By Pat Hirst - Museum and Guide Volunteer

If we could go back in time, we would not recognise the ‘Britain’ that Julius Caesar and later Claudius invaded 2000 years ago: There was no United Kingdom, and no over-arching leader who had authority over the whole population of this small but significant island. Instead, there were many native tribes each with their own leaders and land, while boundaries with their neighbours were in a constant state of flux with land grab, local skirmishes, the settling of debts, and inter-marriage. Some of these tribes would have had strong, persuasive and charismatic leaders, and at least two of them were led by women.

Boudica of the Iceni tribe (probably incorporating modern day Norfolk, parts of Suffolk and Cambridgeshire), has gone down in history as a ‘freedom fighter’, who defied the strength of the Roman army after what she felt were grave injustices and violent treatment, and rallied not only her fellow tribesmen, but collaborated with local tribes to take vengeance and wage war on the Romans. She destroyed St Albans, Colchester and London before being defeated against all the odds, and probably committing suicide rather than being taken prisoner.

But what of the other female leader, who has been sorely overlooked by the history books? She was Cartimandua (referred to by the Romans as ‘Queen Cartimandua’) leader of the Brigantes and Brigantia, which was a huge portion of land, much larger than Boudica’s territory, and probably stretched from south west Scotland as far south as Derby, and incorporated the land ‘from sea to sea’. It is more than likely that it also amalgamated several willing, submissive tribes, who were subject to Cartimandua’s control and protection.

Map of Native British tribes at the time of the Roman Invasion. 

Neither the Iceni nor the Brigantes had a written language, so everything we know about them comes from the Latin texts left by Roman observers such as Tacitus and Dio, along with some archaeological interpretations over recent years. When talking about both Boudica and Cartimandua, we should bear in mind that both have been viewed through the prejudices and conventions of the time their stories were being written, especially considering the Roman view of women. Why were there no empresses who ruled on their own for example?

Little or nothing is known about Cartimandua’s early life, other than it is possible she was already queen of the Brigantes when Claudius invaded England in 43AD. We know she was married to Venutius, and was almost certainly of royal blood and queen in her own right rather than being a queen because of her marriage. Indeed, Venutius is referred to as ‘her consort’, so had a deferential role in their relationship. This was anathema in Romans eyes. Although many of the emperors of Rome were strongly influenced by their powerful female relatives, none of these women was allowed the ultimate prize of being emperor, so Cartimandua was something of an anomaly and not in line with the accepted Roman conventions.

Perhaps this is why the Latin texts are often dismissive of her and play down her role as a leader. Boudica was admired because of her fighting spirit, while Cartimandua is sometimes dismissed as nothing more than a collaborator and an adulteress - yes, she was divorced, but on the evidence we have there is nothing to suggest she committed adultery. We do not have a physical description of Cartimandua, nor do we know if she and Venutius had any children: the fact that there is no record of them does not mean that there were none. We have heard of Boudica’s daughters because their mistreatment at the hands of the Romans was instrumental in her conducting war against them.

Her name has been translated as meaning ‘sleek pony’, but whether this was a reference to her physical attributes is open to conjecture. Some sources say she may have been a priestess of one of the many Celtic cults, but again, there is no concrete evidence to support this, though there is a memorial stone from the fort at Birrens to the goddess Brigantia, who was worshipped by both Romans and native peoples. Recent excavations at Stanwick in North Yorkshire have indicated that the original iron age settlement on the same site may have been her stronghold before the Romans overran it. Unlike Boudica, who wanted nothing to do with the Romans after her husband died, Cartimandua agreed to cooperate with the Romans in exchange for continuing to rule her lands and people. Venutius also seems to have been a willing accomplice. She was given great riches in exchange for continued control and expected Roman protection in addition to this acquired wealth. This arrangement suited the Romans very well. It meant they had a secure northern flank from which there would be no rebellion or insurrection, and a buffer between them and the tribes further north.

Drawing of goddess Brigantia from the fort at Birrens

Cartimandua makes the pages of Roman history for reasons other than just her collaboration with them. In 51/52 AD, she handed over the rebellious Caractacus to the invaders. He was the heir to the ‘throne’ of the Cartuvellauni tribe in what is now Hertfordshire, and had waged a long war with the Romans, firstly with his brother Togodumnus (who was killed in battle), then fled to the Silures and Ordovices tribes in Wales seeking sanctuary before being named their official leader, and inciting them to take up arms against the Romans. Despite being in a strong strategic position near Snowdonia, he was again defeated by the Romans, but escaped capture and naively made his way to Cartimandua seeking her protection, leaving his family behind at the mercy of the Romans. Instead of the help he expected, Cartimandua handed him over to the Romans in chains, and he was sent to Rome with his family, where he was held prisoner and paraded through the streets as a spoil of war. He escaped death by giving an inspired speech to the Emperor, and he and his family lived their lives out in Rome. Whereas Cartimandua was vilified for handing him over, he was not censured for deserting his family to the wrath of the Romans but lauded as a champion of liberty.

Cartimandua’s loyalty to Rome was seen as servitude, and the fact that she was a ruler in her own right was enough to provoke censure amongst the authors of the original histories. It was somewhere between 51 and 57 AD that Cartimandua and Venutius were divorced, leaving her to rule singlehandedly. Whether this was as a result of the Caractacus episode or not is not clear, but Venutius became increasingly hostile towards the Romans, and roused enough supporters to attack Cartimandua, who survived the rebellion by appealing to the governor for help, but not before taking several of Venutius’ relatives as hostages. Support came in the form of legionaries, possibly the IX Hispana legion, and the uprising was thwarted. Shortly afterwards, Cartimandua married again, this time to Vellocatus, one time armour bearer to Venutius, and Cartimandua’s junior by several years. Despite the legality of her position, it was this that prompted the accusation of her being an adulteress, but there is no evidence to support this. In 60AD, the Iceni under the leadership of Boudica rebelled against Roman rule. Cartimandua stayed loyal to Rome and did not join the uprising or incite her people to support it. Had she joined in the fight, the outcome might have been different, and Rome’s stronghold on Britain would have been seriously undermined. Her loyalty to Rome was undiminished, and she and her people remained unmolested for several more years.

69AD was unsettling for both the Roman citizens and the Empire: there were four emperors, civil unrest in the empire and a time of great uncertainty. Venutius took this opportunity to raise another army from supporters in the Brigantes, and invaded Cartimandua’s territory. She again called for help from the Romans, but they were pre-occupied with disquiet and unrest elsewhere in the Empire, and could only send auxiliaries to support her. It is surprising that Venutius attacked his former wife, because it is believed that she still held his relatives as hostages, who would suffer greatly if he lost this battle. However, his tactics worked, he won, and Cartimandua was deposed as queen of the Brigantes. Venutius ruled for another two years before himself being deposed by the emperor Vespasian, who took control of Cartimandua’s queendom, stripped the people of their privileges, and imposed strict Roman rule. Brigantia was no longer ‘free’ and was subsumed into the empire.

Whereas Venutius and Caractacus were portrayed as brave, courageous, shrewd and prudent, Cartimandua was vilified and unrecognised for her contribution to the success of the Romans in Britain. Without her loyalty, the conquest of Britain would have been very different, yet she is described as vindictive, and like all women, being ‘ruled by their hearts and not their heads’ (attributed to Tacitus). She was given no credit by the writers of the histories, who ignore her role in acting as a secure northern flank allowing the Roman army to subjugate the rest of the island. Indeed, Tacitus talks of her ‘treacherous capture of Caractacus, sexual impropriety, and cunning stratagems in taking Venutius’ relatives hostage’. Would he have said the same had Cartimandua been a man?

There is little evidence to suggest what happened to Cartimandua after her defeat: after being rescued by the Romans, she may have gone to Chester, or died shortly after these events. It is notable that Tacitus felt she was not worthy of any more of his time - not because she was insignificant, but because she was a woman, and as such did not deserve to be remembered. If she was already on the throne when Claudius invaded, the first known hereditary queen of this island had ruled for over 26 years. Cartimandua lived 50 years before Hadrian built his wall: how different our history would have been if she’d joined Boudica’s rebellion or had legitimate heirs. Her contribution to our heritage has been unrepresented and poorly documented - possibly because she was a woman.

This blog has been written as part of our Roman Holiday Project.

Sources

The Brigantes - Hartley and Fitts

The Carvetii - Higham and Jones

Cartimandua - Nicki Howarth

Defying Rome - Guy de la Bedoyere