Boudica, Queen of the Iceni who almost beat the Romans

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Sep 1, 2020, 11:50 AM EDT (Updated)

November is Warrior Women Month, and it’s time to celebrate the kick-ass women who have come before us. This time around, we’re talking about Boudica. You’ve probably seen her name spelled all sorts of different ways. Boudica (the most common spelling) was the Queen of the British Iceni tribe. She’s known for almost taking out an occupying Roman force. Though her ending is a sad one, even the Roman army remembers her as a major threat. 

Boudica was the wife of Prasutagus, who ruled the British Iceni tribe as an ally of Rome. When he died, his will stated that his daughters would get the kingdom. Well, Rome wasn’t too happy about this and pretty much-ignored everything Prasutagus wanted. As the ancient Romans were wont to do, they took his kingdom and his property. Far worse than that, his wife Boudica was flogged and his daughters were raped. This information comes to us from Tacitus, a senator, and historian of the Roman Empire. There are other versions of why Roman took the land, including some shady lending practices, depending on the source.

In 60 or 61 CE, Boudica led a large-scale revolt against the Roman governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus on the island of Anglesey off the coast of Wales. Involved in the revolt were the Iceni, the Trinovantes and more. Boudica’s army did some serious damage. They took down Camulodunum, which is now Colchester. The Romans were totally freaked out and, since they couldn’t match Boudica’s gang with their army in terms of numbers, they evacuated Londinium, or modern-day London. 

By this time, Boudica’s army was around 100,000 people strong, and they burned Londinium and Verulanium, now St. Albans. How effective were they? The British folk hero and her band of rebels took out somewhere between 70,000 to 80,000 of the enemy. Suetonius, however, defeated her army in the Battle of Watling Street. No one knows exactly where it happened, though it’s often cited as King’s Cross in London or Church Stowe in Northamptonshire.

Boudica is said to have killed herself or died of illness, depending on whether you listen to Tacitus or the second Roman historian who wrote about her, Cassius Dio. (Tacitus says she poisoned herself. Dio says she died in battle and mentions nothing about the flogging and rapes.) Her threat was so powerful though that Nero is said to have considered pulling out of Britain completely. That’s pretty strong stuff. You should also take into consideration that all the writing we have on Boudica comes to us from Roman sources. History is written by the victors most of the time, and if she freaked out Nero that badly, think about what she must have really been like! After her death, rules became harsher for the native Britains, and Rome held the island nation until 410 CE. Still, her story didn’t disappear. 

Tacitus said of her, “Boudica rode in a chariot with her daughters before her, and as she drew near to each tribe, she made it known that it was customary for the Britons to engage in warfare under the leadership of women. But, at this moment, she was not a woman descended from great ancestors avenging her kingdom and her wealth. Rather, she was one woman, from the common people, avenging the freedom she had lost, her body worn out with flogging, and the violated chastity of her daughters.”

You can check out a statue of Boudica in London on the Victoria Embankment next to Westminster Bridge and the Houses of Parliament. This warrior queen has been featured in a number of films, video games, books, and paintings. The first film about Boudica was from 1927 and spells the name, Boadicea. The most recent film was 2003’s Boudica, released in the United States as Warrior Queen, a film in which Emily Blunt made her feature debut. Alex Kingston (Doctor Who) played Boudica. Speaking of Doctor Who, The Wrath of the Iceni is an audio drama based on the long-running series featuring Tom Baker as the Doctor, Louise Jameson as Leela and Ella Kenion as Boudica. You even see her as a powerful figure in the recent video game Ryse: Son of Rome if you play its story mode. 

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