To the Romans she was a barbarian. To the British, a heroine.
Boudica—or Boadicea as the Celts called her—is a woman made of part legend, part historical record, however, there’s no direct evidence that Boudica ever actually existed. Even her name might not be her name, as it derives from bouda, the ancient British word for victory. Whatever the truth, the story begins with her as Queen of the Iceni Tribe—during a brutal period of history.
Rome was bringing the world to its knees, and in 43 AD, they landed on British shores. They came, they conquered, and … they made an agreement with the local tribes: the tribes could keep their lands in exchange for paying dues to Rome.
According to Roman historian Tacitus’s account of how things went down, when Boudica’s husband, Prasutgus, King of the Iceni, died in 60 AD, he left half his fortune to Roman Emperor Nero, and the other half to his daughters. The result of this “snub” to Nero was, in a word … devastating.
The Trouble with Romans
The Emperor, feeling rather insulted that Prasutgus hadn’t left his entire fortune to him, sent Roman troops to Briton to ransack Prasutgus’s kingdom. It was during this raid Roman soldiers flogged Boudica and violated her two daughters.
With a queen and two princesses demeaned and degraded in front of their people, let’s just say the Iceni, who had up to this point been tolerating Rome’s rule, were officially done putting up with the Roman’s shit. The Iceni might have been a bruised people, staggering back from the brink of ruin, but they’d had enough of the desecration of their culture and beliefs.
Like any good fantasy fiction story with a character who has just lost everything, this was the call to action, and Boudica, a pissed-off queen turned warrior woman, stepped up and decided—TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT—and well … hell hath no fury like a woman whose family, people, and lands have just been ravaged by their oppressive overlords.
With seething hatred exploding into fury, Boudica joined Iceni forces with the Trinovantes Tribe, and together they swept in to destroy the very heart of Roman Britain, the city/town of Camulodunum (modern-day Colchester).
A Queen, A Mother, and a Killer
Boudica and her army showed no mercy to the Romans living in their British capital. They were butchered and burned alive as Boudica’s forces wiped Camulodunum from the earth.
Her next stop: Londinium (modern-day London); a relatively new town squatting on the banks of the muddy River Thames. And as Boudica came swooping in, spears whistling, torches burning, the nearly 30,000 residents of Londinium gathered their meager belongings and fled (well, most of them).
Roman Historian, Cassius Dio, recorded the attack as especially brutal, only furthering Rome’s accusation that the British Tribespeople were barbarians. In an attack that reflected the public humiliation of Boudica and her daughters by the Romans, it’s reported that men were skewered onto wooden poles, and women’s breasts sliced from their bodies and sewn into their mouths.
Now with some 70,000 Romans and Allies so far killed, it weakened the rule of the Romans in Britain, and worst of all—this humiliation was coming from the hands of a woman.
As Vanessa Collingridge wrote in the BBC History Magazine’s article ‘Royal Women’: “Not since Cleopatra’s seduction of Caesar and Mark Antony had the empire suffered such shame.”
Gathering her people around her, Boudica and her forces turned from the ashes of Londinium and headed toward Verulamium (modern-day St Albens in Hertfordshire).
Heroine or Villain
In her final battle, on an area that is today referred to as ‘Dead Queen’s Moor’, Boudica, backed by a force of 230,000 had an almost assured victory over Rome’s 10,000 fighters. But what the Celts couldn’t conquer that day was what had conquered the near world—the Roman troops—a deadly and highly-organized killing machine.
The Iceni and Trinovantes were skilled artisans as well as warriors. And to honor their gods, they would toss hand-forged gold and jewelry into rivers and buried them in the earth in hoards of priceless treasures (still being hunted for today). This time, however, even their gods couldn’t save the Britons. They were massacred and defeated.
And our Heroine, Boudica?
Some say she killed herself with poison, ala Shakespeare, others say she fell ill and died, and then again, perhaps she went out fighting on Dead Queen’s Moor, her sword singing above her head.
Far from fading away, Boudica’s story is as rich today as it ever has been. In fact, her name has been invoked by British female rulers since to help legitimize their right to rule. And forever cast in statuary, she and her two daughters, clad in armor and driving a chariot, stand above the crowds of Westminster Bridge, facing Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster.
Heroine, heretic, freedom fighter and fiery red-haired virago, Boudica is remembered as much for her bravery as the destruction she wrought. Women Warriors are both givers of life and the bringers of death, and as Collingridge so aptly states: “It’s the paradox of the warrior queen that endures.”