During the fateful year of 60-61 AD, one woman challenged the might of Roman rule in Britain. That woman was Boudicca, queen of the Iceni, The revolt she led against Rome has become a story of the struggle of freedom against foreign power.
Emperor Claudius had ordered the invasion of Britain in 43AD. For nearly two decades an army of four legions had fanned out across Britain, marching and fighting as they conquered Rome’s newest province. Prasutagus was king of the Iceni in modern day Norfolk; he was also a client ruler or ally of Rome, loyal to the emperor. When he died in 59 or 60 Prasutagus left half his royal estates to his two daughters and half to Caesar, who at that time was Nero, successor to Claudius.
The Roman procurator of Britannia as it was then known, was Catus Decianus. He arrived in Iceni territories with a force of ex-soldiers and bureaucrats, determined to seize everything for Rome. He treated the Iceni like slaves. When Boudicca, wife of the king, protested, she was flogged and her daughters raped.
Boudicca, smarting from the humiliation, raised a revolt against Roman rule, rallying not just the Iceni but the Trinovantes to the south. They attacked Camulodunum (modern day Colchester) and swept aside the defence of the garrison, a few hundred old soldiers. The inhabitants were butchered and the capital was razed to the ground. Petilius Cerialis, commander of the IXth Legion, rushed south with a force to suppress the revolt: but his men were routed in an ambush and he barely escaped.
Catus Decianus fled to Gaul. Far in the north west the Roman governor, Suetonius Paulinus, was overrunning the last resistance of the priests known as the druids on the isle of Anglesey. Once he had news of the revolt he raced south with a party of cavalry – ordering his legions to follow him down Watling Street, the Roman road that ran through the midlands to London. When he reached LondInium (Roman London) he realised it could not be saved and turned back to join his troops, despite the pleadings of the citizens.
Boudicca and her swelling army fell on Londinium, destroying the Roman settlement around the Thames. Then they swung north west and razed Verulamium (St Albans).
Paulinus expected to have reinforcements from the IInd Legion in the south west. However their acting commander, Poenius Postumus disobeyed the governor’s request for aid and did not move. Paulinus had with him the XIVth legion, the veterans of the XXth, and some units of auxiliaries. With this force of 10-12,000 men, he decided to offer battle along the route of Watling Street, somewhere in the midlands. Boudicca and her army came north to meet him. Perhaps numbering 100,000 or more and confident of smashing the Romans, the warriors brought their families to watch on a great semicircle of wagons drawn up behind the host. Paulinus drew up his legionaries in a narrow wooded defile fronting on a plain, with the auxiliary infantry and cavalry securing the flanks. The vast army of Boudica moved to the attack but they were forced to fight the Romans on a narrow front, funnelling into the defile. The Romans met the Britons with javelin volleys then counterattacked, forming wedges to break up their enemy and stabbing with their short swords. The Britons were forced back onto their wagons and slaughtered. Boudicca managed to escape and took poison, vanishing from the pages of history. However her name lives on as the woman who dared to defy the might of Rome.