Boudica, Queen of the Iceni, is probably the most famous woman of early Roman Britain, but we don’t even know how her name is supposed to be spelled. She’s been called Boudicca, Boadicea, even Bonduca. We’re pretty sure it’s supposed to be spelled Boudica, so I’m going with that spelling. Boudica’s name means “victory”, which is quite a fitting name, as we’ll see.
Boudica was born in the early first century AD, probably in the Roman city of Camulodunum, which is now Colchester. Since she ended up as a Queen, we can infer that Boudica was probably born to a wealthy Roman family as well. Now, I just want to say that we don’t know the exact dates for a lot of this stuff, and we don’t even know if some of this even happened.
Roman writer Cassius Dio described Boudica:
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.Cassius Dio
Cassius Dio also said that she wore a gold necklace and a tunic fastened by a brooch, which was, according to him, what she always wore. The Celts (I’ll call them Celts, but they wouldn’t have thought of themselves as Celts) tended to be much taller than the Romans. Cassius Dio’s description basically says that Boudica was a woman that you did not want to mess with, totally different from the Roman women Cassius Dio was used to seeing. Also, it’s probably important to note that Cassius Dio never met Boudica, but I’m still satisfied with the description.
Early in her life, Boudica married King Prasutagus, King of the Iceni tribe, which was one of many tribes on the island of Britannia. The Romans had come along and had used the rivalries between the tribes to help them conquer Britannia, which they did, and the Celts really hated the Romans. The Romans were quite cruel to them, so they had a very good reason to hate the Romans.
In Britannia, things for women were completely different from Rome. Sure it would be nice to have a man-ruler, but it was completely okay for a woman to rule. It was also completely okay for a woman to inherit property, and I imagine that it wasn’t a disappointment when a girl was born in Britain back then. In fact, Boudica had two daughters (whose names we don’t know) with Prasutagus, and Prasutagus wasn’t going all Henry VIII about it, his two daughters were his heirs and there was nothing else to it.
But there was, always, a little more to it. Nothing to do with patriarchy stuff this time, though, thank goodness. Prasutagus had seen that the Romans were going to stick around, so he decided that the best way to save himself from the Romans’ cruelty was to be friends with them. We don’t know how Boudica felt about this, but I imagine she was angry. So, anyway, Prasutagus’s kingdom was to be inherited by his two daughters, and Nero, the Roman Emperor. And then Prasutagus died, probably thinking that his kingdom would be safe because of his amazing will.
The Romans literally didn’t care and conquered Prasutagus’s kingdom because they didn’t care at all. They literally went into the homes of the Iceni just to go and kill the people in them. They were quite cruel to everyone and didn’t care if the people they were terrorizing were nobility or just common people. They didn’t even care if the people were the ones who were supposed to inherit the kingdom. Boudica’s daughters were raped, and Boudica was stripped and flogged in front of everyone. They even enslaved members of the royal family. It didn’t mean much to the Romans, but it meant a lot to the Iceni. Especially to Boudica.
The other Roman writer that wrote about Boudica, Tacitus, wrote that Boudica said:
“Nothing is safe from Roman pride and arrogance. They will deface the sacred and deflower our virgins. Win the battle or perish, that is what I, a woman, will do.”Boudica
So, what Boudica needed to do was to get the other tribes on her side. The other tribes hated each other, but they also hated the Romans. The neighboring tribe, called the Trinovantes, joined Boudica because they literally despised the Romans. In the territory of the Trinovantes was Camulodunum, the city where Boudica may have been born. The Romans had taken over Camulodunum, and there were lots of Roman veterans living there. So it was Boudica’s first target.
So, the Roman army in Britain was off in Wales, so Boudica could do whatever she wanted to Camulodunum since the only people living there were old people who had once upon a time fought in the Roman army. Boudica had a hundred thousand people fighting for her, and the Romans in Camulodunum couldn’t get any reinforcements. Boudica’s army burned the city to the ground, and there was another really cool thing they did.
There was a bronze statue of Emperor Nero in Camulodunum, and Boudica and her army decapitated it and kept the head as a trophy. That’s what the Celts normally did with people they’d killed in battle, and this basically meant that Boudica had defeated Nero. Good job, rebels.
There was a little resistance from the Romans, and Boudica easily crushed them. And so, she was off to Londinium! You probably know Londinium as London, and that was where Boudica was going to completely wipe out the Romans next. Boudica’s enraged army made its way to Londinium, a relatively new Roman city. The people of Londinium had heard that Boudica and her huge army of Celts were coming, and they were so scared of her that they literally ran away. Boudica shrugged and burned the city down anyway, and, just like how the Romans had gone out of their way to murder the Iceni all those years ago, Boudica killed everyone she saw. Another win for Queen Boudica!
But her revenge was not yet complete. Boudica’s next target was the city of Verulamium, which, like Londinium and Camuloduum, was another huge city. Boudica and her still-huge army made their way to the city, getting more Celts to join them along the way. Verulamium was full of Celts who didn’t exactly like the Romans, but never objected to their rule, so Boudica was completely fine with murdering all of them.
Just like with Londinium, everyone except a few people ran away from Verulamium, but Boudica killed everyone left again. Once again, she shrugged and burnt the city down. Yet another victory for the Celts. No wonder Boudica’s name means victory.
The Romans were completely offended by the fact that a person who they considered a “barbarian” (a female barbarian, especially), had managed to burn down three cities of theirs without ever losing at all. Cassius Dio wrote of how shocked the Romans were:
All this ruin was brought upon the Romans by a woman, a fact that in itself caused them the greatest of shame.Cassius Dio
So, the Romans finally began to see Boudica’s rebel Celts as an actual threat and got an army of ten thousand to deal with Boudica. Boudica had a couple hundred-thousand Celts fighting for her, so ten-thousand Romans was going to be no problem for Boudica. Boudica knew she could win, so instead of waiting for the Romans to attack, Boudica went ahead and attacked.
Like Elizabeth I would do before the English crushed the Spanish Armada, Boudica gave a speech to her army, and her daughters were with her. According to Cassius Dio, she said:
We British are used to women commanders in war… But 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… You will win this battle, or perish. That is what I, a woman, plan to do! Let the men live in slavery if they will.Boudica
And so, Boudica and her army went to war. Boudica’s army had been winning non-stop until now, so they thought this was going to be like another one of their easy city-burnings. The exact location of this is unknown, but it probably took place near a Roman road which is now called Watling Street. Cassius Dio said Boudica had an army of about three hundred thousand, so an easy victory was probably coming.
But the thing is, this was the first time that Boudica and her rebels were actually fighting an organized Roman force. The Romans were much better trained than Boudica’s angry Britons, and Boudica’s army exhausted themselves. Since Boudica had been so certain of a victory, the army had brought their women and children along to watch them win. When the Romans charged, Boudica’s soldiers began fleeing, and the women and children in the back were blocking their way out.
If this was any normal sort of battle, the Romans would’ve captured as many of the rebels as they could, but instead of that, they murdered everyone. There were just a handful of dead Romans, while there were tens of thousands of dead Celts. The Romans didn’t even let the animals go.
We don’t know what happened to Boudica or her daughters after their final defeat, but Cassius Dio and Tacitus’s accounts are believable enough. Tacitus says that Boudica committed suicide by poisoning herself, while Cassius Dio says that Boudica escaped and died of illness. Boudica and her daughters pretty much disappear from the historical record after their defeat.
The Romans tried to make everyone forget Boudica, but that was quite hard since Boudica is amazing. For the next 1,500 years, though, Boudica was forgotten, until the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The play, Bonduca, was written in 1610. And then came the Victorian era, when another Queen of Britain whose name meant “victory” ruled. Weirdly, Boudica was fighting against an imperialist power, while Victoria ruled the imperialist power.
During the Victorian era, the poem, Boadicea, was written, and several ships were named after Boudica. The statue, Boadicea and Her Daughters shows Boudica in a chariot with her daughters and was created during the Victorian era. The statue is in London, the city Boudica had once proudly burned down. Suffragettes used Boudica as a symbol of women’s suffrage. If a woman could defeat the Romans, shouldn’t women be allowed to vote?
In Wales, there is also a statue of Boudica that depicts her more as a mother. It was, after all, the rape of her daughters that enraged Boudica, along with the horrible way her people were treated. It was said that Boudica was buried somewhere between platforms 9 and 10 of King’s Cross station, though this is probably a myth.