Ancient History & Civilisation



When Edmund Bolton proposed in 1624 that Stonehenge had been built as the tomb of Boadicea he was solving, at a stroke, two of the key archaeological questions of his day: what on earth was the vast stone circle on Salisbury Plain for? And where had the famous British rebel been laid to rest after her defeat and (according to the Roman historian, Cassius Dio) ‘costly burial’? Bolton’s attractively economical hypothesis lingered on for more than a century. As late as 1790, Edward Barnard, writing his New, Comprehensive, Impartial and Complete History of England, still flirted with the idea that ‘Stonehenge was erected as a monument to commemorate the heroism of Boadicea’.

Other options, however, soon looked more attractive, if not plausible. Never mind the changing views on the date and function of Stonehenge; a series of rival claimants for the title of Boadicea’s last resting place followed. One nineteenth-century fantasy had her buried at Gop Hill in Flintshire (where there have been sightings of her ghostly chariot). A long-standing theory, also mentioned by Barnard, placed her tomb in a small tumulus in Parliament Hill Fields in London – an idea which did not survive a full-scale excavation of the site in the 1890s and the awkward revelation that it was of Bronze Age date, centuries before Boadicea. But London has other possible locations to offer. There are those, even today, who think that she lies somewhere deep under Platform 8 at King’s Cross Station.

Ever since Polydore Vergil in the sixteenth century, the British queen who rebelled against the Roman occupation in 60 (or 61) AD has been the subject of elaborate scholarly theorising – from the causes and aims of her rebellion, through the effects of the uprising, the location not only of her tomb but also of her major battles, to the correct spelling of her name (a strange academic obsession, since one certainty in the whole story is that Boadicea/Boudic(c)a herself could neither read nor write, let alone spell). The reason for the intense debate is partly nationalistic zeal, but partly the existence of two highly coloured ancient accounts (one by Tacitus, the other by Cassius Dio) which conjure up a marvellous picture of this Amazonian warrior, but differ from one another in all kinds of significant details. Dio, for example, has his ‘Boudouika’ – not one of the favoured modern spellings – react mainly to the economic exploitation of Roman rule, and particularly to the ruinous effect caused by the philosopher Seneca calling in the vast loans he had made to the islanders (Stoic philosophy was no bar to usury in the ancient world). Tacitus, on the other hand, suggests that the rebellion was sparked by the flogging of Bouducca/Boodicia (manuscript readings differ) and by the rape of her daughters after the death of her husband, King Prasutagus of the Iceni, a character and a tribe not mentioned by Dio. Tacitus’ queen kills herself with poison after a set-piece battle in which 80,000 of her troops die – as against just 400 Romans. Dio’s is an altogether nastier piece of work (her army’s worst atrocity is to cut off the breasts of the Roman women and sew them into their mouths ‘in order to make the victims appear to be eating them’); but his version of the final battle is a closer-run thing and the queen’s death – before that ‘costly burial’ – a matter of sickness not suicide. It is hardly surprising that for centuries historians and archaeologists have tried to get to the bottom of the story.

In their study of the tradition of the rebel queen, Richard Hingley and Christina Unwin capture some of the more extraordinary modern histories of Boadicea with considerable verve. Before the firm identification of the sites of ‘Camolodunum’ and ‘Verulamium’ (both said by Tacitus to have been destroyed in the revolt) as Colchester and St Albans, the main arena of conflict ranged widely around the British Isles. Polydore Vergil himself thought that ‘Voadicia’ (another spelling that has not caught on) was a Northumberland girl and that Camolodunum was the Roman name of Doncaster or Pontefract. At about the same time, Hector Boece in his Chronicles of Scotland was pushing the story even further north. His Camolodunum was somewhere near Falkirk and he reconstructed two generations of Boadicea: ‘Voada’, the widow of Arviragus, who killed herself after defeat in battle; and her daughters, one of whom was married off to the Roman who raped her, the other ‘Vodicia’ who continued the struggle and fell in combat. It was not until the work of William Camden (1551–1623) that the rebellion was definitively brought south again to St Albans (correctly identified) and Maldon in Essex (incorrectly). But even Camden peddled the myth that coins of Boadicea survived; these are now known to be the issues of a rather less glamorous Iron Age chieftain, Bodvoc, from what is now Gloucestershire.

It is easy to be smug about these wildly inaccurate attempts to pin down the story of Boadicea. And Hingley and Unwin occasionally are: although they let Polydore Vergil off with only a minor reprimand (he ‘was writing at a time prior to the development of any serious antiquarian interest in the ancient monuments of Britain and his failings should be seen in this context’), they have a general tendency to treat modern archaeology (‘careful and thorough excavation’) as if it is likely to offer authoritative answers in contrast to the woeful errors of the past. In fact, their detailed account undermines this optimism. For they reveal with devastating clarity that, despite all their scientific advantages, modern archaeologists have not done much better in the study of Boadicea or her revolt than their antiquarian, or pre-antiquarian, predecessors.

True, there are a number of archaeological remains that have been associated with the rebellion. Skulls from the Walbrook stream, on display in the Museum of London, have been said to belong to some of her Roman victims. A tombstone of a Roman cavalryman, Longinus Sdapeze, at Colchester has been thought to have been mutilated by the rebels. A large enclosure recently discovered at Thetford has been hailed by local archaeologists as the ‘palace of Boudicca’. But, as Hingley and Unwin must repeatedly point out, none of this quite adds up. The skulls, which cannot be precisely dated, probably belong to a long tradition of depositing such objects in the stream. The tombstone was actually mutilated by the archaeologists who excavated it in the 1920s (the missing bits have recently been found). And the grandly named ‘palace’ is only one of a number of similar structures in the east of England whose function is a matter of open speculation. Whatever the temptation to assign finds to the ‘Boudiccan period’, there is only one single piece of clear archaeological evidence for the rebellion. Still impressive, this is the thick (1–2 feet) black or red ‘destruction layer’ in London and Colchester, and to a lesser extent in St Albans, which is the residue of the torching of these Roman settlements and the subsequent collapse of their buildings.

Archaeological evidence is, of course, notoriously difficult to link with specific historical events. More to the point, perhaps, the wider pre-Roman Iron Age background to the rebellion – which might give us some clearer direction on the aims and motivations of the rebels – remains also very hazily understood. There have been a number of recent claims of a ‘revolution’ in our knowledge of this period (‘the Late Pre-Roman Iron Age’, or LPRIA as it is known in the trade). And Hingley and Unwin are largely upbeat about the possible counterweight that recent archaeological work may offer to the old-fashioned schoolbook image of tribes of ‘primitive barbarians’ waiting innocently for the ‘gifts of peace and civilisation’ that the Romans brought (or the penalties of slavery and economic exploitation, depending on your point of view). There are hints that Boadicea’s world was a more complicated, outward-looking place, with social, commercial and political relations with cultures across the Channel.

But what do these hints amount to? Hingley and Unwin’s first chapter in Boudica is right up to date in its approach to the Iron Age, but their honest measured account exposes just how little we still know. That ‘Iron Age society was characterised by communities who lived in settlements of varying sizes’ is not, I imagine, a conclusion that will surprise many readers. Nor will the idea that ‘carts were probably a common form of transport’. Meanwhile, the ‘revolution’ in Iron Age studies has not made much of an inroad into many of the old controversies and uncertainties. Even after decades of excavation, we still do not know what the characteristic Iron Age ‘hill forts’ (such as Maiden Castle in Dorset) were for. Were they principally places to store the wealth and agricultural surplus of a community? Or were they habitation sites – either on a long-term basis or just in times of danger? And why are they not found in certain parts of the country (even when likely hills are available)?

These uncertainties have a serious impact on our understanding of Boadicea. Even the straightforward claim, drawn from Tacitus, that she was the widow of Prasutagus, King of the Iceni tribe, is far less straightforward than it might appear. What, for example, was this ‘tribe’? Though we tend to take for granted ‘tribal groupings’ (whatever that means) as the main form of social organisation in pre-Roman Britain, and though we are used to a map of the British Isles which neatly divides the territory into different tribal sectors (the ‘Cantii’ in Kent, ‘Silures’ in South Wales, and so on), once again the evidence is extremely flimsy. For a start, most of the standard names given to the tribes are attested only in the later Roman period (as the titles of regions of provincial government).

When Julius Caesar invaded Britain a century before the Boadicean revolt, the only ‘tribe’ mentioned in his autobiography that we hear of later is the Trinovantes (of Essex). The others in his list – ‘Cenimagni, Segontiaci, Ancalites, Bibroci and Cassi’ – are complete mysteries to us, unless the Cenimagni are a garbled version of the Iceni (or vice versa). Besides, the spheres of tribal influence that form the basis of the map are inferred only from the spread of different types of Iron Age coinage. These coins do not regularly mention any tribal affiliation, although they do sometimes include the name of a ‘king’, which may occasionally – plausibly or implausibly – be matched up to a name known in literature. Whether the hand, and name, of Prasutagus is to be seen behind the coins found in East Anglia and stamped ‘SUBRIIPRASTO’ (if that is what it really says) is frankly anyone’s guess. In short, the evidence for these ‘primitive’ British tribes just as easily supports the idea (as some archaeologists have suggested) that they were largely a later construction by the Romans – a mechanism of provincial government maybe (or maybe not) loosely based on some pre-existing, if less defined groups. ‘Boadicea widow of King Prasutagus of the Iceni tribe’ is in almost every sense a Roman creation. Predictably enough, this evidential vacuum has been filled for centuries with fictional recreations of the queen. Hingley and Unwin have collected a good array of these: from John Fletcher’s terrifying Bonduca (a play first performed in the early seventeenth century) through Thomas Thornycroft’s imperial vision of the queen, in his statue near Westminster Bridge (‘I like to think she’s advancing on Parliament’, as Fay Weldon put it, ‘… but I fear she’s stuck where she is’) to a host of modern novels, websites, museum displays and (usually appalling) television documentaries. Sadly, however, they have nothing to say about the most substantial literary treatment of the rebellion (substantial in length at least): Manda Scott’s four-novel Boudica cycle.

This is a trick not missed in Vanessa Collingridge’s Boudica. Hailed on the jacket as a ‘ground breaking biography’, this is in fact a rather more racy and rather less reliable trawl over the ground covered by Hingley and Unwin: the Iron Age background to the rebellion, the scanty evidence for what happened, plus a good deal on the fascinating afterlife of the rebel queen (not much ‘biography’ here). Collingridge seems to have done quite a lot of her research by long-distance phone calls or steaming round the country talking to ‘experts’. Richard Hingley was one of these sources (‘“It’s a beautiful part of the country in which to work”, mused the archaeologist, Richard Hingley, as we walked across the campus at Durham University. I had made the three-hour journey to interview him by train …’); so was the Director of the Colchester Archaeological Trust (‘“I definitely think there was someone out there called Boudica”, mused Philip Crummy in one of our long phone conversations …’); so too was Manda Scott. As reported by Collingridge, at least, Scott comes over as something of a nutter: ‘she now practises and teaches shamanic dreaming and spirituality’ and ‘she firmly believes her subject was given to her by the spirits: “I asked them, ‘What do you want of me?’ and the answer I received was specifically to write these books about Boudica. They are about the whole culture and the spirit of the late Iron Age which must represent the apex of British indigenous spirituality as it then stopped with the Romans”.’

After this warning, Manda Scott’s Boudica: Dreaming the Hound, the third volume in her series, comes as a relief (or at least the spirits were sensible enough to finger someone who could write). Despite the irritating New Age tinge throughout, the book at its best crafts an engaging and sometimes moving version of the early years of the Roman occupation. ‘The Boudica’ (‘Bringer of Victory’), real name ‘Breaca’, now for the first time in the series meets her husband of history, Prasutagus (real name “Tagos’ – the ‘Prasu’ was added to impress the Roman Governor), and we follow the story through the King’s death up to the flogging of Breaca herself and the rape of the daughters. ’Tagos is particularly well drawn: a one-armed collaborator with the occupying power, who embarrassingly apes Roman ways (his bodyguards have taken Roman names and he serves wine at dinner). As the story progresses, he comes to see the extent of Roman corruption – especially when the new tough procurator arrives on the scene and Seneca calls in his loans – and eventually dies in a skirmish with some Roman slave traders. But Scott is also good at evoking the complex relations between Romans and natives which must have marked the Roman, no less than any other, imperial encounter (and there is a finecameo role for Longinus Sdapeze, he of the (un)mutilated tombstone). This is a world in which Romans and British mix and depend on each other, and it is hard to be certain exactly which side anyone is on. But even if there is a smattering of good Romans and bad natives, there is no doubt at all which side the reader is meant to be on. I found myself not so sure. Scott makes it impossible to back the Romans, who – as an occupying power – rape, pillage and exploit. But at the same time Breaca’s shamanistic weirdos (not beyond some horrible acts of violence themselves, when it suited) only confirmed my view that life in Britain under the rebels, had they been successful, would not have been much fun either. All too often, even the most glamorous rebels are just as unappealing, under the surface, as the imperialist tyrants themselves.

Review of Richard Hingley and Christina Unwin, Boudica: Iron Age Warrior Queen (Hambledon, 2005); Vanessa Collingridge, Boudica (Ebury Press, 2005); Manda Scott, Boudica. Dreaming the Hound (Bantam Press, 2004)

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