Boudicca is a legendary figure of British history, famous as an archetypal warrior woman who supposedly embodies the spirit of Britannia with her motto, ‘Britons never, never shall be slaves!’. In 60–61 CE she led her tribe the Iceni and other Celtic allies in a bloody revolt against the occupying Roman forces, but was defeated in a final battle and met her end. Her final resting place has never been discovered, but its location has triggered various speculation. Boudicca (also spelled Boudicca), formerly known as Boadicea and known in Welsh as "Buddug" (d. AD 60 or 61) was a queen of the Brittonic Iceni tribe of what is now known as East Anglia in England, who led an uprising of the tribes against the occupying forces of the Roman Empire. Her name derives from the Celtic word bouda, meaning ‘victory’, and was hence was an Iron Age equivalent of Victoria – a fact made much of by the Victorians, who popularised her legend.
The better-known version of her name, Boadicea, is probably the result of a mistranscription of Tacitus, the Roman historian who is the primary source for her story. (The other source is Dio Cassius, a slightly later Greco-Roman writer who probably based his version mainly on Tacitus, although he added some extra details.) After the Romans’ conquest of Britain in 43 CE they had occupied most of South East England, but left client kings in charge of some peripheral areas. This was common practice. What usually followed was that the king in question would will his kingdom to the Romans on his death, ensuring an orderly transition of power.
In the Iceni area, King Prasutagus had been left in charge as a client king; Boudicca was his wife. In return for subjecting to Roman overlordship and making the Roman emperor co-heir to his kingdom, he was allowed to rule and was even lent considerable sums of money with which to enjoy himself. When he died, however, he left his people in a parlous state. Roman law did not recognise inheritance by females, and Prasutagus had only daughters (although the Romans probably would have annexed his kingdom anyway). On top of this, the Iceni were faced with the debts he had run up. Accordingly the Romans took over, and the Iceni suddenly found that their jealously guarded freedoms had disappeared. Their lands were now considered Roman property and they were treated like slaves.
They were ruthlessly taxed and, according to Tacitus, Boudicca and her daughters were flogged and raped. In 60 CE, while the Roman governor Suetonius Paulinus was away in Northern Wales campaigning against the Druids on Anglesey, the Iceni and their neighbours the Trinovantes rose up in revolt. Leading them was the charismatic and forceful Boudicca, whom Dio Cassius describes as cutting a striking figure: Boudicca was tall, terrible to look on and gifted with a powerful voice. A flood of bright red hair ran down to her knees; she wore a golden necklet made up of ornate pieces, a multi-coloured robe and over it a thick cloak held together by a brooch. She took up a long spear to cause dread in all who set eyes on her.
First the British horde fell on the Roman settlement of Camulodunum (modern-day Colchester), razing it to the ground and massacring most of the inhabitants. They defeated a Roman legion sent to deal with them, and in 61 CE moved towards the recently founded Roman trading post and administrative centre of Londinium (modern-day London). Hearing the news of the revolt, Suetonius had called off his campaign and marched from Wales to Londinium at speed, travelling the entire length of the Roman road known as Watling Street, arriving there just before the British host.
Realising that he did not have enough men to defend the city, he retreated, evacuating as many as possible. The Britons burned Londinium to the ground and again massacred everyone they found, before moving along Watling Street to Verulamium (modern-day St Albans) where they did the same. In all, Boudicca’s forces are said to have killed around 70–80,000 people.
Suetonius retreated back up Watling Street, gathering what forces he could, eventually mustering 10,000 men. Boudicca’s horde was said to be 230,000 strong. The Roman governor knew that if he took on the Britons in open country they would surround him and cut his force to pieces, but he also knew that if deployed on the right ground, superior Roman military tactics would nullify the imbalance of forces. Tacitus records that Suetonius ‘prepared to break off delay and fight a battle. He chose a position approached by a narrow defile, closed in at the rear by a forest, having first ascertained that there was not a soldier of the enemy except in front of him, where an open plain extended …’ This is the only description of the site of what is commonly called the Battle of Watling Street, on the basis that since Suetonius was retreating up this Roman road he would probably have picked a site not far from it.
The pursuing British horde, confident of victory, drew up the wagons carrying their women, children and old folk in a huge ring around the battlefield so that they could view the fight. Unable to cope with Roman tactics, discipline and armour, the British horde was defeated and tried to flee, but were impeded by their own wagons. The Romans slaughtered 80,000 of them in one of the worst single days of carnage ever recorded on British soil.
The location of Boudica's defeat is unknown. Most historians favour a site in the West Midlands, somewhere along the Roman road now known as Watling Street. Kevin K. Carroll suggests a site close to High Cross in Leicestershire, on the junction of Watling Street and the Fosse Way, which would have allowed the Legio II Augusta, based at Exeter, to rendezvous with the rest of Suetonius's forces, had they not failed to do so. Manduessedum (Mancetter), near the modern town of Atherstone in Warwickshire, has also been suggested, as has 'The Rampart' near Messing in Essex, according to legend. More recently, a discovery of Roman artifacts in Kings Norton close to Metchley Camp has suggested another possibility.
Tacitus records that Boudicca survived the carnage but committed suicide with poison (according to tradition, her daughters committed suicide alongside her). Dio Cassius reports that she fell sick and died, presumably of despair at the great defeat. Tantalisingly, he also records that she was buried with great ceremony and riches, raising the questions: where does Boudicca’s body lie, and might the rich hoard of grave goods still be recovered?
Perhaps the most prevalent bit of folklore regarding Boudicca’s grave is the tradition that she is buried beneath one of the platforms in King’s Cross station, one of the main railway stations in London, from where trains head north along the busiest rail route in the country. (It is also now famous internationally for being where Harry Potter catches the train to Hogwarts in the popular books and films.) Absurd though it sounds, this legend is remarkably widespread, although the actual platform number that is given varies considerably. Usually it is Platform 10. A former place name for King’s Cross is Battle Bridge, which is given as a possible location for the Battle of Watling Street – perhaps this is the basis of the legend.
Alternatively, the original source of the legend may be Lewis Spence’s 1937 book Boadicea – Warrior queen of the Britons. Spence was a folklorist and writer on occult and pseudohistorical topics such as Atlantis and fairy traditions, and is not now noted for his academic rigour. The story received an added impetus in 1988 when an article in British newspaper The Daily Telegraph claimed that contractors working on Platform 10 at King’s Cross station had unearthed the skeleton of the warrior queen. This has since been quoted widely, usually with the date of the discovery given as 22 February.
Archaeological discoveries can be more convincing than local folklore because of the presence of material evidence. However, unless archaeologists are fortunate enough to find inscriptions or other definite information at the same time, attributing identities to tombs or bodies is a matter of pure speculation. A good example is the Lady of Birdlip, a skeleton dug up near Birdlip in Gloucestershire in the late 19th century. Along with the bones were found a variety of grave goods, and the grave itself was flanked by two other graves. The grave seems to date to the 1st century CE, which is the correct time, and the grave goods – which included a mirror, brooches, a necklace and bowls – led to the identification of the skeleton as a woman. Perhaps inevitably it was suggested that the Lady of Birdlip was none other than Boudicca, buried with her two daughters alongside her.
The region had been the home of the Dobunni in late Iron Age times – perhaps these were Boudicca’s original people, to whom she had fled after the disastrous defeat somewhere nearby? Intriguingly, anomalous amounts of Dobunnic currency have been found in East Anglia, suggesting some sort of link between the Dobunni and the Iceni. The problem with this identification, apart from the total lack of any actual evidence, is that on viewing the Birdlip skull most experts assume it is male. Only when the context is known – ie the apparently ‘feminine’ grave goods – do attributions change. Antiquarian Malcolm Watkins argues that the Lady of Birdlip might have been a shaman/priest, rather than a warrior queen.
The final resting place of Queen Boudicca is likely to remain a mystery unless it is found that the ancient Britons helpfully buried her with some written identification. In practice, Boudicca herself is a historical problem. She is known only from the two Roman sources given and is not recorded or attested from any other sources. Indeed, until the work of Tacitus was rediscovered in medieval Europe during the Renaissance, British historians and chroniclers such as Bede or Geoffrey of Monmouth seemed to be unaware that she had ever existed. Given such a slim historical profile, it is hardly surprising that Boudicca should be so difficult to locate. Her final fate remains surrounded by unknowns. Perhaps she was cremated, dumped in a mass grave or simply fell somewhere in the wilderness.
Lost Histories : “Exploring the World’s Most Famous Mysteries” by Joel Levy;
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