December 07, 2013

You have it, madam. Boudicca EDP cover story

On sale Saturday Dec 7, 2013, all over Icenia

The EDP doesn't put its features online, a policy I support as it keeps the print edition special. But I'm allowed to reprint the text of the article here. For the lovely images photographed above, there's always EDP weekend archives you'll have to dig through the recycled newspaper bin.

I’ve done a lot of Boudicca storytelling around Norfolk and beyond since I wrote my verse tragedy ‘Boudicca; Britain’s Dreaming’ in 1996. (The nod to punk dissidence continues in the 2013 version, called The Clash Between Boudicca and Rome.) There is a lot of interest in Norfolk’s ancient queen out there, and it’s growing, though basic knowledge, even on her home-ground, is patchy.
That’s not surprising. She is not a required part of the school history curriculum, not even in Norfolk. Eminent archaeologists will tell you ‘we know so little about her.’ Historians that ‘history is written by the victor and Boudicca neither wrote nor won.’
Historiographers - and critics of her magnificent but ahistorical statues in London and Cardiff - say she has become ‘a figure of myth’ and romance, her real story and personality ‘lost in the method of her portrayal, associated with folklore and legends.’
All true. But even legends have to start somewhere. And unlike that Celtic-Norman/pagan-Christian myth ‘King’ Arthur or even his downmarket rival as national hero – the relatively historicised thirteenth century-ish anti-Norman post-Saxon outlaw Robin Hood – there is a real time, place and date for Boudicca. Iron Age Icenia (modern Norfolk, Suffolk and parts of Cambridgeshire) AD 60-61.
And a narrative. The Roman incorporation of the wealthy client kingdom of Icenia into the Roman province of Britain in AD 60; the queen’s flogging; the rape of her daughters; the enslaving of her nobles; the theft of her cattle; the putting of matriarchal women in their place.
Boudicca’s subsequent rebellion united the tribes of Eastern Britain seething under this sort of thing and came close to driving the Romans out. It shook the Empire.
Yes, the narrative is based mostly in secondary sources – the Roman accounts of the sympathetic Tacitus and the lurid Dio, imbibed ever since as part of our 2000 year Roman heritage.
But this has been increasingly seasoned with the story written in the earth itself. The evidence of slaughtered Britons with ballista bolts in their backs; of punitive salt sowed into rich Iceni lands, the marks left by distinctly unsavoury Procurator Decianus Catus acting for Emperor Nero - and of Suetonius Paulinus, a Provincial General recalled and reprimanded ‘for excessive bloodlust’ (quite a feat on the front line of Empire.)
And for the Iceni the brutality continued. As Encyclopaedia Britannica puts it ‘the retarded development and modest character of Romano-British remains in Norfolk suggest the severity with the Iceni were crushed.’
Telling this story in drama and poetry against the grain of our still very Roman civilisation can be like banging your head against Hadrian’s Wall.
All through the Middle Ages, Latin cautionary tales warning against ‘hysterical’ women as heads of State persisted in monks’ Latin tales and patriarchal Christianity.
The fact that the name ‘Boadicea’ (and all the corruptions of this that followed – Voada, Voadicia, Bonduca, Bunduca, Bonduica, Boadicia) entered the monastery annals in the twelfth century and that this monk’s spelling mistake was still being taught in the 1960s suggests a lack for reverence for a figure who united the British in arms for the first time and who, but for the enduring propaganda of the victors, might have been called the mother of a nation.
What’s in a name? ‘Boadicea’ has a romantic sound perfect for the Thornyecroft statue in Whitehall, if not in proper history, and my audiences often cling to it. But it’s wrong.
Perhaps it’s easier to get it right in Wales. The ancient British word ‘Buddug’ preserved in modern Welsh, the name engraved on her statue in Cardiff town hall, means ‘Victory.’ It’s intriguing that our Norfolk ‘Victoria’s fame grew and her statue appeared in London during the reign of that other Queen Victoria, and became a symbol of ‘British courage in adversity’ and of the ‘mother of a nation.’ Until then Boudicca had been a footnote in Roman history or at best a walk-on part in her own drama.
But why does Boudicca the ancient queen of Norfolk have a statue in Whitehall, at the heart of government, in a London she razed to the ground and another in a Wales she probably never visited - but nothing in Norwich?
That’s a rhetorical question. But it gets answered. 1. History is written by the victor. Unlike Nelson and Churchill, she lost.
But what is history but the telling of stories that embody what we believe?
2. She is a Celt, venerated in a museum of Welsh heroes in Cardiff.
But so was King Arthur. And this Celt was as Norfolk as the centuries of Iceni buried in our soil.
3. She is a woman. And unlike the ancient Celts, we are unused to women commanders in war and more forgiving of righteous violence committed by male heroes.
But any mother will understand her outrage.
Norwich museum has a Roman exhibition coming soon and is rightly proud to be getting it. Rome remains one of the pillars of Western civilisation, the guardian of Greek classicism and (after a grim start persecuting it) of Christianity and certainly of law and order. Its feats of engineering and building were advanced beyond the native British imagination, arguably until the Industrial revolution. Its literature and art remain beacons. It has lasted beyond its own millennium.
But the squaddies and robber-bankers of its wild west frontier in AD 60 in Icenia were a disgrace, both to the later Rome and to humanity at any time. To spare the feelings of our listeners, the fact that Boudicca’s violated daughters were children is glossed over, though this of course then skews our understanding of the reprisals, and slants the story implacably in favour of the Romans.
These were Romans worthy of Nero. Beasts disguised by Roman culture, not representative of it. And a British queen challenged them.
She was ultimately outwitted by a futuristic military machine beyond her and her people, yes, but she achieved glorious successes against them on behalf of a very British spirit of defiance against the odds. Her war-painted amateur warriors – fighting for their lives and way of life, death-day naked except for woad and hair dyed with rowan berries – the men’s hair bleached with lime - defeated a fearsomely armed, professional Roman legion outside Lincoln, out-horsing the Roman cavalry with native horsemanship. And while the bladed wheels are a myth, the light holly-wood chariots are as exciting now as they were to my ten year old self.
Norfolk is certainly Nelson’s county and I love seeing that on the county signs as I come home. But let me try this on you: Icenia– Boudicca’s region. Let’s have that on the region’s signs. A reminder of that irrepressible moment when Norfolk, Suffolk and parts of Cambridgeshire ‘did different’ for all the right reasons.
And let’s have a statue to her in Norwich rooted in her real history and her own soil, a statue that ‘does different.’ With ‘Boudicca’ engraved on its plinth.
If my audiences are anything to go by – especially women and those of a ‘folk’ persuasion (and the Bank Holiday drinker at Flitcham last May demanding a march on County Hall for a Boudicca statue now) it’s time. Meanwhile I’ll keep staging my tale with the help of my woad-faced, spikily red-haired, corn/pony-tailed Boudicca created for me by a Norfolk art teacher nearly 20 years ago.

Gareth broadcasts a story time every Sunday at 7.15 pm on Details on
Further reading? Check out 'Boudica: Her Life, Times and Legacy' by Dr John Davies and Bruce Robinson (Poppyland £9.95) and - more generally -'The Land of Boudica' Dr John Davies Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service.


John Davies (no relation) said...

Heavily disguised and wearing dark glasses, I slipped quietly into our local newsagent and bought a copy of The EDP. ... Normally, I do not wish to know that Mrs Nellie Ollerenshaw has been re-elected president of the Snettisham Soroptimists, or that the Pelicans hockey team are having a Christmas party and that former players are welcome.
on this occasion all my quite reasonable prejudices were swept aside by seeing and reading your article. The paper had invested some effort in the presentation with lovely photos and a full spread. Your article was terrific (naturally) and must have inspired serious thoughts amongst many readers. Well done, Gareth. Another triumph.

John Davies (no relation)

Kevin Fackrell said...

Congratulations Gareth, it looks a very impressive spread.

Kevin Trollbane said...

a beautifully written Cri de Coeur if I may say so.