(Boudica and her rebels, by Joseph Martin Kronheim (1810–1896), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
Camulodunum, Londinium, Verulamium And The Battle Of Watling Street
Before reading about Boudica’s sieges and battles against the forces of Rome in ancient Britain, take some time to look at Irina Yakubin’s biographical article about Queen Boudica, her motivations for fighting, and her legacy, HERE. The article below will reference why Boudica began her rebellion, but the military struggle between Boudica and Governor Suetonius is the primary focus of this piece.
Gathering the Angry
When Roman occupiers publicly flogged the Iceni queen Boudica, and raped her two daughters, they unknowingly provided a horde of angry and vengeful Britons with a leader who would become legendary. Though the Iceni (before the floggings and rapes) had been willing to work with Rome, many other tribes had been hostile to Rome, in both thought and action, ever since Emperor Claudius invaded and occupied the British Isles in 43 CE. When Boudica called out for vengeance after her and her daughters’ terrible ordeal, multiple tribes (Trinovantes, Dumnonii and stragglers from the Caturvellauni) joined the Iceni in rebellion.
The British tribes had legitimate reasons for their unrest. A chief named Caractacus (or Caradoc) had led the British resistance against Rome’s occupation. Even after his brother was killed, and his army defeated by the forces of Emperor Claudius, Caractacus continued to carry on a guerrilla campaign against the Roman occupiers. He managed to keep up his harassment against Rome for nearly a decade until he was captured around the year 52. Rome, unsurprisingly, punished Caractacus’ tribe for the violent actions of their chief. The Romans also did not better their relationship with the Britons when they began suppressing the druids. Around the time that Boudica was flogged and her daughters ravaged, the Roman Governor, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, was clearing out a druid stronghold on the Island of Mona, now known as Anglesey, off the coast of Wales.
While Caractacus had been evading his enemies, the Romans had been settling their newly won territory. The city of Camulodunum (modern Colchester) was refitted to be a home for veteran legionaries. Unfortunately, the veterans often were not respectful or generous to their native Briton neighbors. Instead of building trust and understanding, the Romans, on multiple occasions, executed, imprisoned or enslaved the native inhabitants of Camulodunum. To make matters worse, when Nero became emperor in 54, he ordered a temple to his predecessor, Claudius, to be built in Camulodunum. Adding insult to injury, the temple was built with funds that included money from the tribes of Britain, and the chieftains were urged to visit the temple at least once a year.
It is no surprise that the Britons hated Camulodunum; so it is fitting that the city became the first target to face the wrath of Boudica and her coalition of rebelling tribes. The city had no walls, and little to no defensive obstacles to halt an attacking army. The people of the city also found themselves with few reinforcements. When Boudica and her army arrived on the periphery of the city, Governor Suetonius was still off fighting the druids on the Island of Mona, and only one undermanned legion was within range to help defend Camulodunum.
The Ninth Roman Division (Legio IX Hispania) marched to relieve the besieged city with around 2,000 infantry and 500 cavalry. Their march, however, was cut short. Boudica caught the legion in a devastating ambush that routed the Roman force and obliterated its infantry.
The city of Camulodunum, with its inadequate defenses and lack of reinforcements, quickly fell to Boudica’s bloodthirsty horde. Once they were inside, the enraged Britons massacred the city’s population and set fire to the structures built by their Roman occupiers—actions they would repeat in other cities they captured. Looting, enslaving and ransoming did not motivate Boudica’s warriors; they captured Roman cities to vent their hatred and to impose lethal punishment.
After destroying Camulodunum, Boudica rounded up her warriors and pushed southwest toward Londinium, now known as London. By this point, Governor Suetonius had completed his mission in the Island of Mona, and could have manned a defense of Londinum. When he looked at the town, however, the governor did not like what he saw. Once again, despite the city’s wealth and growing importance, Londinium did not have a defensive wall. Also, Suetonius had heard reports of incredible masses of warriors flocking to Boudica’s banner. The governor knew the small force he had used to suppress the Island of Mona would not be enough to repel Boudica from the city. Therefore, Suetonius chose to abandon Londinium to regroup with other legions and, hopefully, gather enough men to meet the rebelling Britons in a conventional battle. Before he left, Suetonius invited the city’s inhabitants to follow him away from the rebel forces. Many took up Suetonius’ offer, but a great number, including women and elderly, stayed in their homes.
When Boudica’s masses arrived, Londinium suffered the same fate as Camulodunum. The defenders could not keep the rebels out of their city, and when Boudica’s army forced its way in, the inhabitants that remained in Londinium were massacred, and the city was burned to the ground. The Roman historian Cassius Dio wrote of Boudica’s destruction of Londinium in vivid and gruesome detail, describing women’s breasts being flayed off their bodies, and people being impaled vertically on stakes.
With Londiunium in ruins, Boudica ushered her forces toward the city of Verulamium (modern St. Albans) to the northwest of Londinium. Governor Suetonius was still gathering his forces and was not yet ready to engage Boudica. Just like Camulodunum and Londinium, the city of Verulamium would also face the rebels without any help from Rome’s legions. For a third time, the rebels forced their way into the city, massacred the population and torched everything they could find that was flammable.
End of the Road
After the massacre and destruction of three cities, leaving approximately 80,000 people dead, Governor Suetonius decided to make a final stand with the paltry force he had managed to gather. In addition to the force he had during his campaign against the Island of Mona, Suetonius took command of the Legio (legion) XIV and a small portion of the Legio XX. His legions, along with any auxiliary troops he could scrounge up, totaled around 10,000 men. Compared to the estimated 230,000 warriors following Boudica, he was hopelessly outnumbered. Even though the statistics of ancient battles were often inflated by historians (either as an excuse for a loss, or an embellishment for a win), the army of Boudica was undeniably huge.
When Boudica and her horde found Governor Suetonius, he had parked his 10,000 men in a narrow, hilly pass along Watling Street, from which the battle received its name. Behind Suetonius, a forest covered his force’s flanks. To his front, the area was cleared so no ambush could be set without his knowing. The greatest advantage of his position, however, was the bottleneck it required Boudica to enter if she wished to attack him. If she engaged Suetonius in his position within the narrow pass, she would lose much of her enormous manpower advantage.
Despite the difficult terrain, Boudica and her rebel army deployed for battle across from the Romans. Looking out from their narrow pass, the small Roman force would have seen a veritable mobilized city. Not only did Boudica’s hundreds-of-thousands of warriors march to battle, but their families had followed in a caravan of carts behind the rebel army. As Boudica arrayed her men to advance against the Romans in the pass, the families of the rebels parked their carts behind the rebel line and prepared to watch the battle.
Governor Suetonius had no intention of leaving his hilly, bottleneck position, so Boudica called for her forces to advance. The first wave of Britons to meet the Romans found themselves under fire from the Rome’s signature pilum, or javelin. The javelins skewered and killed a significant portion of the Briton front line, and even those that survived likely lost the use of any shields they may have been carrying at the time.
After launching all of their javelins, the Romans advanced against their disorganized and confused enemy in a wedge formation. With their better training and equipment (and some help from the destruction of shields caused by the javelins) the Romans were able to break through the front of Boudica’s army, causing panic, and then a total, chaotic and messy rout. With their front line smashed and the Romans advancing forward in their formidable discipline, the horde of Boudica fled the battlefield—at least until they ran right into their families watching from their parked carts. With nowhere to run, an enormous portion of Boudica’s dazed and immobilized army was slaughtered by the pursuing Romans. Historians, such as Tacitus and Dio Cassius, place the rebel casualties in figures ranging from 80,000-200,000. In contrast, they claim that the Suetonius’ Roman force only suffered 400 losses. Though her army was obliterated, Boudica and her daughters survived the battle of Watling Street.
Though Boudica was defeated, death and tragedy continued to occur. Boudica, refusing to be captured by Rome, committed suicide, and Suetonius quickly followed his victory at the battle of Watling Street with a punitive campaign against the Britons. His raids, combined with crop negligence caused by so many Britons abandoning their farms to join Boudica in rebellion, resulted in a widespread famine. The situation became so bad in Roman Britain that Emperor Nero (one of the cruelest Emperors of Rome) had Governor Suetonius replaced by a governor of calm and mild character. The new governor’s gentler method of governance managed to bring peace to the troubled land of Rome in the British Isles.
Written by C. Keith Hansley