With a new film starring Alex Kingston in ITV this Sunday, Chris Penhall looks at the story behind the fearsome East Anglian rebel.
She was of “enormous build, terrifying to look at, with a harsh voice and bright red hair down to her knees.”
So said Roman historian Dio Cassius of Boudicca, freedom fighter and vengeful mother who headed a huge army of angry ad disaffected Britons as they moved against their hated Roman oppressors.
Little is known of her apart from what is recorded by Roman historians: the Celts seldom wrote anything down – spreading their history and folklore by words and stories.
Boudicca was the wife of Prasutagus, King of the Iceni, a tribe that occupied Norfolk and parts of Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. In 43AD he had submitted to Rome, meaning he kept his crown provided his became a client kingdom of the Empire.
After his death part of Iceni territory would cede to Rome and the Emperor would receive a proportion of the Royal treasure; the rest of his household and lands would remain with his wife and two daughters.
However, when he died in 60AD the Romans reneged on the agreement and attempted to incorporate the entire kingdom into the province. Centurions were sent to plunder the Royal household and when Boudicca strongly protested she was flogged and her two adolescent daughters raped.
Thus the scene was set – bent on revenge, she found it easy to incite other tribes to join her rebellion.
Chief amongst these were the Trinovantians who occupied Essex. Their former capital Camulodunon (Colchester) had been replaced by a Roman Colonia, their land taken and given to the settlers and some Trinovantians enslaved.
Shortly before the rebellion, the Romans suddenly called in loans that had been made to the natives, loans that had not been sought by the Britons but were needed by them to pay Roman taxes.
The situation was ripe for exploitation, and when the Iceni were wronged they had little trouble assembling an army of 120,000 in Norfolk.
And although there were spies in every tribe, the Romans had no warning of the uprising until the first of the forts along Peddars Way were attacked – no one would betray the Britons.
Celtic women readily fought in battle alongside the men, and there was a long tradition of women heading tribes, so Boudicca had no problem rallying her followers to the cause. The army, undisciplined but fuelled by anger and hatred was helped by the fact that much of the Roman army was fighting a war in Wales, thus leaving the first target, Colchester, protected by a small militia and the retired Roman soldiers who inhabited it. It had no town wall either, money having been spent on amenities rather than defence.
When the Ninth Legion attempted to intercept Boudicca their infantry were massacred and the cavalry retreated back to Peterborough. Their thirst for blood unsated, the rebels overwhelmed Colchester, destroying it and murdering its population – the Britons did not take prisoners.
Victory complete, the army moved on to London, the biggest town in Britain. Governor Paullinus had travelled there from Wales with troops, but realising it was a lost cause, and taking a long-term view, abandoned it to its bloody fate. Boudicca and her followers razed the town to the ground, and, once again, massacred its terrified citizens.
However, even as the Britons travelled to their next target, Verulanium (St Albans), which again was completely destroyed, the tide was beginning to turn.
Boudicca knew she would now have to face the Roman army – a disciplined and experienced military force – if the rebellion was to go any further. Travelling towards the Midlands along Watling Street, the Britons prepared to face battle at last.
They encountered the Roman army near Mancetter. The Britons numbered 230,000, the Romans 10,000, but the natives were no match for the superior machine that was the Roman army. 400 Romans died that day; 80,000 Britons perished. The rebellion was over.
Boudicca did not survive to see the aftermath – she escaped to Norfolk, but died shortly afterwards, legend has it by poisoning herself to evade capture and the resultant humiliation.
Roman retribution was swift and terrible; the territory of the Britons was laid waste whether they had participated in the rebellion or remained neutral, and extra troops were drafted in from Rome to ensure nothing similar happened again.
Over time, both sides became more conciliatory and learned to live together. And Colchester got the first town wall in Britain.
And Boudicca is imprinted in our collective memory forever – a fierce, righteous, vengeful figure who left rivers of blood and desolate towns, and almost drove the mighty Romans out of Britain.
Published in September 2003