Much of the history of Boudica, the warrior Queen of the Iceni, is shrouded in mystery. The Iceni were an ancient Celtic tribe or kingdom that lay on the eastern shores of England. Sources agree that Boudica was born in AD 25 to a royal family. They also agree that she rose to power and she was named Queen after the death of her husband, Prasutagus. She was probably 18-25 years old at the time. She is most known for her military cunning and prowess as she felled Londinium (now called London) and Verulamium (now called St. Albans) in AD 60 or 61. It is estimated that 70,000 to 80,000 Romans and British were killed by her armies.
Two primary sources have recorded the events of her life. Tacitus, the most important Roman historian of the time, had access to Boudica’s uprising in Britain as his father-in-law, a military tribunal, served there for three years. Cassius Dio, another Roman historian and statesman, also wrote about the life and great battle of Queen Boudica. Cassius Dio published more than 70 volumes of history on Ancient Rome, however, he was born almost 100 years after Boudica’s crusade. The two stories of Boudica have some similarities, but also differ, giving mystery and some ambiguity about the life and times of this empowered woman.
Mystery #1 Her name.
The warrior Queen has been known by many versions of her name, including Boadicea, the Latin version, and Buddug the Welsh interpretation. Raphael Holinshed, an English Chronicler in the 1500’s, referred to her as Voadicia, and English Poet of the 1500’s, Edmund Spenser, calls her Bunduca from a Jacobean play called Bonduca.
Boudica’s history had been long forgotten until the Victorian era, when her story became popular again. It was then determined that her name comes from the Celtic word “victorious” and that the correct spelling is Boudica. It was said that Queen Victoria of the 19th and 20th century was named after the warrior Queen, thus her rise in popular culture once again.
Mystery #2 Her appearance and dress.
Cassius Dio described Boudica as a tall and imposing woman with tawny (reddish brown) hair that hung to her hips, a “piercing gaze and a harsh voice.” Other reports say her hair was fair, or blond, and hung to her knees. Cassius Dio records that she wore a multi-colored tunic and a heavy cloak fastened with a bronze brooch—typical dress of a wealthy Celtic woman. He also claims she wore a gold torque around her neck. The torque, a metal band of twisted gold strands, worn as a choker, was the symbol of an ancient Celtic warrior chieftain. The torque symbolized a warrior’s readiness to shed blood for the good of his people—and was never worn by women. If this is true, it just goes to show how fierce and empowered this woman appeared to her people.
Mystery #3 Her reason for sacking London.
Tacitus claims that when Boudica’s husband Prasutagus, died, he left his kingdom to his daughters in order to retain Iceni independence from Rome. However, under Roman law when a chief or king died, the estate was left to the emperor. When the Roman procurator, Decianus Catus arrived at Prasutagus’ court to take inventory, Boudica strongly objected and the procurator had her flogged and her daughter’s raped. In revenge, she then set out to destroy the Romans in Britain.
Cassius Dio claims that at Prasutagus’ death resulted in the confiscation of monies and goods from the rich Britons. Also, any loans they had received—many were forced to take out loans from the Romans—were now due.
Mystery #4 Her religion.
Boudica may have been a druid. Before she set out to lead her troops into battle, it is said that the warrior Queen evoked the British goddess of victory, Andraste. She then released a hare from the folds of her cloak and determined by which direction the hare ran, either on the side of the Romans or the side of the Britons, which army would win. When the hare ran in the direction of the Britons, the people cheered. Boudica then raised her hand to heaven and praised Andraste. A demonstration like this gives historians reason to believe she may have had some druidic training.
Mystery #5 Her death.
Boudica, in a fearsome looking chariot with her daughters by her side, led her troops into battle. Tacitus claims she gave a short speech claiming she did not wish to fight as a rich aristocrat who lost everything to the Romans, but as an ordinary person avenging her lost freedom, her battered body, and her raped children. She, as a woman, was resolved to win or die.
She first sacked Camulodunum (Colchester), a Roman colony. When she reached Londinium, she killed everyone who crossed her path–men, women and children. Noble Roman women were stripped and strung up. Their breasts were cut off and sewn to their mouths. Then they were impaled on sharp skewers running lengthwise through their bodies. Boudica then went on to Verulamium, slaughtering more people. The Roman General, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, regrouped his forces and met Boudica head on somewhere in the West Midlands and eventually proved victorious.
According to Tacitus, Boudica poisoned herself to avoid capture, torture, and death at the hands of the Romans, but Cassius Dio claims she later fell ill and died, and was given a glorious funeral.
Given that Dio wrote Boudica’s history almost a century after the battle, it can be said that he read Tacitus and decided to change the story.
Either way, one thing is clear; Boudica was a ferocious leader who set out to avenge her family and her people from the burden of Roman occupation.