Since the end of June 2016 when the people of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, Brexit has been a gaping wound in Britain’s and Europe’s body politic.
This controversial phenomenon has not only divided opinion and saturated headlines in Great Britain but frequently made the news worldwide too, especially in regard to some of the more unseemly behaviour in Britain’s much vaunted ‘Queen of Parliaments’. Not even the advent of the corona virus in the late winter of this year (2020) could dispel the ongoing saga of Britain’s often toxic negotiations with Brussels from the media. As things stand the United Kingdom will leave the EU at the end of the year — with or without a deal.
What is interesting to students of the extant historical record, is that Brexit marks one more incidence of the British (and particularly the English) people’s often strained relationship with continental European politicians and institutions, a factor which often threatens the unity within the United Kingdom too.
An Island Mentality
Intrigued, I began to look back in history to search for the first incidence of this ‘phenomenon’. When and why did it begin? Is it simply a matter of Britain being an island, physically separated from the continent, creating what is often called an ‘island mentality’? I think this would be a far too simplistic explanation, although clearly one would expect a recognisably different culture to develop in a more remote geographic location such as Britain, especially when travelling was more difficult.
Great Britain became an island some time after the Ice Age or Pleistocene era ended and the Holocene began. One could argue that this was the original geographical Brexit, setting the scenic context upon which all later human political dramas were to play out.
It seems to me that the first popularly known occurrence of a nascent sense of Britishness stems back to the first century AD in the person we now know as Boudica, formerly Boadicea. By Britishness I do not mean it in the modern sense, of course. There was no nation of Britain, no England back then. The idea of the nation state was still more than a millennium into the future.
Freeing the Yoke
However this rather infamous punctuation in British history seems to encapsulate something essentially to do with independence, a sense of wishing to be free from the yoke of abusive foreign rule. To give a more recent example, I am sure that many Americans still look back favourably to the Boston Tea Party as something which epitomized the unacceptable face of colonialism, to the point where feelings boil over, resulting in more drastic measures being taken.
The events to which I now refer occurred in the early years of Roman Britain. The period of Roman rule of Britain is quite clearly defined in the record. Julius Caesar had attempted invasion twice a century before, in 55 and 54 BC and ultimately failed to subdue the country, leaving no legions behind.
It is often implied that the British of that time were nothing more than some rag tag collection of ‘Celtic’ tribes, wholly inferior militarily and culturally to Caesar and his legions. Obviously this was not true; what the British lacked was not so much cultural sophistication but perhaps Roman political guile and ambition of never ending conquest.
It was the Emperor Claudius who successfully invaded Britain in AD 43, marking the beginning of the province of Britannia, which, interestingly, never permanently included what we now call Scotland.
By AD 60 it would appear that Roman rule was getting well established. The Britain the Romans were occupying constituted a series of kingdoms, perhaps broadly similar to what is called the Heptarchy of later Anglo-Saxon England. The Romans had a long established method of ruling which involved so-called client kingdoms, where the ruler was nominally independent, yet subservient to the Emperor. It was a way of avoiding spending too much time and resources on outright military conquest. Each ruler was encouraged to accept Romanisation and all the cultural benefits this civilisation allegedly brought with it, thereby becoming a beacon for what some called Pax Romana.
The system appeared to be working reasonably well until a certain king, Prasutagus of the Iceni tribe, who were centred around what is now the county of Norfolk in East Anglia, died around AD 60. His will apparently left the kingdom to his two daughters and the Roman Emperor, who happened to be Nero. However, the will appears to have been ignored and the kingdom illegally seized, Prasutagus’ grieving wife and queen, Boudica, was flogged and her two daughters raped, at least according to the Roman historian Tacitus, although Dio Cassius states that the dispute arose through the withdrawal of loans. He also mentions two cities being devastated, not three, which is clearly an error. It is difficult to envisage the sheer swiftness and vehemence of Boudica’s reaction as being in response to a ‘mere’ financial matter.
So whatever the actual cause of the revolt, it is quite clear the Roman authorities in Britain were not expecting Boudica, the Iceni, the Trinovantes and other British tribes, to respond in the violent and brutal manner they did. Queen Boudica, at least according to Dio Cassius, would seem to have been quite an astonishing presence:
“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 colors, over which was a thick mantle, fastened by a brooch. Now she grasped a spear, to strike fear into all who watched her…” – Dio Cassius
Even allowing for a little exaggeration in the above description, she was clearly no pushover. Even today, nearly two millennia later, East Anglia in eastern England has a strong regional identity, a distinct cultural life and accent, not always enamoured with the prognostications of central government only a hundred miles away. Whether East Anglia still produces such women of renown, however, is open to question.
Chariots and Woad
Unfortunately, we do not know the details of how Boudica organised herself militarily, but as a young British noblewoman she would have been familiar in the arts of war. Within a short space of time the sense of injustice and mounting anger against Roman misrule led to the formation of an army of immense size.
We do know that the ancient British had long used the chariot in battle and that they covered themselves in blue woad, to give that distinctive, terrifying appearance. Whilst the Roman army is rightly considered virtually peerless, it is quite clear that the British chariot would have been very effective too.
Very quickly, Boudica appears to have identified key sites for attack, the first being Camulodunum, or present day Colchester, which was the original capital city of the new province. This is where the temple to the Emperor Claudius, the conqueror of Britain, was established and in Boudica’s eyes would surely have represented a strike at the heart of the oppressor.
Unfortunately for the Romans the then governor, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, was hundreds of miles away on important campaign against the Druids in what is now north west Wales on the isle of Anglesey, or Mona. Although Suetonius immediately scurried back towards London when he heard of the attack, he had insufficient army numbers to defend the city, toward which Boudica’s huge host was relentlessly heading.
A part of the Roman Legio lX HIspana were the only troops who stood in Boudica’s way and were swiftly dealt with, leaving London resigned to its fate. Those who could escape the newly founded commercial capital would have done so. Those who remained were shown no mercy whatsoever.
Following this, the victorious British army, obviously fired up with bloodlust, marched northward towards Verulamium, present day St. Albans in Hertfordshire, to carry on their serial rape, torture, murder and arson. The city was reduced to ashes like London and Colchester before it. Once again, governor Suetonius could only step aside whilst he began to muster enough troops to face the British rebels in an open pitch battle.
The Final Battle
Now whilst it may not be proven, for other sites must be considered, the location of this battle is thought to have been at present day Mancetter in the English West Midlands. Probably luring the now over confident British army to a battlefield of his own choice, Suetonius’ much smaller force were decisively victorious, ending the short but brutal rebellion. Boudica allegedly killed herself, though we can’t be entirely sure. Historian Dio Cassius stated that she died through illness. The number of Britons who died on that day must have been enormous. Those killed in London, Colchester and St. Albans would have been even more.
The Emperor Nero did briefly consider withdrawing Roman troops from the province, yet the decisive nature of Suetonius’s victory prevented this. The revolt, whilst provoking a great deal of initial suppression from the Roman authorities, would also have tempered their rule in the long run.
The Epitome of British Resolve?
Boudica has become the stuff of British legend, with a well known statue of her and her violated daughters now standing in London. Indeed it was the Victorians, who built that statue, who did most to resurrect her memory and status, a reminder that the suppressed will only take so much before taking up arms themselves. When the Roman legions were finally withdrawn, 350 years later, it was at their own behest, not through the forces of insurrection.
Queen Boudica’s rebellion ultimately failed, yet traces of its brutality still remain to this day. Although she must have taken up arms initially to seek revenge for her own and her daughters’ defamation, she has become a British heroine, the epitome of some spirit which is uniquely… well, British. It is a spirit which is continually under threat, yet nevertheless periodically renewed. Brexit, whatever one’s opinion of it, is simply the latest incarnation of that ‘bulldog spirit’ which represents Great Britain — at least in part.
Copyright Francis Barker 2020
There are many books about Roman Britain.