Standing on the banks of the Thames at Westminster is a magnificent statue of Queen Boadicea in her war chariot accompanied by her two daughters. It is a monument to the woman who once destroyed London and came close to driving the Romans out of Britain.
Known to her own people as Boudicca, the great Queen of the Iceni had her name rendered in Latin as Boadicea. The Iceni at this time were a powerful Celtic tribe who inhabited what is now Norfolk and much of Suffolk. During the Roman invasion of Britain their King Prasutagus had kept the tribe neutral. In thanks the Romans paid large sums to Prasutagus and his nobles and granted the Iceni self-governing status while they organised the rest of southern Britain into a directly-ruled province.
When King Prasutagus died in ad61 he left two young daughters as his heirs and his queen Boadicea as their guardian. Realising the vulnerability of the two girls in the face of Rome, the king left half his personal possessions to the Emperor Nero. This was a common method used by rich Romans to ensure their wills were properly carried out and Prasutagus was acting on advice from Roman friends.
The Governor, Suetonius Paulinus, was in northern Wales at the time fighting the Celtic tribes there and power resided with the Procurator Decianus Catus. Decianus decided to take advantage of the situation. Claiming as his excuse that Prasutagus had left half his kingdom to Nero, the Procurator sent Roman troops in to loot the Iceni of as much as they could lay their hands on before Suetonius returned. He also declared that the original financial gifts were loans and demanded the money back with interest. When the Roman troops reached the Royal Household, they met resistance and reacted brutally. Boadicea as tied to a post and flogged, and her two daughters raped.
As soon as she escaped from her bindings, Boadicea raised rebellion. She called her tribesmen to arms and slaughtered the scattered Romans still looting her lands. As the Iceni tribesmen gathered into an army they were joined by the Trinovantes of modern Essex. The Trinovantes deeply resented the arrogant behaviour and land-grabbing of Roman colonists in Colchester. So Colchester became the first target of the rising.
Colchester was captured and every Roman citizen killed. The small garrison barricaded themselves in the temple, but held out only for two days before being slaughtered. Boadicea now turned to face the IX Legion, marching south from its fortress at Lincoln. The Celts caught the Romans strung out on the march and a massacre followed. Most of the infantry were killed and the commander Petillius Cerialis fled in undignified fashion with his cavalry to a fortified base somewhere near Peterborough.
While Petillius sent for the infantry of the IX he had left on garrison duty, Boadicea turned towards London. Suetonius by this time had learned of the destruction of Colchester. He gave orders for his army to disengage from the Celts in Wales and rode off with a small cavalry force to reach London. It was there that Suetonius learned of the loss of the IX. More disturbing was the fact that the II Legion at Exeter was refusing to move. Suetonius had expected the II and IX to be in or near London by the time he arrived, but instead found only a few auxiliaries. The governor made the only decision he could. He advised the citizens of London to flee and himself mounted up and rode off to join his main army now returning from Wales. Decianus Catus, who had started all the trouble, duly fled.
Boadicea and her army entered London shortly after Suetonius left. As at Colchester the city was burnt to the ground and everyone it in killed. This shocked the Romans who were accustomed to the Celtic traditions of capturing slaves. But Boadicea was leading a war of vengeance and normal rules did not apply.
Suetonius met his army and organised it to face the Celts. He had about 10,000 men of the XIV and XX Legions, together with auxiliary cavalry and some auxiliary infantry. Despite repeated orders, the II still did not move. The commander Poenius Postumus may have feared rebellion by the tribes in his area if he moved his troops towards London, but his reasoning is not clear. He later committed suicide rather than go to Rome to explain his actions.
Boadicea set out to chase Suetonius and the two armies met on the road to Wales, probably somewhere near Mancetter. Suetonius drew his men up between two woods at the top of a slope. Boadicea threw her men in a headlong charge up the slope. As so often with battles of Celt against Roman, the battle hinged on whether the line of Legionnaries could hold the initial rush. If the Roman line broke the battle turned into a slaughter of Romans by triumphant Celts, but if the line held the Celts soon expended their strength and Roman discipline would tell. In this instance the line held. The Roman legionnaries formed into a wedge shape and advanced to punch a hole through the Celtic host. The auxiliary cavalry charged on the flanks and the Celtic retreat became a rout.
Boadicea herself escaped the battlefield, but later committed suicide by drinking poison. The elaborate Celtic burial found by Victorian workmen building Kings Cross station is, by tradition, that of Boadicea. The bones and objects of the burial were built into the foundations of Platform 9, where Boadicea lies to this day.
After her death, Boadicea’s people were savagely persecuted by Suetonius. The Iceni and Trinovantes were ruthlessly harassed. All fortified camps were destroyed and anyone who resisted was killed out of hand. Even tribes which had not joined the rising were severely treated and many Celtic nobles executed for no crime other than not speaking out against Boadicea. But Nero had been disturbed by the rising and by the corrupt administration which caused it. He sent a new Procurator, Julius Classicianus to Britain along with an ex-slave named Polyclitus who had risen high in the Imperial bureaucracy. Together the two men restrained Suetonius and his troops from further reprisals. A new regime of fairer taxation and more honest government was introduced.
The memory of Boadicea died in Britain under the long centuries of Roman rule. It was only through the writings of Tacitus and other Roman historians that her story later became known. To the Victorians the mighty Boadicea with her flaming red hair and foghorn voice was a ready-made heroine to pitch against the armies of Rome. It was they who created out of the savage violence of her war of revenge a nationalist heroine leading a war for freedom.
It was not until the mid-20th century that more serious historical research began to reveal the true story of what had happened. It was even discovered that the name Boadicea was a Latinised version of the Celtic name Boudicca. The older attitudes to Boadicea were summed up by the cultured professor of archaeology Sir Mortimer Wheeler. Asked in the 1960s why he continued to refer to ‘Boadicea’ when it had been established her name had really been ‘Boudicca’, he replied that she was a fascinating character and concluded “I would have loved to have met Boadicea, but dear boy, I could never invite a lady named Boudicca to dinner.”
This is an extract from What Everyone Needs to Know about British History by Rupert Matthews