Boudica was a British Queen who took on the Roman army in 60 AD. – and she almost won…
At the end of Westminster Bridge, just across from Big Ben, stands a sculpture of a woman driving a chariot. It’s called Boadicea and Her Daughters. As an American I had never heard of this woman, and was curious. It turns out, she was an early British Queen turned folk hero that all British children learn about in school. Nowadays her name is spelled Boudica (pronounced something like Boo’ di ka), and she is famous for taking on the Roman army in 60 AD. – and almost winning.
The Roman historian, Cassius Dio, described Boudica like this: “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…”
But before Boudica went on her rampage, the tall red-headed Queen probably wasn’t so fierce. Her life was pretty good. She was married to Prasutagus, King of the Iceni tribe, and they had two young daughters.
The Iceni were a small British Celtic tribe, from eastern Britain – in and around present-day Norfolk. They were independent and wealthy, and they were a client kingdom of Rome. This meant that they were on good terms with the great Empire and maintained a certain amount of self-rule. It also meant that they received financial support from Rome. Everything was coming up roses for Queen Boudica until 60 AD. That’s when her husband died.
The King is Dead
Prasutagus had left a will giving half his kingdom to his daughters and the other half to Rome. Queen Boudica would govern for the girls until they were of age. The Royal couple must have thought this arrangement would continue the protection and support of Rome. But they were wrong.
While the Iceni people had no problem with a female ruler, the Romans did. According to Roman law, a girl could not inherit from her father and a woman certainly could not reign over men.
But there was another problem – a financial one. Back in Rome, Nero was spending money like crazy and looking for ways to replenish the coffers. He declared that all the funds given to the client kingdoms in Britain had been loans and he was calling them all in.
Rome Comes Calling
Rome declared that since their agreement for protection and funding had been with King Prasutagus, and since he had died without male heirs, everything belonged to them. And they came to collect.
Roman soldiers rode in and plundered the settlement. Queen Boudica protested, but they stripped her, tied her to a post, and beat her. Then they raped her two young daughters. Boudica was devastated… and angry… very very angry. She vowed that she would have revenge.
While the governor of Britain, Suetonius, was far away in the west attacking the Druids, Boudica set her plan into action. She rallied other local tribes and built herself an army. Many of the tribes were disillusioned with Roman rule and were ready to join Queen Boudica. Her army rose into the tens of thousands.
The furious Queen led her army to Colchester, the capital of Roman Britain, then to London, and finally to St. Albans. In each city, they killed the inhabitants, looted, and burned what remained. Modern-day archaeologists have found a layer of burned earth in each area that they call the Boudiccan destruction horizon.
Boudica’s rampage had killed about 70,000 Romans and Roman sympathizers. Her army had also ambushed Roman troops and killed about 1,500 soldiers. Governor Suetonius was not looking good on the reports going back to Rome. He had to do something.
Boudica’s army had been very successful using guerrilla tactics. but now Suetonius was going to force them to face the Roman army head on. He assembled his troops in a valley with a woodland at their back. The Britons faced them and used their wagons behind them to block retreat. There was no getting out of it. It was a fight to the death.
Boudica had between 100,000 and 200,000 on her side and the Romans numbered about 10,000. As they prepared to fight, each commander was giving a pep talk to their troops. Boudica was in her chariot with her two daughters riding up and down the line of soldiers shouting that they had right on their side and the gods were with them.
As was their tradition, the Britons had painted themselves blue, using a mixture made from the woad plant. This gave them a fearsome look and was also a sort of camouflage in twilight hours.
The Britons knew how to fight one on one, but the Roman army was more like a machine. They marched in impenetrable formations, clad in protective metal armor. And they slaughtered Queen Boudica’s army. Boudica survived the battle, but one account says she took poison rather than be captured, and another version says she died of disease shortly afterward.
Boudica Lives On
Boudica’s revenge was fierce, but in the end, it failed. The Romans went on to rule Britain for another 400 years. However, Queen Boudica’s courage was not forgotten. In the sixteenth century Queen Elizabeth I used Boudica’s story as an example to prove that a woman was fit to be queen. Then in the 1800s, Prince Albert revived the tale of Boudica as a tribute to his wife, Queen Victoria. She was seen as Boudica’s namesake because ‘Boudica’ also meant Victory.
The Warrior Queen’s name has been written many ways throughout the centuries: Boadicea, Boudicea, Boudicca… No matter how her name is spelled, she has remained in the hearts of the British people as a symbol of the fearlessness and independence of the British spirit.
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Read more stories like this in my book Bowlers, Brollies, and Brits: Curious Histories of England
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