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Three Incredible Queens From British History

Public Historian and co-author of "Exploring American Girlhood in 50 Historic Treasures" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021).

Britain is home to some of the most fascinating queens in history. Some are familiar to you, like Eleanor of Aquitaine or Elizabeth I. Yet many more are obscure, known to us from small references and images left behind. Others have become more legend than reality.

Today, I'd like to explore three of my favorite British queens, including one who would become legend, another who was destined for greatness, and a third so obscure that she has nearly disappeared.

The bronze statue of Boudica with her daughters in her war chariot (furnished with scythes after the Persian fashion) was commissioned by Prince Albert and executed by Thomas Thornycroft, 1905.

The bronze statue of Boudica with her daughters in her war chariot (furnished with scythes after the Persian fashion) was commissioned by Prince Albert and executed by Thomas Thornycroft, 1905.

Boudicca, Legend of Briton

We start with Boudicca, an infamous Celtic queen. She was the wife of King Prasutagus of the Iceni tribe in eastern England during the first century CE. When the Romans conquered southern England, the Iceni continued to rule their lands. But life under Rome wasn’t pleasant for the Iceni. As Roman historian Tacitus described, the Britons complained about providing tribute and rebutted against any behaviors they considered abusive. Other records tell us that Romans settling in the area expelled the natives and appropriated their homes and lands.

Shortly before 60 CE, Boudicca’s husband died. His will demanded that his kingdom be split between his daughters and the Roman emperor, but Rome was having none of it. Roman law only recognized sons as heirs, plus Rome was eager to obtain the Iceni lands for themselves. As Tacitus recorded in his Annals,

“Kingdom and household alike were plundered like prizes of war, the one by Roman officers, the other by Roman slaves. As a beginning, his widow Boudicca was flogged and their daughters raped. The Icenian chiefs were deprived of their hereditary estates as if the Romans had been given the whole country. The king’s own relatives were treated like slaves.”

How horrible. Boudicca had to witness her home, her lands, and even her daughters plundered by the Romans. Naturally, she became enraged. She called on hers and other tribes to unite against Rome. With over 100,000 troops at her command, Boudicca launched an all-out war. She toppled the city of Camul-o-dunum, the Roman capital of Britain, and rode to Londinium -- what is now modern-day London. As Cassius Dio described in Roman History,

“...a terrible disaster occurred in Britain. Two cities were sacked, eighty thousand of the Roman and of their allies perished, and the island was lost to Rome. Moreover, all this ruin was brought upon the Romans by a woman, a fact which in itself caused them the greatest shame….But the person who was chiefly instrumental in rousing the natives and persuading them to fight the Romans, the person who was thought worthy to be their leader and who directed the conduct of the entire war, was Boudicca, a Briton woman of the royal family and possessed of greater intelligence than often belongs to women….In stature she was very tall, in appearance most terrifying, in the glance of her eye most fierce, and her voice was harsh; a great mass of the tawniest hair fell to her hips; around her neck was a large golden necklace; and she wore a tunic of divers colours over which a thick mantle was fastened with a brooch. This was her invariable attire.”

In response to Boudicca’s campaign, the governor of Britain, called Paullinus, rushed to Londinium to protect it. Unfortunately, by the time he arrived, he realized that he didn’t have enough troops to protect the city. The Romans abandoned Londinium, leaving those who could not retreat to be slaughtered. Nearby Verulamium, now St. Albans, suffered the same fate. Tacitus described the arrival of Boudicca and the Britons, stating,

“The natives enjoyed plundering and thought of nothing else. By-passing forts and garrisons, they made for where loot was richest and protection weakest. Roman and provincial deaths at the places mentioned are estimated at seventy thousand.”

In the mean time, Paullinus was mustering his troops. He confronted Boudicca on an unknown battlefield somewhere between Mona and Londinium. Accounts detail that Boudicca rode in on her chariot with her daughters, driving it amongst her tribes. Unfortunately, the battle became a massacre of the Britons and Boudicca lost.

No one knows what happened to this incredible queen. All accounts that we have of her are by Roman historians -- so we have to recognize that there is an inherent bias against her and a tendency to ignore her once she was defeated. There is no surviving record of her capture. It is thought that she died by illness, but some -- including Tacitus -- say that Boudicca poisoned herself rather than become captured by the Romans.

Boudicca Rising

13th century depiction of Matilda.

13th century depiction of Matilda.

Matilda, Destined from Birth

Our next queen, Matilda of Scotland, lived a thousand years later. She was the first daughter of Malcolm III of Scotland and his wife, Saint Margaret, born around 1080 CE in Dunfermline. Legend has it that during her christening, Matilda grabbed the English Queen’s veil and tried to pull it towards her own head. Many took this as an omen that the infant girl would one day be queen.

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When she was six, Matilda was sent to live at the abbey of Romsey, where she was educated by her aunt. Accounts state that her aunt was cruel, often beating her and forcing her to wear a black veil -- an act that would haunt Matilda later in her life. As Matilda herself recounted,

“...that hood I did indeed wear in her presence, chafing and fearful...but as soon as I was able to escape out of her sight I tore it off and threw it in the dirt and trampled on it. This was my only way of venting my rage and the hatred of it that boiled up in me.”

Matilda endured this cruelty for six years before she moved to Wilton Abbey. Her education went beyond that of many girls during her time. She learned English, French, Latin and was fully literate -- following in the footsteps of her book-loving mother.

In 1093, at the age of 13, Matilda became betrothed to Alan Rufus, Lord of Richmond. Around this same time, her father entered a dispute that led to Matilda ultimately losing her parents and becoming an orphan. She was then abandoned by her betrothed, who ran off with another woman.

For the next seven years, Matilda’s life is a mystery to us. We know that she left the Abbey, but after that, she simply disappears.

In 1100, Matilda reappears in the historical record. In that year, Henry I became King of England and chose Matilda as his bride. We know that Henry and Matilda had met before, and it is likely that they had great affection for one another by this time. Yet Matilda’s past was not done with her -- that black veil? Now it came to haunt her. Accounts of her wearing the black veil led many to believe that Matilda had taken her vows as a nun and was thus ineligible for marriage. After much debate, a council of bishops decided that Matilda could marry Henry because there was no other evidence that she had ever been a nun. The chronicler William of Malmesbury details that the match was one of love, but was also political. Matilda’s ancestry provided Henry with the ties to ancient Wessex royal lines that ultimately increased his popularity with the English and secured his place as king. Henry and Matilda were married on November 11, 1100, at Westminster Abbey and Matilda was crowned Queen of England.

Matilda was an exemplary queen for her time. She accompanied her husband on his travels throughout the kingdom, and is said to have acted as regent when he was away on foreign business. She was also a key player in the English investiture controversy, acting as intercessor between her husband and archbishop Anselm -- proving that a literate woman could wield enormous influence.

Matilda was also a great patron in England. She began work on many buildings, including Waltham Abbey and Holy Trinity Aldgate. She built the first arched bridge in England as well as a bath-house with piped-in water and public bathrooms. Her court was said to be filled with musicians and poets, and she even commissioned a biography of her mother. Matilda was beloved by her people, known for her devotion to her faith and to the poor. She even established hospitals for lepers.

Matilda died in 1118. With Henry, she bore four children, although only one would survive to adulthood -- her daughter, Matilda of England, who became Holy Roman Empress, Countess consort of Anjou, and is known as the Lady of the English.

The coronation of Philippa of Hainault as Queen of England, as depicted by 15th century writer and illustrator Jean Froissart.

The coronation of Philippa of Hainault as Queen of England, as depicted by 15th century writer and illustrator Jean Froissart.

Philippa, the Forgotten Queen

Just over two hundred years later, another incredible queen graced the English stage. Born in 1314, Philippa of Hainault is a rather obscure queen. Little is known of her early life until she was selected as the bride of King Edward II.

An account by Edward’s ambassador who arranged the marriage is said to have described Philippa -- though some historians think it might describe her elder sister, Margaret. The account states that Philippa had dark brown or blue-black hair, a high and broad forehead, and a narrow, slender face with deep brown eyes. She is also said to be “brown of skin all over, much like her father, and in all things she is pleasant enough, as it seems to us."

In 1326, four years after this account, Philippa was betrothed to Prince Edward. She journeyed to England to begin her new life, marrying Edward in January 1328. She would not be crowned Queen, however, until March of 1330, when she was six months pregnant with her first son and Edward became king. She was only 16.

Queen Philippa was described by court chroniclers as “a very good and charming person who exceeded most ladies for sweetness of nature and virtuous disposition” and as “the most gentle Queen, most liberal, and most courteous that ever was.” She accompanied her husband on his travels around Europe, winning further acclaim. She was known as exceedingly compassionate, especially when she persuaded her husband to spare the lives of the Burghers of Calais in 1347.

She often acted as regent in her husband’s absence and bore him fourteen children. Queen’s College at Oxford was founded by her chaplain and named in her honor in 1342. Philippa was also known as a patron of the chronicler Jean Froissart, and owned several illuminated manuscripts. She died in 1369, outliving nine of her children. Though certainly not as well-traveled or active as some queens, Philippa was incredible in her own right -- becoming one of the most compassionate and supportive queens in England’s history.


Venkatachari M from Hyderabad, India on October 06, 2016:

Very interesting and informative article. All the three queens chosen by you are incredibly great. Thanks for sharing this wonderful knowledge.

The video of Boudicca's rising is also very interesting.

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