Women as the weaker sex is a modern concept. A glance at history shows there has never been a shortage of strong, female warriors, including Boudicca, the Celtic Queen who very nearly expelled the invading Romans from Britain in around 60 AD and burnt its major cities to the ground to avenge the rape of her daughters.
By some accounts she can be held as a patriotic heroine for defending Britons against the invading Romans almost 2,000 years ago, but she also exacted such destruction that in the case of London it took almost a century to rebuild.
This was the time when Britain was part of the Roman empire and had been divided into nearly 30 kingdoms, or tribes, ruled over by the emperor Claudius. Each tribe had a leader, and true to the Romans’ democratic principles the 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 slaughter).
Prasutagus, husband of Boudicca, was King of the Iceni tribe in East Anglia. When the Romans first arrived they let him continue to reign till his death, in exchange his will left half his possessions to the Romans and the other half to his daughters. However once he died the Romans assumed all his property – so much for democracy.
Under Roman law only men could be heirs, unlike in the Celtic tradition where women could inherit their fathers’ titles, and when Boudicca protested Roman officials responded by stripping and flogging her in public. Then they raped both her daughters. After this she hid out in the forest to plot her revenge.
Boudicca was named after the Celtic word for victory. Coming from a noble family she had privileges like a good education, as well as having been taught how to fight, just like the men – in both military strategy and combatting with swords and shields.
Writings have been uncovered describing Boudicca as having above average intelligence and a feisty temperament. 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 homes they then confiscated, pushed all the locals out and built a temple in honour of Claudius with their taxes. It was therefore easy for Boudicca to gain their support, and they formed a huge army to attack the oppressors.
Her campaign began in Colchester in Essex, at the time the British capital Camulodunum, where they burnt the newly-constructed 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 Londinium would be next. Despite evacuating the city and deploying reinforcements the warrior queen and her men demolished it. Around 25,000 people died, their homes were destroyed and their belongings looted. According to written accounts left by Romans it got even more brutal – Celtic soldiers beheaded their victims, cut off the breasts of women and stuffed them into their mouths. Emperor Nero very nearly called for a complete withdrawal from Britain.
After Londinium Boudicca’s army 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 Boudicca’s army. Although her soldiers greatly outnumbered the Romans, they didn’t have the same quality of weaponry and ended up fleeing. It is believed she poisoned herself once she realised she couldn’t escape defeat, not wanting to be captured 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 around 350 years.
There have been various rumours surrounding Boudicca’s final resting place. One is that she is buried somewhere under platforms 8, 9 or 10 of King’s Cross St. Pancras International station. A rather less romantic theory points to beneath a McDonald’s in Birmingham.
She was largely forgotten until the 19th century, when her legend was revived due to her being Queen Victoria’s namesake (an association the Queen took great delight in). She has been written about by famous poets, immortalised in song, film and comic books, and even had ships named after her.
But while she may be celebrated for avenging her daughters and the legacy of her husband, as in any war thousands of innocents perished – 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.
Regardless, Boudicca’s epic tale shatters the stereotype of the delicate, helpless female. Whether valiant or ruthless, her fearlessness and determination have made her a legend. As she told her army, “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.”
This is an updated version of the feature originally published on All In London
Featured image: Photo by Paul Walter / Creative Commons