Boudica - Celtic Warrior Queen
Updated: Jan 7, 2020
Almost everything we know of this heroic woman comes from her invading conquerors, the Romans and specifically the Roman historians, Tacitus and Cassius Dio. Even her name may just be the honorific her people called her once she took up the mantle of avenging warrior and freedom fighter. The Celtic word boudeg means, “victor”. Boudega means, “she who brings victory". It appears that the Romans, having only heard her name pronounced and never written, misspelled and latinized it to Boudicca. Then in Victorian England (19th century), it may have misspelled again from old written Latin transcripts to Boadicea. The name of her tribe was similarly misspelled Iceni, from Eceni. Today she is known as Boudica of the Iceni.
It is likely that Boudica was born in eastern England, somewhere near what are today the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk, in the early 1st century CE. She must have been of noble birth as she married the King of the Iceni tribe, Prasutagus.
Being of elite birth meant that Boudica would have been given some education at home before being hosted for a period of time by a neighboring family or tribe for additional training and good will. Boudica would have owned some property, had some wealth and been able to conduct business without her husbands oversight. Women, among Boudica’s social status, could inherit both wealth and rank. The Celts were a tribal people in the first century and clans fought each other often, so both men and women were trained in martial arts. Celtic women had some degree of marriage equality allowing them to choose their husbands, and divorce and remarry at will. Women in Celtic societies could hold the honor of being a Druid. The Druids were the intellectuals, historians, alchemists, astronomers, healers, philosophers and priests that performed pagan rituals. They were held in high esteem and had great authority over the Celtic people.
In 43 CE, the Romans invaded England. The Celts of England had one option, assimilate to Roman rule or die. The Romans believed themselves superior to the barbaric Celts and began a campaign of brutality towards them. A few Celtic Kings, Prasutagus among them, were given city states in an agreement with the Romans and able to maintain a nominal amount of independence.
Boudicca was married to Prasutagas and had two young daughters below the marriageable age of thirteen when, in 60 CE, Prasutagus died. In his will he left his property to his daughters, his Iceni crown was to be passed to his eldest daughter and his wife was made queen regent until his daughter took his throne. The Roman tax collector Catus Decianus, did not honor Prasutagus’ will. In fact, the idea that women could hold a seat of power and inherit property was repugnant to Catus and the Romans. He believed that the agreement Prasutagus had entered into with the Romans ended with Prasugatus’ death.
Catus sent troops to take possession of all the Iceni’s riches and dispel anyone who resisted Roman rule. When Boudica demanded that the Roman guards remove themselves from Iceni land, she was flogged to humiliate her and to concretely delineate her now subjugated role. Then, in front of Boudica, her young daughters were repeatedly raped by Roman soldiers. Many more atrocities against the Iceni followed, some fellow clans people were enslaved, others were killed. The Romans used the brutality of these acts to illustrate to the Iceni just how dominated, demoralized and defeated they were.
Nevertheless, Boudica was not defeated… she was enraged! The Romans had stripped the Iceni and Boudica of everything she held valuable: her family’s health, freedom and future; the independence and self governance of her people; and her identity as an Iceni. Boudica felt it incumbent upon herself to avenge the atrocities against her family and her people. Tribe by tribe Boudica campaigned to rally support and to assemble an army to fight for independence from the Romans. It is said she gathered an army that numbered 200,000 men and women.
According to Cassius Dio, before battle Boudica declared, “If you weigh the strengths of our armies you will see that in this battle we must conquer or die. This is a woman’s resolve. As for the men, they may live or be slaves… I am not fighting for my kingdom and wealth now. I am fighting as an ordinary person for my lost freedom, my bruised body and my outraged daughters.” Her throngs of warriors shouted in response, “Boudica! Boudica! Boudica!”
Boudica also called upon the goddess of war, Andraste, to make her people victorious. Once more, as reported by Cassius Dio she said, “ I thank you, Andraste, and call upon you as woman speaking to woman… I beg you for victory and preservation of liberty.”
The Celts employed their “barbaric” warfare strategy successfully. Their faces painted with blue woad dye in swirls, circles and spirit animals. Their women fighting along side their men, baring their teeth and at times their breasts to remind their fellow tribesman that they would be slaves if they did not succeed. Their cacophony of war cries and screams meant to intimidate the opposing army. Their guerrilla tactics of ambush and fierce one on one combat. Their sheer, imposing numbers approaching the enemy. Their unrestrained savagery that led to the decimation of Camulodunum, Londinium and Verulamium, cities known today as Colchester, London and St Albans.
The Celts took those three cities quite easily but they had not seen the full might of the Roman army. Colchester had been a surprise attack on an unwalled city with a small defending army. The Romans had abandoned London to regroup and left only women, children and those unable to flee in the city. St. Albans was also sparsely protected and fell without great effort.
The governor, General Seutonius Paulinus, had been busy annihilating the Druids on the western island of Mona when Boudica and her army attacked Colchester. Seutonius was known as a strict general and a brutal warrior. He returned to London, realized he was greatly outnumbered and abandoned the city prior to Boudica’s arrival.
Seutonius rejoined forces with two of his legions and searched for days for a natural arena to stage his battle. He needed an area where the Roman army could not be flanked. Seutonius depended upon: his soldiers professional techniques; their superior armor, shields and weapons; and their synchronized fighting skills to lessen the advantage the Celts had in sheer number of troops. Seutonius rallied his troops by flinging insults at the Celtic women who dared take up arms against the empire’s finest army of men.
In the end, the 5,000 to 10,000 Roman soldiers annihilated about 80,000 Celts… neither women, children, the elderly nor livestock were spared. The Roman soldiers then went village to village killing anyone who was connected to the uprising. Even the despot emperor, Nero, considered Seutonius’ cruelty extreme and he was removed from his post as governor of England.
Boudica is thought to have survived the battle. It was proposed by the Roman historian Tacitus, that she took her own life with poison. Suicide was a common practice of rulers who were defeated in battle and it was considered an honorable death. It is not known whether her daughters survived the battle.
The Romans remained in England until 410 CE. No other uprising was of great note or of great consequence to the Romans. It was just that one woman and her army of men and women who gave the Romans cause for alarm ... Boudica! Boudica! Boudica!
The Roman empire collapsed in 476 CE.
Questions to ponder while letting Boudica's story sink into your depths...
The Romans and Greeks had very different views on women's capacity, equality, roles and self determination than the early Celts. It appears that Boudica's sex inspired the Romans to quash her army and obliterate it, as they could not allow the shame of being usurped by a mere woman. What does this look like in our world today? What comes to mind for you? (I'm thinking of the young activist Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by the Taliban for being the voice of educating women in Pakistan.)
We can see Boudica's pain in her enraged response to her daughters' rapes. How often as women have we put our foot down firmly when it comes to the trespasses against our children? How might we channel that same energy to defend ourselves and others?
Boudica was intelligent, courageous, strong and determined. She was also ruthless, savage and unforgiving in her attacks on the Romans, their women and children. It was a brutal time in history. How can we tease out the nobler characteristics of Boudica and integrate her courage, her willingness to stand up against oppression and her determination to stay true to her course?
Boudica saw herself as a woman fighting a woman's cause for freedom. She called upon Andraste, the goddess of war to help her. Who are the wise women among you that you call upon to give you strength and support when the struggles of life seem daunting?
The information I have gathered was taken from articles written from the annals of Roman history and archeological evidence found at the burial sites of the Iceni people from the 1st century CE. For more information on Boudica click on the sources below.
Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem, Boadicea