Battlefield Britain - Boudicca's Rebellion Against The Romans

By Corinne Field | 30 April 2006
BBC Battlefield Britain

The BBC series Battlefield Britain spanned 2000 years and told the story of eight key battles fought on and over British soil. See the spoils of war and discover the story behind these violent clashes at a museum or historic site with Culture24's Battlefield Britain trails.

Shows a photograph of a statue of Boudicca on her chariot. She is holding a whip and the two horses pulling the chariot are rearing up.

This statue by Thomas Thornycroft was presented to London by his son Sir John Isaac Thornycroft C. E. and placed here by the London City Council, AD1902. Photo: t © Culture24

Boudicca

Boudicca is one of Britain’s greatest heroines, a freedom fighter who rebelled against the Roman government. Her rebellion was the only viable challenge to the supremacy of the Romans who, until the fifth century, exercised a distinct influence over Britain and its heritage.

Despite the fact that it took place almost 2000 years ago evidence of this mighty rebellion can still be found; from the remains of an Iceni settlement on the outskirts of Thetford to the Snettisham Hoard on show at Norwich Castle Museum.

Shows a photograph of a drama reconstruction of Roman soldiers on the march. They are carrying shields and their standard is clearly visible.

From the TV programme - a Roman legion on the march © BBC

The Roman Conquest of Britain began in AD43. It was a time when Britain was split into tribes, one of which was the Iceni of East Anglia: their capital was Thetford.

Today all that remains of the Iceni in Thetford is Boudicca’s 'palace' on the northern outskirts of the town. Uncovered by archaeologists, the Fison Way site is now believed to be Boudicca’s holy place rather than her palace but it still reveals how significant the area was for the Iceni.

On show at Thetford Ancient House Museum is a collection of lost military fittings believed to be evidence of the Roman reprisals against the Boudiccan revolt.

Copies of the Thetford Treasure, a hoard of gold jewellery and silver spoons dating back to AD370 are also on display. The originals are housed at the British Museum.

Shows a photograph of two gold Roman torques.

Gold torcs, part of the Snettisham Treasure - the largest collection of Iron Age gold and silver neck rings found anywhere in Europe. Courtesy of Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service.

In the early years, the Iceni were a client kingdom, one of the few tribes the Roman administration allowed to keep their lands and govern themselves. Essentially Roman collaborators, it was not until the death of Boudicca’s husband, King Prasutagus, in AD60 that the Iceni faced Roman rule.

Prasutagus left a will in which he promised half the Iceni kingdom to his widow, Boudicca, and half to the Romans. But the will was ignored and the Romans decided to seize the throne. They sacked Thetford, publicly whipped Queen Boudicca and raped her two young daughters.

Seeking revenge for her people, her family and all oppressed Britons, this proud warrior Queen led a revolt against the Romans.

Shows a photograph of a computer-generated image of Boudicca's charioteers riding into battle.

Boudicca's army, led by chariots, advances to fight the Romans in this computer-generated illustration from Battlefield Britain © BBC

First they marched on Camulodunum, modern-day Colchester and the Roman capital. Joined by the Trinovantes of Essex, Boudicca’s army numbered some 100,000 men, women and children.

The rebels took Colchester by storm, looting, ransacking and torching the city. It is said that if you dig anywhere in Colchester today there is a thick layer of red soot from the time when Boudicca set the city on fire. If you ask nicely in the George Hotel, 116 High Street they might let you have a look in their basement where a glass pane reveals a hole showing the distinctive burnt red clay.

This archaeological layer is known as Boudicca’s Destruction Horizon and Paul Sealey, Assistant Curator of Archaeology at Colchester Castle Museum and author of the Boudiccan Revolt Against Rome, told Culture24 it is filled with burnt artifacts from the period, like the charred pottery which is on show at the museum.

Shows a photograph of a burnt Roman pottery bowl.

Samian bowls, courtesy Colchester Castle Museum

Colchester Castle Museum is built on the foundations of the Roman Temple of Claudius. "The temple was one of the causes of the revolt, according to Tacitus," says Paul. "The local native population regarded it as a citadel of everlasting tyranny." So, how fitting that it should mark the site of the last stand of the Roman population of Colchester.

To escape the burning town, the Romans hid in the temple’s vaults. These still survive beneath the medieval castle and visitors to the museum can explore them on a guided tour. There is also an audio-visual exhibit explaining why Boudicca burnt the city to the ground.

Not only that, but the museum boasts one of Britain's finest collections of artefacts of life in Roman Britain.

Among the highlights on show are two Roman military tombstones. When they were discovered they were broken in two and found face down in the ground. Paul Sealey believes this happened at the time of the revolt and some recent finds at a London cemetery bear out his theories that the desecration of sacred burial grounds was a feature of Boudicca’s rebellion.

Shows a photograph of three skulls.

Skulls from Walbrook, courtesy Museum of London.

After their success in Colchester the rebel army marched south to Londinium, a boom town 2000 years ago.

The Roman army had no presence in London at the time as all their soldiers were engaged elsewhere and much of the population had been evacuated so it was an easy target for Boudicca’s army. They set fire to the city and butchered everyone in it.

Like Colchester the main evidence for Boudicca’s revolt in London is the presence of a charred archaeological layer. But the Museum of London boasts more gruesome finds.

The Britons were a fierce and undisciplined army who liked to keep trophies from their victims. At the time it was common to decapitate the enemy and keep their heads. It is thought that the Walbrook Skulls, part of the museum’s collection, on display in the Roman Gallery, might be the heads of Londoners massacred by Queen Boudicca.

The Museum of London has a permanent exhibition on Roman Londinium. It was the Romans who first built a city where London stands today. They bridged the River Thames and constructed a road network to connect the city with the rest of England. London’s Edgware Road started life as one of the main Roman roads, Watling Street.

Shows a photograph of a Roman dagger and scabbard on display at the Roman Legionary Museum.

Iron dagger and scabbard, courtesy of Roman Legionary Museum, Caerleon

If you’re more interested in finding out about the Iceni than the Romans, there is a reconstruction of an Iceni Village in Cockley Cley, Norfolk, recreating the life of the Iceni in Roman Britain.

At Castle Acre in Norfolk on August 14 and 15 English Heritage are encouraging visitors to Meet Boudicca’s People, a family event about what life would have been like in Celtic times.

Shows a photograph of the ruins of a Roman theatre. Two circular walls surrounding an inner wall leading to a pillar in the distance.

Now in ruins, Verulamium was once one of the most significant towns in Roman Britain © English Heritage

After their victory in London Boudicca’s army headed north on the hunt for the remaining Roman legions.

The rebel army was on a roll, they had taken two important Roman towns with relative ease and, 20 miles from London, they took their third Roman stronghold, Verulamium. Today called St Albans, Verulamium, founded in AD50, was a wealthy provincial town and the third largest settlement in Roman Britain.

Built on the site of the town, Verulamium Museum is the best place to get an insight into what everyday life would have been like in Roman Britain. There are recreations of Roman rooms, an impressive Roman and Iron Age archaeological collection of national and international significance including, among other treasures, weapons and armour of the period.

A suit of Iron Age chain mail buried with the chieftain of the local Catuvellauni tribe and Iorica Segmentata (Roman segmented plate armour) as well as a Roman dagger and helmet are some of the highlights.

Shows a photograph of Verulamium Roman Museum. To the left of the image there is a wall comprised of glass windows and columns, which leads to a short, round tower.

Verulamium Museum, courtesy St Albans Museums

It is believed the two armies finally came face to face somewhere north of St Albans. The Roman historian Tacitus gives a precise description of the valley but fails to mention where it is and the exact site is still a matter of debate today – speculations on where the battlefield is located range from somewhere in the Midlands to somewhere in Surrey!

What is known is that Boudicca’s army had swelled to a massive 230,000 so the Roman soldiers were outnumbered by about 20 to one. Surely the rebels couldn’t lose, especially with their secret weapon, the chariot?

Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery in Norfolk boasts a brand new archaeology gallery called the Boudicca Gallery which tells the story of Boudicca through the eyes of the Iceni.

On show is a life-sized copy of an Iron Age wicker chariot. Brave visitors can take the reins and relive the Iceni’s historic attacks on Colchester and London through an interactive video display.

Shows a photograph of the chariot display at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery.

Children enjoying a ride on a reconstruction of an Iceni warrior's chariot. Photo: Jacqueline Wyatt © Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service

But the chariot was not enough on its own to give Boudicca’s army the upper hand against disciplined Roman soldiers and their superior firepower.

The Romans had barbed javelins and scorpios - mechanized field artillery able to throw a bolt (a chunky arrow) at a rate of three or four a minute. This was no mean feat at the time but rather pathetic when compared to the weapons our armies boast today, some of which are capable of firing 7,000 rounds a minute. Could these trained soldiers triumph against the odds?

In contrast to the disciplined, well-trained soldiers of the Roman army, Boudicca’s rebels were a disorganized rabble including women and children, armed with swords, spears and knives. Their disorganization was to be their undoing.

Shows a photograph of a drama reconstruction of a line of Roman soldiers. They are wearing armour, holding big gold and red shields in one hand and their daggers in the other.

A line of elite Roman infantry reconstructed in Battlefield Britain © BBC

Using their wedge formation the Roman army were able to crush the Britons at the front rank and their very numbers meant their own army crushed them from behind. With no room to manoeuvre, the Britons were defeated in one of the bloodiest massacres seen on British soil.

The Romans killed women, children and babies as well as the Iceni warriors. Tacitus reports that the Roman army lost 400 men while some 80,000 Britons were killed that day, making it one of the greatest tragedies in human history.

The Battlefields Trust puts on special Battlefield Walks - some of them cover Boudicca's Last Battle, check their website for more details. Battlefields Trust

Shows a photograph of a stained glass window with a woman's face in the centre. The word 'Boadicea' is written at the bottom of the window.

Stained glass window at Colchester Town Hall. Courtesy, Colchester Castle Museum

It is unclear what happened to Boudicca after the battle. Some say she poisoned herself, others that she fell ill. If rumours, started in 1937 by the expert of mythology and Celtic folklore Lewis Spence, are to be believed her body lies buried under platform 9 at King’s Cross station! Find out what Jane Sarre, Access and Learning Officer at the Museum of London, thinks about this local legend.

Following the defeat of the rebel army the Romans erected forts across the UK to keep the barbarians at bay. It was a show of strength that revealed how determined they were not to be challenged again.

Lunt Roman Fort, established in 64AD following the Boudiccan rebellion, houses the Museum of Roman Military Life. A partial reconstruction of the fort stands on the site today as well as evidence of the original fortifications.

Another good place to find out about what made the Romans such a formidable force is the Roman Legionary Museum in Caerleon. The 2nd Augustan Legion were based here but their only link with Boudicca’s revolt is that they famously and steadfastly refused to help the besieged Roman Britons at the height of the revolt! However on show are original and replica armour and weapons including daggers and javelins.

To find out more about the BBC television series visit the Battlefield Britain website.

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