British Queen, d. 61 CE
Dubbed by the Romans “the Killer Queen,” Boudicca became the ultimate symbol of the fighting Amazon, despite having only the briefest of military careers to her name. She leaps into history for one short campaign, blazing like a comet across the sky with her enduring cry of “Death before slavery!” before falling into oblivion. But in the space of a few months, she succeeded in giving the Romans one of the greatest shocks their vast empire ever faced, driven to make war by a series of insults and cruelties so savage that all the tribes of East Anglia rose in rebellion and flocked to her side.
Boudicca was queen of the Iceni, one of the most powerful tribes in Europe, based in the modern English counties of Norfolk and Suffolk. Women fighters were a continuous element of Celtic culture, and the Celts had many war goddesses, two of which—Boudiga and Andraste—Boudicca invoked for victory.
Boudicca’s tragedy was to face the invading Romans as a female ruler in a society whose women enjoyed exceptionally high status and whose queens often ruled in their own right. Celtic queens were seen as embodying the spirit and sovereignty of the land, and as women, their royalty was only a step away from the divinity of the Great Goddess, who was worshipped everywhere.
Boudicca’s link with the Great Goddess is evident in her name, which derives from bouda, or victory, investing her with all the force of the goddess in her warlike incarnation as Boudiga, “the Lady of Victory”. The Romans by contrast denied their women almost all legal or civil rights. Faced with Celtic queens, they insisted on imposing their own rules. When Boudicca’s husband, Prasutagus, died in 61 CE, leaving her with two young daughters, Roman law did not permit royal inheritance to be passed down in the female line. In addition, the Celtic royal households were stocked with cattle, grain, jewelry, and gold; the chance was too good to miss. Looting and pillaging, the Romans attacked the palace and hauled Boudicca out to be stripped and flogged. Next she was forced to watch while her two young daughters were raped by the soldiery.
This was more than simple physical abuse. As females, Boudicca’s daughters shared the divinity that attached to women of royal birth. Rape destroyed their virginity and thereby robbed them of their special powers, making it impossible that they could ever claim priestess status or inherit their mother’s semidivine role.
To the Celts, the insult was intolerable. All the tribes exploded in revolt. “The whole island [of Britain] now rose up under the leadership of Boudicca, a queen, for Britons make no distinction of sex in their appointment of commanders,” recorded the Roman historian Tacitus, whose father-in-law, Agricola, as a senior officer, encountered Boudicca on the battlefield.
Boudicca’s perceived divinity may explain the passion and courage of her followers. Her appearance in battle seems to have struck fear in friend and foe alike, as the Roman historian Dio Cassius described her, writing a century later:
[She was] tall, terrifying to look at, with a fierce gaze and a harsh, powerful voice. A flood of bright red hair fell down to her knees; she wore a golden necklet made up of ornate pieces, a multi-coloured robe and over it a thick cloak held together by a brooch. She grasped a long spear to strike dread in all those who set eyes on her.
Dio Cassius also recorded with true Roman superiority that she was “possessed of greater intelligence than is usually found in the female sex.”
Boudicca rapidly moved her army south, where she sacked the city of Camulodunum (modern Colchester) and routed the Roman relief force. Londinium (London) and Verulanium (St. Albans) were next. Racing south from crushing another outbreak, the Roman governor in Britain, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, reached London before the rebels but then decided that the city was indefensible. Ignoring what Tacitus calls “the lamentations and appeals” of the Roman merchants, he withdrew his forces and left the settlers to their fate.
The sacking of London was particularly savage, with most of the Celts’ fury falling on the Roman women. The male inhabitants were given no quarter as the Celts swept through the city, looting and killing the settlers indiscriminately, and Tacitus estimates that seventy thousand died. But for the women, the victors reserved a special fate. They were rounded up, taken out of the city to a wooded grove sacred to the Celtic war goddess Andraste, and sacrificed to her there in an elaborate ritual of startling cruelty. Boudicca and her warriors impaled them on outsize skewers, suspended them from trees, then cut off their breasts and stuffed them into their mouths or stitched them to their lips in a ghastly parody of mothers giving suck.
To the patriarchal Romans, the worst of this disaster was that it was led by a woman, “which caused them the greatest shame.” With a force of about ten thousand, Suetonius brought Boudicca’s considerably more numerous army to battle somewhere in the English Midlands, cheering his soldiers by telling them that they had little to fear from Boudicca, as her army consisted of more women than men.
Tacitus describes Boudicca on the opposing side, driving around all the tribes in her chariot, with her daughters in front, to deliver a fiery speech:
We British are used to women commanders in war…but I am not fighting for my kingdom or my wealth. I am fighting for my lost freedom, my battered body and my violated daughters…. Consider what you are fighting for, and why. Then you will win this battle, or perish. That is what I, as a woman, plan to do. Let the men live in shame and slavery if they will!
In a symbolic gesture, she released a live hare, an animal sacred to the Great Goddess, between the two armies and dedicated it to Andraste, for victory.
On a more practical level, her army labored under the signal disadvantage of having no battle plan. Though a charismatic commander, Boudicca displayed scant generalship, meeting Suetonius and his force on open ground where Celtic fervor proved no match for Roman organization and discipline. Suetonius, a veteran of mountain warfare, fought with a forest at his back, forcing the Britons to charge headlong up a slope onto Roman javelins. The Britons’ women, confident of victory, watched from a laager of wagons on the edge of the battlefield.
When the Britons had exhausted themselves, the Romans counterattacked in wedge formation, driving them back onto their wagons, where they were routed. In the bloody mêlée of defeated warriors, women, children, pack animals, and baggage, the Romans slaughtered everything that moved. Tacitus estimated the Roman dead at four hundred, compared with eighty thousand Britons. In Tacitus’ account, Boudicca took poison, although others assert that she was taken prisoner after the battle and died in captivity. What became of her daughters is unknown.
Reference: Anne Ross, Druids, 1999; and Graham Webster, Boudicca: The British Revolt Against Rome, 1978.