The figure of Boudica, queen of the Iceni, is surprisingly resilient. Since the Renaissance, she has turned up in public discourse pretty consistently in Britain, from celebrations of the defeat of the Spanish Armada to the imperialist triumphalism of the late Victorian era. Over this long period, Boudica has come in for criticism, as well as for lionisation. The latest example of the latter is Nick Timothy’s recent article in The Sun, encouraging his former boss, Theresa May, to “find her inner Boudicca [sic]”, in negotiations with the EU.
Of course, the facts of Boudica’s bloody and ultimately disastrous first century rebellion against the Roman occupiers of Britain – as the New Statesman rightly pointed out – make a comparison with the UK’s current prime minister problematic at best. Timothy’s way of dealing with these inconvenient facts was to dismiss them in his article as mere “details”.
“Details” such as her resounding defeat by the Roman legions at the Battle of Watling Street, which resulted in the slaughter of 80,000 Britons (she killed herself) – if Roman historian Tacitus is to be believed. And the fact that Boudica’s rebellion was a response to the brutal treatment that her family – and many of her fellow Britons – suffered at the hands of Roman troops ultimately under the command of Emperor Nero.
Say what you like about Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, and the rest, they probably wouldn’t, like Nero, have their own mothers murdered or literally fiddle while Rome burned, or allow the kind of crimes that Nero did in Britain. The fact that Nero likely had no interest in protecting the integrity of West Country beef, Stornoway black pudding, or Melton Mowbray pork pies was the least of the problems for ancient Britons when they rebelled in around 60AD.
Similarly, May has a great many critics, but no one would suggest that she would, like Boudica, literally sack the country’s capital (then at Colchester), and slaughter many who lived there.
Wheel out Boudica
But Timothy is just the latest in a long line of commentators who have drawn Boudica into contemporary political discourse, a subject I explore in my book, Queen Boudica and Historical Culture in Britain: An Image of Truth.
If any period in British political culture was as divisive as now, the long-running battle between Whigs and Tories from the late 17th century is a close contender. And unsurprisingly, Queen Boudica again featured heavily in it. But what is surprising is the extent to which she was favoured by both sides and rarely, if ever, derided.
For the Tories, she was a defender of the Druidic religious tradition, and the Druids themselves represented a kind of all-knowing, benevolent priest class under attack by invaders. The Whigs, on the other hand, saw Boudica as a defender of native liberty. While many commentators saw the Anglo-Saxons as the original free-born Englishmen, there were some who sought to bring the ancient Britons into the fold, by casting them as defenders of an instinct for freedom from foreign dominance. Sound familiar?
But Boudica occupied a somewhat different position in 18th-century drama. The buzzword in 18th-century political culture was “patriotism”, followed at a close second by “faction”. It was argued – most famously by the Tory Lord Bolingbroke, who by no means practised what he preached – that the patriotic leader was the one who could rise above “faction”, petty disagreement, and personal animosity to do “patriotically” what they knew was best for their country. The dramatised version of Queen Boudica, exemplified in stage plays of the time, such as Richard Glover’s Boadicia: a tragedy (1753), was precisely the opposite of a patriotic leader.
In this drama, Boudica is torn by disagreement with her generals, and filled with a desire for vengeance against the Romans. She resists all rational compromise and is ultimately defeated, leaving her country to ruin. Granted, the Romans are no better. Even their most well-meaning commanders are up against sly, smooth-talking, self-regarding subordinates who have little interest in peaceful resolution or compromise. One is struck by the persistence of such personalities, straight from central casting, that remain evident on both sides of debates, including over Brexit, today.
Boudica and Brexit
Indeed, there certainly are analogies between modern Britain and ancient Britain that we can draw, if we are intent on playing that particular parlour game. For example, Queen Boudica was left to deal with the Romans in the first place because her husband, King Prasutagus, had been so confident of his power that, at his death, he decided to leave half his lands to the Romans and half to his two daughters, thinking the Romans would be satisfied. They weren’t. According to Tacitus, “the reverse was the result, so much so that his kingdom was plundered by centurions, his house by slaves, as if they were the spoils of war. First, his wife Boudicea was scourged, and his daughters outraged.”
So if we accept that the Romans are the ancient equivalent of the EU, then perhaps we should see King Prasutagus as David Cameron: the man in power whose complacency and poor decision making caused the problem in the first place. However, in Prasutagus’s defence, he didn’t run away to write his memoirs in a very desirable shed in Oxfordshire.
Timothy thinks May should find her inner Boudica. But the sorry truth is that she and a good number of her colleagues in parliament already have. Although it is true that past generations have seen Boudica as a representative of heroic resistance, her reputation is not as simple as that. Her story has also been a warning to politicians tempted to become embroiled in party in-fighting while their country’s future hangs precariously in the balance. May, Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn, and all the rest, take note.