Boudicca - also called Baoedicea, Bonduca, Vonduca, Voadicea, Woda, Bonduca, Vloadiciea, and so on - is probably the best-known of our Badass Chicks of History. She was an ancient queen of a British tribe who stood up to the Roman Empire. Ever since, she's served as an example of how effective a native insurgency can be against foreign occupying troops. She's also become a symbol of courage in the face of a lost cause. Let's learn more about her, and her lesser-known daughter of the same name who took up the fight after Boudicca's death.
Like a lot of legendary women, Boudicca had a wicked stepmother, Cartismandua. She forced Boudicca to marry her son by her first marriage - Arviragus, also called Prasutagus, the King of the Iceni. Not a bad marriage, all things considered.
Meanwhile, the Emperor Claudius had come to Britain to conquer. He needed military victories to bolster public opinion of him. Despite the fact that Julius Caesar had made much of "conquering" Britain, the truth is he was essentially driven off the island. Claudius saw himself as concluding unfinished business. Plus, the British Isles were rich in timber, tin, and slaves. And after all, Rome was running out of places to conquer by this time.
At any rate, Claudius's legions defeated Arviragus not once, but several times. In order to obtain peace, Arviragus was compelled by Claudius to divorce Boudicca and instead marry Claudius's daughter Gwenissa. This attempted brokerage of peace backfired, sparking a widespread rebellion among the Iceni and surrounding tribes. At first, their leader was Caractacus, Boudicca's brother. Later, Arviragus himself renewed his relationship with Boudicca and joined his forces to her brother's.
However, they were defeated by the Romans every single time they took the field against them. The Roman general Vespasian (who would later become Emperor) defeated Caractacus and Arviragus and made peace on terms that humiliated and essentially bankrupted the British.
Time passed; Claudius died and his degenerate nephew Nero became Emperor. Arviragus, at the end of his life (and still legally married to Gwenissa), hoped to protect Boudicca and their two daughters after his death. He came up with a terrible plan - he made the Emperor Nero the co-heir to his kingdom, along with Boudicca and her daughters.
The Romans did not acknowledge any transfer of power or property through a female, however. When Arviragus died, the Roman Governor of Britain, Suetonius (no relation to the Roman historian of the same name) was out of the country on business. He'd left his jackass procurator, Catus, in charge. Within a few weeks of Arviragus's death, Catus descended up on the Iceni. He confiscated all of Arviragus's property, levied crushing taxes, and demanded a huge payment from Boudicca (this was either a repayment of a loan made to her father by the Romans, or the re-imposition of some kind of extortion-type payments her father had once made).
Boudicca didn't have the money. Catus had her stripped and publicly flogged. Before her eyes, he ordered his legions to gang-rape Boudicca's two daughters. But for some reason, that was enough, and he left the territory, with Boudicca "burning for revenge," in the words of one historian.
As months past, word got out, and the Britons were outraged. Boudicca personally rode about the country in her war-chariot with her daughters, raising troops for a rebellion. She quickly amassed some 80,000 warriors from various tribes. It is estimated that some 5,000 women actually served in this force (which really isn't all that unusual among Celtic peoples - more than one Roman historian has written of "Amazons" fighting among the Celts of Europe).
Boudicca's force struck like lightning, with rapid successes - at first. They "rushed down like wild beasts" upon the Roman-held city of Camoludunum, and executed "with every torture they could devise" some 70,000 people. It's not to Boudicca's credit, but she made a point to execute all of the noble Roman women by cutting off their breasts and vaginally impaling them on tree branches as sacrifices to the Old Gods. I guess she was irritated.
Then even more Britons flocked to her banner, including her other brother, Corbred, King of Scots. They together devastated various Roman manors and agricultural centers, before falling on the city of Verulam (now St. Alban's).
There, however, the 9th Legion (and some auxiliary troops from other legions) under the command of Petilius Cerialis, were waiting. A fierce battle followed before the gates of the city, but the Romans, perhaps underestimating their opponents, were totally defeated. Even the Roman historians Tacitus and Cassius Dio say Boudicca's forces killed more than twice the number that they lost, and that not a single Roman foot-soldier escaped the slaughter. The cavalry, along with Petilius, fled the scene to fight another day. Meanwhile, the pro-Roman citizens of Verulam were put to unspeakable tortures and eventually all killed, regardless of age or gender.
One person Boudicca really wanted to capture, though, fled the battle. Catus, who'd ordered the rape of her daughters, was wounded in the battle. He fled to Gaul (France) and never came back, escaping her revenge.
This defeat obliged Suetonius, the governor, to come back to Britain in a hurry. He was able to raise a force of 10,000 legionnaires from various other legions in Germany and Gaul. He marched his force toward the relatively new commercial center of Londonium (London), which was full of Romans and Romanized Britons. Suetonius then got word from his scouts and spies that Boudicca was marching on the city with a force of about 100,000 (another source says 250,000).
Now Suetonius was no idiot, and as far as Roman governors go, he wasn't even that bad a guy. But he was going to follow orders. Irritated with Catus for instigating all of this with unnecessary cruelty and greed, he demoted him and ensured that Catus would have no career in Roman politics. Suetonius was pretty sure his 10,000 Romans couldn't take 100,000+ Britons, especially ones full of righteous indignation. He decided to pull out of the city, regroup elsewhere, and look for a better battle site to face Boudicca. This he did, despite the wailing and begging of the people of Londonium - who by now knew exactly what fate they, their wives, and children would face at Boudicca's hands.
And face it they did. Boudicca's army fell on Londonium and after only a token resistance, the town fell. True to form, Boudicca ordered every single inhabitant of the city killed in imaginative ways. By now, I think it's safe to say Boudicca may have lost a bit of the moral high ground.
Suetonius was no coward but he was understandably reluctant to face Boudicca's much-larger force in the open. He was also reluctant because he saw the entire war as resulting from mismanagement and mistakes on the part of the Romans. But eventually, he found a good place to draw Boudicca into battle. No one knows exactly where it was, but it was a long, narrow field bordered on two sides by hills and one by a dense forest. Suetonius lined up his legionnaires with their backs to the forest, let it be known where he was, and awaited Boudicca's attack.
He chose his ground wisely. The narrowness of the battlefield ensured that the British war-chariots didn't have much room to maneuver, and Boudicca couldn't even fit her entire fighting force into the field. They could only attack in waves, which was to the Romans' advantage.
It's worth pausing here to recount an eyewitness Roman description (through Dio, writing later) of Boudicca, who they could plainly see riding in the chariot, exhorting her troops to figh:
a woman of lofty stature, with a noble, severe
expression, and a dazzlingly fair complexion, remarkable even among the British women, who are 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
colors, 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 torque of twisted gold-wire. Her
hands and arms were uncovered, save for the rings
and bracelets which adorned them. A large British
mantle surmounted, but did not conceal the rest of
As bold as they were, the British fought in an undisciplined manner. They relied on overwhelming numbers and tactics designed to inspire fear, donning war-paint and screaming like banshees throughout the battle. This worked well when they had a lot of room to run around in. But again, the battlefield was narrow. Suetonius also had more experienced troops than any the British had faced before. They were all 10 to 20 year veterans who'd seen battle in Germany and Gaul. Their iron discipline, superior weapons and armor, and phalanx-style tactics were simply better for fighting in this environment, even against greater numbers. After dispatching the first few waves of British with heavy javelins, they formed a wedge and moved forward. The British fell back under the weight of the phalanx, and, fleeing, found their route blocked by a line of carts they'd set up as a last line of defense (where their families were waiting). Trapped, only a few managed to escape. The rest were slaughtered. Suetonius ordered a pursuit.
Boudicca knew that if she was taken alive, she'd be lucky to be killed. Most likely she'd be raped, tortured, and sent to Rome in chains to march in a triumphal parade before being strangled in the Temple of Mars. She was also distraught because her daughters had been lost in the fighting - she assumed they were slain. Boudicca took poison - suicide being an honorable way out in most ancient cultures - and died. Some say she fell ill and died. Either way, she was buried as a queen with full honors.
But the story doesn't end here! Boudicca's daughters hadn't been killed in the battle - they'd been captured. They were brought before Suetonius, who complimented them on their bravery in battle. He apologized for the way Catus had treated them, and expressed sympathy for them. It was too little too late, but for a Roman, it was an admirable bit of damage control.
The oldest daughter was named Heanua (or Lannosea). Suetonius arranged for her to be married to Westmer (called Marius by the Romans). He was the son of Arviragus and Claudius's daughter Gwenissa (so he was both half-Roman and his new bride's half-brother). The Romans then made Westmer King of the Iceni, and he ruled them quietly for a long time.
But the youngest daughter, also named Boudicca, inherited more than just her mother's name. She was sent to live with her sister and Westmer in his court. But there, her hatred of the Romans and her ambitions for revenge made Westmer nervous. He was afraid she'd stir up trouble, so he banished her from his court.
True to her namesake, this younger Boudicca raised an army of Brigantes (another British tribe) and Picts from Scotland, and sailed to Galloway. This was a Roman-controlled region of southwest Scotland. In the dead of night, she launched a surprise attack, and killed several hundred men before the Roman commander, our old friend Petilius, re-grouped the startled Romans. The British were defeated, and the Romans chased them back to their camp, slaughtering many. But young Boudicca escaped. The next day she marched her remaining forces to the Roman headquarters in Galloway, attacked it and set it on fire. But soon afterward, she was captured in an ambush. Some say she killed herself with poison. Others say she was captured and interrogated, and, giving a disrespectful answer, was killed by guards. Who knows?
What we do know is that Boudicca has become a symbol for fighting against oppression. If her revenge tactics were a little heavy-handed, perhaps she can be forgiven. Frankly, I think Suetonius comes off pretty well in this story. But the truth is, the Emperor Nero was so discomfited by this rebellion that he considered pulling out of Britain forever. He launched an investigation and decided the Romans had acted inappropriately (seriously? Nero thought someone acted inappropriately?). He blamed Suetonius and installed another governor.
I think it's safe to say that Boudicca had every reason to be outraged. I also think she over-reacted a bit. But one thing I can't deny: Boudicca is certainly a Badass Chick of History.