boudicca, boudica, boudica opie
Queen Boudica, depicted by John Opie.

Boudica, “Warrior Queen” of the Iceni

January 28, 2011
by Colleen Brondou
Celebrated for centuries as a national hero and early feminist, Boudica was the “warrior queen” of the Iceni tribe who led a revolt against Roman invaders in Britain. But new evidence casts her in a different light: as a brutal woman bent on revenge.

Boudica’s Early Life

Details of the early life of Boudica (alternatively spelled Boudicca, Boadicea and Boudicea) are scarce. She was born around 25 A.D. in Celtic Britain to a royal family, explains Margaret Donsbach in Military History magazine.

At a young age, she married Prasutagus of the Iceni tribe, which inhabited present-day Norfolk. Boudica may have been a member of the Iceni tribe herself, and she may have been a cousin of Prasutagus.

Prasutagus became king of the tribe but was considered “more of an elected chief,” Donsbach describes. After Tiberius Claudius Nero Germanicus led Roman forces onto British soil in 43 A.D., the Iceni agreed to become a client kingdom of Rome. In return, the Iceni enjoyed peace but had to pay taxes to the Romans.

Boudica the Warrior Queen

When Prasutagus died in 60 A.D., he left half the kingdom to Boudica and their two daughters, and half to Emperor Nero. He was “under the impression that this token of submission would put his kingdom and his house out of the reach of wrong,” Tacitus wrote in the Annals, an early second century work. “But the reverse was the result, so much so that his kingdom was plundered by centurions, his house by slaves, as if they were the spoils of war.”

Boudica rebelled against the Romans and was swiftly punished. According to Tacitus, she was whipped and her teenage daughters were raped. But Boudica, whose name means “victory” in Celtic, was not one to go down quietly at the hands of the Romans. Enraged, she sought revenge against the Romans and as a result, her name “has become synonymous with terror and tragedy,” writes PBS.

In 60 A.D., while Suetonius Paulinus, the Roman provincial governor of Britain, was away, Boudica gathered the Iceni and other area tribes, and incited a rebellion. According to PBS, she pulled together an army of 20,000 Celts; even the elderly and children were called to fight.

The rebels destroyed Camulodunum (Colchester), which was the capital of Roman Britain; Londinium (London); and Verulamium (St. Albans), killing everyone in their path. According to estimates by Tacitus and Cassius Dio, Boudica’s army killed 70,000-80,000 Romans and pro-Roman Britons, and slaughtered the Roman Ninth Legion.

Dio, in his third century work Roman History, wrote, “All this ruin was brought upon the Romans by a woman, a fact which in itself caused them the greatest shame.” He described Boudica’s appearance: “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; around her neck was a large golden necklace.”

Suetonius responded with Roman reinforcements and met the rebels near present-day Watling Street in London. Tacitus recounted that Boudica exhorted her soldiers while riding in a chariot with her daughters.

She declared: “It is not as a woman descended from noble ancestry, but as one of the people that I am avenging lost freedom, my scourged body, the outraged chastity of my daughters. … If you weigh well the strength of the armies, and the causes of the war, you will see that in this battle you must conquer or die. This is a woman’s resolve; as for men, they may live and be slaves.”

At the Battle of Watling Street, the outnumbered Roman army killed some 80,000 Britons and defeated Boudica’s army. Boudica escaped from the battle, but committed suicide with poison, said Tacitus; Dio reported that she fell simply ill and died. “According to myth, she lies buried under Platform 10 of London's King Cross Station,” PBS reports.

Boudica’s Legacy

Boudica has been celebrated as a hero of national resistance and as an early feminist for more than 2,000 years. The Victorians called her “Boadicea” and depicted her in paintings and sculptures. A statue of “Boudicca, warrior queen of the Iceni” stands opposite Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, overlooking the Thames River in London.

In 1997, a pair of London-based designers started Boudicca, an “avant-garde” fashion label named for the queen herself. The label unveiled a new fragrance, “Wode,” in 2008. When first applied, the perfume appears blue, and was “designed to resemble the ancient body-colouring, wode,” which Boudica and her warriors applied to their skin to give them “a ferocious and mythical look when advancing into battle,” the Daily Telegraph reported. The perfume includes an extract of hemlock, which Boudica is said to have swallowed after her defeat.

Not everyone agrees that Boudica is a figure to be celebrated, however. In an article for The Independent, Nick Gilbert asks, “Is Boudicca a poster girl for intolerance and British nationalism?”

Though Gilbert agrees that she was justified to lead an army against the Romans occupying Britain, he argues that her army descended into “a looting mob,” causing “widespread plunder, rape and slaughter,” making no distinction between “native Briton and Roman immigrant.”

An archaeology dig in Colchester seems to support the accusation that Boudica’s army was especially brutal. Writing for The Observer in 2000, Jason Burke asserts that Boudica’s troops “went to enormous lengths to destroy anything touched by the Romans.”

Many of the homes built at that time were constructed of clay and timber. “These were not flammable buildings,” Philip Crummy, leader of the dig, told Burke. “But they were levelled. It was a murderous, determined, intensive and deliberate attack.”

The dig revealed that every home had been completely leveled, and no remains of those who died have been found. Crummy likened the attack to “ethnic cleansing” in the Balkans. “The civilian population was wiped out,” he told The Observer. “There were no prisoners. Men, women and children were all killed.”

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