D J Taylor: Boudicca, mythic warrior queen or feminist role model?

As Mel Gibson turns his attentions to a new leading lady, D J Taylor tells the story of an English icon

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With the multi-million dollar profits from
The Passion of The Christ stashed in the vault, and Hollywood avid to bankroll anything to which he sets his signature, to which fresh project is that distinguished actor-director Mel Gibson now turning his gaze? Another biopic, naturally, full of blood, guts and the epic sweep of history, but of whom? Nelson? Washington? Genghis Khan? In fact, our man has just signed up to frame in celluloid the career of an East Anglian warrior queen, dead these 1,950 years, of whom all that can accurately be said could probably be recorded on a couple of sheets of A4.

With the multi-million dollar profits from The Passion of The Christ stashed in the vault, and Hollywood avid to bankroll anything to which he sets his signature, to which fresh project is that distinguished actor-director Mel Gibson now turning his gaze? Another biopic, naturally, full of blood, guts and the epic sweep of history, but of whom? Nelson? Washington? Genghis Khan? In fact, our man has just signed up to frame in celluloid the career of an East Anglian warrior queen, dead these 1,950 years, of whom all that can accurately be said could probably be recorded on a couple of sheets of A4.

The life and times of Boudicca (or Boadicea, or Boudica or even Bonduca, depending on your authority) might seem an unlikely choice for a movie subject. Yet close inspection reveals this talisman from the days of Roman invasions, English settlements and tribal insurrection still twitches with phantom life. Only the other year, for instance, the celebrated screenwriter Andrew Davies engineered a small-scale biopic for ITV (slated by the critics on grounds of historical inaccuracy) as a means of allowing the actress Alex Kingston to appear in various states of undress.

Elsewhere, Dreaming the Eagle, the first instalment of a projected trilogy by the historical novelist Manda Scott, recently spent time on the bestseller lists. To descend a rung or two lower on the cultural ladder, there is a rag-trade concern of the same name ("edgy and erotic, impeccably cut, non-conformist clothes" etc) and even a Harry Potter connection. At any rate, legend - subsequently proved to be an inspired practical joke - used to insist that the lady was buried beneath what is now Platform 10 of King's Cross station. Not bad going for a woman lost in history, the site of whose very residence - it may have been at Gallows Hill near Thetford - still escapes the archaeologist's grasp.

As the foregoing demonstrates, all this has a tremendous figurative significance. Doubtless in Mr Gibson's hands it will acquire even more. As for the real Boudicca, however, all that we know turns up in the pages of a brace of Roman historians, Tacitus and Dio Cassius, both of whom wrote sometime after the fact (Dio Cassius a good two centuries after) and relied on what other people told them. The date is AD60-62, a century or so into the Roman occupation of these fair isles, and Romano-British relations are at a low ebb. They are particularly bad in the area between Colchester and Norfolk, home of the Iceni tribe, whose dying king, Prasutagus, has tried to secure his kingdom by making Rome co-heir along with his two daughters. Unimpressed, the local Roman military commander has his queen, Boudicca, flogged with rods and his daughters raped, subsequently destroying the royal house and eventually banishing the Iceni from their land.

It is not, in the context of the time, a smart move. The Roman governor, Suetonius Paulinus, is at this point hundreds of miles away on the holy island of Anglesey, marauding the druids. Supported by another local tribe, the Trinovantes, also done out of their ancestral lands by the newcomers, Boudicca and a horde rising to 120,000 warriors (the entire Roman military strength in Britain is only a third of this number) sack the garrison town of Colchester, march on London and put it to the sword so thoroughly that even now a layer of red clay a dozen feet or so beneath the modern-day pavement is all that remains of the ancient city.

As for the fomenter of this unrest, here is Dio Cassius's admiring description: "She was of huge frame, terrifying of aspect, and with a harsh voice. A great mass of bright red hair fell to her knees: she wore a twisted torc, and a tunic of many colours, over which was a thick mantle, fastened by a brooch. Now she grasped a spear, to strike fear into all who watched her." Cassius also furnishes extracts from the fiery speeches she is alleged to have made to ginger up her troops. One can see instantly why Andrew Davies got so excited and why Mr Gibson is eagerly casting around for a leading lady.

Making his military dispositions, and despite the deaths of nearly 70,000 Roman settlers slaughtered along the way, Paulinus declines to panic. Deciding that London can be sacrificed if it means saving the province as a whole, he eventually meets - and defeats - the Brits somewhere in the Midlands (at a site unidentified, but possibly in Northamptonshire). Not wishing her daughters to fall into enemy hands again, Boudicca, according to one account, compels them to drink poison out of a golden cup and then swigs from it herself, later to be found by Paulinus, as if asleep, with her arms clasped around the girls. (A more prosaic version has her simply taking sick and dying.)

As a story, this has nearly everything: massacres, rapine, the red-haired saviour of her nation (well, up to a point), uplifting oratory, the pathetic finale, the family united in death. Needless to say, commentators over the years have waxed horribly lyrical over it. Here, for example, is Lady Antonia Fraser in Boadicea's Chariot ( a study of "warrior queens") appraising the statue of her heroine that lies on the Embankment near the Houses of Parliament: "Lest for a moment we forget her ... she stands aloft in her chariot, knives sprouting from its wheels, and it is in fact these murderous knives which stamp our perception of her indelibly. Hers is a gallant - and a savage - story."

Yes indeed. It is also quite clearly a tale with enticing modern applications. One wasn't in the least surprised, a few years back, to discover The Sun, no doubt thinking it had turned up an early version of Essex Woman, suggesting that Boudicca was an "inspiring" figure whose example made one "proud to be British". To set against this patriotic flag-waver from past time, perhaps, is the archaeological evidence turned up from a recent excavation at Colchester. This gave indications of an attack of extraordinary ferocity (the town was unwalled with only a few hundred defenders), described by one archaeologist as a first-century version of ethnic cleansing.

Nevertheless, what might be called the iconography of Boudicca is a constant in subsequent national history. She is, it might fairly be said, practically the first significant female British personality, the curtain-raiser in a 2,000-year show that goes on to include Matilda, Maid Marian, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Good Queen Bess, Nell Gwyn, Lady Hamilton, Florence Nightingale and Edith Cavell. Literature caught up at an early stage, in John Fletcher's tragedy Bonduca, performed in the early 17th century or the ode addressed to her by William Cowper. By the Victorian age she was being regularly painted and sculpted, caricatured in Punch, recommended to generations of schoolchildren as the classic example of an English heroine (in fact Boudicca and her tribe were Celts) and immortalised in bronze by Thomas Thornycroft by the river she had crossed 1,800 years before.

As with many an icon from a distant age of whom not very much is known, there is a tremendous elasticity about these reinventions, the subordination of nearly everything except the figure itself to a purposeful contemporary agenda. To the Victorians, Boudicca could be neatly tailored to fit the idea of 19th century nationhood, a woman ruling over men who could stand at least some kind of comparison with the present incumbent at Windsor. To the militant suffragettes of the early 20th century she was a beacon of liberty and bravery (even today her picture appears on the Fawcett Society website). In the past 20 years, again, she has been refashioned as one of those "strong women" that the style supplements so much admire: feisty, indefatigable, bursting with conviction. There were, inevitably, several Steve Bell cartoons from the 1980s showing Mrs Thatcher, looking rather like a Wagnerian heroine, astride a Boudicca-style chariot haranguing her cowed cabinet colleagues.

As to what Mel Gibson will make of this mélange of aspirational stylings, who can tell? On the one hand, he would be ill-advised to stake a claim for Boudicca as a great military commander. The Roman army that finally put paid to her revolt numbered only 10,000 men against 80,000 Britons. Her chieftains were divided over the battle plan, while an ill-sited wagon park further limited the army's room for manoeuvre. Her tactics as she headed out of East Anglia were feeble, too; simply a matter of laying waste and pillaging rather than taking out strategically placed enemy military bases along the way.

Bearing in mind Gibson's recent endeavours, there is, happily enough, a religious sub-text. Some scholars have suggested she occupied a dual position as a tribal leader and the manifestation of a druidic or Celtic goddess ("Boudicca" means "victory", possibly connected to "Brigantia", the goddess of war) and one interpretation of Paulinus' battle plan sees it as a ruse to winkle out druidic sympathisers as a prelude to a religious massacre.

A parable of spiritual oppression? Braveheart with babes? A chance to re-use the costumes from The Passion of The Christ? Whatever Gibson comes up with, it can safely be predicted that the only liberties involved will be historical ones.

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