Nearly two thousand years ago, Queen Boudicca of the Iceni tribe led an uprising against the oppressive Roman Empire, fighting for the freedom of her people, the British Celts. Although ultimately unsuccessful, her name is still remembered by many Britons for her might and bravery in facing one of the strongest Empires the world had ever seen. What happened back in 60AD? How has her name managed to remain so prominent in the story of Britain? This article aims to shed light on these questions through analysis of the infamous story of Boudicca.
The Iceni tribe, Celts residing in present-day Norfolk, were led by their pro-Roman king, Prasutagus, who willingly formed an alliance with the Roman Empire. As a part of this alliance he promised to leave half of his inheritance to his daughters, and the other half to Emperor Nero of Rome. However, after his death in 60 AD, the Romans did not honour his will: they flogged his widow, raped his daughters, and enslaved members of his family and tribe.
Despite being faced with the force of an empire, Prasutagus’s widow Boudicca, rallied neighboring tribes and started an uprising to reclaim their freedom. With an army of 120,000 soldiers by her side, Boudicca led a revolt which saw the Roman settlements, Camulodunum (Colchester), Verulamium (St Albans), and Londinium (London) razed to the ground, leaving few survivors. The final battle took place in the midlands where, despite massively outnumbering the roman soldiers, Boudicca and her army were defeated. Although there were fewer Romans, they had superior weapons and military strategies, allowing them to defeat the Celts on their own land.
In order to avoid being enslaved by the Romans, Boudicca chose to end her life by drinking poison. Unfortunately, it remains difficult to understand the status of women in Celtic culture as the only written evidence from the time comes from the Romans and Greeks who both looked down on the Celts, viewing them as barbarians. There is little evidence of women in power at the time, which would imply that Boudicca’s position of power would have been seen as an anomaly rather than the norm. The Roman historian Tacicus, author of one of the most credible sources on Bouddica, writes, ‘Win the battle or perish: that is what I, a woman will do; you men can live on in slavery if that’s what you want.’ This shows her awareness that she was different from her male army.
As a result of her leading an army despite being a woman, her story has been passed down through generations, used to show the power of women, as well as, ironically, the power of imperialism. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, as Britain fought the Spanish Armada, Boudicca’s story saw a rise in popularity. The Queens PR team needed to prove to Britain that a woman could be a worthy and capable wartime leader. Her story was changed to fit this narrative, having previously been told as a cautionary tale against Celtic culture in Britain. After the death of Elizabeth I, her successor, James I, changed the narrative again to make Boudicca seem inferior, highlighting her failure, and her death in suicide.
During the heyday of the British Empire, the nation was once again under the rule of a woman; Queen Victoria. Despite being over two centuries later, women in Britain were still not commonly in positions of power. The Victorians’ appreciation of Boudicca is noted in the statue which sits opposite the Houses of Parliament. However, they too changed the narrative in order to better fit their ideals. During the first half of the 19th century, it was common to blur the lines between historical fact and fictional narrative. This allowed Bouddica to be remodeled into an imperialistic icon of triumph. Through plays and poems, her story was rewritten and retold, transforming a life sacrificed in defiance of imperialistic forces attempting to take her homeland, into an inspiration for an Empire which repeated some of the atrocities she died fighting against.
In the 21st century, most of us have been taught somewhat about the history of the land we live in, meaning many of us at least recognise the name of the ancient Queen. Alternatively, our understanding derives from the Horrible Histories song (2010), which managed to bring her back into our collective memory. Although the BBCs “cherry bomb” parody is perhaps less academically stimulating than the poems and plays previous generations used to keep her name alive, the song is another easy-to-digest piece of media allowing the British public to learn about the ancient Queen who fought for freedom. It could be argued that this was another example of pro-monarch propaganda during the reign of a female monarch during wartime as Britain deployed 10,000 troops to fight in Afghanistan under Queen Elizabeth II’s reign in the year of its release.
Boudicca’s fight for her people’s freedom against imperial forces has left a lasting legacy, albeit one used to justify British imperialism. Her story stands out as an example of a powerful woman in history and her bravery has been remembered in Britain for nearly two millennia. ‘Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past’, as the saying goes. This is seen in the manipulation of Boudicca’s story, used to fit the narratives of each time. In this way, history can be used to alter the public’s opinion and shape collective perspectives.
By Rosa Davies