Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni

"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 twisted torc, and a tunic of many colours, 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


Many believe that her name, Boudicca, was not her name at all but that her followers called her Boudiga - the Celtic goddess of Victory - and her name was subsequently Latinized by Roman historians to 'Boadicea Victoria'. Her story comes down to us from Tacitus as well as Dio Cassius. It is likely that Boudicca occupied a dual position as tribal leader and the manifestation of a Druidic or Celtic Goddess as Tacitus' noted Boudicca released a hare before battle, an indication of a priestess seeking augury. Indeed, it seems that Boudicca was lured to the place of her final battle by the desecration of Druidic sacred sites in the area. To her followers she was likely the personification of a goddess, thus explaining the variety of Celtic tribes who united so unusually and passionately behind her.

Boudicca was born into Iceni aristocracy around 30 A.D., and while little is known of where she came from she married Prasutagus in 48 A.D and in a geographic region comprised of south eastern Britain she ruled with her husband. Flourishing trade across the English Channel with the Roman Empire and along the gold route to Ireland made the Iceni merchants and rulers wealthy to the extent that they issued their own coinage between 65 BC and AD 61. She bore two daughters who had reached adolescence before her husband died in 60 or 61 A.D.

Prasutagus left a will and in it, he left half of his lands, personal possessions and monies to the Emperor (Nero) as required of him as a client-ruler 'indebted to Rome' and the remaining monies, heirlooms and property to his wife for their daughters. This property was to assure a dowry to their future husbands but also provide that their Roman taxes, tributes and salaries were paid until such time as they wed. Boudicca then became Regent of the Iceni, and the guardian of their daughters' inheritance. Days after Prasutagus' death representatives of the chief financial administrator of Britain were dispatched to seize Prasutagus' total belongings. Under Roman law it was illegal to impart personal wealth to others over the Emperor. In a devastating siege Iceni nobles were forced from their hereditary lands, their homes plundered and destroyed, their family members humiliated, mistreated, and sold into slavery. Further to these outrages, Rome suddenly demanded immediate repayment for monies granted for the beneficial upkeep of Roman life in the Iceni court as a client-kingdom. Boudicca herself was made entirely responsible for all debts in her Regency. With the inheritance already claimed by Rome she could not pay and was taken hostage, stripped and 'put to the rods' in public, while her daughters were removed and ritually raped by Roman soldiers.

Upon the return of her daughters, she took up weapons and rallied her people. At this time, in the southern areas of Britannia as inhabited by the Trinovantes and others, there were several small ongoing rebellions to free their kinsmen from slavery and draft them into their ranks. Those tribes that never surrendered to Rome put force behind the Iceni outrage, and thus tribes that had traditionally been locked in feud with one another rallied behind Boudicca when she called for war. It's noteworthy that the tribes remaining loyal to the Romans, such as the Catuvellauni, were not spared Boudicca's wrath.

It is believed that when she first led the rebellion Boudicca had amassed an army of over 100,000. Her army was so effective, they burned and pillaged Roman lands from Camulodunum (Colchester) onto Londinium (the remains of London were burned by a fire so hot that they melted into a layer of red clay 10 inches thick in places, just fifteen feet below its modern streets) and ending with a rebel force of some 200,000 at Verulamium (St. Albans). Boudicca was finally subdued in AD 61 by the Roman military governor Suetonius Paullinus at a yet to be precisely established location. Faced with defeat, the proud warrior Queen and her daughters took their own lives by drinking from a poisoned chalice.

Cassius Dio wrote that the British gave Boudicca a costly burial, quite appropriate for a Celt, a Queen, and a hero. The Romans themselves had many superstitions about leaving the dead unburied and the heroes uncelebrated, and so may have allowed for Boudicca's removal to a secret place, her final resting spot often times speculated upon but still undiscovered. In the far north some sixty years after Boudicca, the Romans gave up trying to conquer the tribes of Caledonia; Vallum Hadrianus (Hadrian's Wall) was built to contain the ill-will Rome created and the possibility of invasion from out of Roman territory. What later became Scotland thus remained free.

Boudicca's name is commemorated by the adjective we use to describe a lively, spirited woman: bodacious.


Stained Glass portrait at Colchester Town Hall, England