Sunday, 22 March 2015

Brave Queen Boudicca and Her Stand against the Romans in AD61

Queen Boudica is now well known as a powerful leader who fought against the Romans. Less well known is how they saw her as a great warrior. Perhaps some of this can be attributed to the benign neglect she suffered at the hands of historians following her death. Only with the onset of the Victorian era did this change as it was noted that her name was similar to the then reigning ruler, Queen Victoria.

Back in the AD60’s she is a powerful leader of an English tribe called the Icenians who are based in modern day East Anglia. Ancient sources describe her as being of royal descent and being "possessed of greater intelligence than often belongs to women", In stature she was very tall, in appearance most terrifying, in the glance of her eye most fierce, and her voice was harsh; a great mass of the tawniest hair fell to her hips; around her neck was a large golden necklace; and she wore a tunic of divers colours over which a thick mantle was fastened with a brooch”. We can see the regard she is held in as back then as her name Boudicea actually means ‘Victory’ and comes from the Celtic god her tribe worships.

The origins of her conflict with the Romans go back to the death of her father, Prasutagus, the late king of the Icenians. He leaves behind a considerable fortune. To appease the Romans he offers half of it to the Romans and the other half to his two daughters.

Unfortunately he has not appreciated either the greed of the Roman settlers or their perceived sense of dominance and entitlement. When Prasutagus dies his followers are attacked by the centurions; his house is ransacked and his property seized. Even worse his wife, Boudica, is permanently scarred, loses her regal title, her daughters are raped and the whole family reduced to slavery.

This is simply too much for the proud Queen and her defiant people. A  revolt results and clearly taps into widespread frustration as it spreads like wildfire. It quickly descends into war for the Icenian tribe and becomes known as the Queen Boudicca Rebellion. Their angry feelings are shared by others who suffer under the cruel treatment of the Romans and soon they are joined by the Trinobantians tribe. Together they promise to stand up for liberty.

In particular they are upset by the conduct of the Roman veterans who have recently settled at Camulodunum (modern day Colchester). These men openly treat the Britons with disdain. They drive the natives from their homes and taunt them by calling them slaves or taking them captive, adding insult to their tyranny. The ordinary Roman soldier joins in too seeing it as just reward for their dangerous livelihood.

When the Romans hear of this resistance the Roman Ninth Legion of Petilius is sent out to crush it. They find their enemy in the forests of Cambridge but full of bravado and arrogance they fail to act tentatively and march straight into a trap.

This proves to be their undoing. All the advantages the Roman army possess and have used to such deadly effect against Caractacus are negated by the forest environment. Here they can not fight in tight formation or use their javelins. Caught by surprise and ambushed with little time to regroup the end result is slaughter. 2,500 troops are slaughtered.

News reaches Suetonius, the Roman governor and he quickly appreciates the Roman existence in Britain is now at stake. He returns after a successful battle in Mona (modern day Anglesey) against the feared Druids to London. He is a highly experienced, ruthless military leader who already has extensive experience of dealing revolts and is fortunate to have highly prized German soldiers within his army. However once he compares his army to the enemy even he has to accept that it will be best to retreat for the sake of preserving the rest of the province.

All who chose to follow his banners are taken under his protection. Only the old and weak are left behind and it is these people who suffer as the Icenians wreck their revenge. Perhaps as many as 15,000 die. We know the devastation was extensive to London as there now exists a deep layer of red soil formed from the burning of Londinium in AD60. In fact looking at the impact it has on surviving pottery it looks like temperatures reached around 1000 Celsius, similar to the firebombings of Dresden during World War Two.

The inhabitants of Verulamium, a municipal town, are next to suffer. The devastation they suffer is extensive. Roman sources claim as many as seventy thousand are put to the sword during the entire revolt although the accuracy of this figure is debatable given the obvious bias of their sources.

Much as this gives satisfaction to the Brits it is actually a tactical mistake as it allows Suetonius to regroup his fourteenth legion, with the veterans of the twentieth, and the auxiliaries from the adjacent stations, to create an army of just under 10,000 men. Set against him are Boudica and her army that perhaps numbers as high as 80,000.

In spite of this he now makes the brave decision to counter attack. His stance is not shared by some of his more timid compatriots. When Suetonius askes one of his colleagues for help he refuses citing the situation as a lost cause. Suetonius is not naïve. He recognises the threat but is undimmed as he is a clever tactician and feels he still has a chance. He choses to make a stand at a spot encircled with woods. It is narrow at the entrance and sheltered in the rear by a thick forest that prevents encirclement by Boudicca and her massive forces. This forces the British tribes to attack him from in front along an open plain that lays before him. In preparation for the battle he draws up his men so that the legions are bunched close in the centre, the light-armed troops are stationed in reserve and the cavalry take care of the wings.

The British tribe on the other hand are not in any order. Their chief advantage is their huge size. They form no regular line of battle. They are so sure of victory that they place their wives in wagons at the extremity of the plain so they can witness a great victory over the Romans and celebrate their brave husbands. This is yet another great tactical mistake as Roman military tactics are excellent at dealing with large-scale attacks by undisciplined groups. 

Queen Boudica rallies her troops in a chariot with her two daughters by delivering a powerful rallying speech. She remindes them that "This is not the first time that the Britons have been led to battle by a woman. …. Look round, and view your numbers. Behold the proud display of warlike spirits, and consider the motives for which we draw the avenging sword. On this spot we must either conquer, or die with glory. There is no alternative. Though a woman, my resolution is fixed: the men, if they please, may survive with infamy, and live in bondage."

Suetonius also addresses his army before the epic encounter. He demands bravery from all. "Despise the savage uproar, the yells and shouts of undisciplined Barbarians. In that mixed multitude, the women out-number the men. Void of spirit, unprovided with arms, they are not soldiers who come to offer battle; they are bastards, runaways, the refuse of your swords, who have often fled before you, and will again betake themselves to flight when they see the conqueror flaming in the ranks of war. In all engagements it is the valour of a few that turns the fortune of the day. It will be your immortal glory, that with a scanty number you can equal the exploits of a great and powerful army. Keep your ranks; discharge your javelins; rush forward to a close attack; bear down all with your bucklers, and hew a passage with your swords. Pursue the vanquished, and never think of spoil and plunder. Conquer, and victory gives you everything” he shouts.

This speech has the desired effect and makes his soldiers eager to fight. The soldiers burn with rage and yet maintain their famed discipline. Suetonius seeing the fighting spirit in his men is present decides to give the signal for the charge to begin against the forces of Boudica.        

The engagement begins. The armies approach each other and the barbarians shout their fierce battle cries. The Britons advance with ferocity, charge uphill and discharge their darts at random. The Romans in turn march silently and in order until they come within a javelin's throw of the enemy. At this point each legionary alters their stance so as to discharge ‘pila’. These pila are actually javelins with long heavy heads tapered to a sharp point. Each shaft is designed to become detached upon impact so that the enemy can not use it afterward. On a given command when Boudica’s forces are just 20-30 metres away, 7,000 Roman legionaries unleash both of their javelins in quick succession upon their enemy.

Lacking armoured protection the Britons suffer heavy casualties. The Romans take quick advantage of the wreckage to rush forward at full speed in the form of a wedge. When the clash comes they easily break through the opposing ranks as their numbers and resolve have been weakened by the javelin onslaught. Despite being surrounded by the enemy by fighting in tight formation the Romans are able to retain the initiative and take the fight straight to the Icenians and all the other tribes.

The auxiliaries also follow behind ready to help and at the same time the cavalry bare down upon the enemy and with their pikes overpower all who dare to make a stand. The Roman archers also serve a useful role in dealing with the chariots of the ‘barbarians’. This is particularly important as the barbarians are known for their deadly hit and run tactics with their chariots. However since they fight without breastplates they are easily hurt by the archers’ arrows. To counter this many bands of Britons rush the archers and slaughter them where possible but most are more wary and decide to keep outside the distance of their shafts. 

Finally, late in the day, the Romans prevail and take lethal vengeance on those remaining. The Britons end up running away in flight with the Roman legions in hot pursuit. However since the British tribes have parked their wagons near the battle their retreat is blocked and a dreadful slaughter ensues. With cattle falling everywhere escape becomes even more difficult. The battle turns into a slaughterhouse and ends up a complete Roman victory. According to some writers, no less than eighty thousand Britons are put to the sword. The Romans apparently only lose around four hundred men. 

Queen Boudica is left beyond consolation and so she uses a dose of poison to end her life and spare herself the ignominy of capture. The Britons mourned her deeply and gave her a magnificent burial. With this last act the British are finally resigned to their fate as the subjugated and no more major rebellions take place in the occupied territories of Briton.

If you liked that story then remember there are new stories on this site every week that can be found at my Secret History Stories homepage.

Also if you liked this story then you should also read

Caractacus and his Brave Stand against the Romans in Britain, 51AD