Jule Romans is the author of "Take Advice From Shakespeare" and other books. She has decades of experience writing on educational topics.
Boadicea, The Woman of the Sword, cut a stormy path through Britain in the 1st century and died dramatically in the year 61 AD.
Boadicea or Boudicca? What's With Her Name?
Boadicea was the daughter of Cadalla, King of the Brigantes. Her mother was Euoropeia of Scotland. Boadicea’s family descended from the kings of Troy and the Ptolemies of Egypt. Her name has taken many forms over the years. She has been known as Boudicca, Woda, Voadicea, and Vonduca. The closest approximation of her name in modern times is Victoria. Because of all these variations, Boadicea’s nicknames are much more well known. She’s called the “British Warrior Queen” and “the Woman of the Sword” more often than her actual name.
Forced Into Marriage and Then Abandoned
At a young age, Boadicea was compelled to marry Arvarigus, son of King Cymbeline. Arvarigus ruled the Iceni. According to Tacitus, the Iceni were rich an powerful people who held almost all the lands in Cambridgeshire, Essex and Norfolk. At this time, there were so many warring nations that it is difficult to find a clear geographic line that matches the current configuration of the UK.
Boadicea bore Avarigus a son and two daughters before the Roman Emperor Claudius came to Britain and defeated the Iceni in several battles. Because of these defeats, Avarigus was compelled to cast off Boadicea and sent to marry Emperor Claudius’s daughter Gwenissa. Avarigus and Gwenissa had a son, named Marius, who figures importantly much later in this story.
A Violent and Difficult Life
The Britons, ever loyal to Boadicea, revolted and launched a constant insurrection. They were led by Boadicea’s brother Caracatus. Avarigus, for his part, left Gwenissa and reunited with Boadicea, fighting valiantly to aid in the struggle. Eventually, they were all defeated and deeply weary from the battles.
By this time, Emperor Vespasian had risen to power and offered quite humiliating terms of surrender. Boadicea, Avarigus, and Caracatus were forced to accept and retreat in order to retain even a portion of the Iceni dominions. This set a near-constant pattern of battles, defeats, reversals, and attempted protections throughout Boadicea’s life.
Her bravery was refined in the crucible of a violent and difficult life. In the end, although it is not certain whether she triumphed in physical life, her memory has become an enduring victory.
A Plan to Protect
By around 60 AD, Boadicea’s son was dead, and her husband Arvarigus was dying. For unexplained reasons, he changed his name to Prasutagus, which has often confused the historical records. Arvarigus, or Prasutagus, sought to secure Boadicea’s safety before his death. In a political move, Arvarigus made Emperor Nero a joint-heir to the Iceni dominions. In this way, he hoped to secure the well-being of Boadicea and her two daughters. The spectacular failure of this plan has come to be known as one of the defining moments of Boadicea’s story.
The Plan Fails
Arvarigus died in 61 AD. The events immediately following his death tragically pull together the threads of Boadicea’s life, involving her father as well as her husband. Catus, a Roman Procurator, moved immediately to conguer and vanquish the Iceni. Emperor Nero’s protection was not deterring anything. Catus annexed the country of the Iceni and seized all the property of its deceased monarch, treating Boadicea and her daughters as prisoners of war.
Publicly Whipped and Shamed
Catus also despoiled all the wealthy citizens, imposed heavy taxes on poorer citizens, and demanded tribute payments that Boadicea’s father Cadalla had paid in the past. Queen Boadicea was unable to pay the toll, and had to bear punishment for her father’s previous choices.
Boadicea’s public whipping was a shameful event. Worse, her two innocent daughters were also punished severely. In some accounts it is said they were both raped in order to punish and humiliate the Iceni. As horrible as this event was, Boadicea and her daughters survived, using their experience to galvanize Iceni rage.
Burning for Revenge
Boadicea burned for revenge. Her dramatic strength of character, her heritage, and her incredible courage worked together to lead her patriots in three bloody, victorious triumphs. Together with her troops, Boadicea conquered Camulodunum, Colchester, and London; they mercilessly slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people and sent the Romans into retreat. Revenge, for a time, was achieved. Although, true to the pattern of Boadicea’s life, the battles were intense with the constant threat of reversal and eventual defeat.
In the invasion of Camulodunum, Boadicea commanded 80,000 loyal men who were drawn from all over Britain. Headed by their Queen, they rushed down hillsides and across terrain to fall upon the colonies with wild rage. Using every possible torture, and every weapon available, Boadicea and her men killed more than 70,000 people, including men, women, children, and unarmed citizens. The destruction was a triumph for Boadicea and her daughters who faought by her side.
Queen Boadicea’s borther Corbred was King of the Scots. He joined her and they marched in an attack on Colchester. They were opposed by the Roman leader Petilius Cerialus, who had reinforcements from Germany. Petilius Cerialus had eight auxiliary cohorts and at least a thousand war horses. The battle was bloody and intense. Six thousand of Petiulus’ Romans died, including every single one of his foot soldiers. Three thousand more Roman allies also perished. With almost 10,000 dead, the Romans fled.
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Inexorably, Queen Boadicea and her warriors proceeded toward London. Suetonius Paulinus, a Roman leader, attemted to stop her with ten thousand of his own men. He entered London, and took up a position in order to defend it. However, Suetonius became afraid, and abandoned the town in spite of the entreaties of London’s citizens. Suretonius took up a position in a wooded encampment north of the city.
Left defenseless, London was open to Boadicea’s attack. She marched in shortly afterward, killing inhabitants just as she had in the other locations. Boadicea and her troops took the city easily. Suetonius Paulinus and the Romans were hesitant to challenge such a victorious queen, who commanded up to two hundred thousand troops. Boadicea occupied London while the Romans could hardly gather enough soldiers to expel her.
Battles in the Wild
Suetonius and his compatriots took up residence in a wooded location north of London. After some time, Boadicea and Suietonius came to battle in a wild spot of the forest.
Before battle, Boadicea paraded before her warriors in an grand chariot, urging vengeance for herself and her daughters. It is this instance that is memorialized in the famous statue of England, that tourists can still see today.
Beauty, Terror, and Strength
Boadicea was a striking figure. According to Dio Cassius:
She was a woman of lofty stature, with a noble, severe expression, and a dazzlingly fair complexion, remarkable even amongst the British women, who were famous for the whiteness of their skin. Her long yellow hair, floating in the wind, reached almost to the ground. She wore a tunic of various colours, hanging in folds, and over this was a shorter one, confined at the waist by a chain of gold. Round her alabaster neck was a magnificent "torques," or collar of twisted gold-wire. Her hands and arms were uncovered, save for the rings and bracelets which adorned them.
Suetonious used all his powers of persuasion on his own troops, urging them to despise the savage barbarians, and disdain the women warriors. The exact scene of the battle is unclear. It may have been at Battle-Bridge, King's Cross, Winchester, or Amesbury Banks.
The Final Defeat
The battle was long and difficult. Eventually, the tide turned in favor of the Romans, and boadicea’s savage Britons were defeated. A terribly slaughter ensued, with more than 80,00 dead left on the field. Of these, only about 500 were Romans. Boadicea’s troops were dead, defeated, or routed to flight. According to Tacitus:
The glory won on this day was equal to that of the most renowned victories of the ancient Romans.
Boadicea would not allow herself to be taken alive. She ended her life with poison before the Romans could put her to the sword. She was buried with honors by her faithful supporters, and is long remembered for her bravery. Such was the end of the British Warrior Queen.
In a footnote, Boadicea’s daughters both survived the battle. Her eldest daughter was married, in an ironic twist, to Marius, who was the royal son of Arivarigus and Gwenissa. Marius became King of the Iceni, and the story, in some ways, comes full circle- with the ruling family again intertwined.
Boadicea’s other daughter, her namesake, did not fare as well. Banished from the Iceni court by Marius, Boadicea the younger raised armies, attacked Roman holdings, and set fire to a garrison in Epiake. Shortly after, she was captured. Like her mother, she is said to have ended her life with poison; while other reports suggest she was killed during an interrogation.
Clayton, Ellen C. (1879). Female Warriors. Memorials of Female Valour and Heroism, from The Mythological Ages to the Present Era. Tinsley Brothers, Strand.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Jule Romans