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Iceni Magazine | April 2, 2020

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Warrior Queen

Queen Boudica Statue

Queen Boudica Statue

Make absolutely no mistake about it, you didn’t mess with the Iceni.

By that I don’t mean your favourite magazine but the ancient tribe of that name who lived in what we now know and love as present day Norfolk as well as parts of Suffolk and Cambridgeshire.

Tribe by name perhaps but by nature they were a progressive people who prospered and made good use of the fertile soils of Norfolk as so many still do to this day, spending their daily lives growing crops such as barley or oats or raising and managing herds of cattle and sheep. Many lived in small settlements that were very much family orientated, that is, consisting of several extended families who all may have had a common link, their homes jostling for space with assorted barns and workshops. Yet they were not, as some might suppose, a simple farming folk. The Iceni were also inventive, becoming one of the first tribes in ancient Britain to manufacture and issue their own coinage, something they did long before the conquering Roman Empire.

Excursions from Rome into the Britain had been occurring sporadically ever since the first serious attempt to conquer the islands had been made by Julius Caesar in 55BC. Roman presence and influence grew over the next century or so until, by the time the Emperor Claudius appointed Aulus Plautius as the first Governor of Roman Britain in AD43,the Iceni had, unquestionably against their will, became a client kingdom of the Roman Empire. This meant that they would, in exchange for not being overrun and completely enslaved, ‘agree’ to ally themselves to Rome.

As you can probably guess, this arrangement did not sit well with many of the Iceni, a tribe and people who had always valued their independence and, even more so, the freedom to decide their own way of life and traditions rather than leaving it to outsiders with vast resources to call upon and big ideas about how they were going to “improve things around here.”

Sound familiar?

The tipping point came in AD47 when the Romans tried to enforce a law forbidding any and all indigenous people from carrying weapons. This attempt at nullifying any perceived threat from the Iceni, one that they regarded as a severe insult to both their pride and tradition was met, not surprisingly, with a full on armed revolt, one that the Romans swiftly put down before appointing a puppet king, Prasagustas, in its bloody and unfortunate wake.

Prasagustas certainly knew on which side of his bread was liberally buttered. Thus, whilst talking the talk as he might as a tribal King, he didn’t always walk the walk, making sure that, at all times, he kept both a respectable ear open as well as any gold that might be conveniently available at the time ready and optional for his Roman masters. It’s therefore easy to condemn him as a Roman sympathiser cum turncoat but it should also be remembered that his greater responsibility was to his peoples safety and welfare and it would have been with them in mind that he would have acquiesced, reluctantly, towards the might of Rome.

And he did so as much in death as he did in life, this King of the Iceni people deciding that it would be prudent to leave half of all his personal treasures and property to the Roman Emperor in his will. Rome was, however, upon his death, not quite as liberal with him as he had been with them, the bureaucrats of the time (and the Roman Empire, for all its size and military might, was generously festooned with red tape and wealthy lawyers) interpreted the will as his conceding total and utter submission to the Empire. They therefore moved to seize all of his lands and what went with them as well as looking to permanently and irrevocably disarm the Iceni, meaning that they would become nothing more than impotent slaves of the Empire, an action which, unsurprisingly, didn’t sit at all well with the tribe, least of all the late King’s widow.

Her name was Boudicca.

Boudicca, now Queen of the Iceni by right, loudly and volubly protested against what she and her people saw as an aberration.

In response, the Romans dragged her from her home and publicly flogged her. In addition to that, her two daughters were raped.

Thus, in that truly appalling and evil act, a legend was born. Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni and a Norfolk girl we should be proud to see as one of our own to this day.

Because for her, her people and, in time, those of the neighbouring Trinivantes (whose lands were in present day Suffolk and down into Essex and what is now Greater London) tribe, Rome had now overstepped the line. And not just overstepped it but marched over it and away into the distance, trampling the Iceni in the process and leaving them bruised, battered, bloody and beaten.

Well, maybe not quite beaten. Remember what I said at the beginning of this piece?

That you didn’t mess with the Iceni.

Rome was about to find out why. And how.

Boudicca and her growing army swiftly headed south to face the Romans head on in London. In need of a little light battle practice on the way, they stopped off at Camulodunum, modern day Colchester and duly ransacked the place. It was a pyrrhic victory however as, at that time, Camulodonum was nothing more than a glorified retirement home for old and once distinguished Roman soldiers, so their resistance was brief and somewhat pitiful. Yet no mercy had been afforded to Boudicca and she handed out none herself.

Londinium was now firmly in Boudicca and her growing armies sights. She led over 100,000 warriors into battle there against what forces remained in the capital, a complacent Rome having swiftly evacuated it prior to their arrival. The same fate was met by Verulamium (St Albans) which, like the two Cities before it, was left a smoking and desolate ruin by Boudicca and her warriors.

Things were, like the fires that ravaged these once proud Roman settlements, getting out of control. Rome had to act and act both swiftly and decisively if it wasn’t to run the risk of losing the most northerly part of its lands altogether.

Consequently, the Empire struck back.

They did so by regrouping in an as yet undetermined site in central England along some part of the Roman road now known as Watling Street. This stretches in an approximate NW direction from London towards Wroxeter in present day Shropshire. And, although the numbers held by Roman Governor Suetonius for the battle were low in comparison to those who had been rallied by Boudicca, the fear of what might happen to both them and the Empire inspired them to an unlikely victory over an army that, whilst it was greater in numbers, lacked both the resources and strategy available to the Romans.

Boudicca, mindful of what might happen to her if she was captured is said to have committed suicide shortly after that last battle by taking poison. Other contemporary reports suggest that she died from the wounds inflicted upon her during the conflict,but, whatever the truth is, what cannot be denied is her fortitude and conviction when it came to leading her people and defending both her, and their considerable honour, pride and reputation.

A statue of Boudicca, resplendent in her war chariot, now stands on Westminster Bridge in London. It would be nice to think that one day there will be a similar one of her somewhere in Norfolk.

Maybe on the outskirts of Norwich, defending and watching over our fine City to this day.

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Article by Edward Couzens-Lake
Follow Ed on Twitter: @EdCouzensLake

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