Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Historical Heroes & Heroines, Part Three: Boudicca

If you thought Girl Power was invented by The Spice Girls circa 1996, think again. Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni, invented her own version nearly two thousand years earlier, leading the greatest (and bloodiest) revolt against the Romans. Although not the only known female warrior, it was her audacity and ferocity that marked her out in history.

The back story is that she had a major score to settle. Boudicca had been married to Prasutagus, King of the Iceni, a Celtic people. Before Britain was invaded by the Romans in 43 AD, the Iceni had enjoyed a long history of trading with their conquerors. This meant they were allowed to carry on semi-autonomously as a client kingdom loyal to Rome. When Prasutagus died in 61 AD, he bequeathed the Iceni land—a kingdom which takes in modern-day Norfolk and the edges of surrounding counties—jointly to his two daughters and the Roman Emperor Nero. The Romans were none too pleased to be asked to share what they saw as rightfully theirs, so they muscled in and took sole ownership of the Iceni land, confiscated property from leading tribesmen, and in the ultimate insult, Boudicca, the newly self-appointed Queen of the Iceni, was stripped and flogged and her daughters raped.

She was a rum old gal

Boudicca sought her revenge in style, raising a massive army against Roman occupation. Her warriors defeated the Roman Ninth Legion, destroyed the capital of Roman Britain, Camulodunum (Colchester), then Londinium (London), a particularly vicious episode, the details of which are too sordid to reproduce here, and Verulamium (St Albans). Sadly, she came unstuck somewhere in the Midlands, a familiar tale to those of us who have tried to negotiate Spaghetti Junction, whither she was lured by the Roman military governor Suetonius Paulinus. Despite the mismatch in Boudicca’s favour—she is believed to have had between 100,000 and 250,000 troops under her, so to speak, and Paulinus only 10,000—the Romans were strategic, disciplined and merciless. They were assembled in a tight spot leaving no opportunity for the Iceni to surround them, and the chariots, spears and blue face-paint of Boudicca’s warriors proved useless as the Romans picked them off with their short, user-friendly swords, while defending themselves with large shields. 80,000 Britons died in battle, while only 400 Roman soldiers suffered a similar fate. While Boudicca survived the carnage, it is said that she and her daughters took poison to avoid the shame of capture by the Romans.

What else do we know about Boudicca? Roman historian Dio Cassius described her as, ‘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 twisted torc and a tunic of many colours, over which was a thick mantle, fastened by a brooch. Now she grasped a spear to strike fear into all who watched her’. Sadly, there’s not much else to go on, but I think we can safely conclude from what we do know of her life is that she was a rum old gal, as they say in East Anglia. While not the first woman warrior in history, I don’t think it too outlandish to draw parallels with many a subsequent female combatant inspired by a passionate cause.

Bronze statue of Boudicca on the Thames Embankment

Consider Nusayabah bint Ka'ab, the first woman to fight in the name of Islam in the Battle of Uhud in 625 AD, a move made on impulse as she had only pitched up to dispense water to the menfolk. She valiantly defended the Prophet Muhammad and went on to fight in various other important battles.

There was the divinely-inspirted Joan of Arc, who led the French to many triumphs during The Hundred Years War during her short life and was burnt at the stake at 19. (She is the only person to have commanded the entire army of a nation at the precocious age of 17.)

And Rani Lakshmibai, queen of the state of Jhansi in northern India, a leading light in the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and symbol of resistance to British rule in India. She fought in full warrior kit, with her son strapped to her back, but died in battle aged only 23.

Or what about the rare anonymous female skeletons found through the course of archaeology buried with spears, swords and axes? While we may not know the drivers behind their warrior status, the honour with which they were buried tells us they, like Boudicca, were legends in their own time and place.

Whether these women warriors were familiar with their prototype Boudicca or not is immaterial, as is the fact that our heroine Boudicca ultimately failed to secure victory. What this list proves is that in times where women may not have had the same opportunities as men, these feisty females flouted convention and fought heart and soul for their beliefs. And, without doubt, they would have The Spice Girls a run for their money any day of the week. Zigazig-ha!

No comments:

Post a Comment