribe had a leader, and true to their democratic principles the Romans’ initial policy did not involve taking land by force; rather they became allies with the tribe leaders (although try telling this to the Druids, who they attempted to eradicate by slaughtering them).

East Anglia was home to the Iceni tribe, ruled by Prasutagus, who was married to Boudicca. When the Romans first arrived they let Prasutagus continue to reign till his death; in exchange in his will he left half his possessions to the Romans and the other half to his daughters. However once he passed away the Romans asserted their power by assuming all his property - so much for democracy. Prasutagus and Boudica had two daughters, but under Roman law only men could be heirs, unlike in the Celtic tradition where women could inherit their fathers’ titles.

When Boudicca protested Roman officials responded by stripping her and flogging her in public. Even worse, both her daughters were raped. Boudicca’s first move was to hide out in Thetford Forest with the two girls, plotting her revenge.

Boudicca (also known as Boadicea) was named after the Celtic word for victory. She came from a noble family, which meant privileges like a good education, but also that she would have been taught how to fight, just like men, in both technical aspects like military strategy and practical ones like using weapons, which in those days were swords and shields. She’s been described by Roman writers as having above average intelligence, as well as - unsurprisingly given her story - having a feisty temperament. Appearance-wise she was an imposing figure, tall, with thick red hair down to her hips, and she tended to wear a torc, a large, stiff necklace typically worn by the Iceni.
The Romans’ handling of the Iceni after the death of Prasutagus made them no friends, as they evicted tribe leaders from their homes, which they then confiscated. Meanwhile they also made enemies of the Trinovantes, whose former capital Camulodunum (now Colchester) became appropriated by the Romans, who had no qualms about pushing the locals out and building a temple in honour of Claudius with their taxes. It was therefore easy for Boudicca to gain their support, and having formed a huge army they decided to attack their oppressors while they were busy attempting to march through North Wales in their war against the Druids.

Her campaign began in Camulodunum, where they burnt the temple to a cinder killing everyone inside. Boudicca was ruthless – her orders were to decimate everything and everyone in her troops’ wake.

Camulodunum may have been the capital of Roman Britannia, but the Romans had also taken advantage of the river Thames as a route for trade, and Londinium had become the empire’s centre of commerce. Once governor Paulinus got news of the scale of Boudicca’s rampage in Camulodonum he correctly assumed the second most important hub would be next. He evacuated the city and asked for reinforcements, but the warrior queen and her men still demolished it. Around 25,000 people died, their homes destroyed and belongings looted. According to written accounts left by Romans it gets even more brutal – the Celtic soldiers beheaded their victims, cut off the breasts of women and stuffed them into their mouths. It’s no wonder Emperor Nero almost called for a complete withdrawal from Britain.

After Londinium she headed to St. Albans, a settlement just north of the city that suffered the same treatment. Her victory wasn’t to last, as a troop led by Paulinus arrived to fight with Boudicca’s men. Although her soldiers greatly outnumbered the Romans, they didn’t have the same quality of weaponry, and the Britons ended up fleeing. It is believed Boudicca poisoned herself once she realised she couldn’t escape defeat, not wanting to be captured by the Romans and humiliated a second time.
The consequences for the Iceni after her death were tragic, as they were enslaved throughout the remainder of the Romans’ reign in Britannia, which lasted for another 350 years.

There have been various rumours surrounding Boudicca’s final resting place. One is that she is somewhere under platforms 8, 9 or 10 of St. Pancras station. A more recent, rather less romantic theory points to a McDonald’s in Birmingham. Other possibilities are Parliament Hill in Hampstead, Suffolk and Stonehenge.

She was largely forgotten until the 19th century, when her legend was revived in no small part due to her being Queen Victoria’s namesake (an association the Queen took great delight in). She was written about by luminaries like Poet Laureate Lord Alfred Tennyson and even had ships named after her. But while she may have been celebrated as a heroine for avenging her daughters and the legacy of her husband, as in any war, thousands of innocents perished, among them many Britons – it’s estimated that around 80,000 people (including many children) were killed by her army. Hence a statue of her by Westminster Bridge, unveiled in 1905 and commissioned by Prince Albert, is shrouded in irony.

Whether valiant or ruthless, Boudicca’s fearlessness and determination have made her a legend. "If you weigh well the strength of the armies ... you will see that in this battle you must conquer or die. This is a woman's resolve; as for men, they may live and be slaves" she told her army. And that’s exactly how we want our heroines.

Also check out: London’s Early Days

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