Norfolk Superhero #2 - Boudica, Queen of the Iceni
- Categorized in: Norfolk Superheroes
Norfolk Superhero #2 - Boudica, Queen of the Iceni
Nearly two thousand years ago, Norfolk, or Nelson’s County, as it is sometimes known, was inhabited by a tribe of Britons called the Iceni. It seems trite to describe the Iceni as a “war-like people” since you’d be hard-pressed to find any people-group back in those days who could be described as peaceful. But it is true that for sheer bodycount, the Iceni have surely earned the handle.
Our second Norfolk superhero was their queen, Boudica. Her name comes in various possible forms, including Boudicea, Bundica, Budikka, or Buddug. I’m going to call her Boudica. She was described by one Roman historian as “possessed of greater intelligence than often belongs to women” (I can only think he meant she was really, really smart). She was tall and “kissed by fire” (that’s a redhead to non-GRRM fans). She also had a harsh voice and a piercing glare, traits that no doubt served her needs well, as you will see below.
The original kick-ass warrior queen, freedom fighter, battle-orator and all-round woman-with-whom-you-don’t-want-to-mess, Boudica has bubbled to the surface of our present consciousness from the murky depths of history, thanks to the legacy of her husband, Prasutagus who was king of the Iceni shortly after the Romans had invaded Britain in 43AD. Having not exactly “satisfactorily arranged his estate”, he left her with rather a large mess to clear up.
Prasutagus had cut a deal with the Romans, according to which the Iceni would remain an independent kingdom, being only an ally to Rome. Having two daughters by his wife, Boudica, and no sons, Prasutagus named the Roman Emperor as co-heir with his two daughters, hoping this would maintain the alliance. In the meantime, he lived long and well, during which time both he and the Iceni racked up huge debts with Roman creditors. Upon his death, the Romans promptly ignored any agreement they had with him, disregarded his will, and annexed the Iceni kingdom instead, enslaving the nobles, ransacking their lands, while the greedy Roman bankers called in all Prasutagus’ bad debt; all this reducing the Iceni to a wretched state of servitude.
Oh, and just for good measure, they flogged Boudica and raped her two daughters.
But Boudica wasn’t going to take this lying down, as it were. When the Romans had done their worst, and were off to stamp on someone else’s head, Boudica began conspiring against the Romans with the other leaders in the east. Thanks to her considerable skills of diplomacy and feminine guile, she managed to galvanise the bickering Iceni clan-leaders into a cohesive force. One of her tricks was to produce a hare from the folds of her dress – a kind of prophetic statement from the gods. The hare would then be released. The direction in which it ran signified whether Arnaste, their goddess of victory, was with them or not. Every time Boudica released the hare, it seemed Arnaste declared she had the queen’s back. (Incidentally, this is the origin of the rabbit-out-of-a-hat trick, the true meaning of which is rather more mystical than most magicians either realise or allow.)
By force of her considerable personality then, the whole pack of the Iceni, together with a neighbouring tribe, the Trinovantes, rose in revolt against their Roman overlords in 60AD.
Hearing (presumably by raven), that the Roman governor, Suetonius, was off campaigning on the other side of the British Isles, she marched on Colchester, one of the Roman colonia towns in the east. At the head of a force of around 100,000 rebels, she razed the city to the ground, demolishing the new Roman temple to the Emperor Claudius, and slaughtering every inhabitant, Briton or Roman, to the last drop of blood.
Meanwhile, a Roman general Petilius marched the Roman “Spanish” 9th Legion to the relief of Colchester. But it was already too late. Boudica rode out on her chariot at the head of her host, her two violated daughters standing beside her, ready to take their revenge. The Roman legion was decimated; the infantry was wiped out and only General Petilius and his cavalry escaped.
Bolstered by her victory, Boudica marched south to the new trading colony of Londinium (that’s London – for those who couldn’t guess), which had been founded only about 20 years earlier.
Meanwhile Suetonius had marched his forces back to London from the west, along the so-called Watling Street (one of the ancient “ways” that cut across the country, which the occupying Romans had recently paved). In the face of an army of 100,000 rebels, Suetonius’ force was pitifully small so he decided to beat a tactical retreat, telling the inhabitants of London that those who wanted could come with him, but he would not stay and defend the place.
The people wept and wailed (well, some of them did - the sensible ones retreated with him). Those that couldn’t leave or chose not to, suffered the same fate as Colchester. Boudica burnt London to the ground, putting everyone left behind to the sword, the gibbet, the fire or the cross. And London, another symbol of hated Roman oppression and avarice, was reduced to ashes and dust.
But there were more colonies to destroy and more Romans to kill, so Boudica followed Suetonius back up Watling Street (roughly the present day A5 road) to the colonia of Verulamium (now named St Albans).
Different town, same story.
Fire and slaughter, and according to Cassius Dio (one of the two Roman historians who relate all this), the noblest (Roman) women were impaled on spikes, and had their breasts cut off and sewn over their mouths, “to the accompaniment of banquets, sacrifices and wanton behaviour” in the sacred groves of Andraste (and others).
George RR Martin, eat your heart out.
By the time the last fires were burning low, it is estimated that, with the sacking of the three towns, around seventy to eighty thousand people were dead.
Suetonius, meanwhile, regrouped his forces, appealing to the prefect Postumus (stationed down in Exeter) to bring up his legion to strengthen his force. Postumus bottled it, fearing disaster, so Suetonius was left to face Boudica’s horde with the relatively few troops he had. But he was wily. He chose the battle-ground well, positioning himself in a defile (narrow gorge) with a wood at his back.
This was going to be the final showdown, and according to Cassius Dio’s and Tacitus’ version of events, now was the moment for Queen Boudica’s rousing speech to her rampaging hordes on liberté, égalité, féminité, or death. Well, in truth, there wasn’t so much on égalité in there but it supposedly went something like this.
“People of my blood! Brothers of the sword! Sweet sisters of the spear! You know me. You know I am high-born, descended of noble blood. I am queen over all our people. This you know. But hear me now. Today I seek vengeance, not as a queen, but as a simple woman of our people. A woman who has been robbed of her freedom, a woman whose body still bears the marks of the Roman lash, [shows scars] a woman who has looked on as her precious daughters were savaged by those stinking, rapacious devils from across the sea. There is no end to their appetite, no end to their lust. They will never rest till every son of ours has a chain around his neck, and every daughter’s virtue is stained with their depravity. And now you know. You have seen with your own eyes the difference between freedom and slavery. We were ignorant. We let ourselves be deceived by the alluring promises of these Romans, choosing this invading despotism over our ancient way of life. For what? For gold? For power? For peace? And what was it all worth?
But now you have seen the truth – how much better is poverty with no master than wealth with slavery. For what shame or depravity have we not suffered since these devils first appeared on our shores?
I tell you, now we will bring this to an end.
Now the gods fight with us on the side of righteous vengeance! Already these so-called conquerors have stood against us, trembling in their metal armour, and what did it avail them? A legion already lies dead. Others fear to face us, and these worms who face us now – look at them, and then look about you. See how many you are. They could not even stand the roar of your war-cries, much less your blows of iron.
Arnaste is with us. Today, we must conquer or else die. I stand here as a woman, and this is my resolve. I will fight until I have freedom or death. As for you men, follow me and fight. Or else live and be slaves.”
Truth be told, who knows what she said – but Tacitus and Dio decided to give her the words of a kind of prototype for Daenerys Stormborn, Princess Leah, Leonidas’s wife, Jeanne d’Arc, Emmie Pankhurst, Maggie Thatcher and Scary Spice all rolled into one.
In fact, Tacitus also records that Suetonius gave a much more blunt and practical address to his troops in response to Boudica’s harangue. Something more along the lines of “Hold on, lads. Wait till you see the whites of their eyes. Stick ‘em with the pointy end.” Etc., etc.
As it happens, the battle turned out to be a storming victory for Suetonius, whose clever use of the ground and his troops’ superior discipline meant that the full weight of Boudica’s huge numbers could never be brought against them. The rebel army was routed; 80,000 Britons lay dead for only 400 dead Romans (all figures sprinkled with a liberal pinch of salt). And Boudica herself was soon dead along with them. She either drank poison or else fell ill and died soon after. Whichever, the Iceni revolt was at an end.
Norfolk became just another Roman colony along with much of the rest of Europe.
The centuries turned, and Boudica was forgotten, only to be rediscovered during the Renaissance, when people started reading Tacitus again. But it was even later, during the Victorian era, that she became a popular, almost mythical figure, representing British tenacity and courage.
Plays, poems and novels were written about her and in her honour, and they even went as far as erecting an enormous statue of her, looking rather terrifying in her chariot (accompanied by her daughters) by Westminster pier. Such was the enthusiasm within the British Imperial establishment for what she represented.
It is more than a little ironic that the people who were the very soul of the British Empire should choose a native woman who stood up for freedom against empire-building foreigners, to represent good old British fighting spirit. I guess the irony must have been lost on the occupants of Whitehall at the time.
As for Boudica’s legacy, I think Norfolk can be rather proud of one of the earliest historical examples of a “strong, female lead” - a paragon of freedom, justice (albeit in the form of bloodthirsty vengeance) and gender equality in the workplace.
Though I think that the true moral of the story is that you should always ensure your will is in order before you kick the bucket.
Oh, and never trust a banker.
(But you probably knew that anyway.)
If you were even mildly interested by the article above, please be kind and make a donation to Nelson's Journey - the charity founded in his name which cares for bereaved children in Norfolk.
Donate either here.
Or text CBTB77 followed by £1, £2, £3, £4, £5 or £10 to 70070 to make a donation.
Thanks for all your support!
- Notes from the Road
- Join Me for the Ride!
- Press Articles & Clips
- Causes for your Support
- Voices in the East
- Distance Done
- Kit Inventory
- Maps of the Route
- Video Clips
- Norfolk Superheroes