In my last column, some of you will recall I told the story of Brigit, a goddess of high import to both pre and post Christian Celtic peoples. In this piece I will be unfolding the story of Queen Boadicea of the Britons; the root of the word Briton deriving from the word Brigit. Queen Boadicea lived during times of great upheaval. Rome had conquered Gaul and become a constant threat to the various Celtic tribes and peoples across the channel. First contact with Rome came in 55 B.C.
Upon inquiring about the Celts, Caesar was told they and the Romans were of common Trojan stock. This revelation planted seeds of desire to see the Celts pay homage to Roman supremacy. Caesar had hoped to accomplish this goal without violence, but was soon to learn in correspondence with the Celtic King, King Cassivellannus, that while the Celtic people acknowledged their common heritage and wished to extend their friendship, they would defy any attempt by Rome to conquer their territory and people.
Regardless, many Celtic leaders had confronted the aggressive and relentless attempts by Rome to conquer and subjugate the Celts by the time Boadicea lead her people in a revolt. She was but one leader among many fighting an ongoing battle of resistence. She and her people were living in an occupied land. The reigning Roman emperor of the day was Nero. Since Caesar had first crossed the channel, subsequent Roman rulers included Caligula and Claudius.
Rome had become the ultimate ruler but allowed the people some autonomy in exchange for taxes, agriculture and lip service to the roman gods. Most hated was a temple to Claudius who had recently been deified as a roman god. Boadicea and her husband Prasutagus were the king and queen of the Iceni people in Norfolk. They had managed to stay on relatively good terms with Rome, but this good will came to an abrupt end with the death of Prasutagus.
This is where the element of fire comes into our story. I don’t think the Romans quite knew the fire storm they were about to unleash through their subsequent handling of Boadicea and her daughters. According to one source Prasutagus had left half his wealth to the Romans and half to his daughters. When he died the Romans decided to claim the entire royal legacy for themselves. No Iceni King or Queen would ascend the throne after Prasutagus so long as the Romans had their way. Boadicea as you might well imagine did not see things quite the same way.
When she tried to stand up to her opponents her daughters were raped and she was publicly flogged. She subsequently went to her people and beseeched them to assist her in taking revenge. One can imagine the question of honour and homeland that would have been at stake. I do know that within Celtic society women were free to pursue the role of warrior. The Celts also stood behind their Queens. This was the role Boadicea took upon herself and the people threw themselves behind her. She inspired them with a legendary speech as well as favorable signs and omens. She is said to have released a hare which ran in a fortuitous direction causing the people to rally to her side with great enthusiasm. She paid homage to Adraste, a goddess of Victory connected with Brigit and raised her sword to do battle in a just war.
There is a very famous bronze statue of Queen Boadicea on the Embankment in London. She is riding a chariot behind two rearing horses with flying maness. In her arms she carries a spear. One can imagine the blood curdling battle cry screaming from her lips as she bore down upon her enemies. She was described as being a very imposing woman with a massive mane of waist length, fiery red hair. It is also thought that her name, Boadicea may have been an assumed one because it too means Victory in harmony with Adraste the Goddess of Victory. This was a very focused woman.
Here is how Tennyson gives voice to the muse describing our fiery heroine:
‘While I roved about the forest, long and bitterly meditating,
As she marched into battle, she was able to enlist the patronage of the Trinovantes, neighbors to the Iceni in her growing campaign against the Romans. They first attacked the settlement of Colchester where the bulk of the population consisted of retired army personnel, long used to pillaging and subjugating the local population. There had been much upset in Colchester because an omen of misfortune had befallen the Romans in the form of a statue of Victory suddenly and inexplicably tumbling to the ground.
Boadicea marched in and routed the place then carried on with her troops to London and Verulamium where she exacted an equally bloody and victorious toll. It is said that in all three instances the Britons were merciless, surrendering themselves to the most barbarous acts of revenge and human sacrifice. The temple to Claudius was not to be spared and the statue to the late emperor lost its head!
I would love to be able to tell you that she carried on and beat the lot of them, but the Romans eventually regrouped a force of 10,000 under Suetonius Paullinus, the roman govenour of the day and beat Boadicea and her forces in the year 60 AD. (During the sacking of Colchester, London and Verulamium he had been ‘away in Anglesey stamping out Druids’. 1.) The story goes that she committed suicide by taking poison. I have also heard it told that she fell on her sword. It would be hard to know really what did in fact happen to Boadicea or her daughters in the end. There are several speculations as to the location of her grave. Some say she is under platform 10 at King’s Cross Station, others say she lies under a mound in Hampstead. There have however been sightings of her ghost in Epping Forest and in 1950 she was seen riding out of the mist near Cammeringham in Lincholnshire. (2.)
The passion and fire which consumed the life of Queen Boadicea also sealed her fate. It would seem that her situation committed her to the course of action which ultimately played out her destiny. She must have been a woman of immense physical, emotional and spiritual strength at the absolute height of her powers. When I think of what it must have taken to rally her troops knowing she was into an all or nothing situation, I feel confronted with the elements of myth and legend. What else remained to her had she not taken up her spear and shield? Having endured so many losses, what other choice was left? I think this question speaks to the challenges so many of us encounter living in a world influenced by patriarchy and it's legacy. The legendary heroine Boadiceainspires me to remain true to the vision of my dreams. In that time and in that place, I believe I would have followed her myself.
Serena Rykert is an artist and poet living on the Canadian Shield just North of Maynooth, Ontario, East of Algonquin Park. Her first book of poetry, One Leaf, One Place, One time, was published by Danu Press in 1995. She draws her inspiration from the natural world and has a special fondness for gardening!
E-mail Serena: firstname.lastname@example.org
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