She was Tall and Terrifying

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She was tall and terrifying. She wore tunics of many colors, with her mass of red hair reaching her hips. Her blood curling screams and the spear in her hand instilled terror in all who faced her. 

My DNA results from are 98% from what we think of today as Scandinavia and Great Britain, where Queen Boudicca lived and died. Icelanders use their social security number to access our ancestry going back a thousand plus years. (link) After watching the television series, The Vikings, I learned from my nephew Aevar Axelson that the bloodthirsty main character, Ragnar Lothbroke (shaggy-breeches) is in our lineage. I told Tim. He said, “this might have been good to know before we married.” He cheered up when I reminded him that Ragnar had three wives. In any case, learning about Ragnar and my relationship, it’s not so far-fetched to think I also share some connection with the Queen. Believing this fills me with courage and determination. No, not really. But my morning cup of coffee does. If a gene for scream hurling cries and carrying a spear exists, I didn’t get it. But the ability to feel outraged and thoughts of snapping necks of those who mess with my offsprings or grandchildren, Queen Boudicca and I would have that one in common.

Most history is written by men who considered women inferior to them. Why bother writing about something that’s of no interest or you find unworthy of your time? I get that. But sometimes, history is brought back out of necessity (evidence that something has happened previously) or curiosity. The rediscovery of this British Queen of the Celtics began to trickle back in the reign of the Tudor monarchs. Some suggest Elizabeth I’s speech to her troops at Tilbury may have been inspired by Boudicca’s oration to her forces (Cate Blanchett. YouTube. Tilbury speech). But a far more convincing connection would be to Queen Victoria who ruled Britain for 63 years. The teenage Queen in her readings could have come across the story of Boudicca and in time felt a kinship. It also explains why her husband, Prince Albert, commissioned a bronze sculpture of the Celtic Queen sculpted in Queen Victoria’s image. The retelling rests on written accounts from  Roman historians Dio Cassius (155 AD to 235AD) and Tacitus (56AD to 120AD). It’s strengthened with the point of view and interpretations of the present-day historian Dr. Joyce Salisbury. Women understand women.

In the year 60AD, Britain was divided into small kingdoms. Just as there were conflicts between the American Indians, so it was among the tribes in Britain. Surrounded by forests and earthen fortifications to guard their people and property (cattle, gold and silver jewelry), the Celtics and local Britons co-existed in pseudo harmony. The scrimmages between the tribes were for gold to reward poets for singing them praise that would be their legacy — leaving your legacy mattered. Warring chiefs used light wicker chariots pulled by small horses to ride quickly in and out of battles. Archeologists have uncovered 20 chariots in burial sites confirming their importance. 

The tribal life in the Celtic world and the Roman Empire (link) in the first century were markedly different. The tribes consisted of clan groups and ruling families. Life centered around the family. Women could inherit land, rule, and lead armies, and their sexual behaviors were the family’s business. Men wore trousers and didn’t shave. Women wore to-the- ankle-dresses and also didn’t shave. Instead of watching television together, women and children followed warriors to watch battles. Sort of “take your child to work” day.  

Contrast these small tribal groups to the Roman Empire that was huge and governed by laws dictating the sexual behavior of women and women’s roles. Men were clean-shaven and draped in togas. “Roman battles were fought by disciplined soldiers far from home who relied on prostitutes for their needs and rape as their right of conquest” (Dr. Salisbury). 

The Celt tribes had lived alongside the Roman Empire for years growing rich on trade. (Similar to the relationship of China and Vietnam)(link) The Iceni tribe lived on the coast and regularly traded with Rome. But the day came, when Rome wanted more, they wanted control of the British mines. Why buy the silver and gold if you can kill off a few thousand Brits and own them? So, just as the Brits expanded their empire between the 16th and early 18th centuries, the first century was about the Roman expansion (empires usually last about 250 years—Rome was an exception).

The Roman conquest of Britain started gradually in 43AD with them establishing several colonies or trade posts. Emperor Claudius made Prasutagus, the king of the Iceni (his wife ruled with him), a client king of Rome, which was supposed to offer the Iceni a measure of independence. Salisbury: “Such client kingdoms were the kind of arrangement the Romans made with kings of the great lands in the east, and it worked quite well.” However, the Romans thought the Iceni inferior and called them barbarians.  (Suspicion and dislike for those different from us.)

Tacitus tells us that the Romans “drove people out of their houses, ejected them from their farms, called them captives and slaves.” Not concerned about the natives’ feelings the invaders built a temple to Emperor Clausius to celebrate their arrival on British soil. Resentment and anger grew in the hearts of the Celts and local Brits.

In 60 AD, southern Britain now a patchwork of tribes struggling to get along with the invaders, faced another crisis. Their king, Prasutagus, died, leaving his wife Boudicca and two young daughters. Anticipating this eventuality, he’d left a will giving half of his considerable fortune to his two daughters and a half to the Roman emperor, Nero. Surely, this would keep his family in the Romans’ good graces. Not a chance. Rome considered Prasutagus’s death a contract canceled. The client relationship with Rome and the semi-independent status of the tribe was over. The soldiers broke into the palace and plundered it. “They whipped Queen Boudicca and raped her young daughters. The chief men of the Iceni were stripped of their possessions, and the king’s relatives were made slaves. Britain was slowly being reduced from a land of client kings to an occupied province.” (Dr. Salisbury)

For a mother, the rape of her young daughters (ages unknown) would be the breaking point, the bridge too far. She speaks to her people:

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After she assembled an initial army of 100,000 thousands plus troops, she mounted her wicker chariot and charged towards one of the hated colonies (Colchester). She swept down on the town like thunder and lightning. Her troops ransacked the town, setting fire to the wooden buildings. Inhabitants were tortured, raped, and slaughtered. The Queen was in no mood to turn the other cheek. The Roman soldiers stationed to protect the people retreated to the stone temple. Boudicca’s army stormed the temple and killed them all. At leaving the burning city, Boudicca’s army encountered the Roman Ninth Legion coming to rescue the city. Her army destroyed them as well except the general who escaped along with his cavalry.  

Word of Queen Boudicca’s revolt reached General Suetonius Paulinus, Roman Governor of Britain, while he was attacking the island of Anglesey off the coast of Wales. (What’s with men and their endless battles?) With this engagement behind him, he marched his battle‐hardened legion to London to the Queen’s next target. Arriving in London, not yet a colony of Rome, in spite of the residents’ pleas for protection, the general concluded he could not defend the unwalled town. He withdrew, waiting for a better time to engage Boudicca.

Londoners were right to worry. Queen Boudicca’s need for revenge ran hot. She burned London to the ground. With Saint Albans nearby and an unquenched thirst for more slaughter and fire, it too was destroyed. Tacitus writes that 70,000 people were killed in these two towns. The Romans were horrified. Boudicca did not adhere to what they considered as the rules of war. She was a nasty woman.

Her victories increased her appetite for revenge. Her armies raided unwalled towns taking riches and lives. In the meantime, Suetonius used the time to gather his legions and choose the battlefield. He chose wisely.

In the last confrontation, at the end of a deep ravine with thick woods, the Romans were outnumbered by more than tenfold. The Roman soldiers closed ranks with shields close together and interlocking. It left no room for the Celts to get around them attacking them from all sides. Their large numbers were of no help. Salisbury writes: “As Boudicca’s soldiers fell, their arrows and spears fell uselessly on the shields of the tightly stationed army. Once they ran out of javelins, the Romans rushed in a wedge‐like column while maintaining the discipline of the wall of shields. The Celts died as they bravely tried to penetrate the wall.”

Realizing they could not penetrate the Roman line, it was time to hightail out of there. If only. The Celts’ families, there for the entertainment, were in wagons lined behind the army’s line, cutting off any hope for a retreat. Tacitus wrote that 80,000 Brits died compared to only 400 Romans. At first, he doesn’t say if Boudicca was killed. Later he claimed she survived only to commit suicide by poison later. 

In her lecture of Warriors, Queens, and Intellectuals, Joyce Salisbury says that suicide by poison was a common practice of women during this period. After all, it’s women who knew and used herbs for various reasons. Since there is no account of her and her daughters, it may well be what happened.  

Boudicca unified previously warring tribes, convincing them together they could stop the most powerful empire in the world from annexing their country, restricting their freedom and overtaking their valuable resources. And she almost succeeded. For that, her name belongs in our history books next to Alexander and Napoleon. 

2 thoughts on “She was Tall and Terrifying

  1. Quite the woman. Goes to show to what lengths we will go when our off spring are hurt. Too bad she seems to have let revenge cloud her thinking somewhat which led to her demise. Isn’t it a shame her name is not as familiar to us as Napoleon and Alexander? Can’t help but wonder how different women and their roles in society might be if these female figures were instilled into our psyches in our early years.


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