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

Advertisements

Warlord centres of Pictland:glimpses into a lost history

Pictish horse and stronghold mound, Bass, Inverurie, Aberdeenshire

Pictish stronghold mound and carved horse stone at the Bass, Inverurie, Aberdeenshire

The bard was asked who of the kings of Prydein
is most generous of all
‘And I declared boldly
That it was Owain’
The Gorhoffedd, 12thC heroic poem

 

The subject of royal lineage brings out the romantic in the scholar and the scholar in the romantic.

Lordship and kingship in a Pictish context has been given both treatments over centuries of scholarship, each with its version of history. Lately tolerance between disciplines allows students of literature, language and art history to communicate with archaeologists and pre-historians in a renewed attempt to investigate the rôle of royal centres in the Pictish kingdom.

Pictish kings and sub-kings ruled a nation which grew from a loose confederation of tribal groups in the third century to become a major political and land-owning force at the time of their takeover by the Scots in the ninth.

To describe them as a lost society is to ignore the evidence.

Derilea tries here to demonstrate that the ethos of those early-Historic royal centres, far from being lost, has become incorporated within our culture and has meaning for us today.

As much as it is assisted by modern techniques, our perspective can be clouded by modern thinking.

Fealty, faith, heroism and violence are not fashionable concepts.

Yet these were an integral part of a power centre, as important as glitter of armies or riches in landholdings. Early Celtic neighbours held mutual respect for oral recitation of lineage, bravery, protection of one’s people and, in particular, generosity and hospitality.

Anyone reading the 6thC Welsh heroic poem of Aneurin, the Gododdin, which glorifies the last battle of high king and nobles of the huge fortress on Traprain, outside modern Edinburgh, cannot but marvel at the imagery of that aristocracy whose lineage hailed from 5thC Christian Votadini of treasure-hoard fame. The Welsh name Gododdin is linguistic translation for Roman Votadini.

It is difficult from our modern perspective to gain an understanding of hierarchy in the Pictish kingdoms North of the Mounth – that long barrier of mountain chain which shuts off Aberdeenshire – Pictish – from all Pictish landholdings to the south, including its immediate neighbour, Kincardineshire (the Mearns) – or Picitish Cirig. Cirig and its ancient capital, coastal St Cyrus, both take their names from one of the last High Kings of both Picts and Scots Giric/Grig who was deposed in AD889. The family name Greig (including the musician) is a direct descendant of this great name.

Aberdeenshire remained elusive because historical documentation was hindered by its remoteness from both geographical and clerical centres. Physical and literary evidence is still slight; but recent scholarship accepts a correlation between Irish sources such as the Annals of Ulster (AU), Annals of Tighernach and fragments carefully compiled by Aberdeenshire historian Skene (1867), as more accurate than previously supposed, although his sources have an understandably Irish slant.

In the time of church historian Bede, (AD673-735), the Pictish nation was geographically divided by the Mounth into those southern Picts living on ‘this side of the steep and desolate mountains which separate them from the provinces of the northern Picts’ (HE Ecclesiastical History III, 4).

While early land divisions may never become crystal clear, it is known that later 9thC Pictish rule was considerably sophisticated and a distinct advance on the system of leadership of those early ‘confederations’ mentioned by Roman historians and the mythology of the Pictish creation legend (‘Irish and Pictish Additions to the “Historia Britonum”’, Skene, 1867).

Later Pictish kingship (AD500-800) invariably held power greater than that of the Scots.

Early 7th century kings of Fortriu (Forteviot) controlled the huge nation from a warlord centre near the river Earn. They had nobles spread across the nation commanding allegiance, agriculture and armies with impressive force. They also had access to skilled labour – artists, masons, carpenters, architects and military engineers.

In military terms they were no different from their Dalriatan neighbours across Druimalban, the spine of Britain as described by Adomnan, Abbot of Iona beforehe died in 703 (Vita Columbae II 46), except in ‘the exploitation of fertile land’.

No Scots king, however, ever commandeered the Columban Church in quite the same way as Nechtan, son of Derilei (706-729), controlled the Church in Pictland.

After gleaning all he needed from Anglian Jarrow on ecclesiastic propriety, ritual and usage, and borrowing skilled architects to help him build stone churches (HE V, 21), Nechtan expelled the resident familia of Iona from Court in 717. Royal control persisted for the next 170 years until the time of northern king Giric son of Donald son of Alpin (878-889) who, according to Chronikil of Kings,

‘first gave freedom to the Scots Church which was under servitude until that time after the custom and manner of the Picts’.

From mid-6thC until final assimilation by Scots, circa 843, Pictish aristocrats administered land tenure, exacting tithes and allegiance through kinship in exchange for protection, while fostering a thriving industry in decorative and domestic materials from the centre of an all-powerful local lord (or laird).

This laird in turn was subservient to the next in rank, sub-king or High King, whose central fortress would have been impressively rich in trappings of authority, and controlling vast acres of fertile agricultural ground. He too would have highly-skilled masons, metalworkers and woodcarvers at his disposal.

One of the early High kings, Bridei son of Maelchon (died 585), ‘powerful king of the Picts north of the Mounth’ lived in such a fortress, Brudei munitio near Inverness, as described by Adomnan (V.C II 35). Its obvious wealth, its size, impenetrable position, its great wooden doors barred against Columba when visiting on his first mission, all impressed the simple monk; Adomnan describes Bridei’s other powerful asset: his personal Druid, Broichan, wise-man-in
chief, consulted on augury, keeper of knowledge and laws, magician-in-residence who could ‘raise and still storms’ (V.C II 34).

Not only was Bridei’s stronghold large enough for royal family, retinue, advisors and slaves, but it housed hostages taken as a means of insuring the loyalty of an Orcadian sub-king
(V.C II 42).

remains of Pictish citadel on Aberdeenshire's North Coast

Dundarg gateway is all that remains of this Pictish citadel on Aberdeenshire's North Coast

In later times, when the Scots became powerful enemies, such northern fortresses, like Burghead (Moray), Dundarg (Aberdeenshire) and Dunnottar (Kincardineshire), each sited within reach of a fertile plain, were prime targets for siege-and-burn raids because of wealth, real or imagined, which could be carried off as booty. As neither side paid its army, the promise of treasure hoards in exchange for military allegiance was an important factor in maintaining a functioning force.

Burghead well entrance to the chamber

Burghead Pictish stronghold had its own chambered well, useful during siege

Warlord centres had to have quick access to surplus food supplies in order to feed workers temporarily removed from agricultural production in peacetime or soldiers during siege; this implies rich landholdings immediately adjacent, land in a wider radius, or, in time-honoured fashion, plundering one’s neighbours.

 

Terraces on the slopes of Dundurn two miles inland from coastal Sandend, Banffshire, indicate immediate access to a food supply, regulated planting and harvest, immediately outside the walls.

fortified Dunnottar on the Kincardine coast

Supremely fortified Pictish warlord centre, Dunnottar was protected on three sides by sheer cliffs rising out of the North Sea

Records indicate coastal Dunnottar, on the Mounth’s eastern extremity, was besieged more than once (AU, 681, 694?). Its fortified position, set on towering cliffs, bounded on three sides by the North Sea and defended on the remaining narrow strip to mainland fields by bank and ditch enclosures, is perhaps the most dramatic of northern warlord centres. It may have been a much-prized potential conquest for Bridei son of Bile, southern Pictish ‘King of Fortrenn’ (genitive of Fortriu) in his siege of Fothair in 681. Under him great armies fought the battle of Nechtansmere near Dunnichen in 685, resulting in Pictish independence from Northumbria. Northern warrior aristocrats may have had just as powerful armies at their disposal marshalled from equally impressive royal seats. Dubhtalorc, 8thC ‘rex Pictorum citra Monoth’ (died 782, AU) probably ruled from just such a fortress ‘on this side of’ the Mounth.

Status and wealth were directly related.

Pictish Burghead was ringed by 30 ritual bull carved stones

Pictish Burghead was a supreme fortress overlooking the Moray Firth

The larger the citadel, the more land it controlled; but it had the burden of producing more to feed its dependents. Food had to be grown in abundance to stock a royal town (urbs or civitas, Bede, (HE I1). For a small dun crops could be grown locally. Whereas in a larger province, centred on a major fortress, a higher proportion would be tithed and collected as tribute from widespread tenantry.

 

30 carved bull stones ringed the fortress of Burghead on the Moray coast

One of 30 carved bull stones from Burghead, Moray

The chief seat of a district while heavily fortified, ritually protected in the 5/6thC (multivallate Burghead was ringed on the landward side with around 30 carved bull stones), by the 9thC it may not have needed such fortification. It would still, however, have administered all surrounding landholdings, including that of the church, not ‘given liberty’ until the reign of Giric (878-889), above.

 

Jewellers and metal artisans working full-time produced rich adornment for aristocratic overlords at local level and, through gift-giving and hospitality, in distant kingdoms.

Generosity was a mark of status. Hospitality was a key feature of tribute given and received among princely equals. But feasting was appreciated by all: the best way in which a warlord could thank his warriors in advance for services to be rendered in battle was to ‘feast them all for a year’ (Song of Taliesin).

After all, they might not return.

As law-giving and government increased in sophistication, so negotiation between noble confederacies changed from violent bloody encounters to political and matrimonial alliances, sealed over the feasting table with Mediterranean wine.

Forteviot, an elite capital of later kings of Fortriu, seems to have centred on a glorious palace – palisaded, but not as formidable as neighbouring Dundurn, (AU 683) with feasting hall, royal church of decorated stone and Christian burial ground. Strategically set in lush Strathearn on the Water of May, its landscaping is more relaxed than iron-nailed ramparted Dundurn: suggesting perhaps fewer raids in more enlightened times.

It is possible, however, that Fortriu could afford to show affluence, as protection came from a line of fortresses, Dundurn among them, similar to the line of promontory forts as coastal guardians of Banffshire. It was spiritually guarded from above by 8/9thC Class II (Christian) carved stones, of which Dupplin and Invermay crosses are only two.

Custatin filius Forcus on the Dupplin Cross overlooking Forteviot, now in a museum

Custatin filius Forcus cast a kingly eye over Forteviot from the hillside

From the reign of Bridei son of Bile, d.693, kings of Fortriu seem to have enjoyed overkingship, as the term Fortrenn is used in annals with dual meaning denoting kingship as well as head of a dynasty.

 

The Dupplin cross, in particular, may demonstrate the importance of Fortriu as supreme kingdom. Its inscription celebrates Constantine, among the last of the Pictish kings.

’Custatin filius Forcus’ (Urgust, Fergus)

who ruled Pictland from Fortriu in 789, assumed kingship of DalRiata by 811, and retired to the monastic life in St. Andrews (Cillrighmont) where he died in 820.

Forteviot had prestige and precedent. Pictish capital at the height of its power, it ministered to an orderly nation accustomed to hierarchy based on allegiance developed over a millennium. No wonder for the Scots who subsequently ruled there – at least for a time – it was the ultimate prize.

‘He held his household . . .
Sometyme at Edinburgh, sometyme at Striveline,
In Scotlande, at Perthe and Dunbrytain,
At Dunbar, Dunfrise, and St. John’s Toune,
All worthy knights more than a legion,
At Donydoure also in Murith region
Jhon Hardyng, 1465

©1998-2009 Marian Youngblood
Bibliography

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 16 other followers