Very little historical evidence survives about the queen named Boudicca, ruler of a small tribe of Celtic peoples known as the Iceni during the first century C.E. The Iceni made their home near what is now Norfolk, England, and it is known that Boudicca inherited her crown upon the death of her husband. Not long afterward, she was integral in forming a pan-tribal alliance of Celtic warriors who carried through a decisive, bloody, and very nearly successful uprising against their despised Roman colonizers in C.E. 61. The revolt that bears Boudicca’s name would be remembered in history as one of the most significant insurrections against the mighty Roman Empire during Europe’s classical era.
The Iceni and Pre-Roman Britain
Boudicca, whose name is sometimes spelled Boadicea, may or may not have been of direct Icenian heritage; it is only known that she was married to the Iceni king, Prasutagus, and among royal Celtic houses marital alliances with other tribes were not unusual. Knowledge of Boudicca survives from the writings of two historians of the Roman empire, Tacitus and Cassius Dio. The latter penned his impression of the Iceni queen: Boudicca, wrote Dio as quoted in The Rebellion of Boudicca, “was huge of frame, terrifying of aspect, and with a harsh voice. A great mass of bright red hair fell to her knees: she wore a great twisted golden necklace, and a tunic of many colours, over which was a thick mantle, fastened by a brooch.”
The Iceni held the territory in what is present-day Norfolk, England, and historians assume they migrated at one point in the late Bronze Age from the European continent. In England they established a farming economy, were weavers of cloth and also made pottery. Their stability was threatened by the arrival of the Belgae from Gaul (France). The Belgae had earned the enmity of the Roman emperor Caesar for providing help to their brethren back in Gaul who were resisting Caesar and Roman rule there. For this, Caesar began attacking Britain around 55 B.C.E.
Matters were further complicated by the superiority of the Belgae over their Celtic neighbors, such as the Iceni. The Belgae were skilled ironsmiths, more adept at farming, and most importantly, possessed a well-organized military force. They soon began taking over other tribes in the area. The Iceni built forts against them, but when the Romans launched a massive military invasion of the British Isles in C.E. 43, the Belgae capitulated. In total, eleven kings of varying Celtic tribes surrendered in a formal signing. The Arch of Claudius in Rome commemorates this historic surrender. Two kings, however, had engineered agreements with the Romans early on in exchange for retaining some power over their tribes. These rulers were Cogidubnus of the Regni tribe and Prasutagus, Boudicca’s husband.
The Roman Empire in Britain
Over the next few years, Romans established a strong military presence in Britain, as they did elsewhere in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. Roman colonization meant financial hardship for the conquered peoples. Their economy was immediately forced to gear itself toward the production of food for the massive legions of Roman soldiers stationed in their lands. Also, Roman officials imposed heavy taxes for an array of services and goods, and Roman moneylenders arrived in Britain to take advantage of the situation by making loans. Britain’s Rome-appointed governor, Suetonius Paulinus, was also dedicated to eradicating Druidism, the native Celt religion. Its priests retained a great deal of influence over both common Celts and royal lines.
The origins of Boudicca’s revolt began when the despised Procurator Catus Decianus rescinded the terms of a financial agreement between the Emperor Claudius and Prasutagus. It had been called a grant, but then was renamed a loan. In response, Prasutagus left a stipend of half his kingdom in his will to Nero, Claudius’s successor, to satisfy the debt. Roman officials under Catus Decianus arrived in Iceni lands and instead took the whole. Boudicca, who had inherited the kingdom since she and Prasutagus had no male heirs, was arrested and beaten, and her two daughters raped. The estates of wealthy Iceni were liquidated, and lesser relatives of the royal house sold into Roman slavery.
During the summer months of C.E. 61, after nearly two decades of Roman rule and at a time when Suetonius was leading an attack on the Celts in Wales, a revolt against Roman rule was planned. Such insurrections were not new to the Romans, despite their famously peremptory conquests of nearly all of Western and Southern Europe. Gaul resisted Caesar a hundred years before in the Gallic Wars, and a Germanic prince, Arminius, almost stalled Roman entry into Germany with his C.E. 9 victory at the Teutoburg Forest. Tacitus wrote that the Britons’ knowledge of Arminius’s victory fueled their resistance.
The uprising began with a secret meeting of Boudicca, her Iceni, and several other tribes-among them the Trinovantes, who were resentful of Roman imposition at their lands near Camulodunum (now Colchester), a tribe from the west known as the Cornovii, and the Celts of Dorset known as the Durotiges. The historian Cassius Dio claims that this well-planned and unnoticed conference may have numbered as high as 120,000. A propaganda campaign was launched in Camulodunum, then the center of Roman rule in Britain. Designed to worry the Romans, it included such actions as turning the river red and toppling the Roman victory statue erected in the center.
In the summer of C.E. 61, Boudicca’s legions of united Briton tribes attacked Camulodunum in chariots. The uprising was launched there because the negligent Romans had erected little in the way of walls or forts for the city’s defense. Celtic soldiers painted themselves blue to frighten the enemy; women also played a decisive role by remaining at the rear of the battles with the wagons and draught-oxen. Sometimes the wives appeared near the battlefront in black robes carrying torches, as did Druid priests who shouted curses meant to frighten Romans. Just as Suetonius achieved victory in Wales with nearly two-thirds of the total Roman forces in Britain with him, he received word about the uprising in the East. He hurried back, but by then Catus Decianus had fled by ship, along with other top Roman officials.
Over the next three weeks, Boudicca’s army-estimated by historians to be around 100,000 warriors-launched two other successful attacks on Roman strongholds. The second victory came at Londinium (London). Suetonius had no time to evacuate Roman citizens from what was then Britain’s largest city (25,000), and the Britons slaughtered them mercilessly. Horrific atrocities were inflicted on its women, and the heads of Romans were offered up by Druid priests in ceremonies honoring the goddess of victory. Next, Boudicca and the Britons took Verulamium (St. Albans) a few days later. This was the capital of the Catuvellauni tribe and had won official status as Roman Britain’s first municipium, the all-important “city” designation; for this its Briton inhabitants were seen as collaborators with the Romans, and they too were treated without mercy.
By this point, Boudicca’s rebellion had devastated the three main cities in Roman Britain, and the number of dead Romans and collaborating Britons was estimated at 70,000. Yet the Britons had not tended to their spring harvest, since they assumed they would be able to easily plunder Roman stores-which Suetonius ordered burned-and the troops soon faced famine. Moreover, Boudicca had difficulty in controlling such a large, non-homogenous army, which possessed little military discipline in comparison to the Roman troops. The last tactical error came in her army’s failure to capture Roman military installations: these were well-defended, and housed Roman troops and supplies, including food, that Suetonius could use to his advantage.
A huge final battle marked the end of Boudicca’s uprising against the Roman colonization of Britain. It is not known when or where exactly this battle took place, but probably occurred near the end of summer in C.E. 61 at some place between Towchester and Wall. According to later accounts, Suetonius and the Romans had amassed on a rocky landscape that offered good protection, and Briton troops then charged uphill. When they were out of breath and tactically vulnerable, the Romans attacked. Boudicca’s army was soundly defeated. She herself fled back to the Norfolk area, and in anticipation of a terrible end at Roman hands, ingested a deadly poison. She was the last ruler of the Iceni royal line, and was allegedly buried with all its treasure in a grave that remained a well-kept secret to both her Roman foes and modern archaeologists.
Boudicca’s Legacy and Legend
Boudicca’s rebellion was a crucial moment in early British history, especially in light of the Roman occupation that radically altered its course over the next four centuries. Her confederacy of Briton tribes had taken the placid Roman occupiers literally by surprise; they had assumed that the Celtic “barbarians” were far too disorganized to mount any insurrection. As a result, the Romans made certain that their installations were secure and that the Briton population never more posed such a threat. Roman officials also instituted reforms that meant a lessening of some of the onerous demands of their colonial rule, including a fairer system of taxation. England’s occupiers departed only when the Roman Empire itself fell into disintegration in the fifth century C.E.
Boudicca remained nearly lost to historical record after her death. Much of what was later written about Britain’s Roman era failed to mention her. It was only when the Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio (The Decameron) visited a little-known monastery in 1360 and found Tacitus’s manuscript that historical scholarship became aware of her role in history. Boudicca’s reputation grew to great proportions during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, as historians and writers trumpeted the legacy of strong female leaders in the British Isles’ past-especially ones who attempted to battle mighty foreign powers. The first official biography of Boudicca came in 1591 from an Italian living in England, Petruccio Ubaldini, The Lives of the Noble Ladies of the Kingdom of England and Scotland. In 1610 John Fletcher’s play, Bonduca, a variant of the name Boudicca, debuted on the London stage; it and other works of the era celebrated her as a “virago,” or a woman with masculine traits. John Milton wrote of her in his History of Britain, published in 1670.
The significance of Boudicca’s heroic exploits endured well into the twentieth century-Winston Churchill wrote of her in his History of the English-Speaking Peoples. The former prime minister of England during World War II declared that her revolt was “probably the most horrible episode which our Island has known. We see the crude and corrupt beginning of a higher civilization blotted out by the ferocious uprising of the native tribes. Still, it is the primary right of men to die and kill for the land they live in, and to punish with exceptional severity all members of their own race who have warmed their hands at the invader’s earth.