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The Legend of Boudica

Was Boadicea a savage attempting to destroy a superior civilization in a series of atrocities (and a female savage to boot... )? Or was she a patriotic leader rising up against an alien and brutal occupying power?

     -- Antonia Fraser, The Warrior Queens

Who was Boudica? Britain's flame-haired 'Warrior Queen' led the Britons in revolt against the Romans in the first century AD. Her name, which means 'victory' in Celtic (equivalent to our modern 'Victoria'), has become synonymous with terror and tragedy. A woman of royal birth, she rose to prominence after the death of her husband Prasutagus, becoming Queen of the native tribe of Iceni (including modern Norfolk, north Suffolk and part of Cambridgeshire). An ally of Rome, Prasutagus had made the Emperor Nero his co-heir, while leaving half the kingdom to his wife and two daughters.

By making a pact with the Romans and becoming a 'client kingdom,' the Iceni had peace and protection from their bloodthirsty neighbors. But this arangement came at a high price. The Romans demanded taxation for being a part of their mighty and sophisticated Empire. Large chunks of the Celts' harvest was stored far away and sold back to them. They had to pay for the transportation. Any other goods that the Romans could export --pearls, hunting dogs, silverwork -- were seized by the tax collectors.

When he died in AD 60, the Romans ignored the terms of Prasutagus' bequest. They annexed and pillaged all the Iceni lands of East Anglia turning them into a puppet state. Tacitus records in his Annals (written around AD 110) that on the death of the King, "Kingdom and household alike were plundered like prizes of war, the one by Roman officers, the other by Roman slaves..."

Boudica, estimated to be somewhere in her thirties at the time, rebelled and as a punishment was brutally humiliated. Tacitus continued: "As a beginning, [Prasutagus'] widow Boudica was flogged and their daughters raped. The Icenian chiefs were deprived of their family estates as if the Romans had been given the whole country. The King's own relatives were treated like slaves... Neither before nor since has Britain ever been in a more uneasy or dangerous state..."

Historian Dio Cassius described the events that followed: "...a terrible disaster occurred in Britain. Two cities were sacked, eighty thousand of the Romans and all of their allies perished, and the island was lost to Rome. Moreover, all this ruin was brought upon the Romans by a woman, a fact which in itself caused them the greatest shame... The person who was chiefly instrumental in rousing the natives and persuading them to fight the Romans, the person who was thought worthy to be their leader and who directed the conduct of the entire war, was Boudica, a Briton woman of the royal family and possessed of greater intelligence than often belongs to women... In stature she was very tall, in appearance most terrifying, in the glance of her eye most fierce, and her voice was harsh; a great mass of the tawniest hair fell to her hips; around her neck was a large golden necklace; and she wore a tunic of divers colors over which a thick mantle was fastened with a brooch. This was her invariable attire." Enraged rather than subdued by her punishment at the hands of the Romans, Boudica amassed an army of 20,000 Celts and swept through the countryside. Everyone was called upon to fight including children and the elderly. The tribe utterly destroyed Camulodunum (Colchester), the capital of Roman Britain, as well as Londinium (London) and Verulamium (St Albans), and massacred everyone who stood in their way. An estimated 70,000 people perished at her hand.

The Roman Governor of Britain, Suetonius Paulinus, (who had been away in the druid stronghold of Mona [Anglesey]), rallied the forces of Emperor Nero and overwhelmed the Iceni in a bloody battle, calling Boudica 'the treacherous lioness.' Some 80,000 of the tribesmen were slaughtered, against only 400 Roman dead. Boudica managed to escape but is said to have drunk from a poisoned chalice. According to myth, she lies buried under Platform 10 of London's King Cross Station.

For two thousand years the woman who led the Iceni tribe against the Roman invaders has been viewed as an icon of national resistance. Victorian painters and sculptors did much to perpetuate the myth of 'Boadicea.' Artists have depicted her astride her chariot, razor-sharp knives attached to the wheels. A statue of her in just such a pose with her daughters at her side still remains close to the Houses of Parliament on Westminster Bridge in London, while a stained glass window portrait of the warrior queen in Colchester Town Hall marks the site of the original Roman forum.

There is no doubt of the ferocious battle Boudica fought to try and save her fellow countrymen from the Romans. In late 2000, a dig in Colchester revealed that Boudica's army had carefully leveled every house, one by one. Philip Crummy, who directed the dig, compared the attack of the Iceni to 'ethnic cleansing' in the Balkans. "The civilian population was wiped out. Men, women and children -- all were killed. There were no prisoners."

Essays + Interviews:
Brutality and passion | Alex Kingston and Andrew Davies
The legend of Boudica

Essays + Interviews | Who's Who/Cast + Credits | Russell Baker
Story Synopsis | Links + Bibliography | The Forum

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