Sunday, March 4, 2012

Boadicea: Warrior Queen of the Iceni Britains

Boudicea was Queen of the Iceni, a tribe of the ancient Britons (in what is now Norfolk) during the era when Nero ruled in Rome and Roman troops occupied Britain. Her husband, Præsutagus, was King of the Ice'ni, and a Roman ally. Under Roman law, the sovereignty of Præsutagus' realm would end at his death and neither Boudicea, nor their daughters would be allowed to rule in his stead, however his personal wealth was his to distribute as he would. Præsutagus, a powerful ruler, had amassed a great deal of wealth during his reign.  In an attempt to placate the
"Rome shall perish--write that word
           In the blood that she has spilt;--
         Perish, hopeless and abhorred,
           Deep in ruin, as in guilt."
                          William Cowper's "Boadicea
occupying Romans and protect his family's legacy, Præsutagus, made the emperor of Rome co-heir to his personal wealth along with his two daughters. Unfortunately, Præsutagus underestimated the greed and brutality of the Romans. Immediately upon his death, they not only took possession of his lands, but also seized all of his personal assets. The widowed Queen was outraged and protested vigorously. For her impertinence, she was seized by the Romans and publicly stripped and flogged. Her daughters, were turned over to the Romans soldiers and subjected to indignity and rape.  Other Iceni nobles could not help the widow and her daughters, for their homes were also plundered and robbed, and those who were close relatives of the deceased king were reduced to either slavery or poverty when their loans were called in by the Romans.

The Roman depredations had gone too far, and as such, they reaped terrible retribution. With Boudicea as their symbol and leader, the Icenis broke into open revolt. They were quickly joined in this insurrection by infuriated Britons from surrounding regions.  Outraged by the heavy hand of Roman rule, conscription, onerous taxation and numerous other Roman cruelties, the Britons marched as one in the spirit of vengeance.  Boadicea was the leader of the rebellion, both in reality and spirit. Her wrongs had initially stirred them to revolt, and her bloodthirsty desire for vengeance led them to numerous victories. Before she was finished the warrior queen's army had burned the Roman colonies of Colchester,  London and Verulam, burning, torturing and slaying more than 70,000 Roman and Roman sympathizers in the process.

Her campaign of vengeance began at Camalodunum (Colchester), where there had lately settled a colony of Roman veterans, who had treated the Britons cruelly, driving them from their houses, insulting them with the names of slaves and captives, and then standing idly by while the common soldiers further degraded and robbed the native landowners.

Paulinus Suetonius, who then commanded the Roman forces in Britain, was absent on an expedition to further subjugate the Britons by crushing the Druid stronghold on the the island of Mona. Of this expedition the historian Tacitus gives a vivid account.

Suetonius' boats approached the island to behold a terrifying sight. On the shore, Briton warriors prepared to receive them. Through their ranks rushed their women in funereal attire, their hair flying loose in the wind, flaming torches in their hands, and their whole appearance recalling the frantic rage of the fabled Furies. Near by, ranged in order, stood the venerable Druids, or Celtic priests, with uplifted hands, at once invoking the gods and pouring forth imprecations upon the foe. The spectacle filled the Romans with awe and wonder. They stood in dumbfounded amazement, riveted to the spot--an easy mark for the foe had they been then attacked. The Romans, after their initial fright, found themselves ashamed of being held in awe by a troop of women and a band of fanatic priests, and rushed to the assault, cutting down all before them, tossing them into their own sacred fires, and burning the edifices and the sacred groves of the island.

In addition to the actual peril presented by angry Britons, the Romans were frightened with dire omens. The statue of victory at Camalodunum fell without any visible cause, and lay prostrate on the ground. Clamors in a foreign accent were heard in the Roman council chamber, the theaters were filled with the sound of savage howlings, the sea ran purple as with blood. The figures of human bodies were traced on the sands, and the image of a colony in ruins was reflected from the waters of the Thames.

These omens threw the Romans into despair and filled the minds of the Britons with joy. No effort was made by the soldiers for defense, no ditch was dug, no palisade erected, and the assault of the Britons found the colonists utterly unprepared. Taken by surprise, the Romans were overpowered, and the colony was laid waste with fire and sword. The fortified temple alone held out, but after a two days' siege it also was taken, and the Ninth Legion, which marched to its relief was cut to pieces.

Suetonius' army was small and the number of the Britons was overwhelmingly greater. In the final analysis, the interests of the empire trumped those of any city* and Suetonius abandoned London to the Britons, despite the supplications of its imperiled citizens. He agreed to take under his protection those who chose to follow his banner. Many followed him, but many remained, and no sooner had he marched out than the Britons fell in rage on the settlement, and uninterested in either mercy, ransom, or prisoners, slaughtered all they found by gibbet, fire, or cross. Before they were through, Tacitus tells that more than 70,000 Romans, and Britons friendly to Rome, were massacred, and the Ninth Legion marching from Lincoln to the rescue had been nearly annihilated.**

But in the end, the Romans had their own revenge.

Suetonius marched through the land, and at length the two armies met. The skilled Roman general drew up his force (estimated to be 10,000 in number) in a place where a thick forest sheltered the rear and flanks, leaving only a narrow front open to attack. Here the Britons, twenty times his number (figures are quoted as upwards to 230,000), and confident of victory, approached. The warlike Boadicea, tall, stern of countenance, hair hanging to her waist, and spear in hand, drove along their front in a her chariot, with her two daughters by her side, and eloquently sought to rouse her countrymen to thirst for revenge.

Telling them of the base cruelty with which she and her daughters had been treated, and painting in vivid words the arrogance and insults of the Romans, she besought them to fight for their country and their homes. "On this spot we must either conquer or die with glory," she said. "There is no alternative. Though I am a woman, my resolution is fixed. The men, if they prefer, may survive with infamy and live in bondage. For me there is only victory or death."

Stirred to fury by her words, the British host rushed their enemies. But the weaponry and greater experience of the battle-hardened Romans proved far too much for native courage and ferocity. The Britons were repulsed, and the Romans, rushing forward in the strategically superior wedge, cut a fearful strath of carnage through the disordered Briton ranks. The Roman cavalry followed and thousands fell. The wagons and families of the Britons, which had been massed in the rear, impeded  Briton retreat, and a dreadful slaughter, in which neither sex nor age was spared, ensued. Tacitus tells us that eighty thousand Britons fell, while the Roman slain numbered no more than four hundred men.

Boadicea, who had done her utmost to rally her flying hosts, kept to her resolution. When all was lost, according to Tacitus, she, like Cleopatra before her, choose poison over capture by the Romans, and perished upon the field where she had vowed to seek victory or death. With her decease the success of the Britons vanished and to ensure Roman dominance, the insurrectionists were hunted down and killed. Suetonius' was recalled to Rome, his ferocity deprecated, and himself judged wanting for his failure to control his subordinates, thus laying the groundwork for Boudicea's rebellion. As for Britain, she buried the memories of her rebellious Warrior Queen for many centuries and became a quiet and peaceful part of the Roman Empire.


  While about the shore of Mona those Neronian legionaries
  Burnt and broke the grove and altar of the Druid and Druidess,
  Far in the East Boadicea, standing loftily charioted,
  Mad and maddening all that heard her in her fierce volubility,
  Girt by half the tribes of Britain, near the colony Camulodune,
  Yell'd and shriek'd between her daughters o'er a wild confederacy.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

 Compiled From Sources In The Public Domain.

Teresa Thomas Bohannon,
MyLadyWeb, Women's History, Women Authors
Regency Romance A Very Merry Chase
Historical Fantasy Shadows In A Timeless Myth.

*London at that time was a collection of miserable huts and entrenched cattle-pens, which were in Keltic speech called the "Fort-on-the-Lake"—or "Llyndin," an uncouth name in Latin ears, which the Romans called Londinium.

 **FenMaric, one of the main characters in my historic fantasy novel, Shadows In A Timeless Myth, was a member of the ninth legion who fought and died attempting to stop Boudicea.  He still exists to appear in Shadows because he was battle cursed by a Druid Priest to the same fate that the Druid Priests believed themselves fated for, soul transmigration...but with a vengefully, punishing twist!


  1. What a vivid, well written account of her life Teresa. Boudicea captured my admiration as a young girl growing up in St Albans, fighting for what she beleived in against the Romans. (although I doubt that she ever went near the city, just my over active childish imagination) Mind you I was also aware of the advance in 'civilised' life that the Romans brought to England. To every point of view there is always another aspect to challenge it!
    Good luck with the book.

  2. I live very near Epping Forest - legend has it that Boudicca's last battle was fought near Upshire (on the edge of the Forest.)
    My favourite novel about her is Rosemary Sutcliff's Song For A Dark Queen - Rosemary was so talented at using beautiful words.

  3. Teresa, thanks for honoring Women's History month with your excellent post on Boadicea. We will truly be appreciated as equals when we no longer need to have a month set aside to honor our history!

  4. A moving and horrific story of violent times, that doesnt have a HEA.

  5. I have always been fascinated by the story of Boadicea...definitely a vital part of Women's History...great post!

  6. Thank you all for stopping by. Boadicea was one of the earliest females from history to capture my imagination.

  7. I have always been so entranced by Boadicea's story. I'll have to check out your historical fantasy.

    Thanks for sharing!

  8. Boadicea has been my hero since I was young. Her courage and strength are still awe inspiring today. I have read many fictionalized books on her life and times, who really knows what was real and what was legend. She remains in my heart.
    Thanks for the wonderful article
    Sharon E. Weber

  9. My 70th Great Grand Mother, this explains alot!


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