“it is not as a woman descended from noble ancestry, but as one of the people that I am avenging lost freedom, my scourged body, the outraged chastity of my daughters…But heaven is on the side of a righteous vengeance; a legion which dared to fight has perished; the rest are hiding themselves in their camp, or are thinking anxiously of flight…If you weigh well the strength of the armies, and the causes of the war, you will see that in this battle you must conquer or die. This is a woman’s resolve; as for men, they may live and be slaves.” (Tacitus, Annals, Book 14, part 35)
Thus spake Boudica, Queen of the Iceni, a traumatised and angry woman, as she mustered her troops to march against the Romans. Of course, her words were recorded by a historian of the opposing side who would not have understood Boudica’s language. But ever since the warrior queen of Britain was rediscovered during the Renaissance and became even more popular during the reign of her apparent namesake Victoria, her words have been quoted as those of a gallant woman who led a brave if doomed uprising against a mighty empire. We could even call her a nasty woman.
After the death of her husband Prasutagus, who had been allowed to keep ruling his tribe after the Roman conquest, Boudica hoped to continue his reign. The Empire had other ideas, annexed the kingdom, and ordered the queen to be flogged and her two daughters raped. Boudica was anything but cowed by this treatment, which is not unusual for conquering armies. At the end of World War 2, hardly a single German woman in Berlin was spared the same fate from the influx of Russians.
She decided to gather her forces. In 60 or 61 AD her troops marched on Camulodunum (Colchester) and razed it to the ground. London and Verulanium (St Albans) were next, and an estimated seventy to eighty thousand people were killed. Boudica took no prisoners. Revenge indeed.
Her next clash with the Roman army resulted in defeat and Boudica’s death, possibly by suicide. She was unlikely to ever have defeated an entire empire, but she was crazed with grief and anger and believed the goddess Andraste to be on her side.
A statue of Boudica in her chariot, spear in hand, was commissioned by Prince Albert and installed in London in 1902. It features prominently in the 2016 film Denial, with Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt looking up to Boudica for inspiration during her courtroom battle with historical revisionist David Irving. Lipstadt, named after the Biblical judge of Israel, was justly vindicated in her description of Irving as a liar and a falsifier of history. After her victory, Deborah looks up at Boudica’s bronze arms held aloft. Although this is most likely a fanciful choice by the filmmakers, the association is a powerful one.
She was also reported to have had red hair. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Disney’s feisty Scottish heroine Merida also has a mane of flaming tresses.
A century earlier, the suffragette movement in England adopted Boadicea (as she was known then) as one of their mascots. Brooches featuring her image were distributed by the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and she was mentioned frequently in suffrage literature such as Votes for Women and pro-suffrage drama and artworks. Boudica considered herself more than adequate to rule her people in her own right, and was therefore an example of a woman’s right to hold political power and office. The Victorians had made her a symbol of British imperialism; the suffragettes were reclaiming her as a symbol of rebellion. Her violent slaughter of thousands was forgotten or ignored. A recent article in Britain’s Independent suggests that we should kill off the fanciful Boadicea and leave only the historical Boudica for scrutiny.
Or perhaps keep the Boadicea of that quintessentially Victorian poet Tennyson, who described “her evil tyrannies, all her pitiless avarice…out of evil evil flourishes, out of tyranny tyranny buds.”
Another violent and iconic woman was the innocently nicknamed Maid of Orleans. Canonised by the Roman Catholic Church in 1920 and one of the patron saints of France, Jeanne d’Arc joined the fight against the British during the Hundred Years’ War (at the request of the Archangel Michael). She was sent to the siege of Orleans and after several victories by the forces of the uncrowned Charles VII, he became King of France. The victory was considered a direct result of Jeanne’s intervention. She was captured by the pro-English Burgundian forces and put on trial for heresy. She was also charged with cross-dressing, for having worn men’s clothing on several occasions to avoid capture and protect herself from assault. She was burned at the stake in 1431. Shortly after, a retrial authorised by Pope Callixtus III found her to be innocent.
Joan of Arc (1865) by John Everett Millais
Jeanne was only 19 when she died. Her youth, the fact that she rose to prominence from a peasant family, her visions, political victories and (supposedly) unjust martyrdom all contributed to her legendary status as France’s national heroine. Fiercely Catholic, she turned her attention to the Protestant Hussite sect during a brief truce with England. In a letter she wrote to ‘the heretics of Bohemia’ in 1430, she describes them as being on the same level as Saracens (i.e. Muslims) and threatens to relieve them of either their heresy or their lives. Her arrest prevented any further confrontations but her image as an iconic French leader has persisted, even after France became a secular state after the Revolution.
Somewhat ironically, she was also adopted by the British suffragettes as another mascot, alongside Boadicea. A more concerning use of her life and symbolism is that of the French right-wing nationalist party Front National, with Marine Le Pen, Presidential candidate and daughter of the party’s founder, having been described as a modern Joan of Arc by another famous Frenchwoman, Brigitte Bardot. The Front National party itself celebrates Jeanne d’Arc in their annual May Day march at her famous statue in Paris. Many of its supporters view Jeanne as a heroic defender of France against foreign invaders, and draw comparisons with modern day Muslim immigration. Jeanne herself may indeed have supported this view, believing herself to be on divine mission, sent by her Catholic God to deliver her country from the enemy.
Jeanne and Boudica were products of their time and place, as are we all. Neither had any conception of the ways their stories would be used by those who came after them. We all look to the past for inspiration, for great men and women whose deeds and words might give us courage to speak and act. But just as the Celtic Boudica (who would not have considered England a single country) has little to do with the fight for women’s rights, neither does the visionary-turned-soldier Jeanne have anything to do with “Frexit” or the fate of the Euro.
Let’s give them back their stories, and place them firmly in the past. No historical figure should be used to promote insularity and xenophobia. Nor should they be taken out of context to boost support for even a just cause such as women’s suffrage. Let us choose our inspiration wisely.