The life of Boudicca: the warrior queen of the the Iceni

An engraving by William Sharp published in 1793, based on Boadicea Haranguing the Britons | Public Domain | Wikimedia

She was the rebel queen of the ancient British Celtic Iceni tribe, who led an army against the Romans in AD 60/61, securing her place in the history books as one of Britain’s most iconic rulers.

Boudicca (also written as Boudica and Boudicea) is believed to have been born around AD 30 into an elite family in South East England. Most of the information about her comes from two Roman historians – Tacitus and Cassius Dio.

In AD 43, Emperor Claudius mounted an invasion force and successfully conquered southern Britain. In AD 48, at the age of 18, Boudicca married Prasutagas the king of the Iceni tribe, whose lands occupied what is now modern-day Norfolk. It is believed Prasutagas submitted to Claudius after the AD 43 invasion and had been permitted to continue to rule as an independent ally of Rome.

Boudicca gave birth to two daughters whose names are unknown and she remained at Prasutagas side until his death from illness. In his will, he left half of his kingdom and possessions to his daughters and the other half to Emperor Nero. It was an attempt to appease Rome whilst at the same time preserving his own family dynasty. The plan backfired and the Romans ignored his wishes and decided to call in debts that the late king had accumulated. The lands and property of leading Iceni tribesmen were confiscated and the people stripped of their ally status, effectively reducing them to the level of slaves.

When Boudicca protested the move, she was publicly stripped and flogged and her two daughters raped by Roman soldiers. Boudicca swore revenge and began to muster an army to rebel against her oppressive new masters.

Cassius Dio described Boudicca as very tall, with long tawny coloured hair, highly intelligent and equipped with a fierce look and authoritative voice. Like other Celtic women, Boudica had been trained as a warrior so she knew how to fight.

The Iceni joined forces with the neighbouring Trinovantes and along with other tribes combined to make an army of around 100,000 Britons, all under the command of Boudicca.

In AD 60 (or 61) when the Roman governor of Britain, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, was away campaigning on the island of Mona (modern Anglesey) in North Wales, Boudicca and her army began their uprising.

First, they marched on Camulodunum (modern Colchester), which was the provincial Roman capital of Britain at the time. The town lay virtually unprotected, defended only by a small number of veteran soldiers. Boudicca’s army laid waste to the town, burning it to the ground, massacring its inhabitants (Romans and pro-Roman Britain’s alike) and decapitating a bronze statue to the emperor Nero. The Roman Ninth Legion, under the command of Quintus Petillius Cerialis, attempted to relieve the city but Boudicca routed the advancing army and annihilated most of the legion.

Londinium (modern London), the trade centre of the Roman Empire in Britain, now lay ahead. By this time, Suetonius had got word of the revolt and began marching his troops back down south. He arrived at Londinium before Boudicca, however, the settlement was poorly fortified and with just a few thousand men Suetonius decided to abandon the town to the rebels.

Londinium suffered the same fate of Camulodunum with Boudicca’s forces razing it to the ground and killing and torturing anyone who had failed to evacuate. Verulamium (modern St Albans) would be their next target and again Suetonius refused to defend the town, leaving it to be freely sacked, burned and obliterated by the warrior Queen.

Accounts suggest that between 70,000-80,000 people were killed when Boudicca destroyed those three settlements. Nero was said to be contemplating pulling out of Britain altogether.

Although Boudicca’s army had now grown even larger in size, her campaign of revenge was about to come to an end.

‘It is not as a woman descended from noble ancestry, but as one of the people that I am avenging lost freedom...'

Suetonius regrouped his forces and amassed an army of around 10,000 men. A master of military tactics, Suetonius designed a plan that would effectively eliminate his enemy’s numerical advantage. He chose a steep-sided narrow gorge with woods protecting his rear as the spot to make his stand, denying the rebels the chance to exploit their superior numbers. Although the location of the final battle is unknown, historians have suggested it could have taken place along the Roman road now known as Watling Street, somewhere most likely in the West Midlands.

Before the battle commenced, Tacitus records that Boudicca addressed her troops. ‘It is not as a woman descended from noble ancestry, but as one of the people that I am avenging lost freedom, my scourged body, the outraged chastity of my daughters. Roman lust has gone so far that not our very persons, nor even age or virginity, are left unpolluted. But heaven is on the side of a righteous vengeance; a legion which dared to fight has perished; the rest are hiding themselves in their camp, or are thinking anxiously of flight…This is a woman's resolve; as for men, they may live and be slaves.’

However, Boudicca’s opposition was better trained, better disciplined and better equipped. The rebels had also made the fateful decision of encircling their rear with their families, wagons and animals, preventing any escape once the battle had been lost. In the end, her troops were slaughtered almost to the last, whilst the Romans, according to Tacitus, suffered just a few hundred casualties.

Cassius Dio and Tacitus differ on what happened next to the warrior Queen. Dio says she fell ill and died after the battle, whilst Tacitus says she poisoned herself. Nothing in the histories tells of what happened to her two daughters.

The Romans had quelled the rebellion and secured Southern Britain. Publius Petronius Turpilianus replaced Suetonious as governor and took a more conciliatory approach. In the decades that followed, however, the Romans continued their expansion northwards into Wales and towards Scotland.

Though Boudicca ultimately failed in her quest to rid Britain of the Romans, she is still celebrated today as a national heroine and a symbol of freedom, justice and courage in the face of tyranny.