Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Sunday, August 30, 2015

Boudica, Queen of the Iceni

Boudica, queen of the Celtic Iceni (30 August)

Boudica, the Iceni queen,
from Thomas Thornycroft's sculpture,
Westminster Bridge,
As is sometimes the case in selecting topics for this blog, I need to explain why I'm writing about Boudica today. 

We have relatively little biographical material about Boudica, a Celtic queen, and no firm dates. 

The principal sources of information about her are both Roman.

In The Annals, the Roman historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus (c. 56-after 117) describes the rebellion of Boudica, which occurred in 60 or 61 CE (to read an English translation of The Annals, Book 14, chapter 29-37, click here). 

Although he was writing much later (and from Rome), Tacitus would have had access to a first-hand account of Boudica and her revolt--his father-in-law, later himself a governor of Britain, was an assistant to the Roman governor, Suetonius, during the time of Boudica's rebellion. 

The other Roman source is the consul and historian Lucius Cassius Dio (c. 155-235), who wrote an extensive history of Rome that included an account of Boudica's rebellion. However, Dio's account survives not in full, but only in a tenth-century epitome, or summary, of Dio's original (to read an English translation of the epitome of Book 52, click here). 

Those sources provide information, at least from the Roman perspective, but no clear dates. However, in 1856 the English sculptor Thomas Thornycroft began work on a bronze sculptural group depicting Boudica and her two daughters. Thornycroft worked on the project until his death, on 30 August 1885. 

The final casting in bronze did not occur until 1902, seventeen years after Thornycoft's death, and the sculpture was erected at Westminster pier in June of that year. And so, to commemorate Boudica's life, I've chosen the date of Thornycroft's death, 30 August, for a post. 

Boudica's rebellion against the Romans was triggered by her treatment after her husband's death. As Tacitus recounts the events, Prasutagus, the king of the Iceni, died c. 60. In his will he arranged to divide his wealth between his two daughters and the emperor, Nero, "an act of deference which he thought would place his kingdom and household beyond the risk of injury."

But, as Tacitus writes, the "result was contrary." After the death of Prasutagus, "his wife Boudicca was subjected to the lash and his daughters violated: all the chief men of the Icenians were stripped of their family estates, and the relatives of the king were treated as slaves."

And thus Boudica's revolt. At least in The Annals. For his part, Dio blames the rebellion on financial dealings (the demand for repayments of loans). "But," he says, "the person who was chiefly instrumental in rousing the natives and persuading them to fight the Romans, the person who was thought worthy to be their leader and who directed the conduct of the entire war, was Buduica, a Briton woman of the royal family and possessed of greater intelligence than often belongs to women." (No mention of whippings, rape, or slavery.)

In 60 or 61, Boudica led a revolt of an alliance of Celts, including her own Iceni, the Trinovantes, and other Britons, "neighboring states not as yet taught to crouch in bondage" in revolt against Rome." As she assembled her army and prepared to lead it against the Romans, Dio provides this description:
In stature she was very tall, in appearance most terrifying, in the glance of her eye most fierce, and her voice was harsh; a great mass of the tawniest hair fell to her hips; around her neck was a large golden necklace; and she wore a tunic of divers colours over which a thick mantle was fastened with a brooch. This was her invariable attire.
Boudica's army was at first successful, destroying the Roman city of Camalodunum (Colchester), wiping out the Ninth Legion, burning down Londinium, which had been abandoned as Boudica's army approached, and moving on to Verulamium (St. Albans), which was also destroyed.

Suetonius and his Roman troops, numbering fewer than 10,000, eventually caught up with Boudica, whose army constituted "an incredible multitude" (Dio says she has 230,000 troops). The exact location of this battle has not yet been identified. 

Just before the battle began, Boudica drove her chariot, with her two daughters beside her, through her assembled army. 

Here is an account of that moment and her speech (at least as provided by Tacitus):
Boudicca, mounted in a chariot with her daughters before her, rode up to clan after clan and delivered her protest:—"It was customary, she knew, with Britons to fight under female captaincy; but now she was avenging, not, as a queen of glorious ancestry, her ravished realm and power, but, as a woman of the people, her liberty lost, her body tortured by the lash, the tarnished honour of her daughters. Roman cupidity had progressed so far that not their very persons, not age itself, nor maidenhood, were left unpolluted. Yet Heaven was on the side of their just revenge: one legion, which ventured battle, had perished; the rest were skulking in their camps, or looking around them for a way of escape. They would never face even the din and roar of those many thousands, far less their onslaught and their swords!—If they considered in their own hearts the forces under arms and the motives of the war, on that field they must conquer or fall. Such was the settled purpose of a woman—the men might live and be slaves!"
The battle resulted in "dreadful slaughter." Boudica and her allies were defeated--Tacitus numbered their dead at 80,000, while claiming that the Romans lost only 400 men. 

Boudica managed to survive, but according to Tacitus, she then poisoned herself. Dio claims she fell ill and died. 

Boudica disappeared from the historical record rather quickly, but she reemerged in the Renaissance, with the recovery of Tacitus. She became particularly popular during the reign of Queen Victoria, since Boudica's name is generally translated as "victory" or "Victoria." There have been feature films, documentaries, and historical novels. Boudica has been a character in video games and the subject of several musical works, from Purcell's 1695 Bonduca, or the British Heroine to songs by metal bands and the Irish singer-songwriter Enya.

In 2003, PBS broadcast a fictional account of Boudica: Warrior Queen. I'm also a huge fan of the BBC In Our Time radio show; you can listen to a podcast of Boudica by clicking here.

There are several non-fiction accounts of Boudica, but I like Vanessa Collingridge's Boudica: The Life of Britain's Legendary Warrior Queen. It's out-of-print, but used copies are usually available. 

For Boudica's contemporary, Cartimandua, queen of the Brigantes, click here.

The inscription on the front of Thornycroft's sculpture reads:


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