Before The Great Fire of London Celtic Warrior-Queen Had Already Burned the City to the Ground

Just north of the London Bridge is a two-hundred-foot-tall memorial for the Great Fire of London that devastated the Old City in 1666. However, this was not the first time London had been engulfed in flames. Almost two thousand years before that, in 61CE, a warrior-queen known as Boudica burned down London as she led an uprising of 100,000 Celts against the Romans occupying Britain.

The Roman Empire had made its way to the British Isles around 43 CE and quickly began assimilating the native Briton population — made up of Celtic Tribes — by bribery, coercion, or force. Boudica (pronounced Boo-di-ka) and her husband, Prasutagus, were the King and Queen of the Iceni Tribe located in the present-day county of Norfolk, along the east coast of Great Britain.

Prasutagus and Boudica realized that by cooperating with the Romans, instead of resisting, they could earn power and wealth and lead a Roman life, seen as exotic and prestigious at the time. In exchange for their allegiance, they were allowed to maintain their aristocratic status among their people. Upon his death, Prasutagus left half his kingdom to his wife and the other half to the Roman Empire. But just like that scorpion who suckered the frog into taking him across the river and then stung him anyway, the Romans didn’t live up to their end of the bargain. They seized the entire kingdom, sold half the royal family into slavery, publicly beat Boudica, and raped her daughters.

Boudica rallied neighboring Celtic kingdoms who had their own grievances with the Romans and so began Boudica’s Rebellion. They began in Camulodunum (present-day Colchester) and drove out the Romans and burned down the city. Next, they marched into Londinium (London) and burned it down and massacred 25,000 inhabitants. They then turned their torches north and set their eyes on Verulamium (St. Albans).

At this point, Roman Emperor Nero (about 23 years old at the time) got word of the revolt. His man on the street, Governor Suetonius, had been busying himself trying to conquer Wales. He hightailed himself back to Britain to crush the rebel alliance. He took a stand along the major trading route known as Watling Street, and scholars believe Boudica’s last battle was somewhere along this road in the West Midlands area. Encountering the trained and heavily armed Roman army, the Celtic warriors didn’t have a chance in an open-air combat scenario. The Roman army defeated Boudica and put an end to the rebellion. Most agree that up until this Roman victory, Nero would have pulled out of Britain all together.

Route of Buodica’s Rebellion:

What happened to Boudica at this point is a mystery. The only ancient sources referring to Boudica are Roman sources written after the rebellion. Tacitus included her story in two of his writings, Agricola (98CE) and The Annals (109CE), and Cassius Dio wrote of her exploits a century afterwards, in The Rebellion of Boudica (163CE). According to the authors, its possible she either poisoned herself to avoid being taken prisoner, or she died after the battle. Regardless, her rebellion was enough to make Emperor Nero think twice about how he handled Britain. Shortly afterwards, he cleaned house and replaced the Governor and administrators with non-military politicians.

Once again, Melvin Briggs is busting it wide open with his BBC4 radio show In Our Times. In the first nine minutes, his guests drop the bomb that Boudica may not even exist because there is no archaeological evidence of her. The only physical evidence for Boudica are coins related to her husband, Prasutagus, and the geological layer of burnt ash in the cities she sacked.

After the Roman sources, Boudica’s name is lost in literary tradition. Her story is revived during the Renaissance and Tudor times as another feisty queen, Elizabeth I, identifies with her as a leader that challenged foreign invasion. Later, Queen Victoria channeled her as a national British hero. A bronze statue of Boudica now stands near the London House of Parliament which was commissioned in 1905.

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