Her name has been spelled numerous ways. Her entire written history was recorded by her enemies. Her grave has never been found, but the destruction she caused is in the archaeological layers. She reshaped Rome’s opinions on colonial efforts in Britain. Her life became a legend which has lasted centuries after her death.
Meet Boudica, Queen of the Iceni, who went to war against the Roman Empire…
Sometimes her name is spelled Boadicea, but some historians believe Boudica (say Boo-di-ca) is the more correct pronunciation. But there’s even debate if that was this queen’s real name. “Boudica” may be a warrior’s chant that her tribesmen shouted as she rode along the battle lines and the Romans (who wrote the account) decided that was her name.
We don’t know when she was born, but most agree she had some royal lineage through the ruling families of tribal Britain. We know that by 60 A.D. she was married and had two daughters who were probably in their teens. Likely, Boudica was in her late thirties or early forties when she led the uprising.
The Iceni – living in the Norfolk region of the U.K. – had successfully kept their semi-independence as the Romans took over the southern parts of the island. Several uprisings had already taken place, and Prasutagus – Boudica’s husband – maintained an uneasy peace with the Romans. However, the thousands of Iceni people were not happy with Roman rules, taxes, and occasional atrocities.
Prasutagus died. We’re not exactly sure how long he had reigned, but historians from Ancient Rome claimed it was quite a while. Before his death, he wrote a will (which was quite a Romanish thing to do) and divided his kingdom; half to his daughters, half to the emperor of Rome. Then things went wrong…
Though details of the exact cause are hazy, the Romans started plundering the Iceni land – probably taking the emperor’s portion. At one point, they encountered Boudica – Prasutagus’s widow – and her two daughters. The Roman soldiers bound and whipped the queen and physically assaulted the girls. When the women were released and returned to their tribe, those outrages sparked rebellion’s flame.
Another incident occurred about the time of Boudica and her daughter’s injuries. Roman soldiers under the governor, Paulinus, conquered the island of Mona in Wales which was believed to be a sacred site by the Britons. Their religion – druidism and forms on animism – placed special emphasis on natural sites, deeming them sacred. Paulinus’s invasion of one of their most sacred sites and the slaughter of hundreds of druid leaders and devout followers spread outrage in through the country.
Angered at the mistreatment of their queen and princesses, the Iceni revolted and were joined by other enraged tribes who had had enough of Roman rule in their kingdoms and Roman disregard for their religion. Though some fought against Rome, other Britons stayed loyal to the Romans, and basically started a civil war situation in the country.
The major Briton revolt took place in either 60 or 61 A.D. Rallied by Boudica and led by her, other kings, and tribal leaders, several tribes gathered to fight the Romans and seek vengeance.
The Roman territorial towns of Camulodunum, Londinium, and Verulamium were burned and the inhabitants who could not escape were slaughtered. Estimates place the Roman citizen death toll in the thousands, and horrible stories of cruelties were recorded by Roman historians about the murders. While Boudica and her warriors moved from town to town, they also managed to ambush Roman troops sent out in defense or convince others to remain in camps.
Meanwhile, Paulinus and his legionaries hurried back from Mona, trying to keep more tribes from joining the rebellion and cover up the disaster before it reached Emperor Nero’s ears in Rome. Sentonius – a Roman general – prepared to meet Boudica and her warriors.
We don’t know where it happened or even an exact date, but the Battle of Watling Street ended in disaster for the Iceni Queen. The Romans positioned themselves, using topography to their advantage and to hamper the Britons who tended to rush en masse. The excited Britons had spent weeks burning towns and collecting wagon loads of plunder; many had brought their wives and children, not uncommon in their warrior culture. These civilians circled the wagons at the back of the battlefield and waited to see the outcome, never thinking that their plundered perches could become a trap if the battle went badly for the Britons.
Queen Boudica, her daughters, and other chiefs rode along the warrior’s line, making speeches and rallying their men. When they attacked, their fierce rush against the Romans turned into a disaster. With warriors continuing pressing forward, those in front had no where to go except to their deaths from Roman swords. The Romans held formation and fought back, eventually driving the Britons back. The encircled wagons trapped the Britons and comparatively few escaped.
Boudica died during the Battle of Watling Street or shortly afterwards. Some accounts claim she killed herself by poison, others say she died of an illness. But some Briton women did fight in battle, and it’s possible she died in combat.
After the battle, the Roman’s reestablished their rule and cracked down on the Britons. The towns got rebuilt. But the uprising lessened Rome’s interest in the far northern colony and revealed the dangers of keeping colonies when all was not well at the central capital. Rome took a different approach to Britain in the following years after Boudica’s uprising, and when Rome started abandoning territory – Britain was among the first.
Victors write the history, but surprisingly the Romans kept Boudica in their records. They didn’t really write nice things about her, but they wrote in a way that has intrigued researchers for centuries. Boudica was “rediscovered” during the Renaissance and Elizabethan Eras as ancient texts were found during the revived interest in Classical Times. The Iceni Queen has been reinterpreted many times since, usually by male historians or propaganda writers – leaving little historical fact and many myths.
While we can’t be certain the Roman historians even got her story and name correct, we do find a powerful image of a wronged and injured queen who decided to lead her people in a fight for their freedom and their lives. Her brutality is not a trait to copy, but her courage to go on after a horrible experience and believe in the ideal of freedom is worth noting.
Tacitus, the ancient Roman writer, gives us this image of the Iceni Queen before her final battle:
Boudica in her chariot with her daughters in front of her, rode up to tribe after tribe… “But not it is not as a woman descended from illustrious ancestry, but as one of the people that I am avenging my lost freedom, my lashed body, the outraged honor of my daughters. Roman greed has developed to such an extent that not even our persons, nor even our age or our virginity are left unpolluted. But heaven is on the side of just vengeance: one legion which dared to fight has been destroyed; the rest are cowering in their camps or anxiously seeking a means of escape. They will not stand even din and shout of so many thousands, let alone our attack and our weapons. If you balance the strength of our armies and the reasons for this war, then you must conquer or die. This is a woman’s decision: as for men, they can live and become slaves.”
P.S. For more details and a deeper look at historical context and the archaeological record, adult readers should study Boudica: The Life of Britain’s Legendary Warrior Queen by Vanessa Collingridge.