Boudica: making an imperial myth

Words: Meabh Diffley

One of the most enduring figures of British history is Queen Boudica of the Iceni tribe: the Celtic queen and military leader who united rival tribes, rallied an army, and waged war on the invading Romans. Although ultimately defeated in a bloody battle, her legend lives on. 

For centuries Boudica’s story has been forgotten, rediscovered, rewritten, and debated. She has been cast and recast as a barbaric heretic, a desperate mother, an incompetent military strategist and a fearless leader, and used both as a cautionary tale of the consequences of allowing women to lead and a feminist icon. 

It wasn’t until the Victorian era that her identity and place in British history stabilized. She captured the hearts of the British ruling class, and in a move much akin to the Bank of England using Robin Hood as their new poster boy, powerful elites stripped her of her identity as a Celtic freedom fighter and recast her as the Mother of Empire – an imagined ancestor to Queen Victoria. 

On this year’s International Women’s Day, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was asked to name his top 5 female heroes throughout history. In at number four came Boudica. 

To understand why Johnson, a noted misogynist, has such respect for Boudica, it’s important to recognise that, to him, she doesn’t represent a real flesh and blood woman – much less one that rebelled and almost won against imperial rule. Despite (or maybe because of) his classical training, Johnson disregards Boudica’s history, choosing to see her simply as a nationalist symbol. He casts her as a proto-Brexiteer, keen to reclaim ‘Britain for the British’, whose ‘prosperity ended up with an empire seven times bigger than the Roman Empire.’ 

In characteristic Johnson fashion, there is a stunning lack of awareness. The irony of hailing an anti-imperialist rebel while glorifying the British Empire goes straight over his head. In his – and the Victorians’ – remodelling, Boudica has been cast as another iteration of the Roman imperial goddess Britannia, and her own agency made a footnote. 

To give Johnson sole responsibility for this historical revision would be to give him too much credit. Her recasting has been a long time in the making. The physical descriptions of her throughout the ages suggest that men of Johnson’s ilk have been getting over-excited since Romans like Tacitus first described her waist-length red hair and ‘fierce’ eyes. Dominant woman? Check. Simultaneously exotic and British? Check, check. 

Her status as a British hero was only made possible by the efforts of powerful men with intimate ties to royalty and government, as exemplified by the history of one of her most prominent and enduring depictions, ‘Boadicea and Her Daughters’, the bronze statue that has stood outside the UK Parliament since 1902.

From Prince Albert, who originally commissioned the sculpture in honour of Queen Victoria, to Sir William Bull, the Conservative MP for Hammersmith who was largely responsible for raising the funds to bring the project to completion, these elite men imbued the statue, and Boudica’s legend, with the stench of empire. It was Bull who chose the inscription at the bottom of the monument: 

‘Regions Caesar never knew

Thy posterity shall sway.’ 

Taken from Boadicea: An Ode, written by William Cowper in 1780, the poem represents one of the earliest attempts to reposition Boudica as an imperial figure. In layman’s terms, the line chosen translates to a gloating observation that while the Roman empire may have defeated Boudica’s army, her imagined ancestors, the British, would go on to dominate much more of the world. The incongruous act of erecting a statue of an anti-imperialist rebel to honour the Empress of India at the height of the British Empire didn’t trouble these men, who no doubt saw themselves as Boudica’s victorious descendants, finishing what their mother started.

It’s not just elite men that have sought to align themselves with the legend of Boudica. For years, she has been invoked as a metaphor for the power and patriotism of Conservative women. Margaret Thatcher was referred to on occasion by the press as a ‘Boudica in pearls’, and more recently, Theresa May earned the moniker ‘Brexit Boudica’ from right-wing papers like the Sun. The casting of Boudica as a historical precedent of feminist power has been going on since Queen Elizabeth I reportedly invoked her strength when faced with the oncoming Spanish Armada. 

It’s easy to see why this narrative appeals. In a society that so rarely recognised the accomplishments of historical women, she is one of the few figures we have not had to fight to acknowledge. Her statue outside parliament is one of the mere 2.7% of UK statues that depict real, historical women. But hailing this iteration of Boudica as a feminist icon is both historically inaccurate and ideologically corrupt.  

To view Boudica as an ‘exceptional’ female leader confines her to modern patriarchy. In truth, we don’t know what role women played in Celtic cultures. What little reports that do exist come from the Romans, who were biased by their own patriarchal society. That being said, an account from Tactius states that ‘[The Britons] make no distinction of gender in their leaders,’ and Boudica certainly wasn’t the only Celtic woman to wield great power (see: Cartimandua). 

Perhaps if her full history were acknowledged, Boudica would be less attractive as a feminist icon. Under her command her army inflicted great feats of cruelty: plundering Camulodunum (modern Colchester), raping and slaughtering its inhabitants, and causing so much destruction that a layer of ash and debris knowns as the ‘Boudiccan destruction horizon’ can still be seen in archaelogical records today. 

As a feminist, I hesitate to equate violence to strength. When it comes to war, women have the most to lose. This was true then, when Boudica’s own daughters were brutally raped by the invading Romans, and remains true today. In hailing Boudica as an example of the eroticised ‘warrior queen’ trope, we continue to perpetuate our idolisation of military force. And given that her name has become synonymous with nationalism and empire, to claim her presence outside parliament as a ‘win’ for women is an obvious and embarrassing example of white feminism. 

Imperialism is a hell of a drug, and powerful elites have always been able to remake history in their own image. By stripping Boudica of her past, and turning her into a symbol, British monarchs and Conservative politicians have neutralised her and aligned themselves with the fiction she now represents, despite having more in common with her Roman oppressors. The litany of posh white men (many of whom openly long for a return of empire) that hold court in the parliament she overlooks don’t feel ashamed if they happen to catch her eye while shuffling into work, because they’re not locking eyes with a defeated queen who fought viciously to free her people from subjugation and imperial rule. Rather, they see a symbol of their own creation: one of British pluck and patriotism, and, crucially, an insatiable hunger for power, in which they recognise themselves. 

learn more:

  • PODCAST: We Need to Talk About the British Empire – Afua Hirsch
  • BOOK: Monuments and Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form – Marina Warner
  • BOOK: Queen Boudica and Historical Culture in Britain: An Image of Truth – Martha Vandrei

Meabh Diffley is a writer who works day-to-day in climate change prevention. Follow her on Twitter.