“Very tall, terrifying, with a mass of tawny hair”: a Roman
chronicle description of Boudicca over one hundred years
after her death. We have only the Romans to tell us what
happened and they probably played down her achievements
– but she certainly got under their skin.
Clothed in coarsely woven materials, with hair to her waist
and carrying an eight-foot spear Molly Housego looked very much the part when she addressed a near capacity audience in the Methodist Church, and was no doubt instrumental in the fact the eight new members signed up on the night.
Most of us will have heard of Boudicca’s fame as a great warrior who challenged the might of the Roman Empire, but do we know how and why a woman should have come to this role at so unlikely a time? It seems to come down to two things: a culture clash almost deliberately provoked and a royal woman most decidedly scorned.
Contrary to popular belief, the Romans, in 43 AD, did not really invade but came seeking trade, although they were resisted. The fact that they also chose to stay did not seem to matter too much and, for twenty years, the Druidic-based Britons quietly absorbed the incomers. But then the Romans began to build temples and put up statues venerating their God Emperors. Druid leaders raised objections so Nero sent an army to Anglesey to sort things out, leading to a great massacre of the Druid priesthood.
One of the people defending Anglesey was Boudicca’s husband, king of the Iceni tribe, and he was killed. Boudicca now expected to inherit his position but the Romans would have nothing of it. They denied her right to rule, confiscated her wealth and had her publicly flogged in Thetford. To make matters worse they then had her two teen-age daughters raped by Roman soldiers.
So Boudicca’s revolt was rapidly underway. Other tribal rulers joined her and she was eventually able to lead an army of 200,000. Colchester was attacked, the castle burned down and people massacred for having collaborated with the Romans in what was their capital city. St Albans was similarly treated and then Boudicca headed off towards Anglesey to avenge the slaughter there.
By this time the Romans were on their
way back from Anglesey and the two
armies met, probably near Mancetter
(on the A5 Roman road in North
Warwickshire). Although outnumbered
the highly trained and disciplined
Roman foot-soldiers easily defeated
the more individualistic Britons, in
spite of their use of horses and
Boudicca simply disappeared. Was she killed on the battlefield or did she die later from injuries or illness? A grave is yet to be discovered. But she remains in our memory, partly thanks to her greatest fan, Queen Victoria, during whose reign the magnificent but rather idealistic monument was erected near London Bridge.