How Attitudes to Women’s Rights Caused Queen Boudicca to Revolt

Queen Boudicca is a well-known figure in women’s history, famed for leading a bloody revolt against the Romans in a bid for freedom and revenge for the miss-treatment of her and her family. Despite her fame, very little is known about her for sure and what we do know comes from the writings of two Romans, Tacitus and Cassius Dio, and from what little archaeological evidence is available to support them.

The Coming of the Roman Invaders – 43 AD

Boudicca was the wife of King Prasutagus, ruler of the Iceni, a tribe located in East Anglia in Southern Britain. Their location was relatively isolated as it was largely surrounded by forest and the sea but that did not stop the Roman invaders from being a threat to them. When the Romans came in 43 AD, they swept across the east of the country conquering any tribe that would not pledge allegiance to them.

Like many local kings, Prasutagus decided that the future of his tribe lay not with fighting the vastly more powerful foreign invaders but in joining them. He paid homage to the Roman Emperor and became a client king, ruling in the name of Rome and answering to the Emperor and the Governor of Britain.

Culture Clash – Differing Attitudes to Women’s Rights in Society

When he died around 60 – 61 AD, Prasutagus left his kingdom jointly to his two daughters and the new Emperor of Rome, Nero. Aristocratic women in Celtic society were in a position of prestige and power and when it came to their suffrage, they were way ahead of their time. Celtic women’s rights allowed them to be active participants in the political, religious and artistic life and they could own land, marry who they chose and even initiate divorce.
 
However women’s rights under Roman law were different and the largest empire the world had ever seen had little to offer when it came to the suffrage of their women. The idea of co-owning the kingdom in itself would have been unacceptable to Nero and on top of this, daughters did not have inheritance rights under Roman law. They found the very idea of women being involved in leadership and politics offensive and saw it as evidence of Celtic barbarity.

To make an example of the Iceni for such an insult, members of the Royal Family were enslaved and Queen Boudicca was herself stripped and flogged. Then, in an act that can only be described as one of the most barbaric in women’s history, the Iceni leader was made to watch as her two daughters were publicly raped and tortured; the girls are believed to have been around the age of twelve at the time of their ordeal.

Queen Boudicca and British Suffrage

Queen Boudicca and the Iceni were not the only ones to suffer at the hands of the Roman invaders and even collaborators were being harshly treated and heavily taxed. As a result, many neighbouring tribes joined her when she began a rebellion in a kind of early British suffrage movement designed to rid the Island of this foreign force. Anti-Roman sentiment, it seems, was high, so much so that the usually fragmented tribes flocked to her cause with as many as 100,000 turning out to fight the Romans.

The revolt began with attacks on the Roman capitol city of Camulodunum (Colchester) where the Ninth Legion were defeated. They then went on to defeat the Romans at Verulamium (St Albans) and the growing town of Londinium (London) while the Roman Governor of Britain, Gaius Suetonius Paullinus, was busy leading a campaign against non-collaborating tribes in North Wales. Dio Cassius gives a description of the Queen of the Iceni:

"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 great twisted golden necklace, 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...."

After killing thousands of Romans, Queen Boudicca’s armies were finally defeated but her legacy has lived on through the ages. The fact that a band of barbaric tribes led by a woman caused so much injury and death and came close to defeating them would have shook the Romans to the core and struck an early blow for women’s rights that would not be soon forgotten. According to Tacitus, Boudicca stated in a speech before going into battle;

"I am not fighting for my kingdom and wealth. I am fighting as an ordinary person for my lost freedom....Consider how many of you are fighting - and why. Then you will win this battle, or perish. That is what I, a woman, plan to do! - let the men live in slavery if they will".

Bibliography:

Boudica's Revolt. [Internet]. 2012. Spartacus Education: Available from: http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/ROMboudicca.htm [Accessed on 19 Jan 2012].
 
Boudicca. [Internet]. 2010. University of North Carolina. Available from:
http://www.unc.edu/celtic/catalogue/boudica/catalog.html [Accessed 18 Jan 2012].

Boudicca (died c.AD 60). [Internet]. 2012. BBC. Available from:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/boudicca.shtml [Accessed on 19 Jan 2012].

British Archaeology News. [Internet]. 2003. British Archaeology Magazine. Available from: http://www.britarch.ac.uk/ba/ba70/news.shtml#item1 [Accessed 18 Jan 2012].

London Graves Desecrated by Boudicca's Army. [Internet]. 2010. Council for British Archaeology. Available from: http://www.britarch.ac.uk/ba/ba83/feat3.shtml [Accessed 19 Jan 2012].
 

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