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Anne Thériault | Longreads | May 2021 | 18 minutes (4,866 words)

From the notorious to the half-forgotten, Queens of Infamy, a Longreads series by Anne Thériault, focuses on world-historical women of centuries past.

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She was tall — terrifyingly large, in fact. Her tawny hair fell in a “great mass” to her hips. She was dressed in a colorful tunic and cloak, her outfit completed by a giant fuck-off gold torc. Her voice was harsh, unfeminine. She had spent the last weeks murdering and maiming her way across the British countryside, and now she led a force of hundreds of thousands of Britons in a standoff against the occupying Romans. She had a rabbit hidden in her skirt for occult purposes. She was a bloodthirsty barbarian, devoted to a ghoulish religion, out to destroy the social order of the known world. At least, this is how historian Cassius Dio described Boudicca, a British tribal queen, over one hundred years after her death — every civilized man’s worst nightmare.

Boudicca appears in the narrative about 17 years after Claudius’ invasion. Her husband, Prasutagus, was the ruler of the Iceni, a British tribe whose territory included modern-day Norfolk and parts of Suffolk. The historian Tacitus, who gives us a near-contemporary account of Boudicca’s uprising, wrote that she was of royal blood, but beyond that we don’t know much about her. Did she come from Iceni nobility or was she a princess from another tribe who had married Prasutagus as part of an alliance? Was Boudicca her given name, or since it’s believed to come from a Proto-Celtic root word meaning victory, was it a title she adopted? We don’t even know how old she was in 60 AD — she had two daughters by Prasutagus who were probably in their tweens or early teens, and if those were her first and only children, she could have been as young as 30. Then again, if there had been other children who had died or if, for some reason, she’d married later or hadn’t been able to conceive right away, she could have been in her 40s or even 50s. All we know about her life are the scraps that Tacitus and Dio left us, and those are the highly biased Roman accounts describing an enemy they considered to be primitive and sub-human.

BOUDICCA: I mean, the Romans barely consider their own women to be people

BOUDICCA: even the ones they allegedly like

BOUDICCA: you know, the ones who’ve mastered the skills of shutting up and spinning wool

BOUDICCA: neither of which are exactly my forte

The Iceni had allied themselves with Rome and been allowed to live fairly autonomously with Prasutagus as their client king in the standard Roman model. They were apparently quite wealthy and prosperous, even as neighboring regions were gutted by invading forces. As long as the Iceni kept bootlicking paying their taxes, everything was going to be fine. Or at least that’s what they believed right up until Prasutagus died and all hell broke loose.

BOUDICCA: my husband had a will, as all responsible adults should

BOUDICCA: if you don’t have one yet, close this tab and go make one right now!

BOUDICCA: anyway, he split his assets between our daughters and the Emperor Nero

BOUDICCA: the Romans, being always fair and just, honored that agreement

BOUDICCA: oh my god, I’m sorry, I can’t even say that with a straight face

BOUDICCA: of course they didn’t honor it

BOUDICCA: but seriously, you need a will if you don’t have one already

The fact that Boudicca was not named as one of Prasutagus’ heirs, even though she was his wife and the mother of his children and was going to rule as regent until they came of age, might be a clue as to what kind of person she was. Some historians speculate that she might have had strong anti-Roman sentiments even before shit went sideways — that perhaps her family of origin may have been involved in some of the earlier revolts against the Empire. Maybe Prasutagus had strategically left her out of his will as a way of reassuring Rome that he was on their side. After all, nothing was guaranteed to stir up ire like naming a possible insurrectionist as your successor. But, as it turned out, the Romans’ ire was going to be stirred no matter what. Prasutagus’ death was the perfect opportunity for a land grab, and the Romans were going to use whatever excuse they could to make it look legitimate.

The Romans had, of course, by now figured out that this was more than a throw-two-hundred-men-at-it-and-call-it-a-day kind of problem. The IXth legion (or, at least, part of it) was dispatched to deal with the unpleasantness at Camulodunum, but they were routed by Britons just north of the colonia. Meanwhile, Suetonius himself, having finished butchering those old harpies on Mona, rushed to Londinium. He somehow made it there before Boudicca, even though he had to cross the breadth of the country and the Britons only had to saunter down the coast. That’s one of the benefits of travelling without children, I guess!

Suetonius had, at least according to Tacitus, initially hoped Londinium could be used as a military stronghold against the Britons. He quickly realized that Londinium was not fortified and was in no way capable of withstanding the type of attack that Camulodunum had suffered. He immediately abandoned the city to its fate.

SUETONIUS: look, I’m a real-talk kind of guy

SUETONIUS: I tell hard truths, and some people think that makes me an asshole

SUETONIUS: but I think it just makes me honest

SUETONIUS: so I honestly told them they were honestly fucked

SUETONIUS: I’m not a magician, I can’t make defences appear from nowhere!

SUETONIUS: so I told them I was going to make a last stand somewhere else

SUETONIUS: and I invited all the able-bodied men to join me

SUETONIUS: which I feel was very generous

It’s not known how many people took Suetonius up on his offer; it’s not even known how large the population of Londinium was at the time, although some estimates place it around 30,000. The residents there were Suetonius’ own people, they were Romans, they were the ones he was supposed to be protecting. But what are a few civilians — women, children, the elderly or disabled — worth when it comes to protecting the Empire? Not much, as it turned out.

Boudicca did to Londinium what she’d done in Camulodunum, but worse. Her brief presence there is also marked by a red layer of soil, about 13 feet below the surface. It’s full of smashed treasures, ruined food stuffs, and debris from the cataclysmic fires that swept through Londinium, which archeological evidence shows burned in excess of 1,000 degrees Celcius. The Britons continued to show no mercy, and slaughtered everyone they could find, sometimes in exquisitely cruel ways.

Boudicca did to Londinium what she’d done in Camulodunum, but worse. Her brief presence there is also marked by a red layer of soil, about 13 feet below the surface.

After Londinium, Boudicca and her forces descended on the settlement of Verulamium, which might seem like a curious choice, since it was neither a settlement full of veterans like Camulodunum or a Roman merchant town like Londinium. In fact, it was a town populated by Britons — specifically, Britons who were friendly to the Roman cause. Although Verulamium suffered the same fiery fate as the two cities that had been sacked before it, excavations of the red layer there show far less debris from personal possessions, which suggests that the inhabitants had time to gather up what was precious to them and flee. Still, according to Tacitus, Boudicca’s tear across the country had left 70,000 dead (although, again, many modern historians agree this figure is likely inflated).

The Britons didn’t just kill citizens of the cities they razed — according to Dio, they often tortured them first. The Roman historian vividly describes the gruesome acts the Britons were alleged to have committed: stripping the “noblest and most distinguished women” naked, cutting off their breasts and sewing them into their mouths, then “impal[ing] the women on sharp skewers run lengthwise through the entire body.”Was this another Roman hyperbole meant to paint the Britons in a savage light, or is there some truth to it? Again, dismemberment or disfigurement of enemies was not outside the realm of Celtic practices. If it is true, Boudicca might have found a certain poetic justice in the act of defiling Roman women’s bodies after the violence their men had inflicted on her and her daughters. Sure, these Roman women were innocent civilians, but to the Britons they were still the enemy — interlopers, invaders, colonizers. Hadn’t the British tribes been pushed off their own lands, defrauded, and even killed so that these women could live in peace? A passive beneficiary to violence is still, in some ways, an abettor of it.

The red layer of soil in present-day London has the same curious problem as that in Camulodunum, namely that it isn’t filled with human remains. According to Dio, the Britons followed up each round of sacking with visits to groves dedicated to Andraste and other “sacred places.” There, they held sacrifices and banquets and indulged in “wanton behavior.” It’s possible that the events he’s describing — if they happened at all — were little more than boozy victory celebrations, distorted to fit Dio’s agenda. At this point, who knows? What does seem clear is that Boudicca’s spiritual beliefs seemed just as fervent and uncanny to the Romans as those of the Druids on Mona.Speaking of the Romans, what were they up to while Boudicca was slashing and burning her way across the country? They were making plans, of course. The Britons had numbers on their side — Dio writes that by the time of the final battle, Boudicca’s army had swollen to 230,000 strong. The Romans only had a tiny fraction of that, but they had the benefit of intensive training and organization, something their enemy sorely lacked.

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In fact, the Britons’ whole escapade was a bit haphazard from beginning to end. They seemed more interested in killing and plundering than they were in actually engaging the Roman forces. They’d missed several key chances to attack Suetonius while he was travelling to and from London. Why hadn’t they set an ambush for him the way they had for the IXth Legion back at Camulodunum? Maybe, drunk on their successes (and, no doubt, actual alcohol), they believed themselves to be invincible, or maybe they genuinely didn’t realize that the absolute worst thing they could do was give the Romans more time. Maybe they just thought their uprising was just too big to fail. Whatever their reasoning, it’s possible that victory may have been within the Britons’ grasp and they fucked it up.No one is quite sure where the final battle took place, although many historians think it was somewhere in the West Midlands. According to Tacitus, Suetonius chose a spot with a forest on one side and open fields on the other, and then positioned his troops so that they weren’t vulnerable to British ambushes. Tacitus also tells us that Suetonius had 10,000 men with him, which means that even if there were only half as many Britons as Dio says, their forces were still more than ten times bigger than that of the Romans. As the two sides arranged themselves on the field, more than one Roman soldier must have wondered if this was going to be a battle or a bloodbath.

Boudicca died too, although not in battle; Tacitus says she drank poison, while Dio merely tells us that she “fell sick and died.” It’s possible that the Romans had her killed — Tacitus never specifies exactly who administered the poison — but that wouldn’t have been their style. They were more a “dress our conquered enemies up in golden chains and publicly humiliate them in the streets of Rome” type of people. Then again, it’s possible that Suetonius knew that parading a defeated Boudicca around might not have the effect he hoped for. There would have been little glory in having bested a woman on the battlefield, and in showing off Boudicca to a home audience, there was a good chance that he was the one who would have been humiliated. What kind of man nearly has his territory wrested from him by a lady, and a barbarian to boot? This is why the size of the British horde had to be exaggerated, why Dio had to go out of his way to describe Boudicca as large and hyper-masculine — to have struggled so hard against a smaller number of backwoods savages led by a woman would have been emasculating in the extreme. That being said, suicide is the more likely option. Boudicca had seen first-hand what the Romans did to British women who disagreed with them. Like Cleopatra before her and, possibly, Zenobia after her, she might have felt that self-inflicted death was the least painful course of action.

What kind of man nearly has his territory wrested from him by a lady, and a barbarian to boot?

What about her daughters, the two girls who helped spark the rebellion? Neither Dio nor Tacitus says what happened to them, so we can only speculate. Maybe they died in the battle. Maybe Boudicca slipped them a dose of poison. Maybe the Romans captured them. Maybe they escaped, went into hiding, lived out the rest of their lives as farmer’s wives who, on cold nights, would spin tales for their children about watching Londinium burn.

It’s frustrating that so little concrete information about Boudicca exists, not just because it would be satisfying to fill the gaps in her story, but because the existing records reduce her to this one, brief period in her life. What was her life like back before she entered recorded history as a bloodthirsty warrior queen? I try to imagine her in quiet moments of bliss — on her wedding night, or touching her daughters’ hair as they sleep, or hurtling alone in a chariot down a track. I hope that even in her last days she had times when she felt happy, or at least powerful. I hope she enjoyed every second of those debauched victory feasts.

There is no record of where Boudicca was buried. Several theories have sprung up over the years, including one that says her remains are somewhere under Platform 8 at King’s Cross Station. English writer Jane Holland published a collection of poems called Boudicca & Co. in 2006, the final poem closes with the lines “The end/was confused. Some screaming, vomit./It hurt, I know that much./Nothing else. Just good British dirt/and closing my mouth on it.”

This is how I like to imagine Boudicca: somewhere deep in the rich, dark, earth, nothing but nourishment now. She is reborn again and again, in the stories that we tell, in the fires in our bellies, in every fight against injustice, even the ones that feel unwinnable. She is the opposite of those dead red layers of earth that mark her passing. She is nothing but life now.

LONG LIVE THE FUCKING QUEEN

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Previously:

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Anne Thériault is a Toronto-based writer whose bylines can be found all over the internet, including at the Guardian, the London Review of Books and, obviously, Longreads. She truly believes that your favourite Tudor wife says more about you than your astrological sign. She is currently raising one child and three unruly cats. You can find her on Twitter @anne_theriault.

Editor: Krista Stevens Fact Checker: Julie Schwietert Collazo Illustrator: Louise Pomeroy