NOTE: Boudicca or Boadicea?
First we should address the two dominant spellings of her name and decide which is best to use. After much debate and careful consideration, it has to be noted that we have not the vaguest idea, which is "better" than the other. Some insist that Boudicca is more "Celtic" than Boadicea, and therefore should be used. That's nonsense, since "Celtic" of the period had no written version of itself (it was an oral language of the Indo-European variety and with hundreds of variations, and dialects -- even different classifications of language). There was no "correct" spelling since the Queen herself never spelled her own name. What we are left with is two different written translations of her name, when the Romans, and later historians, began to write down what they thought her name would look like. Clearly, they were making it up based upon the pronunciation they'd heard, and apparently, they heard very different words. It is true that Boadicea looks more "Latin" than Boudicca, but bear in mind that if we go simply by what looks Latin, then Vercingetorix, Calgacus, and even Caratacus are also Roman-like names. Does that make the people ‘Latin’? No. Therefore it is really a moot point which name is the correct spelling since there was no written Language of the Iceni in her day. For the purposes of this article, I've chosen the more poetic form: Boadicea. Either spelling is satisfactory. I'm certain this debate will continue for some time to come.
Some background must be given prior to the writing of the complex story of Boadicea. It would not be proper for one to make a headlong jump in to the story of the British queen without some time period setting first. The time was during the first century AD in the Celtic tribal land called Britain. By this time, the land was occupied by Roman legions. They were but overlords of a Celtic population, who had already suffered much from others, and were now facing the possible end of their way of life. In essence this is what happened. The end of the Roman's in Britain brought drastic changes to Britain in the form of new settlers from the Continent and from Ireland.
It is vital to have a fundamental undestanding of the life the ancient Celts lived, and the lives of their oppressors -- the Romans. And of course, background information of the Druids is strongly required, since so much awful misinformation and myth about this sect of Celtic society is prevalent, especially on the internet. It will be as brief as possible, so that we may soon get to the story of the warrior queen. Please bear with me on the first part of this essay, and I think once you start reading, you will find it as interesting as I have come to find it.
The British Celts
In 50 A.D. Ostorius Scapula, the Roman governor of the province of Britannia, declared confidently that the capture and transportation to Rome of Caratacus (already termed `the last of the Celts'), and his Celtic opposition to the Roman occupation would soon cease. Ten years later, he was proved drastically wrong when a violent revolt exploded in the territory of the Iceni, one of the largest Celtic tribes in Britain.
By the time the Iceni revolt was over, a name was carved into the annals of history books even the biased Roman historians could not ignore. The name that stood out was the female Queen on the Iceni Tribe, Boadicea. Her name has ever since been linked to terror and savage attack...but is this label justified? Or is it a Roman perspective? We shall endeavor to find out for ourselves.
Boadicea has ever since kept her place in the forefront of a small band of British and Celtic heroes, whose names have become a part of British national heritage.
Yet, who was this woman, who achieved such remarkable feats of war? It is time where only male names dominated the history books. What kind of warriors did she lead into battle? The story is a complex one and there are few reliable sources. Sorting the facts from legends and myths, a coherent picture does emerge if we first look at the kind of people from which she sprang.
The British Celts -- a brief look
This is an extremely condensed look, using accurate data to look at the Celts of the time. In no way am I making claim to represent the entire history of the Celts! Rather this should be viewed as an overview of the important facts that will pertain to our understanding of Boadicea and her Celtic times.
Our earliest impressions of the Celts come from the classical sources; Greek and Roman accounts and their view of the people we know to be Celts. There is very little from the Celts themselves. Posidonius, Strabo and Polybius described the Celts as tall, fair and ruddy-complexioned, loved the arts of war, feasted and drank, and were famous hunters and fighters. To the Greeks and later to the Romans, they seemed savage and barbaric; headhunters who tattooed themselves with strange patterns and went naked into battle. Yet their culture was far from backward. They loved literature and the arts, decorated everything -- pots, mirrors, drinking vessels, weapons and horse harnesses with intricate, beautiful designs. Their sense of justice was almost as pronounced as their pride, which was considerable, and they were first amongst the people in Europe to develop a sophisticated system of laws to govern daily living.
Their religion at the time, under the guidance of a druidic priesthood, was complex and highly mystical. They were close to the earth and its natural forces to a degree unusual even for ancient people. Their pantheon of gods was every bit as developed as those of the Greeks and Romans.
The classical writers of the time (primarily Greek and Roman), tended to gloss over certain details, lumping all Celts together as one nation, irrespective of the tribal differences. However, Tacitus did go so far as to distinguish racial types within the various areas of Britain. Thus the Caledonians (generally agreed to be Picts), were described as large and red-haired; the Silures or Welsh as shorter and with curly black hair, and the inhabitants of the south of Britain as resembling the Gauls, in what is now France.
This is an important distinction, which one has to keep in mind when discussing the Celts. The term "Celtic" is itself really a linguistic or archaeological term for a people of a very mixed origin referring primarily to their languages and the group of related languages they spoke rather than to direct bloodlines. They seem to have originally come from an area of what is now the Steppelands of Russia, and to have migrated north and west in search of better lands and a warmer climate. Somewhere about 700-400 B.C., they settled in areas of central Europe which today correspond to parts of Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Eastern France. They spoke a language which is the ancestor of contemporary Irish, Welsh, Scottish Gaelic and Breton, (among others!) but they were so loosely confederated that to call them "one people" is really something of a misnomer. It would be more accurate to see them as a large number of fiercely independent tribes, who settled wherever they could find land suitable for farming and grazing of their herds of cattle.
They had a loose connection based almost solely on the similarity of the group of languages (now called "Celtic languages") and having common customs, and possibly by inference, by blood, although more and more archaeologists dispute that latter fact all the time. The best way to look at the Celts as a whole is as a group of early Europeans who migrated from the East moving westward over time. As they dispersed to settle their own separate kingdoms, they kept a common root language and some customs and probably some common blood as well. But to call the Celts 'one people' like the Romans under one Emperor, or Greeks in their poleis or city-states, would be a mistake. They were a group that shared a similar language (P-Celtic and Q-Celtic, with subdivisions in each of those linguistic branches too), customs and probably some blood, but that bloodline didn't remain unaltered as they mixed with local peoples in the areas each group of Celts settled.
The Greeks called them "Keltoi" or "Galatai", the Romans "Celtae" or "Galatae", but we do not know for certain what they called themselves. "Cymru" or "the companions", is one possibility (deriving from the Welsh), which may also be translated more simply as "the people". I have numerous old Irish reference books refer to themselves as "the people", so this definition seems plausible, but clearly conjecture.
In the south of Britain, the main tribes in Boadicea's time were the Coritani, the Dobunni, the Catavellauni, the Atrabates, the Belgae, the Durotriges, the Trinovantes and her own Iceni. The names are obviously of Roman origin and possibly were Roman inventions. They may be based upon the words made by the tribal people themselves, but did not represent the actual Celtic names, which didn't survive.
Celtic Warfare in the 1st Century
The initial charge of the Celts was terrifying to the opponents, but if it was not successful at breaking the enemy lines, the Celts were in trouble. Caesar's remark that 'only the first charge of a Celtic charge was of any note' -- after this, he suggested it was easy for the legionaries to mop up the remains. Yet, the first charge was certainly something to be feared.
Here's a description by Polybius:
"...the noise of the Celtic host terrified the Romans; for there were countless trumpeters and horn blowers and since the whole army was shouting its war cries at the same time there was such a confused sound that the noise seemed to come not only from the trumpeters and the soldiers but also from the countryside which was joining in the echo. No less terrifying were the appearance and gestures of the naked warriors in front, all of whom were in the prime of life and of excellent physique."
The nakedness was in part caused by sheer bravado; in part a lack of sufficient body armor except among the rich and noble segments of Celtic society. Celtic blacksmiths were skilled workers, (the Celts were the first race to use the long three-foot sword), but never seemed to have considered mass producing armor or quality weapons for the ordinary warriors, who had to depend on magical protection of the patterns painted on their bodies -- often in blue. This is why the Celts are often portrayed painted with tattoos, or blue paint – possibly woad.
[Note: for more on Celtic warfare please read the 2nd and 3rd chapters of Story of Scotland's History". Under the Battle of Mons Graupius there is a long description of Celtic warfare and that battle in particular which applies very much to this same period.]
This certainly made them have a striking appearance, with their limed hair combed into fantastic spikes or ruffs. It was apparently socially unacceptable for a warrior to put on more than a certain amount of weigh for they were fined if their belt was too large!
But by far the most feared and practical weapon ever used by the Celts must have been the chariot. This light, two-wheeled cart, pulled by two strong and agile horses, had a single driver, and a warrior mounted behind him with a clutch of deadly throwing spears. Together they made a fighting team that was the scourge of the Roman legions.
But we must rid ourselves of one striking error, which still lingers in the minds of many people even today. This error is that Boadicea thundered onto the battlefield in a chariot with scythes on the wheels. (As in the movie "Ben-Hur"). No single example of such an equipped chariot was ever unearthed in Britain, nor does Caesar mention them, despite saying a lot on the subject of chariots in general. Finally, as has often been rightly pointed out, a scythed chariot would have been as likely to inflict damage upon Boadicea's own warriors as on the Romans. However, the effectiveness of these chariots cannot be denied.
Apart from mobility that enabled the warriors to attack and retreat at speed, the sheer noise of the chariot wheels thundering over the ground, mixed with the screams of the horses and the shouted war cries, must have been a shocking and terrifying sight. Mix in sounds made by ancient carnyx’s (horns) and the battlefield was quite scary and chaotic.
Caesar certainly seems to have thought so, since he devoted several pages to the skills of the Celtic charioteers in his descriptions of the fighting Britons.
Admittedly, there wasn't much of a mention of Boadicea/Boudicca herself, but that will be coming next. But just whom they were pitting themselves against, these Roman legions? We must look at briefly at them next.
Power of the Druids
It has been said by more than by one writer on Roman Britain that the Druids had a great deal to do with the forging and fueling of the revolt -- partly because of their natural animosity towards the invaders, but mostly in retaliation for the destruction of the great Druid college in Anglesey. This may be partly true, but the situation was considerably more complex than it would first appear. Much of this complexity stems from the previous misconception about the nature of druidism and the activities of the Druids in Celtic Britain.
Indeed, so much has been written about the Druids that are total fiction that it is now extremely hard to extract the truth. Yet they were certainly a power in Britain (as in Gaul) and the classical accounts we do possess tell us a certain amount of useful information.
The Druids did not, as is still commonly believed, build Stonehenge, or indeed any of the great megalithic monuments with which Britain's countryside is fairly liberally spotted. Indeed, though they may (and probably did) use these sites on certain occasions, they seem generally to have worshipped (or at any rate gathered) in groves of sacred trees. The idea that these were primarily oak trees may stem from the connection made by Greek lexicographers between their word for oak, drus and the Celtic (Irish) word druid.
19th century view of a Druid
The Origin of the Druids
We do not know the origin of the Druids, though it is possible that they migrated to Gaul and later Britain from the area of the Mediterranean or North Africa, sometime during the Bronze Age. You might say that they were the same as the Celts for whom they served, but represented a higher class of priest-scholar, instead of warrior-farmer.
They seem to have a shared belief in reincarnation, the transmigration of souls and the sacredness of all life, animal as well as human. There are also tantalizing references to a Greek traveler named Aristeas of Proconnesus, who visited Britain (or a country which may have been Britain) and found there a place where men worshipped Hyperborean Apollo in a circular stone temple in the midst of a plain. Stonehenge? Possibly. But who were these the Druids? They do indeed seem to have worshipped the sun -- or at least to have taken care to observe its risings and settings. But there is no specific solar deity in the Celtic religion, despite a number of solar heroes (legends) whose strength increased and decreased with the rising and setting of the sun.
There is a record of a meeting between Alexander the Great and a wandering Celt, who may have been a Druid. Celtic author J. Mathews points out that when asked if [he] the wandering Celt feared anything, his reply: "Not so long as the sky never falls or the sea does not burst its bounds", does have a familiar ring to the person who has researched Celtic history. The same words, in effect, are repeated several times throughout Celtic literature, almost as a kind of invocation, though whether it was truly of Druidic origin we cannot say.
Another Greek, Pliny the Elder, in a dissertation on the medicinal properties of mistletoe, gives us the famous connection of this plant with the Druids, who were said to hold it in the highest esteem: so much so that any tree on which it grew (it is a parasite) was at once regarded as sacred.
The reasons for this may well lead us to a very important factor in our understanding of Druidism. One of the properties of mistletoe not mentioned by Pliny is the hallucinogenic drink which is distilled from it. The method by which this was attained is long since lost -- mistletoe is a deadly poison in its natural state -- but it may have given the Druids their means of entry to the inner realms of the spirit (much as in the way of the American Indians with peyote, etc.) where they could learn remarkable perceived 'truths' and make prophecies for the future of the people. This puts them on a par with the shamans (mystical spiritual leaders) of other ancient people, who were the preservers of tradition and the inspirers of the tribes in their care as well as guarding their religious truths and knowledge. This seems precisely the function of the Druids in Britain and Gaul.
Druids and Druidism
Even assuming this to be true, there is still a basic confusion between the Druids themselves and Druidism. It would probably be a mistake to view this as in any way the "official religion" of Britain, either during Boadicea's reign or at any other time. The druidic colleges, like the one despoiled by Suetonius Paulinus on Anglesey, was one of several such establishments both in Britain and Ireland. But the Druids who ran these were verbal historians, archivists, lawgivers and teachers rather than priests in the properly understood meaning of the word.
If we see them in this light, much of the speculation and fantasy concerning the Druids fall away. They taught the arts of poetry and song, compiled genealogies and generally preserved the oral history of the people. Almost all this they kept in their heads, expecting their pupils to learn immense amounts of poetry and lore by heart. They had no written language at the time, so no written accounts from the people themselves were ever extant. There are no unknown “histories” that historians are keeping secret, as some suggest. They were also lawgivers, as Caesar's testimony shows:
"They act as judges in practically all disputes whether between tribes or between individuals; when any crime is committed, or a murder takes place or a dispute arises about an inheritance or about a boundary, it is they who adjudicate the matter and appoint the compensation to be paid and received by the parties concerned."
All this seems a very far cry from the usual image invoked by the word "Druid" ; that of the blood-soaked rituals performed at dawn over stone altars, or for that matter the traditional cloaked, white-bearded patriarch who seems to belong in a Biblical scene morseso than in the picture of ancient Celtic life. This isn't to suggest they didn't take part in blood sacrifices and rituals, for almost certainly they did, but it would be wrong to view them simply as the holders of superstitions and forced religious power. They were highly educated for their day and seem to have performed a myriad of services to the Celtic communities beyond merely religious ceremonies, though these were clearly also important.
Mathews and Piggot suggest that it seems probable that the blood sacrifices talked of frequently by commentators and some authors, though they may have indeed taken place, were presided over by a native priesthood which had little or nothing to do with the Druids. Certainly the Celts were war-like, often savage people (as indeed were the Romans, despite their much-vaunted civilization) but they were no more or less so than any other ancient tribal society. The picture sometimes presented of the Druid sacrifices with men held in wicker cages which were then set on fire, is almost certainly far from the truth.
Wicker cage burnings stories are common only to the Celtic history of Gaul, and appear to have been repeated so often in older writings they've mistakenly assumed that what happened in Gaul, must have happened in Britain. Nora Chadwick holds this view. I have great respect for Dr. Chadwick, but she is clearly of the "old school" who felt the Celts were all the same everywhere and that if one burned them in wicker cages in Gaul, they must have done so in England. In short, it was merely her opinion, with which I disagree. Years later a prominent historian/writer of Celtic history, Peter Beresford Ellis, said the same thing I did -- that there existed no evidence of wicker cage burnings in British history during the time of the Celts and there was even a suggestion that the notion was planted into history because a Roman historian had assumed if the did it in Gaul, they did it in Britain.
So who were these Druids? What we should try to see is a body of enlightened men and women, to which membership was a highly sought honor, who endeavored to preserve and educate, and who above all sought to hold in trust the sacred heritage of the people.
Thus we have on the one hand the "Druids-as-known", and on the other "Druids-as-believed" -- the former being a very much in line with historical perception, the latter a fanciful rendition of Druids from the 19th century.
Next - Boadicea, Queen of the Iceni", part 1