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.
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But before we dive into the revolt that literally burned London to the ground, we need some context. The Romans had first cast their eyes toward Britain back in the good old days before Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon and got himself murdered. Caesar, who had been conquesting his way through Gaul for a few years, decided to take a break in 55 BC and invade Britain as a little treat, although “invasion” is probably a stretch since he didn’t do much more than visit Kent and then turn back. But it must have been a fun caper, because he returned the next year, this time managing to cross the Thames and score a few victories against the Britons. After that Caesar had to put a pin in it due to other pressing business; he had a republic to bring down, after all, and a back that needed stabbing. In the chaos that ensued, Rome more or less ignored Britain for the next hundred years until the Emperor Claudius decided to invade again in 43 AD.
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.
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.
The Romans claimed that Prasutagus’ agreement with the Emperor Claudius was now null and void as both parties were dead. Since there existed no contract between Boudicca and Claudius’ successor, Nero (yes, that Nero), they were under no obligation to honor Prasutagus’ will. When Boudicca pushed back, the Romans turned violent. Their army plundered Prasutagus’ lands and enslaved various members of his family. They stripped the most powerful Iceni men of their land and possessions. Worst of all, they publicly flogged Boudicca and raped her daughters. This last act was not only meant to terrorize the girls both physically and psychologically, but, from a Roman perspective, the soldiers were also marking them as damaged goods. One of the foundational myths of Rome involves a noblewoman killing herself to escape the perceived dishonour of having been raped — that was the only way she could restore her lost virtue. The assault on Boudicca’s unnamed daughters was a way to harm not only their present but also their future prospects as wives, mothers, or even just respectable women. And considering that the girls were the heirs of the King of the Iceni, it may even be seen as an attempt to curtail the future of the tribe itself.
BOUDICCA: I guess they thought they could break me
BOUDICCA: beat me into submission, that kind of thing
BOUDICCA: they weren’t used to women who fight back
BOUDICCA: or women who fight at all, full stop
BOUDICCA: which is why they failed to notice or care when I started rallying my own troops
BOUDICCA: told my daughters to get in the chariot, because we are going to burn this fucker DOWN
PASSING ROMAN SOLDIER: awww, it’s cute that a little lady thinks she has troops!
BOUDICCA: you see what I mean
Part of the reason the Romans were less than attentive to Boudicca’s casual fomenting was that they were distracted by a different British problem. Suetonius, the governor of Britannia, was tired of the turbulent British priests — the Druids — and decided to stamp them out. His official reasons? The Druids were sheltering anti-Roman political refugees on the Isle of Mona (modern-day Anglesey) and it was alleged they practiced human sacrifice. It’s honestly kind of rich that the Romans — who had only stopped ritually sacrificing people about 150 years before and who loved to, you know, watch gladiators fight each other to the death — were so hung up on the sanctity of life or whatever, but people can rationalize anything. Anyway, the real reason that Suetonius and his peers wanted to take out the Druids was because they held an uncomfortable sway over the British population and refused to be assimilated. Basically, the Romans were worried that they would stir up rebellion, and also they just found them kind of spooky.
Worst of all, they publicly flogged Boudicca and raped her daughters. This last act was not only meant to terrorize the girls both physically and psychologically, but, from a Roman perspective, the soldiers were also marking them as damaged goods.
When Suetonius and his men arrived at Mona, they could see the Druids raising their arms and chanting, while a bunch of messy-haired women in black swung burning sticks around. Tacitus would later compare these women to the Furies, which might explain why the Roman soldiers were so uncharacteristically unnerved.
SUETONIUS: it was just, you know, so uncivilized
SUETONIUS: I had to … god, this is embarrassing
SUETONIUS: I had to remind my men that women aren’t worth being afraid of
SUETONIUS: anyway, we pulverized their sacred groves
SUETONIUS: we pulverized them GOOD
SUETONIUS: Druids delenda est and all that
It’s hard to overstate the level of desecration at Mona. It wasn’t just that the island was an important place of worship; in the belief system of the Celtic Britons, every river, every lake, every grove had its own individual god. By destroying the groves, the Romans quite literally killed British gods. The tribes were already primed for revolt, and as the news about Mona reached them, it must have added fuel to their fire.
Another result of Suetonius’ decision to take on the Druids at Mona — which was on the opposite side of Britain from the Iceni territory — was that the Roman governor was conveniently out of the way when Boudicca and the Iceni set off on their tear.
Boudicca found an ally in another local tribe, the Trinovantes. Like the Iceni, the Trinovantes had an axe to grind with the Romans, namely the colonia they had established in Camulodunum (modern-day Colchester), and the rebels chose that as their first target. But before we go deeper into that story, we need to take a brief detour.
One of the Empire’s grifts was that legionaries who fulfilled their enlistment terms received a small parcel of land. So if you were an enlisted nobody from a poor family, you could pull yourself up in the world by serving the required 25 years and getting your own land grant (assuming you lived that long; plenty of legionaries didn’t). The problem, of course, was that land is a finite resource, and these land grants typically stayed in families for generations. This meant that to fulfill their promise to their veterans, the Empire had to keep expanding outward into the ether, annexing more and more territory. Of course, the Emperors had their own reasons for wanting to broaden the Empire’s boundaries! But a side benefit to all that growth was that it meant more available land for veterans — once they’d cleared out those pesky native inhabitants, of course.
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Anyway, back in the pre-Roman times, Camulodunum had been one of the most important settlements in Britain, serving at one point as the capital of the Trinovantes tribe. Naturally the Romans thought it would be the perfect spot for them to settle down. In doing so, not only did the Romans drive the Britons out, but archeological evidence shows that they forced the displaced people to live and work in brutal conditions while re-building the town to Roman specifications. According to Tacitus, the soldiers posted encouraged this abuse of the Britons, even though it went against Roman policy (this was, after all, supposed to be a peaceful settlement, not a battlefield); he noted that those soldiers saw their future selves in the retired veterans and hoped they too would be allowed to treat native populations however the fuck they wanted someday.
BOUDICCA: you can’t spell colonialism without colonia!
BOUDICCA: yes, I know that’s the point
BOUDICCA: I understand how language fundamentally works
BOUDICCA: root words, et cetera
BOUDICCA: but since my husband’s death I’ve had to take up the mantle of dad jokes in our family
As Boudicca travelled across the country, her following grew. Those joining her cause weren’t just warrior-type men from the Iceni and the Trinovantes, they were people of all genders and ages. Farmers abandoned their fields and women loaded their children into carts to join the throng. With every British settlement they passed, the mass of people bearing down on Camulodunum increased in size; according to Dio, by the time they reached the city, they were 120,000 strong. The Britons were done hedging their bets — they were either going to solve the Roman problem once and for all, or they were going to go down in a blaze of glory.
Meanwhile, in Camulodunum, strange things were happening. A statue of Victory fell over, apparently for no reason. Women went into a frenzy, speaking in tongues and making frightening prophecies. South of the city, at the Thames Estuary, people saw visions of drowned houses in the water and the North Sea seemed to turn the color of blood. But even with all these portents and the news of Boudicca’s approach, the leaders told the townspeople not to worry. It was just a rag-tag group of women, after all — and not just any women, but primitive, uncivilized British women. No big deal. There was time to evacuate, but why bother? The procurator of Roman Britain, Catus Decianus, ordered an extra two hundred men to Camulodunum and figured the problem was solved.
BOUDICCA: obviously misogyny sucks
BOUDICCA: and no one likes to be underestimated
BOUDICCA: but sometimes that kind discrimination is a gift
BOUDICCA: a gift called the element of surprise even though they saw you coming
Boudicca’s army did not just attack Camulodunum, they razed it. They slaughtered every Roman they could find, even children and the elderly. They defaced graveyards and set buildings ablaze. The head of a statue of Emperor Claudius was crudely hacked off and thrown in a river. Some townspeople barricaded themselves in a temple, but even that couldn’t save them — after two days’ siege, the Britons stormed it and killed everyone inside. The destruction was so intense and so fiery that the layer of soil from that period is a strange orange-red.
BOUDICCA: some people use the term “scorched earth” metaphorically
BOUDICCA: but I’d say I’m more of a literalist
BOUDICCA: some women just want to watch the Roman world burn, I guess
BOUDICCA: again, not in a figurative sense
One curious thing about Boudicca’s sacking of Camulodunum is that it seems to have left no bodies behind. There’s plenty of archeological evidence to show that the city was gutted, but there are no mass graves or deposits of human remains, even though everyone agrees that the Queen of the Iceni authorized wanton mass-murder. Some historians theorize that the Romans later came back and cremated the dead, while some wonder if the high death toll was a bit of exaggeration. Still others have suggested that Boudicca and her people removed the bodies to a nearby oak grove for darker purposes, perhaps some kind of religious rite to Andraste, a local goddess of victory. While Celts of all stripes did enjoy dismembering those they had conquered in battle — they would apparently embalm their heads and put them on display in their homes as trophies — this last theory is probably a little too far-fetched to be true. Then again, given some of the allegations Dio would later make against Boudicca, maybe not.
The destruction was so intense and so fiery that the layer of soil from that period is a strange orange-red.
After Camulodunum, Boudicca turned her gaze toward Londinium. Although it wasn’t a particularly big or important city, Londinium made sense as her next target because, unlike many of the other towns in Roman Britain, Londinium had likely never been a British settlement — it was a Roman enterprise, a trade outpost whose location was chosen because the river there was narrow enough for a bridge but deep enough to accommodate Roman seagoing vessels. By the time Boudicca went on her tear, the young city had already become a bustling centre of commerce, with goods from such distant locations as Spain, Greece, and Syria later uncovered in archeological digs. To strike at Londinium would, in Boudicca’s mind, have been like striking at the heart of the Roman occupation itself.
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.
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.
Both Tacitus and Dio have Boudicca addressing her troops before the battle; this is where Dio’s description of her as a large, be-necklaced woman with a bossy voice comes from. He has her finish the speech by calling out an invocation to Andraste and then releasing a hare from underneath her skirts (the direction it ran was supposed to predict who would win the battle). In Tacitus’ version, she speaks from her chariot, riding up and down her lines with her daughters on either side of her, telling those assembled that “it was indeed usual for Britons to fight under the leadership of women.” Both versions of the speech give off a noble savage sort of vibe: together, the Britons would throw off the shackles of Rome! Their ways were superior and more natural than those of their invaders! It would be better to follow the ways of their ancestors in impoverished freedom than to live as slaves with Roman wealth! Of course, there’s almost no chance that either of these speeches could be accurate — Boudicca would not have been speaking Latin to her people, and the Romans who were present would not have understood the British language. The words that Dio and Tacitus put in Boudicca’s mouth say more about them and how they wanted to portray the Britons than they do about anything else.
BOUDICCA: I mean, my people don’t need me to explain to them that we don’t mind women leaders
BOUDICCA: especially not when I’m literally in front of them?
BOUDICCA: but I guess Tacitus’ audience needed to hear it
BOUDICCA: at least he didn’t say my voice was ugly, unlike some historians I could name
The battle was an absolute shitshow for the Britons. They might have been numerous, but they weren’t seasoned warriors like their opponents — don’t forget that Boudicca’s following was largely made up of random men, women, and children who had joined her ranks as she marched across the country. They were far more likely to be farmers than trained soldiers, and they lacked the weaponry and armour of the Romans. Not only that, but the Britons had stationed their wagons — packed with their animals and children — in a ring around the back of the battlefield, which meant that when the Romans started pushing forward, the Britons were effectively trapped by their own people. And push forward the Romans did, killing everything in their path — even the women and “beasts of burden,” according to Tacitus. He also reported that 80,000 Britons died, as compared to only 400 Romans.
The words that Dio and Tacitus put in Boudicca’s mouth say more about them and how they wanted to portray the Britons than they do about anything else.
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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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.