Boudicca – Britannia’s rugged rose; Rome’s thorn



Hell hath no fury as a woman scorned, as the saying goes. And oh my word… if there’s a woman in history who proves that to be so, it’s Boudicca. Before succumbing to the might of the Roman Empire, she annihilated legions of their army, torched Londinium, and brutally slaughtered 70,000 Roman civilians by cutting their throats, hanging them, burning them and crucifying them. And that’s the pre-watershed version.

But what on earth triggered such fury? Let’s investigate further.

Boudicca’s early life…

In truth, there’s not much documented evidence to go on. However, that she was born into a royal, Celtic family around AD25 is known. And that she married Prasutagus (who later became king – aka. Elected Chief – of the Celts) is known too. It’s suspected that she was Iceni, a cousin of Prasutagus, and had had druidic training. However, the name ‘Boudicca’ meant ‘Victory’, and what was written of her bodily bearing – tall, with long flaming red hair, a harsh voice, and piercing look – suggests that she was physically set to live up to that label.

In AD43, Rome focused its attention on Britannia. And by this time, it’s believed that Boudicca and Prasutagus had two daughters. Unsurprisingly, the politics of the time were tense. When the Romans had initially arrived a hundred years before, it’s believed that the Iceni had welcomed them… not so much with open arms, but certainly with a strategic alliance in mind. However, other Britons had made the Romans’ lives unbearable. And so for nearly a century, though Roman influence had flourished, Rome itself had backed off.

Instead, it had encouraged trade. Britannia had become known for being rich in grain and mineral wealth. So it’s no surprise when Claudius became emperor – a man who suffered from a limp and a stutter – the glittering target that was Britannia caught his eye. With his unfortunate afflictions, Claudius needed to make a mark on his people. And in the only way that Rome could ever understand – that meant military victory.

Boudicca meets Rome…

Boudicca would have been about eighteen years old at this point. She was probably married to Prasutagus, but he would not yet have been king of the Iceni. When Rome arrived, the man who was the Iceni chief, Antedios, took a non-confrontational position. However, many other tribes, the main one of note being the Iceni’s neighbour the Catuvellauni, didn’t. When the Romans landed, the Catuvellauni fought. This time though, the tide had turned against Britannia, and they lost. Claudius arrived, accepted the formal submission of eleven British tribes, including the Iceni, and made it clear that this time Rome wasn’t leaving.

Quite the contrary, in fact. Claudius built a legionary fortress at Camulodunum, stationing troops there, and then built further fortresses across Eastern Britannia. Guerrilla warfare set in.

Rome’s response was to appoint a new governor, Ostorius, who immediately forbade British subjects to hold arms. An edict that was, of course, a red rag to a bull. The Iceni rebelled and were quashed. Antedios was either deposed or killed. And Prasutagus found himself king. Boudicca now got her first taste of queendom.

Rome meets Boudicca…

For the next few years, Rome pushed the Britons’ patience. It did this both financially and via land sequestrating. However, with respect to the Iceni, it was a Roman loan (probably unrequested, but ‘given’ anyway) to Prasutagus that started the downwards spiral. Rome being Rome, suddenly decided to insist that this loan was repaid. And it pressed its insistence by turning up at Prasutagus’ doorstep, in force.

That, coupled with the Roman victory on the Isle of Mona, the desecration of the druidic centre there, and the death of her husband, jerked Boudicca into life.

Prasutagus had left a will, but it was one that was recognised by neither Celtic law nor Roman law. Under Celtic tradition, a chief served by the consent of the people. It wasn’t a right to be inherited, or designated by anyone but the people. Under Roman law, a client king’s death meant the end of that client relationship. So, though Prasutagus named his heirs as jointly being the emperor, and his two daughters, it meant nothing. In Rome’s eyes, Prasutagus’ property and estates automatically reverted to the emperor.

When Rome turned up to do an inventory of its booty, Boudicca objected. She was publicly flogged, whilst her daughters were raped. It was at this point that Boudicca’s sentiment shifted from diplomatic capitulation to defiance.

Britannia bites back…

Boudicca rallied surrounding tribes to rise up in rebellion against Rome. Despite the Roman ban, they had stockpiled weapons and amassed… armed.

She cut a daunting figure. Lofty in height, grim, with a penetrating gaze and gravelly voice, this was a woman men would follow. Wearing a torque – an item usually reserved only for the Celtic warrior chieftain – she addressed her army and inspired them.

First stop, they ransacked Camulodunum. Boudicca was brutal. The sea was left blood-red, with corpses floating in the ebb tide whilst fires raged. The settlement was razed to the ground, and after two days of fighting, it fell. When Roman reinforcements headed across in support, Boudicca ambushed and slaughtered the infantry. This was a woman out to avenge. Her sights landed next on Londinium.

Suetonius, now charged with Londinium’s defence, arrived ahead of Boudicca’s forces and swiftly realised the infrastructure did not lend itself to a defensive position. He ordered its evacuation, however many women and elderly stayed. An ill-fated decision on their part, for Boudicca’s army savagely murdered all they found. They hung the noblest women up, cut off their breasts, and sewed the flesh to their mouths. The women were then impaled on sharp skewers running the length of their bodies. This wasn’t just revenge; it was ruthless eradication.

Roman strategy took front stage…

Rome had by now, however, gathered a far stronger force. It’s believed the two armies of Suetonius and Boudicca met somewhere along what we now know as Watling Street, possibly in the vicinity of Towcester. Boudicca’s force far outnumbered the Romans, but things had shifted. Rome’s nose had been piqued, and despite pique, Romans could hold their discipline in battle. Their techniques were soon found to be far superior to the ‘mere’ brute force of an opposing army twenty times in number.

Strategically, Suetonius chose a narrow position in a valley that suited his army and protected him from attack from behind. Boudicca was ‘stuck’ in open space. The Britons, armed with long swords better for slashing than the stabbing required of close quarter combat, soon fell foul to the ordered Roman ranks.  Their chariots were also unable to free run in such a narrow pass, and carnage ensued. Rather than fall prisoner to her hated enemy, Boudicca ended her life with poison.



The aftermath and Boudicca’s legacy…

In the blink of an eye, the rebellion was effectively over. But its initial merciless success had taken Rome by surprise. Of Boudicca, it was written that she was mourned deeply and given a burial worthy of a revered chief. Her legacy, the grudging respect of Rome for a people who would defend their existence to the end, also eventually led to what the Iceni had desired from the start; respect, peace and a government that treated them with justice and honour.