Boadicea: Woman Warrior

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It was a British woman in Oklahoma City who first compared me to Boadicea, and she was absolutely shocked when I had no idea who the hell she was talking about.

“The first woman military leader,” she told me, shaking her finger at me. “The first woman hero of the British.”

I think this was the only time in my adult life that someone shook their finger at me.  “She fought against Julius Caesar!  And you know all the classical stuff, and you don’t know about her!”

By now I was blushing with embarrassment. Still shaking the finger, she stated, starting to get shrill:  “How on earth did you miss her?”

I could only shrug my shoulders.  How could I possibly explain to her  how I had avoided hearing of — well, someone I had certainly never heard of.  After all, she was a physician’s wife who collected books on knitting and often cuddled her pet pot-bellied pig, for Goddess’ sake!

DeborahSavesTheDayShe was not exactly impressed by my response:  “I thought the first female military heroine was Deborah — In the Bible.”

Yeah. I used this example to explain to my parents that I was not the first Jewish girl to turn up in the army.  Of course, they were of a culture to appreciate such things.  The Okie Brit wasn’t.

Deborah was a judge first.  I know this because her story is in the Book of Judges —  and she led a major victory for the Israelites in the Land of Canaan.  There is even a song about it.

I don’t think they had newspapers in those days, so putting it in the Bible was the best way to officially announce such things.

My friend gave up, stroked her pot-bellied pig comfortingly and grumbled that I had a lot of Jewish stuff crammed in my head, which seemed to help her pardon me for not knowing about Boadicea.

Actually, I have a much better excuse for not knowing anything about Boadicea at that time.  Her country did not have a tradition of written literature.  I don’t think anybody even agrees on how her name should be spelled.  At least not in English.

TacitusThe only account of her exploits that seems available on the internet, and the best one by all reports, is in the Annals by Tacitus. This was written about 50 years after the events occurred.

I shall save you trudging through the whole of this voluminous tome. I mean, I have never been a major fan of military or political history, although I will admit to enjoying accounts of the lives of women in these contexts.

To sum it all up, Boadicea did just fine for herself, making it to the status of woman military hero. There is a lovely statue of her that stands next to Westminster Bridge and the Houses of Parliament in London.  And there is a lovely artist’s rendering of that statue on the web page of the Australian Company named after her: Boadicea Resources Ltd.

This woman was indeed active a little after Deborah, about 60 AD.  Like many women, she started out as the wife of a ruler, Prasutagus, who was head of the Iceni (Celtic) tribe in the part of England that is now Suffolk and Norfolk.

The Roman Empire was awfully humongous.  Also, communication was limited to hand-carried messages.  So I, for one, am not terribly surprised that when the Romans invaded Britain in 43 AD, the Romans let a couple of Celtic Kings keep a little power.  Machiavelli himself recommended this tactic a millennium later as an expeditious way to stay in charge.

Edwardian stained glass image in Colchester Town Hall

Edwardian stained glass image in Colchester Town Hall

One of the rulers who was allowed to keep some power was the aforementioned Prasutagus, Boadicea’s hubby.  However, there was a lot of Roman culture introduced to the region, not to mention at least some kind of attempts to suppress Celtic culture.

Also there were the famous Roman taxes.  Those are also in The Bible, but in a later section of the book than my ancestors wrote.  By 47 AD the money given to Prasutagus — allegedly to help him rule his folks — was redefined as a “loan,” and the Iceni were forced to get rid of all their weapons.

When Prasutagus died in 60 AD, he left half of his kingdom to the Roman Emperor,  Nero, to settle the debt.

This is not totally shocking, as folks like the Romans tend to want to run things as well as people with whom they get involved.  Much mayhem ensued, including what certainly seems to have been the public beating of Boadicea and the raping of her two daughters, not to mention selling most of the royal family into slavery and well.

Boadicea went to the surrounding kingdoms and put together one heck of a revolt.

With about a hundred thousand Brits, Boadicea took what is now Colchester and went on to London.

She said a whole lot of wonderfully quotable things according to Tacitus, about how she sought revenge not as a ruler but as a woman, and how there was absolutely nothing unusual about a woman directing an army.

This is the stuff that feminist heroes are made of.

Boadicea continued to command her soldiers, but at some point these folks, who had left their farms and crops back at home, were going to need food.  The Romans destroyed their own stores of food, so that Boadicea’s forces could not get them. Boadicea’s folks were weakened, and a relatively small amount of Romans (about twelve hundred) defeated Boadicea’s hundred thousand.


Inscription on British statue

There is some doubt as to how she actually died, but it is believed that Boadicea returned home to take poison, avoiding death or capture by the enemy.  With what the Romans had done to her and to her family, I cannot say that I blame her.

The story of Boadicea became especially popular during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, another woman who ended up leading an army – or at least a navy. OK – maybe she didn’t technically “lead” the military, but she was the commander in chief.  That Spanish Armada didn’t just sink itself, you know.

I cannot help but feel some kinship with Elizabeth I here, because whenever you are trying to do military stuff, the trick is convincing folks “a woman has done this before.”

William Cowper’s Ode to Boadicea made it into the Harvard Classics.

Tennyson’s poem was beloved by the Victorians.

There seems to be no doubt that after dealing with Boadicea, the Roman rule of the British Isles softened considerably.

There was actually a movie about her in 1926.  It seems to have been fairly undistinguished according to the Internet Movie Database Reviews.

Colchester, one of the first towns that Boadicea took over in her uprising, was the site of a recent women’s conference.

London statue, detail.

London statue, detail.

The idea of this uprising being succeeded, a good two thousand years later, by a feminist conference that actually includes some humorous speeches — well, this pleases me no end.

We have such close ties with the U.K., for this is the place from which our communal heritage started.  It seems good and right to know about Boadicea.

I have to give a special tip of the hat to the folks at who pulled together a lot of information about Boadicea.  I have got to admit that things like “women warriors,” ” powerful women rulers” and the like are simply not categories I usually see on feminist history pages —  so please share them with your daughters.