Queen Boudica: The Crazy Life And Death Of The Celtic Warrior Queen

There's a sad truth to the idiom "well-behaved women rarely make history." The past is full of women who did great things, who were wise and brilliant and heroic. People forgot most of them, though, because history was written by men and the men of history ignored most of the things women did. Also, for every quietly heroic woman, there were 100 who had heroic hearts but never had the chance to prove it because they were stuck in front of a pot of porridge for 364 days a year and they were giving birth on the other day. 

History does remember the women who were loud and badly behaved, though "badly behaved" is totally subjective and a label that only landed on women who were busting out of that cycle of childbirth and porridge and doing things that only men were supposed to do. Joan of Arc, Catherine the Great, Elizabeth I — we remember them because they adopted traditionally male roles and they did not apologize for it.

Leading the way for all of the powerful women who live in our world today was a Celtic queen named Boudica. You may not know anything about her kingdom, but you've almost certainly heard her name — history remembers her because she was, as the idiom goes, less than "well-behaved." Here is the crazy story of Queen Boudica.

Boudica was formidable, and not just on the battlefield

Roman historian Cassius Dio might have been a little intimidated by Boudica, but he probably wasn't too embarrassed about it. Boudica would have intimidated anyone, from a skinny dude with a pen to a fully-armored Roman general wearing one of those stupid looking helmets with a broom on it. "She was huge of frame," Cassius wrote, "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 colors, over which was a thick mantle, fastened by a brooch. Now she grasped a spear, to strike fear into all who watched her." Step aside, Brienne of Tarth, you may be ripped, but this chick can take down two Hounds at the same time and still get out of the bear pit without Jaime Lannister's help.

How true was Cassius' account, though? We don't really know — the Romans had a habit of exaggerating the appearance of formidable women warriors, who always seemed to come across as huge and mannish, as if a small, feminine-looking woman couldn't also be formidable. So stories of Boudica's terrifying appearance might have been totally fictional, and even if they were, that only makes her even more impressive. A small woman who could make the Romans tremble had to be pretty formidable indeed.

Boudica came from a long line of wealthy badasses

Most famous warriors come from nations as well known as they are. Genghis Khan was from Mongolia. William Wallace was from Scotland. Spartacus was from Rome. Boudica was from ... the Iceni? So you've totally never heard of the Iceni but don't worry — you don't actually have to have heard of something for it to be capable of kicking your butt. According to History Files, the Iceni were not just a fierce Celtic tribe, but a smart and sophisticated one, too. They built roads. They minted coins. They hoarded precious metal. And they were self-sufficient, which was a fact that must have peeved the power- and material-hungry Romans to no end. Iceni communities were supported by Iceni farmers. They didn't import a lot of goods from the outside world because they didn't need to. 

But despite all that wealth and technology, the Iceni refused to settle down and become tea-drinking, fox-hunting intellectuals with curly mustaches, nope. They were badasses, and to prove it, they stamped a snapping wolf into some of their coinage. Don't mess with us, world, because we're savage.

The Iceni did make one notable mistake, though. Their lack of interaction with the outside world made them underestimate their own vulnerabilities. Their towns and homes were not fortified, which meant it was only a matter of time before someone would try to take all of that wealth away.

The Iceni had progressive views about women

In much of the ancient world, like Ancient Greece, women were treated like second class citizens. Surprise. They couldn't inherit property, they couldn't become warriors, and they sure as heck couldn't rule a kingdom. (One exception: Women rulers occasionally rose to power in the feminist utopia that was Ancient Egypt, and had been doing so for thousands of years). The Iceni, on the other hand, were way too busy being badass to care about whether or not their women were just as badass as they were.

Celtic women enjoyed rights that most ancient women didn't even have time to dream about, because of all the porridge-making and the childbirth that they were expected to do all the time. According to ThoughtCo., Celtic women could be artists, religious leaders, politicians, judges, and more. They were free to choose their husbands and they were free to divorce their husbands, too. There were strict laws against the violation of women and the punishments were explicitly outlined. If you were going to be a woman in the ancient world, Celtic Britain was one of your better options. Not that you had options, but you know, if you were lucky.

Boudica was a queen, until she wasn't

Before Boudica became the bane of the Romans, she ruled East Anglia with her husband Prasutagus. Under the leadership of Prasutagus, the Iceni were a client state of Rome, which basically just means that Rome got to say "We own you" but other than that, they were more or less independent. The arrangement was cool with the Romans for as long as Prasutagus lived, which was unfortunately only about 12 more years. 

According to History Files, Prasutagus split his kingdom between Rome and his two children, which should have made everyone happy except for one small problem — Prasutagus' children were female, and Rome didn't recognize inheritance through the female line. So not long after Boudica buried her husband, the Romans annexed everything she owned, moved in, and enslaved all the nobles. If it had ended there, who knows, Boudica might have just faded into anonymity like 99.99 percent of all the women who ever lived, but it didn't end there. After annexing her kingdom, the Romans publicly flogged Boudica and assaulted both her daughters, which was a critical mistake on the part of the invaders. Now Boudica wasn't just a conquered former queen, she was a conquered former queen who was also a vengeful mother. Oops.

Boudica's culture empowered violated women to seek revenge, so ...

Celtic women didn't accept physical assault and violation as just another hazard of living in a misogynistic world. On the contrary, in fact. According to ThoughtCo., when such a crime occurred in the Celtic world, it wasn't just punished, it was avenged — and the avenger was often the victim herself or, in this case, the victims' mother.

Enraged, Boudica and her daughters personally toured the kingdom of the Iceni in a chariot, rallying the people to their side. It wasn't hard to do — the Celtic people were already annoyed at the Romans, who had a habit of doing messed up things like taking their lands, replacing their gods with Roman ones, and taxing them for having the audacity to exist. So Boudica's outrage fit in quite nicely with the mood of the kingdom, but the crimes that were committed against her and her daughters had an impact, too. The Iceni didn't just think of Boudica as a queen, she was also a holy figure, and the insult against her and her family was an insult against the entire Iceni culture. 

That made it easy for Boudica to rally her people to her cause. If you believe Cassius Dio, by the end of her campaign she'd amassed an army of 230,000, though that's almost certainly an exaggeration. Still, it was a massive army of really, really pissed off people, and when you have righteous anger on your side, you can defeat just about anyone — including Rome.

A lot of what we know about Boudica was probably made up

Because the Romans spent their downtime ordering their wives to make porridge and have babies, the idea of a woman warrior was pretty scandalous. And like modern journalists, journalists of the past loved to write about scandalous stuff because scandal sells newspapers, or papyrus or parchment or whatever. Anyway, according to the University of Chicago, Boudica captured the attention of two contemporary historians in particular: Tacitus (pictured) and Cassius Dio, who recorded her deeds in their histories of England. 

Sadly, the writers of Boudica's time were more like journalists for The National Enquirer than journalists for the New York Times, and it's hard to know what was true and what was made up for the sake of sensationalism. "All this ruin was brought upon the Romans by a woman," wrote Cassius Dio, "a fact which in itself caused them the greatest shame." He then goes on to describe Boudica as a woman "possessed of greater intelligence than often belongs in women." Nice.

The long speeches Cassius Dio attributed to Boudica were almost certainly fiction. After all, it's not like he was present at any of her speeches or other public appearances. Likewise, pretty much everything he says about her demeanor, appearance, or actions can probably be called into question, too, which leaves us free to form our own impressions about what the historical Boudica must have been like. And so it goes with most women from ancient history.

Boudica wasn't just a military leader, she was a successful military leader

Boudica was a woman of action. Her army didn't just march through a few villages making life difficult for common Romans. Her army took on the Roman Ninth Legion. And won.

According to the Museum of London, the Romans sent the Ninth Legion to put down Boudica's rebellion, but the warrior queen was ready for them and her army successfully ambushed the Roman one as it descended on Colchester. Only the cavalry escaped, and the Romans rather graciously declared that the battle had been their worst defeat in Britain. The defeat of the Ninth Legion cleared the way for multiple attacks on Roman cities — Boudica destroyed the capital city at Colchester, and then she moved on to London and destroyed that city, too. After that they took out Verulamium, known today as St. Albans. En route, they killed thousands of people and turned every Roman they encountered into terrified poultry (metaphorically, of course). 

To be fair, though, Boudica and her army had a somewhat easy time of it, since most of the Roman army was off fighting Druids at the time, which left those major Roman settlements vulnerable to attack. Colchester was defended by 200 old men who didn't even have decent weapons, and London had essentially been evacuated before Boudica even got there. So it was easy pickings, and it may have made Boudica and her army a little too bold.

Boudica was ruthless

Historical accounts of Boudica can be taken with a grain of salt, but what we can trust is actual archaeological evidence from the past. And there is some, most notably a site in Colchester, England, which contains stark evidence about the brutality of Boudica and her troops.

According to the Guardian, the site contains evidence of the brutal, calculated destruction perpetrated by Boudica's troops after they seized the effective Roman capital city in Britain. The Romans built their cities tough — from hardened clay and timber. They were designed to withstand a destructive army, and they were especially difficult to set fire to. So Boudica and her troops leveled them, and it wasn't just a couple of destroyed houses to prove a point, either. It was the entire town, knocked down building by building. She murdered the civilian population that lived there, too. No one was spared, not even the women and children. So all of that talk about justice and vengeance evidently did not extend to anyone except Boudica and her daughters, and maybe the soldiers who were fighting on their behalf. 

No bodies have been found at the site, but according to temporary accounts of the massacre the death toll was as high as 70,000. So if you were thinking of her as a warrior for justice, well, she was a warrior for her own justice. But like so many armies of her time, compassion for the enemy — even the weakest civilian — did not have any place on her moral compass.

No one knows how Boudica died

Boudica fought a final battle on the isle of Anglesey. She had the advantage — by some accounts her army outnumbered the Romans by 23 to one, but that number has almost certainly been inflated for dramatic effect. According to LiveScience, any advantage Boudica might have had in numbers was moot anyway. The Romans were well-equipped and experienced. Boudica's army was pretty much the opposite. 

First, the Romans took down Boudica's front lines with spears, then they unleashed the cavalry. When it became clear they were outmatched, Boudica's soldiers tried to flee, but Boudica had made the stupid mistake of parking all her supply wagons in such a way that retreat was impossible. 

Boudica's fate after that isn't really known. Tacitus claimed that she poisoned herself in order to avoid capture. Casius Dio said she took ill, maybe from an infected wound. Dio also claimed that her burial was elaborate and very public, though that doesn't seem likely since it's generally not a great idea to bury an enemy of Rome somewhere super obvious. All we really do know is that she vanished after the battle, so it is possible she retreated back to the Iceni and spent the remainder of her days cooking porridge and having babies. Nah.

No one knows where Boudica is buried, either

Like the tomb of Cleopatra, the tomb of Boudica remains elusive. Loads of people would like to find it, some say they have, but so far there hasn't been any conclusive evidence. Archaeologist Richard Hingley told Archaeology that it's not even especially likely she was buried — if she'd died in battle, her remains would have been cleared away pretty unceremoniously along with the remains of all the common soldiers who died on the field.

Still, there are people who think Boudica might have been found in the 1800s, and others who think she's buried under platform 8, 9, or 10 at London's King's Cross rail station. Why King's Cross? Because someone once found an elephant there. Oh-kay. The elephant, or so goes the theory, was a part of the Roman army and the flint ax head found nearby belonged to the British soldier that was fighting the elephant and its Roman comrades. Actually the elephant was neolithic, and so was the flint ax, but never mind. People still like this theory for some reason.

The gravesite discovered in 1879 is a candidate because its three occupants appear to be female, and it's filled with valuable grave goods, which suggests high status. The graves date to the right time period and are in the right location, so its tempting to think the occupants might be Boudica and her daughters. But without any definitive evidence, it can never be anything more than speculation.

The Victorians loved Boudica

Boudica was a rare example of a badass female warrior, and it's easy to just dismiss all that stuff about indiscriminate killing, hypocrisy, blah blah blah. It was rare for a woman to so boldly and successfully (to a point) exact revenge upon a powerful enemy, so that alone was enough to give Boudica the respect of women who lived in her time all the way through to the present. And some of her biggest fans were ... Victorians.

Wait, the people best known for being prudish also held a barbarian warrior queen up as a role model? You betcha. According to the Telegraph, they admired her so much that they built a statue of her on the bank of the Thames, and their own Queen Victoria was the model. 

After you upack it, though, the Victorian obsession with Boudica doesn't seem so strange. She was a powerful symbol of female rule during a time when Britain was ruled  by a female. She's simultaneously warlike and maternal, which are the two forces necessary to defend the institutions of Liberty. Makes perfect sense.

Boudica was great for filmmakers

Back before everyone hated Mel Gibson, he was one of four directors making movies about Boudica. Gibson's film was called Warrior, and commentators liked to call his version of the legendary queen "Braveheart in a bra." So what happened to the project and why don't you remember the trailer? Like Boudica herself, no one really knows how or why it died, but it did. Meanwhile, a few other films tackled the subject, including the 2003 film Warrior Queen and the 2019 British film Boudica: Rise of the Warrior Queen. Evidently there was also a Stephen Spielberg production in the works, too (called Queen Fury), but that one also died a mysterious death. Perhaps Boudica is just too huge for the big screen.

Not for the little screen, though — the warrior queen also made an appearance in the popular 1990s series Xena: Warrior Princess, which permanently secured her place among the badasses of the past, present, and future, right between Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor. Boudica, you have finally arrived.