Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Boudicca Tells Her Story

Today at school I am portraying the ancient Celtic queen Boudicca (sometimes spelled Boudica)  who single-handedly raised an army against the Romans and completely destroyed three cities, killed all their inhabitants as an act of revenge before she was defeated in 61 AD. She is really famous here (sort of like Joan of Arc is to France) so much so that there is a statue of her in her chariot waving a spear in London. Click on the picture to get the full detail (but please ignore all the crap on the table)

We know little about her life. What we do know comes from 2 Roman sources--the accounts of Tacitus and Cassius Dio. But little to nothing is known of her early life, not the year she was born or the tribe to which she belonged. We do know she married into the Iceni tribe when she wed an older man king named Prasutagus and had 2 daughters--but there is no record of their names.

When the Romans conquered Southern England they allowed them to become “Client Kings”. This meant that the Celts would bow down to the Roman ruling class, but when not in the presence of any Romans could live and worship as they pleased. To seal the deal the Romans gave then gold and gifts. Then Nero became emperor and it all went pear shaped. He demanded back the loans the Romans had given them. Loans? What loans? I hear you say and quite rightly. Those gifts of gold and gifts were being demanded back with interest. The stress from it all caused Prasutagus to shuffle off this mortal coil leaving Boudicca right in the thick of it. Nero sent soldiers to strip their household (and the households of the rest of the Iceni) of all possessions. Then he took Boudicca and her 2 daughters to a public place and stripped Boudicca and whipped her while soldiers raped her daughters. And as my mum said, “Then she really got pissed.”

Boudicca raised an army of Celts and they attacked 3 Roman cities. First Camulodonum (now Colchester) then Londinium (now London) then Verilamium (now St Albans--which has a cracking Roman museum by the way) They slaughtered everyone--men, women and children and burned ever building to the ground. It all happened so fast the Romans didn’t know what hit them. They tended to cut the heads from the men and hang them from their chariots as trophies and they are reported to have cut the breasts from the women, stuffed them in their mouths, sewn the mouths shut and then impaled them on spikes for good measure. I can’t quite see Boudicca and her emergency repair kit sewing up these women’s mouths but that is the report from Tacitus. Why didn’t the Roman army fight back sooner? Well, their military leader Seutonius was off on the Isle of Mona fighting the Druids and without a leader to tell them what to do the army was just wiped out with the rest of them. The Celts were fierce warriors who fought savagely, screaming the whole while to freak out their opponent. Many of the men fought naked, their bodies  painted up blue with woad. A naked, hairy, blue, screaming Celt running towards me with a sword? You bet I’d be scared.

But finally Seutonius returned and find the perfect place to do battle. A river surrounded by forest. Boudicca’s troops crossed the river and tried to attack but hadn’t realized that the valley narrowed inwards so much. Basically, the got stuck. The horses and chariots couldn’t move forward--they were wedged between a rock and hard place. Literally. The Romans picked them off with ease with spears. The Celts needed hand to combat and close quarters to kill you and they couldn’t get anywhere near the Romans.  So what happened to Boudicca and her daughters?

The truthful answer is no one really knows. Roman records say she poisoned herself rather than be made a slave to Rome. But how do we know this? And if she did it, then how did she do it? What sort of poison did she use?

This is where I had to be creative in my research. I could not believe that she would have carried a vial of poison into the final battle because I feel certain she believed they would win. So what then? My research showed that the ancient Celts were very knowledgeable with plant lore and used herbal medicines. I figured she would know what plant you could find in the forest to do yourself in. I tried to think of every poisonous plant I could think of--but none of those could be found in the region of where we suspect the last battle to have taken place. Some of them weren’t even native to England. But I finally decided on the Yew tree. It is probably the most poisonous tree in Britain. Every part is poisonous--leaves, bark--and even fallen leaves and clippings can kill you if ingested. If you are using the wood in a woodworking project, even the sawdust that you breath in can kill you. According to the book I read One mouthful is enough to kill you! Plus you die a really quick death from muscle tremors, staggering, difficulty breathing, collapse and finally heart failure! I could act that out! Plus having the added bonus that the Yew tree was considered sacred by the Druids, so a bit of irony interposed into it.

   The hardest thing for me, being very uncoordinated, was to wield the weapons as if I knew what I was doing. I had to use a sword for slashing and decapitating, a dagger for stabbing, a spear for combat and impaling and lastly a sling. When I hear the term sling I think sling shot--like Dennis the Menace always had hanging out his back pocket. But no, this was like the sort of sling David killed Goliath with in the Bible. You put a rock in it, whirl it round your head and let go and the rock flies out killing someone. Well, let me say, if I had used a real rock I probably would have killed someone. My sling was weighted to make it whirl better and I have lots count of the number of times I hit myself in the head with it.

I like these monologues I do for my school. They give me a chance to do many things I love--research, write, sew costumes, perform. The show is followed by a Q&A with me as Boudicca answering questions. Then I talk as myself discussing the research and how things were put together. The whole thing lasts an hour and is a good fun and great learning experience to finish a history unit.


  1. Love it and you look great with a sword. Just leave the sling alone. I love hearing about the programs you put together!

  2. I'm so thrilled to be quoted! (twice, actually)

    You do indeed look fierce, and this was quite a project to do! I had never heard of her, and now I know all kinds of stuff. Proud of you, chickadee!

  3. To use a Deep East Texasism: You go grrl---I mean Boudicca....

    Red Head