Sunday, April 1, 2012

Ancient Roman London As Destroyed By Boadicea: Briton's Warrior Queen

A learned antiquary, Thomas Lewin, Esq., has proved, as nearly as such things can be proved, that Julius Cæsar and 8,000 men, who had sailed from Boulogne, landed near Romney Marsh about half-past five o'clock on Sunday the 27th of August, 55 years before the birth of Jesus Christ. Centuries before that very remarkable August day on which the brave standard-bearer of Cæsar's Tenth Legion sprang from his gilt galley into the sea and, eagle in hand, advanced against the javelins of the painted Britons who lined the shore, there is now no doubt London was already existing as a British town of some importance, and known to the fishermen and merchants of the Gauls and Belgians. Strabo, a Greek geographer who flourished in the reign of Augustus, speaks of British merchants as bringing to the Seine and the Rhine shiploads of corn, cattle, iron, hides, slaves, and dogs, and taking back brass, ivory, amber ornaments, and vessels of glass. By these merchants the desirability of such a depôt as London, with its great and always navigable river, could not have been long overlooked.


In Cæsar's second and longer invasion in the next year (54 B.C.), when his 28 many-oared triremes and 560 transports, &c., in all 800, poured on the same Kentish coast 21,000 legionaries and 2,000 cavalry, there is little doubt that his strong foot left its imprint near that cluster of stockaded huts (more resembling a New Zealand pah than a modern English town) perhaps already called London—Llyn-don, the "town on the lake."

After a battle at Challock Wood, Cæsar and his men crossed the Thames, as is supposed, at Coway Stakes, an ancient ford a little above Walton and below Weybridge. Cassivellaunus, King of Hertfordshire and Middlesex, had just slain in war Immanuent, King of Essex, and had driven out his son Mandubert. The Trinobantes, Mandubert's subjects, joined the Roman spearmen against the 4,000 scythed chariots of Cassivellaunus and the Catyeuchlani. Straight as the flight of an arrow was Cæsar's march upon the capital of Cassivellaunus, a city the barbaric name of which he either forgot or disregarded, but which he merely says was "protected by woods and marshes." This place north of the Thames has usually been thought to be Verulamium (St. Alban's); but it was far more likely London, as the Cassi, whose capital Verulamium was, were among the traitorous tribes who joined Cæsar against their oppressor Cassivellaunus. Moreover, Cæsar's brief description of the spot perfectly applies to Roman London, for ages protected on the north by a vast forest, full of deer and wild boars, and which, even as late as the reign of Henry II, covered a great region, and has now shrunk into the not very wild districts of St. John's Wood and Caen Wood. On the north the town found a natural moat in the broad fens of Moorfields, Finsbury, and Houndsditch, while on the south ran the Fleet and the Old Bourne. Indeed, according to that credulous old enthusiast Stukeley, Cæsar, marching from Staines to London, encamped on the site of Old St. Pancras Church, round which edifice Stukeley found evident traces of a great Prætorian camp.

However, whether Cassivellaunus, the King of Middlesex and Hertfordshire, had his capital at London or St. Alban's, this much at least is certain, that the legionaries carried their eagles swiftly over his stockades of earth and fallen trees, drove off the blue-stained warriors, and swept off the half-wild cattle stored up by the Britons. Shortly after, Cæsar returned to Gaul, having heard while in Britain of the death of his favourite daughter Julia, the wife of Pompey, his great rival. His camp at Richborough or Sandwich was far distant, the dreaded equinoctial gales were at hand, and Gaul, he knew, might at any moment of his absence start into a flame. His inglorious campaign had lasted just four months and a half—his first had been far shorter.

As Cæsar himself wrote to Cicero, our rude island was defended by stupendous rocks, there was not a scrap of the gold that had been reported, and the only prospect of booty was in slaves, from whom there could be expected neither "skill in letters nor in music." In sober truth, all Cæsar had won from the people of Kent and Hertfordshire had been blows and buffets, for there were men in Britain even then. The prowess of the British charioteers became a standing joke in Rome against the soldiers of Cæsar. Horace and Tibullus both speak of the Briton as unconquered. The steel bow the strong Roman hand had for a moment bent, quickly relapsed to its old shape the moment Cæsar, mounting his tall galley, turned his eyes towards Gaul.


The Mandubert who sought Cæsar's help is by some thought to be the son of the semi-fabulous King Lud (King Brown), the mythical founder of London, and, according to Milton, who, as we have said, follows the old historians, a descendant of Brute of Troy. The successor of the warlike Cassivellaunus had his capital at St. Alban's; his son Cunobelin (Shakespeare's Cymbeline)—a name which seems to glow with perpetual sunshine as we write it—had a palace at Colchester; and the son of Cunobelin was the famed Caradoc, or Caractacus, that hero of the Silures, who struggled bravely for nine long years against the generals of Rome.

Celtic etymologists differ, as etymologists usually do, about the derivation of the name of London. Lon, or Long, meant, they say, either a lake, a wood, a populous place, a plain, or a ship-town. This last conjecture is, however, now the most generally received, as it at once gives the modern pronunciation, to which Llyn-don would never have assimilated. The first British town was indeed a simple Celtic hill fortress, formed first on Tower Hill, and afterwards continued to Cornhill and Ludgate. It was moated on the south by the river, which it controlled; by fens on the north; and on the east by the marshy low ground of Wapping. It was a high, dry, and fortified point of communication between the river and the inland country of Essex and Hertfordshire, a safe sixty miles from the sea, and central as a depôt and meeting-place for the tribes of Kent and Middlesex.

Hitherto the London about which we have been conjecturing has been a mere cloud city. The first mention of real London is by Tacitus, who, writing in the reign of Nero (A.D. 62, more than a century after the landing of Cæsar), in that style of his so full of vigour and so sharp in outline, that it seems fit rather to be engraved on steel than written on perishable paper, says that Londinium, though not, indeed, dignified with the name of colony, was a place highly celebrated for the number of its merchants and the confluence of traffic.

In the year 62 London was probably still without walls, and its inhabitants were not Roman citizens, like those of Verulamium (St. Alban's). When the Britons, roused by the wrongs of the fierce Boadicea (Queen of the Iceni, the people of Norfolk and Suffolk), bore down on London, her back still "bleeding from the Roman rods," she slew in London and Verulamium alone 70,000 citizens and allies of Rome; impaling many beautiful and well-born women, amid revelling sacrifices, in the grove of Andate, the British Goddess of Victory. It is supposed that after this reckless slaughter the tigress and her savage followers burned the cluster of wooden houses that then formed London to the ground. Certain it is, that when deep sections were made for a sewer in Lombard Street in 1786, the lowest stratum consisted of tesselated Roman pavements, their coloured dice laying scattered like flower leaves, and above that of a thick layer of wood ashes, as of the débris of charred wooden buildings. This ruin the Romans avenged by the slaughter of 80,000 Britons in a butchering fight, generally believed to have taken place at King's Cross (otherwise Battle Bridge), after which the fugitive Boadicea, in rage and despair, took poison and perished.

London probably soon sprang, phœnix-like, from the fire, though history leaves it in darkness to enjoy a lull of 200 years.


  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.

See Boadicea, Warrior Queen of the Iceni.

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

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. Thank you for this. I love this stuff! And I know many of the places you mention...But I have to confess, all this always, always makes me think of W.H. Auden's 'Roman Wall Blues':

    Over the heather the wet wind blows,
    I've lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.

    The rain comes pattering out of the sky,
    I'm a Wall soldier, I don't know why.

    The mist creeps over the hard grey stone,
    My girl's in Tungria; I sleep alone.

    Aulus goes hanging around her place,
    I don't like his manners, I don't like his face.

    Piso's a Christian, he worships a fish;
    There'd be no kissing if he had his wish.

    She gave me a ring but I diced it away;
    I want my girl and I want my pay.

    When I'm a veteran with only one eye
    I shall do nothing but look at the sky.

    1. Oh my. I love this...and now I shall think of it too!

  2. Elizabeth Gayle FellowsApril 2, 2012 at 6:08 PM

    What fascinating information. Thank you, I do so enjoy to read all English Historical Fiction, and also just plain old English History..!! There is so much I must read... !!!

  3. Wow! It is amazing how history is uncovered sometimes by sheer accident and offers up further proof like the ashes on the Roman pavement.

    Ancient history is so fascinating. Thanks for the post!

  4. I've read that anywhere in London, St Albans, or Colchester where you dig down a few feet you run into ash from where Boudica (GrahamWebster)destroyed the city. And it did spring back quickly, with the ruthless wrath of Suetonius the Consul on every Britanni remaining alive. Was not a good time to be around.
    Love this and thank you for such a grand trip through old Londinium.


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