10 Facts about Boudicca, warrior queen of the Iceni

BY Becca Inglis

21st Aug 2023 Life

10 Facts about Boudicca, warrior queen of the Iceni

A defender of liberty or a bloodthirsty war monger? We unpack the Iceni culture, spiritualism and Roman injustice that shaped the fiercesome Boudicca

The Iceni were a wealthy people based in East Anglia

Horses on Iceni coinsCredit: Numisantica, CC BY-SA 3.0 NL, via Wikimedia Commons. The Iceni greatly valued horses, as shown by the detailed artwork on their coins

The Iceni were a Brittonic tribe who lived dispersed throughout what we now know as Norfolk, north Cambridgeshire and north Suffolk. Their capital, Venta Icenorum, was based roughly where Caistor St Edmund stands today.

Aside from their rebellious streak, the Iceni are best remembered for their metalwork. Gold and silver torcs, embossed bronze shields and coinage have all been unearthed by archaeologists—the wealthy Iceni were minting their own coins for close to 100 years by the time the Romans invaded.

These coins feature intricate designs, often depicting wolves, horses or woman riders—indicating the veneration of horses by the tribe, as well as the presence of woman warriors

Prantagmus was a client king for the Roman Empire

Boudicca’s husband Prasutagus appears to have been a pragmatic leader who aligned the Iceni with the Roman Empire in an effort to keep the peace. 

He may have been one of 11 Briton leaders who surrendered to the Roman invasion without bloodshed in AD 43, or, after the Iceni’s first unsuccessful revolt in AD 47, the empire might have installed him after recognising his potential as a peacekeeper. 

Prasutagus became a “client king”—a leader who was bestowed some sovereignty, so long as they pledged fealty to Rome. 

Boudicca worshipped Andraste, the goddess of war

Boudicca as victoryCredit: John Opie, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Boudicca's name may have aligned her closely with the goddess of war, Andraste

The Romans may have sought to colonise Briton, but they still demonstrated a surprising capacity for religious tolerance. The Celts were largely allowed to continue worshipping their gods

A mutual fascination between the cultures led to the birth of some Romano Celtic gods, of which Andraste, the goddess of war, was one. 

"Boudicca is said to have invoked Andraste before venturing into battle with the Romans"

Boudicca is said to have invoked Andraste before venturing into battle with the Romans, saying, “I thank thee, Andraste,​ and call upon thee as woman speaking to woman,” according to the Roman historian Dio Cassius.

She continued: “Those over whom I rule are Britons, men that know not how to till the soil or ply a trade, but are thoroughly versed in the art of war and hold all things in common, even children and wives, so that the latter possess the same valour as the men.”

Andraste’s name roughly translates to “unconquerable”, which could indicate that Boudicca, whose name means “victory”, appeared as a living embodiment of the goddess to her soldiers.

Boudicca practised divination

Hares were closely aligned with Andraste, and Boudicca is said to have incorporated them into divination rituals to foretell the course of her campaign.

In one story, as she was calling to Andraste to support the Celts in battle, a hare leapt from her skirts and ran in a fortuitous direction. The Iceni forces gave up a mighty cry, as they believed it to be an omen for their forthcoming victory.

Another more grisly tale has Boudicca reading the entrails of a hare to predict a battle’s outcome. 

She may have been resistant to the Romans before her husband’s death

Upon Prasutagus’s death, his will divided his kingdom equally between the Roman Emperor Nero and his two daughters, by way of Boudicca. 

Some historians theorise that the fact that Prasutagus’s estate was not passed directly to Boudicca demonstrates her hostility to the Roman Empire. Prasutagus may have felt that delegating his rulership to his daughters instead was the best way to preserve peace.

Prasutagus was naive, but the Romans crossed a line

Boudicca shows lashes from Romans to IceniCredit: W Parkinson, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons. The Romans' treatment of Boudicca and her daughters spurred the Iceni to revenge

Prasutagus may have had good intentions for his heirs and allies, but his dying wish only served to stoke old quarrels between the Iceni and the Roman occupiers. It was customary for kingdoms to be allowed their sovereignty so long as their client king lived—after his passing, authority would pass to Rome.

Nonetheless, the Romans’ reaction was extreme, even by their standards. In Tacitus’s account, slaves were sent to plunder Prasutagus’ household “as though they had been prizes in war”. Boudicca was stripped and lashed. Their two daughters were raped. The rest of Prasutagus’ family members were stripped of their titles and treated as slaves. 

"For Boudicca, the attack on her daughters was unforgivable. Celtic law looked scathingly upon sexual assault"

For the Romans, rape could be viewed as a mechanism of war, but the two kingdoms were technically at peace—soldiers who carried out such acts during peacetime would usually have been punished, possibly by ejection from the military or even death. 

For Boudicca, the attack on her daughters was unforgivable. Celtic law looked scathingly upon sexual assault, and demanded that financial compensation be paid to the victim. Rape was seen as a cause for vengeance (“dial”) for women. 

Boudicca’s taste for revenge knew no bounds

The Romans had overplayed their hand. As Boudicca amassed some 120,000 troops from Briton’s tribes, the bulk of Rome’s soldiers were deployed in Anglesey massacring Druids. With their defenses depleted, Boudicca’s campaign was left to bulldoze its way through the east.

Both ​​Camulodunum (Colchester) and Londinium (London) were ransacked, with the Celtic army burning both cities—including Roman cemeteries—to ashes. They kept no prisoners, slaughtering some 80,000 Romans and their allies. 

According to Dio, they even removed captured Roman women to nearby sacred groves dedicated to Andraste, where they performed human sacrifices.

Boudicca’s campaign was so bloody that historians Richard Hingley and Christina Unwin have compared the devastation to the “volcanic eruptions that smothered Pompeii and Herculaneum".

Boudicca poisoned herself to avoid capture

The Romans did eventually reorganise themselves and put the Iceni revolt to rest. The Celts had numbers on their side, but the Empire benefited from superior military strategy, and Boudicca’s fury came to a devastating end at the Battle of Wattling Street.

What became of Boudicca and her two daughters is unknown, though two stories have it that the Iceni queen either died from illness after the battle or, knowing full well how the Romans treated their prisoners, she poisoned herself rather than be enslaved.

After Boudicca’s fall, the Iceni retreated to the Fens

Defeated and near annihilated by the occupying Roman army, the Iceni tribe was fully incorporated into Roman jurisdiction. Never again would a Briton tribe rise up against Rome.

"The Iceni retreated deep into Norfolk’s marshy Fenland to avoid the Angles who started settling in East Anglia"

The Iceni still had invaders to contend with even after Roman Britain declined. It is thought that they retreated deep into Norfolk’s marshy Fenland to avoid the Angles who started settling in East Anglia—the knee-deep water and sludgy ground would have seemed supremely inhospitable to those less familiar with the local landscape. 

Boudicca’s fight for liberty lives on

Elizabeth I Armada portraitCredit: The Armada Portrait. Formerly attributed to George Gower, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Boudicca’s uprising has continued to inspire figures throughout history. When Elizabeth I addressed the English troops on the eve of the Spanish Armada invasion, one contemporary poet named Jonathan Aske noted her speech’s similarity with Boudicca’s on the battlefield.

The Iceni queen captivated Britain again in the 1800s, when Queen Victoria adopted Boudicca as her namesake. 

Prince Albert commissioned the Thomas Thornycroft statue on the River Thames in her honour, which would take nearly fifty years to complete. The bronze statue supposedly bears a passing likeness to the young queen.

Banner credit: Joseph Martin Kronheim (1810–96), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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