Boudicca Biography: The Celtic Warrior Queen

Boudicca was an ancient Celtic warrior Queen who lead an army in a rebellion against the Roman Empire. The story of this brave woman’s life has often been reduced to just a few sentences in a textbook, and that’s because there is very little known about her life. There were just two Roman historians; Tacitus and Cassius Dio, who wrote down information about Boudicca. So everything we know about her is skewed from the enemy’s perspective, and both of their versions of the story vary slightly from the other.

But, even from this biased standpoint, we can still see her bravery and determination to protect her people. Despite the fact that we know so little about her life, she has still made a massive impact, and very nearly defeated one of the largest empires in the world. She is still remembered to this day as being an epic hero in British history.

Boudicca, and the Celtic People

The term “Celt” is used to refer to the ancient people of the United Kingdom, but it covers the Gaels, Britons, and Gauls, just to name a few. There were dozens of different independent tribes that were not united. So, while their lifestyles were often very similar, they each had their own customs, languages, and traditions. So the name “Celt” is just a way for historians to refer to this ancient society. The Celts did not keep their own written records, so much of what we know about them comes from Roman records and archeological digs.

Boudicca

According to the Romans, Celtic warriors often fought naked, or, at least, with their shirts off. Their bodies and faces were painted with intricate designs, which earned them the nickname “picts”, which means “the painted people.” They were known for being incredibly brutal. During battle, they would begin grunting like animals, and blew loud horns to startle their enemies. They beheaded the Romans without hesitation, because they apparently believed that a man’s head contained his power and soul.

Despite their barbaric war strategy, these were also very intelligent people. They were the first society to invent chainmail, which protected them from enemy swords. Both men and women wore gold necklaces that included intricate designs. Paved roads were also a Celtic invention, even though the Romans later tried to claim that they came up with the idea, first. So, in a lot of ways, the Celts were far from being the bumbling brutes that they are often made out to be.

Boudicca was the Queen and wife of King Prasutagus, and they were rulers of the “Iceni” tribe.

They were located in modern-day Norfolk and Suffolk, and for a while, their people lived in peace. A Roman statesman and historian named Cassius Dio describes Boudicca: “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;

What Boudicca apparently lacked in grace and beauty, she made up for in her brilliance. According to Dio’s backhanded compliment, she “possessed of greater intelligence than often belongs to women”.

In Celtic society, “Druids” were intellectuals and she wore a tunic of divers colours over which a thick mantle was fastened with a brooch.”

who held very highly respected positions in their respective tribes. They were like priests who performed the pagan rituals, but they also practiced medicine, alchemy, science, and philosophy. And yes, druids could be women, too. Since Boudicca is remembered for being very smart, it would make sense that she may have been a druid in her spare time, apart from being the Queen. It would have only made a her a more well-respected leader. But with the new threat of Roman invasion, Boudicca would need to focus on protecting her people more than ever before.

The Roman Invasion

The Romans conquered Southern England in 43 AD.  King Prasutagus could see that his Celtic warriors were no match for the Roman Legions, so he ordered his warriors to stop their rebellion. Prasutagus agreed to align with the Roman Empire for the sake of protecting what remained of his people. He promised that when he died, his tribe would be under Roman rule. In his last will and testament, he left his land to his two daughters, and the Emperor of Rome. The King truly did believe that they had made a peaceful negotiation, and the Romans even lent the Britons their Roman currency to help them integrate into their new society. They were given 40,000,000 sesterces, but they were expected to pay it back over time, plus interest.

Boadicea Haranguing the Britons (called Boudicca, or Boadicea) by John Opie.jpg
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There is a debate over how much one sestari would actually be actually worth in today’s money, but the estimates are usually around $1.50. So their loan was roughly $60 million. The Britons never asked for a loan in the first place. In fact, the Celtic tribal people were rich in resources like gold. But they accepted the money, anyway, because it was the only way they could have a currency to buy and sell together with the Romans.

Nero took Claudius’ place as the new Emperor of Rome in the year 54. He was just 16 years old at the time, and he was known for spending an extravagant amount of money. In turn, he sought to regain much of the lost funds by going after interest on loans, as well as taxes. Nero appointed a man named Suetonius Paulinus to handle the new territory in England. He was given the position of Governor of Britain, and he was also the General of the Roman army.

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In the year 60, King Prasutagus died, and Queen Boudicca became the new leader of the Icini tribe. Of course, the Romans did not see Boudicca as a legitimate leader, because she was a woman. As we mentioned earlier, there were contracts in place before King Prasutagus’ death that should have guaranteed his people’s safety. But General Paulinus decided to ignore all of it, and take the Iceni by force. He used the loan as an excuse, and demanded that they wanted all 40 million sesterces to paid back in full, plus interest. And they needed it all immediately.

The Romans went into every single home, taking anything of value that they could find. They captured men as slaves, and raped the young women. Not even the young princesses were spared. Boudicca’s daughters were sexually assaulted by Roman soldiers. When she tried to rescue her daughters, the soldiers grabbed the Queen, ripped her clothes off, and beat her bloody in front of her people. Since King Prasutagus truly did leave their land to the Romans, the Celts could only stand and watch as their beloved Queen was brutalized in front of them.

Boudicca had been beaten, but not broken. Instead of withering in self-pity, this attack only sparked her need for revenge. Boudicca called a meeting with the leaders of the local tribes, and learned that they had all been treated the same way.  Everyone was furious at what the Romans had done. The leaders of several Celtic tribes all agreed to put aside their differences and follow her as their new Queen. It was clear that if the Celts wanted their freedom, they were going to have to fight for it.

Boudicca’s Rebellion

Boudicca had witnessed her husband’s defeat against the Romans years earlier, and yet, she was not afraid to fight them once again for her people’s freedom. Armed with a sword and her horse-drawn chariot, Boudicca stood in front of her Celtic warriors. Just like her men, her face would have been adored in battle paint. Women were fighting alongside men, and each and every one of them had the fire of vengeance in their hearts.

Yorkshire Museum, York (Eboracum) (7685208580) 2.jpg
By Carole Raddato from Frankfurt, GermanyFlickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, Link

The Celts began the rebellion by targeting the Roman city Camulodunum, which is modern-day Colchester. She waited until General Paulinus was out of town, and he took his troops with him. He was on a campaign to capture Anglesey, which is an island in Wales. Since he took all of his soldiers with him, he left Camulodunum virtually undefended. Once he was gone, Boudicca and her men entered the city, and they slaughtered all of the Roman men they could find.

When Roman leadership got word that they needed help defending the city from a tribal Queen who was leading a rebellion, they grossly underestimated her, since she was a woman. They sent a measly 200 unarmed slaves to take care of the issue. Obviously, this handful of men was nothing compared to her massive army of 120,000 people. An additional 2,500 Roman soldiers were sent to help defend the city. For several days, the soldiers tried to keep civilians alive by hoarding themselves in the Temple of Claudius. The Celts grew tired of waiting, and set fire to the temple, which trapped and killed everyone inside.

When General Paulinus returned to Camulodunum, he found the temple crumbling in a pile of ash, as well as the gruesome scene of beheaded men, dissected bodies, and pools of blood. He knew that his small legion of just 5,000 men would be no match for Boudicca, so he had no choice but to ride ahead to each major Roman stronghold, and try to evacuate civilian refugees before it was too late. Historian Cassius Dio wrote, “All this ruin was brought upon the Romans by a woman, a fact which in itself caused them the greatest shame.”

Next, the Celts moved on to “Londinium”, which is modern-day-London, and burned the entire city to the ground. While in London, tribal men who had been enslaved by the Romans were set free, and they began to follow Boudicca. Her army temporarily grew to over 230,000 troops. They sacked the city of “Verulamium”, which is modern-day St. Albans.

It is estimated that Boudicca’s army killed and tortured between 70,000 to 80,000 Roman people. In the Roman history books, they describe the Celtic slaughter as being truly barbaric. Some modern-day historians believe that this imagery was exaggerated in order to demonize the Celtic culture. Just like every other colonizing nation, the Romans believed that they were the more civilized ones, even though they started the fight by attacking, robbing, and raping the Celtic people beforehand.

Bouicca and the rest of the Celts were steadily making progress to regain the Britons’ independence from the Roman Empire. At this point, Emperor Nero was seriously considering pulling his Roman troops out of Great Britain. If Boudicca kept up killing his people at such a rapid rate, she could topple the entire empire.

And if she had succeeded, she would have gone down in history as the queen who united the Celtic tribes under a common cause, and regained their independence. But unfortunately for her, General Paulinus was confident that he could win. He convinced Emperor Nero to stay, because he was ready with a strategy to take down the resistance once and for all.

The Battle of Watling Street

The final confrontation was known as The Battle of Watling Street. As the name suggests, the two armies met at a Roman road called “Watling Street.” While there is a map of this road, most historians disagree over the exact location, because there is only given a brief description of the location given by the historian Tacitus. General Paulinus chose this location because it was ideal for his defensive strategy. A forest protected the back of the Roman soldiers, so they could not be attacked from behind. There was an open field in front of the forest, which forced Boudicca’s army to charge straight towards them.

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By Aldaron — Aldaron, a.k.a. Aldaronflickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0, Link

As  mentioned earlier, General Paulinus only had 5,000 soldiers in his army. He had to send letters to all of the veterans living in Great Britain who were much older and enjoying their retirement. Luckily for him, an additional 5,000 men were still loyal to the Empire, and he was able to assemble a total of 10,000 troops. Even after calling for backup, he was outnumbered by Boudicca’s army.

According to the Roman historian Cassius Dio, Queen Boudicca spent time before the battle giving a long and riveting speech about fighting for freedom that sounds like it’s straight out of a Hollywood movie: “If you weigh well the strengths of our armies you will see that in this battle we must conquer or die. This is a woman’s resolve. As for the men, they may live or be slaves…I am not fighting for my kingdom and wealth now. I am fighting as an ordinary person for my lost freedom, my bruised body, and my outraged daughters.”  

However, Dio wasn’t even there to listen, and there were very few witnesses who actually survived. So we can’t be sure if a speech was said at all…Especially since she spends a lot of time trying to convince her troops that even though she’s “just” a woman, they should still trust her, anyway. If you think about it, a hundred thousand Celts wouldn’t be there if they didn’t trust her in the first place. And archeological evidence points to proof that the Celts gave women powerful military positions for hundreds of years, already. But we’ll get to that later.  

The Celts had plenty of weapons and supplies that they had scavenged from the Roman cities they defeated, but they were still not as well-equipped as the enemy. Roman soldiers wore full suits of armor, helmets, and had sandals with nails at the bottom to help them from slipping in the grass. They also had swords, and large shields. Their spears could be thrown long distances, which helped them avoid hand-to-hand combat.

Despite these setbacks, the Celtic people were so confident that they would win the battle, they even brought a wagon train with their wives and children. The wagons formed a semi-circle around the back of the Celtic army, sealing off the exit.

According to records, General Paulinus could see the fear in his men’s eyes as they started at this army that was ten times larger than theirs. But he used insults to snap the fear out of his men. He tried to boost their morale by mocking the enemy. He said that the Celts were savages, and pointed to the female warriors as evidence that they were weaker than the Romans. Just like he did with Boudicca, the historian Cassius Dio invented yet another long and grandiose speech for General Paulinus to say to his troops.

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While we may not be sure exactly what words were exchanged, we do know what the general’s battle strategy was. He knew that even though his army had fewer men, they were at a great advantage with their technology. The Roman soldiers stood side-by-side and crouched together behind their tall shields. During the first round of the battle, the Celts charged towards the Romans, who threw their spears into the air.

Without heavy metal armor to protect them, the spears went through the chainmail and bare chests of the Celtic warriors. Boudicca told the men to fall back before pressing on once more. When the Celts pushed up against this wall of shields, the Romans would draw their swords, and stab the men in the chest. Every few minutes, the Roman soldiers would rotate, and the man who was just fighting moved to the back of the line. This way, each man was fresh and ready for battle, and it gave everyone a chance to rest.

After the Celts had exhausted thousands of their soldiers, General Paulinus gave the order for his men to push themselves together into a triangular formation, as their charged towards the Celtic army. This was an incredibly powerful metallic force that pushed against the men, and it forced the Celtic people to retreat. Cassius Dio wrote, “The remainder took to flight, although escape was difficult, as the cordon of wagons had blocked the outlets. The troops gave no quarter, even to the women: the baggage animals themselves had been speared and added to the pile of bodies.” According to Roman records, 80,000 Celtic men, women, and children were killed during The Battle of Watling Street, and just 400 Romans died at the hands of Boudicca’s army.

Death and Legacy

After losing the battle, records say that Boudicca managed to run. While we do not know exactly what happened next, Tacitus speculated that she would have poisoned herself, because it would have been the honorable thing to do at the time. However, Cassius Dio wrote that she later died of an illness. Ultimately, we do not know when, or how she died.

For years, Boudicca’s story was all but forgotten. Since this was such an embarrassing stain in the Roman Empire’s history, it only makes sense that it was buried for a long time. But during the Renaissance, the story of the Celtic Queen’s bravery began to emerge once again. She was remembered and painted by artists, and during the Victorian Era, statues were created in her honor. It didn’t take long before she became a British icon.

Despite the detailed Roman records, some people began to wonder if she ever existed at all, and considered the possibility that this warrior Queen may actually be a legend. In fact, even the named “boudīkā” comes from the Celtic word meaning “victorious”. At the very least, there is a chance that Boudicca may not have been her real name, and it was just a placeholder put in place of her true identity.  It was in the Victorian era that Boudica’s fame took on legendary proportions as Queen Victoria came to be seen as Boudica’s “namesake”, their names being identical in meaning. Victoria’s Poet Laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, wrote a poem, “Boadicea”, and several ships were named after her.

In 2001, archeologists uncovered a burial site of a Celtic female warrior who was laid to rest with a huge amount of respect. At her feet were small treasures of a mirror, a brooch, and blue glass beads. Her chariot was decorated with red coral gathered from the sea. Two other soldiers were buried next to this woman and her chariot.  These are known as The Wetwang Graves, and all of the artifacts from the archaeological site are now kept at the British Museum.

According to Tony Spence, who works at the Department of Prehistory & Europe for the British Museum, they believe that this woman was a Queen, because of the special care and respect that was given to her remains. Her chariot and the other objects surrounding her were also so expensive, only royalty could afford such an extravagant burial. She would have been in her late 30’s to early 40’s, and she was very tall. They were able to use her skull to do a facial reconstruction of what she would have looked look like. Her face was disfigured, so it’s easy to see how she could be described as “frightening”, like how Cassius Dio described Boudicca.

Despite the fact that nearly every detail seems to line up with the story of Boudicca, carbon dating done by Oxford University in 2017 placed these artifacts anywhere between the years 145 to 200 BC, which would have been 200-300 years before Boudicca’s battle took place. But scientists are now saying the carbon dating has the potential to be wrong. In 2018, Cornell University did an experiment which showed proof of carbon dating that was offset by several hundred years. This means that many of the historic timelines we have been taught about ancient civilizations could actually be wrong. Without a written record or a time machine, we may never know the full story behind the true identities of those people left in these graves, and it may remain an unsolved mystery forever.

But whether the Wetwang grave belongs to Boudicca or not, it still proves, undoubtedly, that the Celts included warrior women in battle. And if they truly are 200 years before her time, it only goes to show that in ancient Briton, women were respected enough to lead armies for several generations.

The remains of this warrior queen may sit in plastic bags and cardboard boxes in a museum, but the spirit of these leaders are still very much alive in the hearts of everyone who stands up against their oppressors. Even if she was on the losing side of the war, Boudicca truly was a hero.

Sources:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/boudicca.shtml

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9G01vm9MVa4

https://www.history.com/news/who-was-boudica

https://www.britannica.com/event/Battle-of-Watling-Street

http://www.britannia.com/history/docs/tacitus.html  

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1310654/Chariot-queens-grave-unearthed.html

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/263242332_Chariots_and_context_New_radiocarbon_dates_from_wetwang_and_the_chronology_of_iron_age_burials_and_brooches_in_East_Yorkshire

https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-highlands-islands-18674980

https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/Boudica/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=npwM2touF08

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