The name ‘Boudica’ conjures up a range of associations, but most often we perhaps think of a flame-haired warrior standing up to the might of Rome. Freedom fighter, warrior queen, Celtic icon—she’s perhaps all of these things and more. But the length of time between her lifetime and the general lack of primary evidence about her means she’s become subject to a whole range of legends.
Many of these legends concern the site of her final battle with the Romans and her subsequent burial place. In this article, we’ll take a look at who the records say Boudica was, and examine these legends around her grave. Maybe we can get a little closer to her in the process.
So who is Boudica?
Put simply, Boudica was the wife of Prasutagus, the ruler of the Iceni people in East Anglia. Her name is often given as Boudicca, though Boudica is the more accepted version. Boadicea is the Latinised version bestowed by the Romans.
The Romans conquered southern England, including East Anglia, in AD 43. They initially allowed Prasutagus to continue ruling his people as he had before. The Romans allowed local leaders to rule their kingdoms as ‘client states’. The leaders could more or less rule as they had before, as long as their leader lived, and they did what Rome commanded when necessary (Jarus 2013). When Prasutagus died in AD 60, the Romans took over since that was what they’d agreed with him. Despite that, Prasutagus left his kingdom to his two daughters and Emperor Nero in his will. This seems to have been a man who attempted to balance both sides.
Sadly for his family, his ploy didn’t work and the Romans seized control. The Iceni were a wealthy group so the Romans confiscated property. According to legend, they stripped and flogged Boudica and raped her daughters. I say ‘according to legend’ because Tacitus mentions these events but Dio doesn’t.
The Roman governor Gaius Suetonius Paullinus took his campaign to North Wales in AD 60 or 61. Boudica took the opportunity to rebel, raising her army among the Iceni and the Trinovantes, defeating the Roman Ninth Legion and razing Colchester, the then-capital. They also destroyed London and Verulamium, now known as St Albans.
Finally, Paullinus returned from Anglesey and his army defeated Boudica. He only had around 10,000 men, compared to the 230,000 warriors believed to be in Boudica’s army (Nelson 1811: 68). The Romans destroyed the Iceni uprising, and Boudica disappeared from history. For a while, at least.
Boudica and the Romans
We have to remember that at the point the Iceni revolted, they were actually Roman allies. That said, they had managed to keep themselves largely separate from the Empire. There was no Roman centre in East Anglia, and the archaeological evidence suggests Iron Age living during the period. The Iceni used their own coins and didn’t import goods. This kept them out of the social, political, and commercial worlds of the Romans.
Caitlin S. Gillespie points out that if Boudica had bowed to Roman pressure and adopted a Roman lifestyle, history might have treated her differently (2018). Put simply, if she’d behaved as the Romans expected a woman to behave, they would have praised her role as a wife and mother.
But she didn’t.
So we have to turn to the two accounts of her written by the Romans Tacitus and Cassius Dio.
We have to remember that Tacitus was only five or six when the revolt happened. His father-in-law, Agricola, served in Britain during the revolt. We don’t know if Agricola was actually there at the final battle, but even if he was, it’s highly unlikely that anyone captured Boudica’s words verbatim. Therefore, her speech to her troops remains open to contestation. Cassius Dio wrote about Boudica some 170 years after the revolt. He’s even less likely to have had access to firsthand accounts, and his report of the revolt is even more likely to be heavily influenced by speculation. The two authors don’t agree on major points, they provide different reasons for the revolt, and while they do agree on other elements, it’s still difficult to know which—if either—is more likely to be accurate.
Tacitus paints Boudica as a fine speaker, rallying her troops before the final battle. According to her, they’re fighting for justice on behalf of those assaulted by the Romans. She even claims the gods will help them to win. After the defeat, Tacitus says she committed suicide to avoid capture. He paints her as courageous, choosing death over losing.
In many ways, her desire to avoid capture was understandable. Caratacus led the revolt against the invasion of AD 43-47. The Romans paraded him through Rome in AD 50 after his final defeat as part of a mock triumphal parade (Benario 2007: 70). They only spared further punishment thanks to his quick thinking and an appeal to Claudius’ clemency.
Dio focuses on Boudica’s warrior-ness.
“In stature she was very tall, in appearance most terrifying, in the glance of her eye most fierce, and her voice was harsh; 4 a great mass of the tawniest hair fell to her hips; around her neck was a large golden necklace; and she wore a tunic of divers colours over which a thick mantle was fastened with a brooch. This was her invariable attire. She now grasped a spear to aid her in terrifying all beholders”.(Dio 1925:85)
In her speech to the troops, she considers the Romans oppressive and too weak to handle the British weather and terrain. Boudica also criticises the unequal division of Roman society along gender-based lines.
Dio also described Boudica’s use of divination before the final battle. She released a hare from the folds of her cloak. It ran off, as expected, “on what they considered the auspicious side” (1925: 93).
At this point, Boudica apparently thanked Andraste, the Iceni goddess of war, for impending success. Dio also refers to a goddess Andate, who had her own grove, and “[t]his was their name for Victory” (1925: 95). it appears that she is syncretised with the Roman victory goddess, Victoria. Interestingly, Boudica is here performing a type of augury. The Romans used birds and their flight patterns, while Boudica uses the hare.
Dio says the Iceni gave Boudica a magnificent burial befitting her honour and status.
“Buduica fell sick and died. The Britons mourned her deeply and gave her a costly burial; but, feeling that now at last they were really defeated, they scattered to their homes”.(Dio 1925: 105)
But her body was never found. No one knows where the final battle took place, although historians consider various sites along Watling Street in the West Midlands. Her burial site is also unknown, and Dio doesn’t tell us where the “costly burial” took place. Historian Edmund Bolton wrote the first account of the rebellion since Tacitus in 1624. In it, he even claims that Stonehenge was a memorial for Boudica (Vandrei 2018).
Where is Boudica buried?
Some people think her grave is on Hampstead Heath, which explains the fact there is a ‘Boudicca’s Mound’ on the heath. No digs unearthed anything of note, and there is no evidence it was a grave. Others think she was buried on Peckham Rye, and in 1905 a councillor even imagined the Rye itself as the site of their final battle. As nice as it sounds, experts have pointed out that crossing the Thames at the time would have been difficult. According to one legend, Boudica is buried on Stanmore Common in London, another location considered for the site of her final battle (Westwood 2005: 461).
Other sites are given for Boudica’s burial place, including two sites near Waltham Abbey, and Bartlow Hills in Essex. Many of these come from the 1937 work of folklorist Lewis Spence, who resolutely ignored actual archaeology in the face of unspecified ‘traditions’.
Essex has several claims to Boudica. Various sites, including Stock and Messing, are proposed as sites for the final battle (Westwood 2005: 266). Then there’s the belief she poisoned herself near the Iron Age earthwork of Ambresbury Banks in Essex, where it’s believed her ghost still wanders. That said, her ghostly chariot has also been seen near Cammeringham in Lincolnshire (Westwood 2005: 476).
There is also a large mound on Garboldisham Heath in Norfolk that has been known as ‘Boadicea’s Grave’ since the 1850s (Westwood 2005: 499). Scholars have considered this mound a likely location, given the belief her headquarters may have been somewhere near Thetford, almost eight miles away.
Trouble is, ‘traditions’ about the location of her grave certainly date to the 18th and 19th centuries due to Boudica’s growing popularity. As Jennifer Westwood points out, they’re not indicative of real ‘folk memories’ of her true burial place (2005: 477).
Is Boudica buried under King’s Cross Station?
And then there’s the King’s Cross connection, in which Boudica apparently lies buried under one of the station’s platforms. This idea, while imaginative, has a bizarre set of origins. First, an elephant and a flint axe head were discovered in a gravel pit on Gray’s Inn Road. In 1715, John Bagford published a theory that the Romans brought the elephant to Britain, and the flint was part of a British spear.
Then in 1811, John Nelson published his History of Islington, in which he repeated the theory that Battle Bridge in Islington took its name from the site of the Roman/Iceni battle (1811: 64). The remains of a ‘Roman’ encampment in the area apparently provided evidence the theory was true (1811: 65). There was, at the time, a narrow valley between Pentonville and Gray’s Inn Road that Nelson believed was ideal for the Romans (1811: 66). The narrowness of the valley meant that it funnelled the attacking army, destroying Boudica’s advantage of having more warriors.
Battle Bridge gained a new name in 1830—King’s Cross. Nelson never cited the area as Boudica’s final resting place, but his ‘evidence’ along with Bagford’s appeared to provide confirmation as to the site of the battle.
And then the next twist in the tale arrived. If this was the site of Boudica’s final battle, then surely it stood to reason she’d be buried in the area? At least, that’s how the theory ran. According to the King’s Cross legend, Boudica’s grave lies under Platform 10. This story appeared to first emerge during the Second World War (Wood 2017).
That said, John Clark couldn’t find any mention of the burial under King’s Cross before the 1970s (2002). But I actually found a mention of the legend in a 1952 edition of the Evening Express from 14 October (Chambers 1952: 4). According to a book review in a 1951 issue of Truth, Robert Colville related the legend in his book, London, the Northern Reaches (1951: 557). This would suggest that the Second World War origins of the legend may indeed be correct.
Trouble is, none of this is true
The ‘Roman encampment’ turned out to be medieval. The ‘flint spear head’ was actually a neolithic axe head. John Nelson doesn’t tell us who “supposed” Battle Bridge took its name from Boudica’s battle. The Reverend Daniel Lyson wrote a description of Islington some twenty years earlier and made no reference to the fact. Clark also points out that Battle Bridge only gained that name in the 16th century, having previously been known as Bradford Bridge and Batford Bridge (2002).
There is a possibility that the ‘legend’ of the burial under the platform originally started as a joke. Platform 10 is where the trains to Cambridge start, linking with Boudica’s origins in East Anglia (Wood 2017). Here, it’s possible that the joke became so often repeated that it became a legend. Perhaps it gained popularity during the war through Boudica’s role as a warrior, intent on freedom for her people.
What can we make of these myths?
It’s worth pointing out that no one knew who Boudica was until the 14th century when historians rediscovered the work of Tacitus. After that, she occasionally popped up in literature between the early 16th century and 1780.
It is in 1780 that Thomas Cowper wrote a poem about Boudica, known as ‘Boadicea an Ode’, including prophecies of Britain’s future that apparently came from druids. At this point, Boudica’s popularity exploded.
This is the point at which places began laying claim to Boudica, both for her final battle and her burial site. Here, the claims appear to be based more on wishful thinking than actual evidence. I can absolutely see the King’s Cross legend being a joke that ultimately became a legend through repetition.
One of the big problems with Boudica is that we see her as this revolutionary figure, but ultimately, her revolt changed nothing. If anything, it made life for other Britons worse. And because we know comparatively little about her from British sources, it’s easy to use her to make whatever points we make. Gillespie notes that people hold up Boudica “as an imperial icon, guardian of national identity, and champion of women” (2018). Female leaders from Elizabeth I to Margaret Thatcher have either been compared with Boudica or tried to claim comparison with her. The only actual historical sources about Boudica come from Tacitus and Dio. They colour their portrayals with their own feelings about the Roman Empire, and use Boudica’s speech to her troops to voice these concerns. More importantly, neither of them were actually at the battle.
It’s also all too easy to project contemporary feelings backwards into the first century. Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria both claimed some kind of allegiance with Boudica since they were relatively unconventional monarchs that approached the business of ruling differently. Meanwhile, King James I was less interested in Boudica and she fell out of favour during his reign. So ultimately, when places and people try to claim a connection with Boudica, we have to ask the question ‘why?’ Which part of her myth are they attempting to resurrect? Are they trying to align themselves with a legendary warrior who fought against oppression and the Empire mentality? Or are they trying to use nationhood and ‘freedom’ for a more sinister agenda?
This is unfortunately one of the ways in which people can misuse folklore, myth and legend. For example, Boudica was standing up to an empire…so why would she be in any way appropriate as a symbol for Victoria, who attempted to expand an empire?
We do also need to remember the savagery with which the Iceni destroyed the Roman settlements, although you could argue that Boudica merely matched Rome’s own savagery.
Interestingly, no one presents her as a potential ‘King in the Mountain’. No one seems to expect Boudica to one day reappear and save the country when it’s in peril. She remains in legend, rather than becoming a figure who may one day return.
What do you make of Boudica?
Benario, Herbert. W. (2007), ‘Boudica Warrior Queen’, The Classical Outlook, 84(2), pp. 70–73.
Chambers, Peter (1952), ‘King’s Cross Reaches Its 100’, 14 October, Evening Express, p. 4.
Clark, John (2002), ‘Extract from a paper ‘NEW TROY TO KING’S CROSS: THE ARCHAEOLOGY OF LEGENDARY LONDON’’ given at the Folklore Society conference Folklore and Archaeology, Cardiff University, 23 March 2002.
Dio, Cassius (1925), ‘Roman History’, Vol. VIII, https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cassius_Dio/62*.html.
Gillespie, Caitlin (2018), ‘Boudica the warrior queen’, Aeon, https://aeon.co/essays/boudica-how-a-widowed-queen-became-a-rebellious-woman-warrior.
Jarus, Owen (2013), ‘Boudicca: Warrior Queen of the Iceni’, Live Science, https://www.livescience.com/37061-boudicca.html.
Nelson, John (1811), The History, Topography, and Antiquities of the Parish of St. Mary Islington, in the County of Middlesex, London: John Nichols & Son.
Truth (1951), ‘Away From The South Bank’, 25 May, Truth, p. 557.
Vandrei, Martha (2018), ‘Queen Boudica, A Life in Legend’, History Today, https://www.historytoday.com/miscellanies/queen-boudica-life-legend.
Westwood, Jennifer, and Simpson, Jacqueline (2005), The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England’s Legends, London: Penguin.
Wood, Scott (2017), ‘Is Boudica Buried In London?’, Londonist, https://londonist.com/2016/08/is-boudica-buried-in-london.
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