Nearly 2000yrs ago, Boudica the legendary Queen of the Iceni led her army to fight a decisive battle against the Roman legions of Claudius for independence which took place in modern day England, yet historians and archaeologists still cannot locate the infamous battlefield. Like many people in the UK, I'm fascinated with the history of our country and in particular the fights our ancestors had with the legions of the Roman Empire to break the chains of bondage. Boudica intrigues a lot of people because if it wasn't for her husband King Prasutagus, the client ruler or lackey of Rome, depending on which way you'd like to look at the situation trying to broker a deal on his death bed by splitting his kingdom between Emperor Nero and his daughters to secure their futures her uprising may never have happened. The Romans responded to the dead kings request by plundering the kingdom and when Boudica complained, she was flogged whilst her daughters brutally raped by the soldiers. From that day forward an extraordinary set of events took place which would shape Britain forever. Our quest is to find the elusive battlefield where tens of thousands of Britons met their doom at the hands of the one of the deadliest killing machines in history; the Roman legions.
Boudica is just as much as an enigma today has she was nearly 2000yrs. ago because the ancient Britons did not record their history; consequently, the only real evidence we have about the queen comes from what the Romans wrote about her themselves. We can assume Boudica would never have become the legendary figure she is today without the political events which saw the Romans dishonour her ruler husbands wishes to distribute his Kingdom between his daughters and Emperor Nero in his last will. She alone stands out in a historical romanticised sense because she allegedly managed to settle differences between the various warring tribes and unite them to fight bloody battles with the powerful Roman legions to secure their island from the tyranny of Rome. This is the accepted view today; however, I believe the Druids also played a major part in the revolt because they knew the Romans would never tolerate their absolute power over the tribes or their rituals of human sacrifice of which the Romans found barbaric.
After Prasutagus had died the Roman centurions pillaged his kingdom, they stripped the Iceni elite of their ancestral possessions, and the king's relatives were enslaved. An enraged Boudica; possibly with the help of the Druids, united some of the tribes and encouraged them to revolt against Roman occupation. Veterans of the Roman army in Camulodunum (Colchester), the capital of Roman Britannia, began evicting people from their houses and stealing their fields. When members of the tribes protested they were laughed at by the hated veterans, who were now calling them prisoners and slaves of Rome, but one day the Victory Statue of the Romans at Camulodunum slipped and turned its back. The oppressed Britons took this as a sign of hope; the veterans, one of dread. The Roman governor of Britannia, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus was away on campaign against the Druids, so the veterans asked the imperial agent Decianus Catus for help. Fully aware a revolt was about to begin, he advised the former legionaires to find sanctuary in the temple whilst he sent for reinforcements, but it was too late. The revengeful Britons burnt the settlement to the ground and inflicted terrible retribution on the inhabitants. The Britons then ambushed the Hispana IX who had been sent to relieve Colchester; the battle saw the majority of them brutally slaughtered, only the legate and the cavalry escaped.
Boudica now had valuable time because the three remaining legions: Gemina, Augusta, and Valeria were hundreds of miles away on campaign. She planned to capitalise on her advantage, and Londinium (London) was her next target. Paulinus rode down to London from Wales to relieve the town with a small contingent of troops, but with the vast army of Boudica approaching and without his legions to defend the town he advised the inhabitants to flee and abandon the settlement. Just like Colchester, London was totally destroyed and all the defenders put to the sword or to the flames. Boudica then set out for Verulamium (St Albans) which in turn fell to her rampant army.
Invigorated by her success and confident her army could beat the legions on the battlefield, Boudica now led her army to fight a decisive battle she hoped would break the Roman yoke forever. The Roman writers estimate over 200,000 Britons faced 10,000 legionaires in this final battle. The Roman historians tell us Boudica, who was on her war chariot with her two daughters before her, drove through the ranks and inspired her army with these words: "This is not the first time that the Britons have been led to battle by a woman. From the pride and arrogance of the Romans nothing is sacred; all are subject to violation; the old endure the scourge, and the virgins are deflowered. But the vindictive gods are now at hand. A Roman legion dared to face the warlike Britons; with their lives they paid for their rashness and those who survived the carnage of that day, lie poorly hid behind their entrenchments. The Romans, even now, shrink back with terror. What will be their case when the assault begins? Look round, and view your numbers. Behold the proud display of warlike spirits, and consider the motives for which we draw the avenging sword. On this spot we must either conquer, or die with glory. There is no alternative. Though a woman, my resolution is fixed: the men, if they please, may survive with infamy, and live in bondage." On the opposing side Paulinus addressed his legions: "Take no notice of the racket those drunken savages make, there are more women in their ranks than men! We've beaten them before and we'll beat them again. Keep close in your ranks, throw your javelins and keep on killing with your swords and shields. Pursue the vanquished and put all thought of plunder from your minds; with victory, everything is yours."
Once the battle commenced the undisciplined Britons were no match for the highly organised legions and, they were routed on the field. Apparently Boudica committed suicide by taking poison soon after the battle. We'll never know what happened to her daughters that fateful day, perhaps they died too with their shattered mother. We know the Romans would have mercilessly hunted her down and once captured, taken her to Rome in a cage to be displayed at the Roman triumph. Her fate would probably have been similar to that of Vercingetorix the charismatic leader of Gaul (modern day France) who was publicly strangled before the jeering Romans. The ultimate insult to a conquered country and leader.
Despite popular misconceptions, the Romans never invaded any country to enlighten them with the sophistication of the Roman way of life. The Romans came to Britain to rape the land of her natural minerals and enslave the population, whilst taxing the inhabitants to pay and feed the vast army of men needed for the conquest. Julius Caesar (Latin: IVLIVS CAESAR) first used a political excuse to invade Britain in 55 B.C. He argued the Britons were giving refuge to wanted men in Gaul and supplying the enemy with weapons whilst his army waged all out war in the country.
Nearly a hundred years after Caesars' invasions, a third Roman invasion took place; however, Rome was no longer a republic but a powerful empire. Emperor Claudius authorised four legions to invade Britain in 43 A.D after a British tribal leader named Verica (a client king of the Romans) went to Claudius and pleaded for assistance against the legendary Briton Caratacus who was warring with various tribes and expanding his territory. This was just the political excuse the Romans needed. The four legions sent to conquer the islands were: Augusta II, Gemina XIV, Hispania IX and Valeria XX. After many battles with Caratacus they finally defeated him, but he escaped only to be betrayed by Queen Cartimandua who remarkably handed him over to the Romans. Britons today would probably find it bizarre how a British queen would betray a freedom fighter to the enemy, yet we must remember the ancient British tribes were not united whilst the Romans were masters of divide and conquer. After the subjugation of the southern tribes, Emperor Claudius visited the island where a temple was erected in his honour at Caratacus' old stronghold of Camulodunum.
The Roman legions were both feared and admired for their brutal efficiency in battle and their brilliant engineering skills which saw them build roads, aqueducts and forts. They were one of the most advanced armies in history who created the Roman Empire. Even with all the technology we have today, a modern army would struggle to equal their outstanding achievements. We can only guess what a legion would have looked like on the battlefield, however, if you click on this UTube link and watch this remarkable scene from the 1960 film Spartacus, it may give us an idea of what the opposing enemy faced.
The Roman senator and historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus was only a few years old when the revolt of the Britons took place in 60/61 A.D and he was not in Britain at the time, yet his father in law (Gnaeus Julius Agricola) had seen military service in Britain and became governor from 77 A.D to 83 A.D. Agricola served as a tribune on the staff of the Roman military governor Paulinus when the revolt of Boudica took place; therefore, we can safely assume the account of Tacitus is the closest narrative of the battles to come down from ancient history because he would have learnt it all from his father- in- law. His work, The Annals is perhaps the best account concerning the last battle Boudica and her army fought against the Romans.
Another account comes from Cassius Dio ; however, his book is perhaps an imitation of Tacitus because the work wasn't written down until at least a 100 yrs. after the event. Furthermore, the speeches attributed to Boudica are undoubtedly the work of fiction to satisfy an educated reading elite back in Rome.
The Greek historian Plutarch mentions Caesar's expedition across the 'Western Ocean' in his monumental work, The Fall of the Roman Republic. In a brief paragraph, he writes of the fascination the Romans had about Caesar crossing into the unknown world. He also explains how Caesar was initially disappointed with the island because there was nothing worth stealing from the improvised natives.
Many modern scholars and historians believe the battle took place on Watling St not far from the junction with the Fosse Way in the Midlands with Mancetter (Manduessedum) being the favourite location, however, as of yet, there is no definitive proof. We do know Paulinus would have ordered the two legions on Anglesey to march south towards London to engage Boudica and her army. He also requested the Augusta II in Exeter to march, but their commander Poenius Postumus refused. Now lets look at some historical facts. Once the revolt had broken out Paulinus immediately ordered his legions Gemina and Valeria to follow him south whilst he rode on after his intelligence agents informed him of the situation in Colchester and that Boudica was on her way to London. Seems reasonable, yet how did Paulinus with a small force arrive in London before Boudica when you consider the distances? Anglesey to London is roughly 290 miles, Colchester to London, 66 miles. Furthermore, Paulinus might have assumed his legion in Exeter would not disobey his orders. Consequently, it seems feasible that Paulinus had no reason to believe his legion was not making its way up the Fosse Way. But this does not necessarily mean they were following the accepted route believed today.
The picture to the left offers a different route the legions may have taken. Paulinus would have sent his agents down to Exeter informing them of the revolt and instructed them to prepare to march, but where? As mentioned earlier, modern historians believe the final confrontation between Boudica and the Romans took place somewhere close to High Cross where the Fosse Way crosses Watling St. If this rendezvous point is to be believed, this would have meant Augusta II would have had to march at least 200 miles up the Fosse Way whilst being fully exposed to ambush in hostile territory similar to Hispania IX. Paulinus was no fool, he would have looked at the situation with meticulous consideration and care. Just a few decades prior in Germany, three legions were massacred in the Teutoberg Forest therefore it would be safe to assume Paulinus would do all in his power to keep his legions out of harms way until they were at full strength.
Now, hypothetically Paulinus could have sent his agents to inform Augusta II to march up the Fosse Way to the Roman fort at Cirencester (Corinium Dobunnorum) and rendezvous with the other legions which were already on their way. Gemina and Valeria could have been instructed to head down Watling St (blue) then south from Wall down Icknield St (green) to join the Fosse Way (red) at the Roman settlement of Bourton on the Water. From here, it would have been a days march down the Fosse Way to join Augusta II at the fort on Akeman St (purple) in Cirencester. Now at full strength, the three legions would have marched east along Akeman St to rejoin Watling St just north of St Albans to do battle. It would have taken days for the news to reach Paulinus that the commander of the Augusta II refused to march, and once his other two legions were committed, there could be no turning back.
After Boudica's army had destroyed St Albans her plan could have been to move south west and attack the Augusta II because her army stood a much better chance of defeating a single legion trapped by the sea. Boudica and her intelligence agents would have known her army could arrive in Exeter at least five days before the two legions on Anglesey. Further, even if the Augusta II marched, they would be exposed to ambush. The distance up the Fosse Way from Exeter to the Roman fort at Cirencester is roughly 125 miles, or five days march. It would have taken Boudica's army under four days to march the 100 miles from St Albans to Cirencester to intercept and destroy the Augusta II. Boudica would have known the legions Gemina and Valeria were 225 miles from Cirencester on the Isle of Anglesey, or roughly nine days march away. Taking all the above into consideration, it seems logical Boudica and her forces would try and eliminate the isolated Augusta II because time was on her side. Therefore, I believe the final battlefield was not on Watling St but on, or close to either Akeman St or the Fosse Way.
This isn't necessarily the case and it's not a definitive answer to the age old problem we face, but worthy of further investigation. The most frustrating aspect of trying to piece together the jigsaw of the ancient Britons is nothing was written down by the Britons. The only archaeological evidence of Boudica's last movements is a layer of ash from the destroyed town of St Albans and then she disappears into the mists of time. There would be no more significant uprisings from the Britons after Boudica and her army were humiliated on the battlefield and the Romans would rule Britannia for the next four centuries until the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.
People in Britain 2000yrs. ago lived in a world we'd find it hard to comprehend today, a violent world where the weak simply did not survive. These days, we look in horror at the brutal murders committed by terrorists in the Middle East, but the ancient Britons also had a blood thirsty desire to take the heads of enemies. They believed that if they took the head of an opposing warrior, they'd have taken his soul too. Heads were highly prized by the Celts, and dedicated to the temples or kept in the family as trophies. Bringing back a head from battle was the ultimate passage from boy to warrior in ancient Britain. The religion of the Druids called for human sacrifice, this was just one of the reasons why the Romans considered them uncivilised and eliminated them from Britain. Nevertheless, the Roman portrayal of the Druids may have been used for political reasons to advance their argument for the invasion. Julius Caesar gives us a glimpse of life in Britain over 2000yrs. ago under the Druids and political class in his Gallic Wars. Caesar writes the general population were slaves to the knight class who ruled the various tribes, whilst the Druids took care of all legal and religious affairs.
It certainly appears one of the reasons the third invasion took place was simply down to the division of the British tribes. The Romans took full advantage of this from the very beginning under Caesar when he offered political and military support from Rome to weaker tribal leaders; they'd become client kings. After Caratacus had been betrayed by Queen Cartimandua, he had been taken to Rome to face execution. Given a chance to speak to the Roman Senate, Tacitus records him delivering this speech: "If the degree of my nobility and fortune had been matched by moderation in success, I would have come to this city as a friend rather than a captive, nor would you have disdained to receive with a treaty of peace one sprung from brilliant ancestors and commanding a great many nations. But my present lot, disfiguring as it is for me, is magnificent for you. I had horses, men, arms, and wealth: what wonder if I was unwilling to lose them? If you wish to command everyone, does it really follow that everyone should accept your slavery? If I were now being handed over as one who had surrendered immediately, neither my fortune nor your glory would have achieved brilliance. It is also true that in my case any reprisal will be followed by oblivion. On the other hand, if you preserve me safe and sound, I shall be an eternal example of your clemency." Whether those were the actual words spoken will never be known; however, whatever Caratacus said made such an impression with Claudius he was pardoned and allowed to live in the city of Rome. Over a decade later, Boudica did not believe she would get the same deal from Emperor Nero.
A lot of questions remain unanswered and they may prove unanswerable; for example, why did Prasutagus leave Boudica out of his will? Did he assume she would never submit to the Romans? What ever the case, Boudica's disastrous last stand against the might of the Roman Empire is the stuff of legend, and she ultimately plays a major part in the extraordinary history of Great Britain. But to think she is lying in a cold field with her daughters at her side, unloved and forgotten by modern Britons is a real tragedy. Hopefully, when the remains of the Queen are finally located she will then be moved to one of the magnificent Cathedrals, and there the nation can pay homage to a remarkable woman who sacrificed everything in a desperate fight to save her country.
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