Queen Boudica is one of the oldest and most famous heroines of old British history. She was the wife of Celtic Iceni king Prasutagus, although it’s fairer to say that Prasutagus was the husband of queen Boudica.
Like many other warrior women in the world’s history, Boudica is famous for leading a valiant but ultimately unsuccessful and tragic revolt against an occupying power – in her case, against the Roman Empire.
Who is Boudica?
Queen Boudica, whose name has been spelled variously as Boudicca, Boadicea, Boudicea, or Buddug, was a queen of the Iceni tribe, a Celtic tribe that lived in what is now Norfolk in Eastern England. The revolt she led from 60-61 AD against Roman rule is one of the most famous events in the ancient history of the British Isles.
The Iceni’s Revolt
The Celtic Iceni kingdom was a “client-kingdom” of Rome, meaning that king Prasutagus was a vassal of the Roman Empire during his rule. He ruled the area that’s roughly today’s Norfolk in Eastern England (with today’s Norwich city at its center).
However, the Iceni Celts of Queen Boudica were far from the only ones to be unhappy with the Roman presence in England. Their neighbors, the Trinovantes Celts, also had their grievances with the Romans who often treated them as slaves, stole their land, and appropriated their wealth to build Roman temples.
What eventually sparked the famous rebellion of 60-61 AD, however, was Queen Boudica herself. According to the Roman historian Tacitus, after the death of Prasutagus, the queen was beaten with rods for speaking against the empire and her two young and unnamed daughters were brutally raped. Many estates of Iceni nobles were also confiscated by Rome as further punishment.
Seeing this treatment of their queen, the Iceni people and their Trinovantes neighbors finally rebelled against the empire. The uprising was successful at first as the Celts managed to take the central Roman city of Camulodunum (modern-day Colchester). There, Boudica famously decapitated a statue of Nero and took the head as a trophy.
After Camulodunum, Boudica’s rebels also managed to achieve victories in Londinium (modern-day London) and Verulamium (today’s St. Albans). According to Tacitus, the taking and raising of these three cities had resulted in 70,000 to 80,000 deaths although that may be an exaggeration. Even if that’s the case, the numbers were no doubt still colossal.
The rebels’ brutality was also infamous with other historians also noting that Boudica took neither prisoners nor slaves. Instead, she mutilated, slaughtered, and even ritually sacrificed anyone who wasn’t a part of her Celtic rebellion.
The Empire Strikes Back
This title may feel like a cliché, but Rome’s response to Boudica’s uprising was truly decisive and devastating. Gaius Suetonius Paulinus – the Roman Governor of Britain – had allowed the rebellion’s success because he was at first preoccupied with a campaign in the Isle of Mona, west of Wales. In fact, it’s said that Boudica purposefully took advantage of that fact to start her rebellion when she did.
Outmaneuvered and outnumbered, Suetonius tried to return as soon as possible but had to avoid numerous opportunities for a direct battle with the rebels for fear of losing. Eventually, after the sacking of Verulamium, Suetonius managed to orchestrate a battle suitable for him in the West Midlands, near Watling Street.
The Roman governor was still outnumbered but his legions were far better armed and trained than the Celtic rebels. Suetonius had also chosen his position very well – on an open plain in front of a secure forest and at the head of a narrow valley – the perfect position for a Roman legion.
Before the battle, Boudica gave a famous speech from her chariot with her two daughters standing next to her, saying:
“It is not as a woman descended from noble ancestry, but as one of the people that I am avenging lost freedom, my scourged body, the outraged chastity of my daughters … This is a woman’s resolve; as for men, they may live and be slaves.”
Tragically overconfident, Boudica’s rebels charged Suetonius’ well-positioned army and were finally crushed. Tacitus claimed that Boudica poisoned herself after the battle, but other sources say that she died of shock or illness.
Either way, she was given a lavish funeral and is remembered as a Celtic hero to this day.
Symbols and Symbolism of Boudica
Even though she is an actual historical figure, Queen Boudica is revered and celebrated as a mythological hero. Her name is said to mean victory and she became one of the quintessential female heroines of history.
Her revolt against the patriarchal Roman empire has inspired many women and heroines throughout history. Boudica symbolizes women’s strength, intelligence, ferocity, courage, assertiveness, and their continuous struggle against male aggression.
The raping of Boudica’s two daughters resonated especially strongly among many people, including those who’d typically refer to traditional gender roles.
Even the suffragettes frequently mentioned her name as a symbol of female and maternal strength and resolve, as well as women’s ability to be more than just stay-at-home moms.
Importance of Boudica in Modern Culture
Boudica’s story has been portrayed many times in literature, poems, art, and plays throughout the Elizabethan era and well after it. Queen Elizabeth I famously invoked her name when England was under attack by the Spanish Armada.
The Celtic heroine has even been portrayed in cinema and TV, including in the 2003 movie Boudica: Warrior Queen with Emily Blunt and the 2006 TV special Warrior Queen Boudica with Charlotte Comer.
Today, Boudica remains a British folk hero, and a much-loved national symbol of Britain. She’s seen as a symbol of freedom, of women’s rights, and of the rebellion against patriarchal oppression.