Boudicca: Great Queen of the Iceni

Pictland virtually ignored after Agricolan campaign

Caledonian art in the north flourished during Roman neglect

Why were Roman legions so interested in subduing some tribes and not others? Why build the great edifices of Antonine and Hadrian‘s occupations to shut out the northern territories and patrol the borders with encampments, but essentialaly ignore them, when others, like Queen Boudicca of the Iceni, merited wholesale plunder, murder and annihilation?

It was not merely a matter of geography. The Northern Tribes of the Caledonians, in what eventually became Pictland, were hostile but they were no immediate threat to Rome. They were warlike and they were rich in land, but their territories were only worthy of one campaign: that of Julius Agricola in AD77. During that campaign, while he was Consul of Rome and Governor of Britannia, he conquered much of Wales and northern England and made his historic venture into lowland and eastern Scotland to conclude his enterprise at the legendary battle of Mons Graupius, in the Grampian mountains of Aberdeenshire.

Traprain Law, great hilltop stronghold of the Votadini

His marching camps still dot the Aberdeenshire landscape, his successors occupied them in a desultory way, but Agricola ended his campaign in the winter after he began and retired to York. Rome congratulated him for his efforts, but never again ventured farther north than Edinburgh, and Roman armies from that time on until their withdrawal in AD420, mostly remained south of a line drawn from the Tyne in Northumberland towards Dumfries in the west known as Hadrian’s Wall.

So, why were earlier campaigns by Roman generals, consuls and even emperors so concerned with the north of England, North Wales and, in particular, the sacred Brittonic island of Mona?

It is known that Roman emperors, their generals and subalterns were well-versed in local traditions. By the end of Roman occupation, in c. AD420, Britain had become a civilized nation, almost the jewel of the empire, before military collapse and return to Rome. While villas and whole towns were built according to Roman design and the country used as a kind of ‘summer vacation’ retreat for some, for others it was a necessary part of living in a conquered nation that they learn the local language and lore.

Part of that education – a largely undocumented source – was learning the ways of Britons in the early years of occupation, when Brittonic tribes were fully in control of their lands and had a hugely successful system of barter and trade among neighboring and interrelated peoples.

On the other hand, Roman learning also included the works of Claudius Ptolomeaius, a Romanized Greek scholar who visited Britain between the campaigns of Hadrian and Antonine in the AD 2nd century; He was historian, geographer, astronomer, physicist, astrologer and a prolific author. His works are the source of much of what has been handed down to modern scholarship.

Ptolemy's map of North Britain

He devised maps of the whole island of Britannia, not altogether unrealistic; wrote histories and in his spare time discovered and recorded the positions of 1022 fixed stars in the cosmos. While unrelated to the conquest of Britannia, this part of his knowledge indicates his intense interest in a multitude of diverse subjects, including local wisdom. In some of his works he refers to a segment of the British culture which was of enormous interest to him, because of their own knowledge of the heavens, the movement of sun, moon and stars, and their methods of teaching this knowledge to their pupils.

This body of knowledge was the exclusive realm of the cognoscenti, the magicians and wise men of the Britons: the Druidic class.

Within the Druidic tradition, it took an apprentice 30 years before he was allowed to perform any of the feats which he had been taught by his elders. His education included specific learning of astronomy, the calendar, seasonal festivities and rites, traditions associated with appeasing the sky spirits with fire festivals and propitiation ceremonies; herbalism and magic, the raising and stilling of storms, divination, the calling up of wind and the healing of humans and animals from sickness and disease. In this respect the druid or priest-class was as important as king or queen in any tribe.

Because of the Britonnic tradition of tribal rule by warrior-queens, in some cases the king or prince may himself have served as druid-priest, in order to understand and act as intermediary between his kingdom and their gods. This is the case of the so-called ‘Peat’ or Lindow Man, the princely royal body found in 1984 in a marsh near Liverpool and featured in Anne Ross and Don Robins’ novel: ‘The Life and Death of a Druid Prince‘ published in 1991. His own self-sacrifice by a three-fold death by sword, strangulation, and drowning is thought by the authors to have been the last desperate attempt by the male-consort of his nation to appease the gods who had sent Roman legions to wipe out his Queen. In his stomach were found the remains of a burned portion of barley cake, used in sacrifice to denote the portion of one chosen to die. No signs of struggle or binding on his wrists indicated that he died voluntarily.

I have speculated elsewhere that this particular Druid Prince may have actually been Boudicca’s son.

John Opie's imagined Romanized version of Iceni Queen Boudicca

The story of one Brittonic Queen has been handed down through legend, oral tradition and in the Roman annals themselves. It is one which indicates in part how important was this anointed royal connection to the earth through the monarch’s personal and devoted servant, the druid-priest.

Ynys Mons: island of the mount of Druids, the druidic stronghold of Boudicca's kingdom

It is known that the Roman campaigns of North Britain were particularly interested in finding gold and treasure hoards of which these important men were designated keepers for the community. Caesar, Septimius Severus and Agricola were not totally honest in describing their campaigns in the North as a means of civilizing the barbarian hordes. In the case of subjugating Boudicca, at least, the Queen of the eastern kingdoms was famed for her armies, her powerful druids and her riches beyond compare. These riches, the total wealth of her nation, were held in the Druidic stronghold of Mona, or Ynys Mons, modern Anglesey on the west. A ‘Royal Road’ traversed Britain from the east Anglian nation of her Iceni people to meet the coast in North Wales for the sacred sea-crossing to Mona, where only druidic initiates, their mentors and the monarch might set foot.

Crafted in Gaul, this beautiful cauldron is typical of early Brittonic hoards

Gundestrup cauldron, 17ins x 10ins of solid silver found in a Danish bog

These ‘ druidic riches’ can only be imagined, but if the Gundestrup Cauldron of Gaulish craftmen is an example of such treasures, Boudicca’s wealth was an enormous incentive to armies and mercenaries to storm Anglesey and demolish the treasure-house of her kingdom. ‘To the victor the spoils’ is not a mere epithet. Roman legions and most Gaulish and Brittonic armies were paid out of treasure they could loot in their campaigns.

Gundestrup Cauldron, which was crafted in Gaul around 100 BC was discovered in a peat bog in Denmark in 1891, where scholars suggest it had been placed as an offering to the deities of Nature in a druidic ritual. The cauldron’s 13 panels recount a Celtic Foundation Myth similar in importance to the Hebrew Genesis cycle, the Egyptian legends of creation of Ra and Nut, the Greek Illiad, and Roman Aeneid. It is only one example of treasures found in the hoards of ancient Britons. Traprain Law near Edinburgh held a similar priceless vault of treasures belonging to the Votadini people of southern Pictland or Roman Caledonia.

Part of treasure hoard found inside Traprain Law, East Lothian

Almost a century after Caesar’s invasion of Britain (55-54 BC), Roman legions again entered Britain under Emperor Claudius in AD43. Roman generals spared Boudicca’s husband Prasutagus, on condition that he should rule her Iceni people. As the Brittonic and Pictish tribes of Britain were faithful to the matrilinear tradition of a female monarch, but with men leading armies of both male and female soldiers, this was an insult. However Prasutagus was true to his word and ruled, if only in name, for the next 17 years.

Then in AD60 and 61, when Roman governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus led a campaign to North Wales, on the pretext of subduing barbarian tribes, but in quest of treasure, the Iceni rebelled. Other tribes joined them. Roman armies were threatening the stronghold of their most revered wise men. Next to threatening their Queen, this was an outrage.

History records how Boudicca’s warriors successfully defeated the Roman Ninth Legion and destroyed their capital of Roman Britain, Camulodunum, the modern Colchester. It is from this victorious siege that great myths have seaped through the British imagination and into oral culture, including the famed Camelot, the so-called capital of the Great Briton, Arthur. However, in the first century AD, this tale is told not of a hero, but a heroine.

Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni who died c. AD61

Boudicca, the great Anglian Queen of the Iceni

Boudicca’s armies marched as one body and in the process were described as ‘destroying’ London – Londinium and Verulamium – St Albans, killing hundreds of Roman foot soldiers and mercenaries. The present Roman walls of Colchester were a rebuild by the defeated governor, Suetonius Paulinus, as part of his need to save face after his own retaliation. His armies finally went on to massacre thousands of Britons and his treatment of Boudicca’s family is retold in appalling detail in many histories, including the Annals of Tacitus, written about 50 years later (AD110-120). Her husband Prasutagus was tortured and killed, her daughters raped and her stronghold burned. She herself escaped, but died shortly afterwards, probably from self-administered poison. Her body was never found.

It is interesting to note that the drowned peatbog body of the Druid Prince of Lindow who gave his life willingly for his people was found to date roughly to AD60. He might romantically be thought of as one of Boudicca’s princes, or even her own son.

“She was huge of frame, terrifying of aspect, and with a harsh voice. A great mass of bright red hair fell to her knees: She wore a great twisted golden necklace, and a tunic of many colors, over which was a thick mantle, fastened by a brooch. Now she grasped a spear, to strike fear into all who watched her……”
-Dio Cassius

In subsequent legend her image became stylized into the formative version of our ‘Winged Victory’, Britannia, the female deity of British coin. Boudicca was her Roman name. Her Iceni people called her Boudiga.*

By the end of Suetonius Paulinus’s campaign, Boudicca and her armies were no more, a Roman road stretched between her capital, Venta Icenorum in East Anglia and Anglesey, and Mona’s treasures and emblems of her druidic hierarchy were either looted, destroyed or buried where no Roman eyes might see.

Druidic wise men themselves went into hiding, taking their knowledge with them.

Calendar fragment: part of a Druidic calculation found at Coligny, France dating from Romano-Brittonic time of joint empire

Their calendars, astronomical calculations and science disappeared too. With that body of science went the legacy, perpetuated in the thirty-year cycle of medicinal, herbal-spiritual divination and crystalline power, known only to initiates. It is claimed by several esoteric communities today that the knowledge is still alive and becoming reactivated in mankind’s present time of need.

In these times of instantly-accessible information of the written word, it would be a most wonderful and valuable resource to be able to tap into.

Novice British saints, travelling the highways and country tracks of early-historic Britain were challenged by the people to prove their ability in such feats as raising and stilling storms and making ills and tumours disappear by the healing touch. Ninian cultivated the habit of his British antecedents and was able to manifest some miracles. Columba, an Irish saint, was confronted in the palace of Bridei (c.585) at Inverness by the Pictish king’s druid, criticizing him for being unable to command the wind. It is said Columba thought long and hard on this and went away to learn.

Within the almanac of the present pagan community (‘paganus’, Latin, country person) perhaps it is possible to find a long-lost ability of Druidic heritage which has lain dormant since Boudicca’s untimely death and the desecration of her Druidic compendium of knowledge.

If she were to look down from her regal chariot in the cosmos, she might see a race diminished by the commonplace, belittled by its own intense machinations and obsessed with cultivation of the gods of power and gold. She might say that Man is sadly lacking in versatility if he cannot call upon his gods, his ‘unseen’ powers at will: to make amends.

*Boudiga, after the Celtic deity of Victory, who is always depicted winged.

©2010 Marian Youngblood

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