English and Its Historical Development: Boadicea's, or Boudicca's, Background

(Boudicca, Celtic Queen)

Getting better acquainted with Queen Boadicea

"She was huge of frame, terrifying of aspect, and with a harsh voice. A great mass of bright red hair fell to her knees: She wore a great twisted golden necklace, and a tunic of many colors, over which was a thick mantle, fastened by a brooch. Now she grasped a spear, to strike fear into all who watched her . . . ."

—Dio Cassius (Webster, 54)

Boadicea is simply the name given to her by the Roman historian Tacitus, although to Dio Cassius she was Buduica. Whether Boudicca, Boadicea, Boadiccea, or Buduica; it would have been the Latinized version of her Brythonic Celtic name, and the convention has since been adopted that this would probably have been something similar to the name under which she is known in present day Welsh; which is, Byddyg, or literally, "Victory".

A lot of what we think we know about Boadicea is legend. It's that simple. We do not know when or where she was born, who her parents were or even exactly where she came from.

The story of Boadicea, celebrated Celtic queen, wife, and mother is destined to remain in the gray shadows of history

Written histories of Boadicea, and of early Britain in general, are found in two classical manuscripts, which were most likely derived from the same original source.

The historian Tacitus wrote his history only fifty years after the events of A.D. 60, and it was said that his father-in-law Agricola was able to give an eyewitness account of the rebellion.

Dio Cassius also gave his account of the events. Although both are biased accounts, they provide the basic chronological framework of early Roman Britain.

Attempts to turn to archaeological discoveries to help pinpoint the exact events has been unsuccessful, since much of the data was destroyed during pillaging and a significant amount of the land has never been excavated due to a lack of funds, and so information is limited.

The only thing possible at this time is an outline of the catastrophic uprising of Boadicea and the indigenous people of Britain.

The Iceni were a Celtic tribe located in an area of southern Britain known as East Anglia. Geographically they were isolated; to the north and east the boundary was the sea and the remainder was covered in dense forest, making invasion from foreigners nearly impossible.

The people of this farming economy were of mixed origins. There had been an influx of people from the Hallstat culture, bringing with them a knowledge of iron and pottery, which merged with the skills of those already present from the late Bronze Age.

Some time between A.D. 43 and A.D. 45, Boadicea was married to Prasutagus, King of the Iceni. It has been said that Boadicea was not of Iceni origin since outside marriages were quite common among the ruling class.

At least, in the upper levels of Celtic society, women held positions of prestige and power. Many took prominent roles in political, religious, and artistic life. Women also owned land and could choose their spouses and initiate divorce.

Although they were relatively protected by geographic advantages, the Roman threat to the Iceni's peaceful existence was very real

The Iceni had remained passive and watched while the Roman Emperor Claudius and his army conquered large parts of Britain in A.D. 43. Since Claudius was founding strong military colonies all over the island, the Iceni must have realized that they couldn't remain independent forever from Roman domination.

In an attempt to avoid conflict, and in an act of compliance, King Prasutagus went to the city of Camulodunum to become a client-king. This forced him to have to submit to the Roman ruling class, but it enabled his tribe and their culture to remain relatively unfettered.

Upon his death Prasutagus left his kingdom to be shared by his two daughters and the new Roman emperor, Nero, believing that this would ensure tranquility for his family and kingdom.

Roman law, however, did not allow royal inheritance to be passed to daughters, and co-ownership of a kingdom with a woman was unacceptable according to Roman standards.

Kinsmen of the royal house were enslaved. Boadicea was beaten with a whip and then forced to witness the public rape and torture of her two daughters, who were believed to have been roughly 12 years old at the time of the rebellion.

Even Tacitus was moved to condemn the vicious acts of his countrymen in his writings. Acts clearly devised to break the proud Iceni spirit; however, rather than breaking their spirits, these excesses of brutality only rallied the people behind their Queen and against the invading Romans.

The Roman campaign stretched over the entire area. The Romans were experiencing difficulty in the north-east attempting to take the headquarters of Druidism on the Isle of Mona.

The Romans feared the Druids because they were apparently behind rebellions against Caesar in the past. This territory had become the geographical center for anti-Roman and pro-Briton activities.

The troubles in the north occupied Seutonius and caused him to overlook Boadicea and the growing threat in the south.

While by Roman law Boadicea had no real claim to succession after her husband's death, her people regarded her as their natural leader, and their neighboring tribes were willing to support any anti-Roman uprising.

The indigenous people had suffered under Roman taxation for years. They were also driven off their own land and subjected to lives as prisoners and slaves.

Sometime between A.D. 56 and A.D. 60, the Temple of Claudius was erected in Colchester to commemorate the life of the Roman emperor who had destroyed the majority of Celtic culture; this immediately became an object of strong hatred by the British tribes.

They were also angered by the attack on the headquarters of the Druidic religion. These realities urged neighboring tribes, among which were the Trinovantes, to join Boadicea in her rebellion, which has been said to have been 100,000 or even 200,000 people, against the Roman forces.

First they stormed the Roman cities of Camulodunum and Colchester, then they proceeded to the growing trade center of Londinium (London), which ended in a final catastrophic battle.

One underlying question about the rebellion is how the Iceni were able to remain unnoticed for so long

There are a few reasons why they were able to succeed as long as they did.

The overconfidence of the Romans may have caused their negligence. They had preconceived notions of the "barbarians", and were ill-equipped to deal with small bands of warriors slipping quietly through the thick forests.

The Celts excelled in small-scale guerilla warfare while the slow-moving Roman units were at an obvious disadvantage in the forest.

The British Celts also used chariots, which had become obsolete on the continent. They were remarkably small and light, and the driver and warrior were protected by wicker screens on all sides.

The written accounts portray Boadicea and her followers in battle in savage and brutal terms. They took the heads of their captives and offered them to the goddess of victory, as this was customary of the Celts.

While storming the city of London, Dio Cassius wrote a detailed description of the torturing of the Roman women: "their breasts were cut off and stuffed in their mouths, so that they seemed to be eating them, then their bodies were skewered lengthwise on sharp stakes" (Webster, 68).

Tacitus wrote an account of the final battle that tells of the women running about frantically, hair wild, naked and screaming. The Celtic chief was adorned in barbaric splendor with highly ornamental shields and armor.

The rest of the army would only be equipped with a sword and a small shield, otherwise they were stripped naked except for body paint and tattooing.

Trumpets probably were blaring in an attempt to confuse and intimidate the enemy. Meanwhile, the Druids were standing nearby with their arms raised to the sky and calling on the gods to aid them.

The overall appearance of this chaotic scene was initially terrifying to the Romans, who would stand in awe before battle; however, this was a typical ploy of Roman military writing which portrays the enemy as uncivilized animals as opposed to Roman law, order, and civilization.

At this point the three principle cities of the province had been captured, and the inhabitants brutally massacred. Tacitus indicated a count of roughly 70,000 casualties before the final battle. No one is sure exactly when and where this final confrontation took place.

Both sides struggled with famine and disease. Boadicea was having a difficult time keeping order among her troops after victory with its accompanying looting and burning.

The British were fighting for their country and their families, while the Romans were still fighting for greed.

Tacitus gave us what was supposedly Boadicea's final battle cry to her troops:

"The Britons were used to the leadership of women, but she came back before them not as a queen of a distinguished line, but as an ordinary woman, her body cut by the lash avenging the loss of her liberty, and the outrages imposed on her daughters."

"Roman greed spares neither their bodies, the old or the virgins. The gods were on our side in our quest for vengeance, one legion had already perished, the others are cowering in their forts to escape. They could never face the roar of our thousands, least of all our charge and hand to hand fighting. When the Romans realize their small force and the justice of our cause, they will know it is victory or death. This is my resolve, as a woman: follow me or submit to the Roman yoke" (Webster, 99).

The British army was immense, but the Romans were at an advantage for the first time with more armor and shorter swords.

The Celts had longer slashing swords and little or no armor. Not intimidated by the barbaric chaos, the Roman army advanced rapidly into the Celtic mass.

The Roman swords proved to be deadly at close quarters, while the Celts were crushed so close together their longer weapons were rendered useless.

Under the command of Seutonius, the Romans massacred the Celts. A few months later fire and sword ravaged the previously untouched Iceni territory.

The place of the final Celtic-Roman battle is unknown, as is Boadicea's own fate

It was reported that she survived the battle.

Tacitus wrote that she took poison and thus died by her own hand, Dio tells us she fell sick and died. Sickness caused by poison? We don't know; however, it stands to reason that she did not want to fall into the hands of the Romans again.

Did her daughters die with her? They were never mentioned again. Their names, as well as their fate, is another part of history's mysteries.

As for the story of Boadicea, it apparently ended with her death and burial in an unknown grave. Her name faded from memory, her heroic deeds were forgotten by history; that is, until the 14th Century, when Tacitus' manuscripts were discovered in a monastery library.

It is uncertainty, not knowledge, that fires our imagination and has transported Boadicea into the realm of legend.

The rebellion of Boadicea has had an established and monumental place in British history. While over time she has been viewed in many different lights, she is most commonly seen as the obvious; not a queen, but a mother, wife, and warrior defending her country.

Throughout history all-powerful men are seen as threatening, but all-powerful women; such as, the late queen of the Iceni are awe-inspiring. In numerous written accounts both on stage and off, as well as through works of art, Boadicea has been both condemned and lauded. Her name and history will consistently serve as a brutal yet remarkable reminder of Britain's past.

Boudicca, the British Revolt against Rome A.D. 60 by Graham Webster,
Rowman & Littlefield; Totowa, New Jersey, 1978.

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