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Boudica's Defeat

The Battle of Watling Street

The information here is adapted from Boudica: Warrior Woman of Roman Britain by Caitlin C. Gillespie (Oxford University Press 2018).

Retreating north, Suetonius Paulinus formulated a plan. Although wildly outnumbered, lack of food and the approach of the enemy forced him to engage in battle. Cassius Dio claims Boudica’s numbers had swelled from 120,000 to 230,000 Britons, while Tacitus claims an “unprecedented” number of forces.

In fact Webster qualifies the ancient sources and estimates as many as 100,000 Britons and 11,000–13,000 Romans, including the XIV (Fourteenth) Legion and parts of two others including the XX Legion, as well as several thousand auxiliaries and cavalry on the wings of the battlefield. The location of the final battle is debatable.

Location of the Battle?

The location of Boudica's defeat remains unknown. Some historians favour a site somewhere along the Roman road now known as Watling Street, perhaps close to High Cross, Leicestershire, on the junction of Watling Street and the Fosse Way, which would have allowed the Legio II Augusta, based at Exeter, to rendezvous with the rest of Suetonius's forces, had they not failed to do so. This route up the Fosse would also have been the one taken by the detachment of the XX Legion Valeria Victrix from Usk or Glevum (?).

Map of Boudica's revolt adapted from Military History Matters

Manduessedum (Mancetter), near the modern town of Atherstone in Warwickshire, has also been suggested, but there is nothing to say that the battle did not take place closer to Coventry. It seems likely that the horses trained at the Lunt - if that was indeed the purpose of the gyrus - came from the defeat, so perhaps the Fort lay close to the battlefield itself? Other suggestions include Arbury Banks, Hertfordshire, or Church Stowe, Northamptonshire.

Tacitus records that while the Britons were destroying Verulamium, Suetonius chose a position in a defile with a wood behind him (Annals 34):

Suetonius had already the fourteenth legion, with a detachment of the twentieth and auxiliaries from the nearest stations, altogether some ten thousand armed men, when he prepared to abandon delay and contest a pitched battle. He chose a position approached by a narrow defile and secured in the rear by a wood, first satisfying himself that there was no trace of an enemy except in his front, and that the plain there was devoid of cover and allowed no suspicion of an ambush. The legionaries were posted in serried ranks, the light-armed troops on either side, and the cavalry massed on the extreme wings. The British forces, on the other hand, disposed in bands of foot and horse were moving jubilantly in every direction. They were in unprecedented numbers, and confidence ran so high that they brought even their wives to witness the victory and installed them in waggons, which they had stationed just over the extreme fringe of the plain.

Thus Suetonius chose a strategic location, a narrow pass cut off by a forest at the back. After rousing their armies with exhortations, Boudica and Suetonius clashed. As the Britons rushed forward, letting out piercing battle cries, the Romans stood silent, waiting for them to advance within reach of their javelins. The battle is portrayed as a confusion of weapons and men. The rebels rush into battle with the sound of the war horn (carnyx), fighting without armour, protected only by oval shields that stretched from chin to knee. They rode forth in chariots and leapt off to attack with spears and flat, double-edged swords. The Romans, on the other hand, wore helmets and body armour and carried javelins and short swords. The Romans advanced in a wedge-shaped formation, cutting through the rebel lines in hand-to-hand combat, their cavalry on the wings. Roman archers proved ineffective. The Britons became caught in the narrow defile and could not use their long swords. When the Britons retreated, they were hemmed in by the women they had placed in wagons on the edges of the battlefield to watch the assumed victory. (Gillespie 2018).

Thus through Suetonius' clever choice of battle site, Boudica's superior numbers were of no advantage in the narrow field and, in fact, worked against her as the mass of men pushed together provided easy marks for the Romans. This is reminiscent of the choice by Themistocles the Athenian general of the narrow straits of Salamis in which to fight against the massive Persian fleet. Here too the narrow straits obliterated the Persian advantage and in fact gave the Athenian's advantage in the ensuing confusion.

In a single conflict, the Britons were almost completely obliterated due to their overconfidence in superior numbers, disorganization, and the absence of a common training or military discipline. The Romans pursued them into the forest, killing many and capturing others. Tacitus claims eighty thousand Britons and four hundred Romans were killed in the battle. Such disparity of numbers is a common element of ancient writing about battles and once again serves to emphasise Roman strength, bravery and ability against that of the shambolic disorganised Britons. Again such unbelievable disparity, especially in casualties, was recorded for the Athenian victories over the Persians in the fifth century BC.

While those who escaped rallied to fight again, including Boudica and her daughters, it is now reported that Boudica died. According to Tacitus, she poisoned herself so as not to become a Roman captive, while Cassius Dio records she died from sickness. But with her death, however it occurred, the revolt came to an end.

Following Boudicca's defeat, Suetonius instituted harsher laws on the indigenous people of Britain until he was replaced by Publius Petronius Turpilianus who further secured the south of the region for Rome through gentler measures. And while other, smaller, insurrections were mounted in the years following Boudica's revolt, none gained the same widespread support nor cost as many lives. The Romans would continue to hold Britain, without any further significant trouble, until their withdrawal from the region in 410 CE. Though she lost her battle and her cause, Boudica is celebrated today as a national heroine and a universal symbol of the human desire for freedom and justice.

After Boudica

Cassius Dio’s account ends with Boudica’s death, but Tacitus gives us some of the aftermath. After the Roman victory, the XIV (Fourteenth) Legion was named Martia Victrix (martial and victorious), and the XX (Twentieth) Legion was supposedly given the name Victrix (victorious) - if that particular epithet was not awarded at an earlier time [See Section on XX Legion]. Poenius Postumus, who had ignored Suetonius’s request for assistance, fell on his own sword.

The Roman army remained in the field and was supplemented by two thousand replacements from the IX (Ninth) Legion, and the auxiliary forces were increased by eight cohorts and two alae (cavalry units) from Germany. The Romans routed the remaining barbarians, burning settlements, killing rebels, and taking slaves. Famine destroyed many more, for Boudica’s army had deprived the area of much of its agricultural produce, and the local inhabitants had failed to plant, harvest, and store up supplies for winter in the year of the revolt. Hoards of coins, precious metalware, jewelry, and other items were buried perhaps by those fleeing death who never returned.

Camulodunum was rebuilt twice as large with a defensive ditch and thick defensive wall, and the reconstructed Temple of Claudius remained a symbol of Roman authority for the next 350 years. While Camulodunum provided the religious centre of Roman Britain, the capital of the province was now moved to Londinium. Construction began at Londinium and Verulamium, and both cities would grow and thrive for centuries to come.

The Iceni and Trinovantes never reached prominence again. Venta Icenorum, which means 'market of the Iceni' (Caistor St Edmund), a town with a distinctly Roman appearance, was built on Icenian land around AD 70 as an administrative centre of the region, but relations between Britain and Rome remained tense.

Boudica’s ability to unify thousands reveals an overarching unhappiness with the Roman presence, and her revolt provides an opportunity for reflection on the impact of the Roman incursion into Britain. She provides us with the opportunity to question attitudes to the coming of Rome and to wonder how we ourselves might have been affected had we been there. For some, life must have been better, and the Romans must have been embraced as prestigious allies to be emulated. The truth must have been complex, with as many different reactions to the coming of Rome as there were people. Every attitude must have existed across the spectrum from wholesale embracing of Rome and its culture to complete hatred and rejection of the invaders. And out of this melting pot, the reality and complexity that was Roman Britain developed.