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Did Boudica die in Flintshire?

Broc Beag

School children are currently brought up on the horror story of Hiroshima, when 78,000 died in one afternoon. They are a little vague or totally ignorant of the August day in 61 CE when the XIVth and XXth Legions took a terrible revenge for the loss of their comrades of the IXth! The iron age 'host' of Britain was decimated with reputedly nearly 80,000 men, women and children dead. Boudica's home area was East Anglia and she was queen of the tribe known to us as the Iceni. This massacre of many of the Iceni tribes people may have turned the east of Britain into wasteland for a decade.

Boudica's vast host, perhaps numbering up to 230,000 people, was endeavouring to trap the XIVth and XXth Legions, led by Paulinus and returning to their fort at Chester from the massacre of the Druids on Anglesey. The Roman Legions probably numbered no more than 10,000 men.

The protagonists

Boudica means Victorious or Victoria. Dio tells us that in stature she was very tall, in appearance most terrifying, in glance of her eye most fierce, and her voice was harsh, a great mass of the tawniest hair fell to her hips, around her neck was a large golden necklace, and she wore a tunic of diverse colours under a thick mantle fastened with a brooch. She carried a spear and travelled in a chariot with her two teenage daughters as attendants. With above average intelligence, but over confident because of her aristocratic lineage, she was a good speech maker and inspired both courage and loyalty. But her army was outdated and once set in motion she could not control the battle.

Suetonius Paullinus was probably the best Roman general of his time and experienced in mountain warfare. His soldier's speech revealed him as down to earth. His troops were likewise the best but totally without mercy. Paullinus knew that his army's battle drills and stabbing techniques would always win against the wild charges, slashes and unarmoured bodies of the Britons. He knew he could only loose if he was on an open plain where the chariots could outflank him.

Serving under Paullinus was Agricola, later to become Governor of Britain, but at that time probably in his early 20's. He was the father-in-law of Tacitus the historian, who gives no location for the conflict, perhaps so that no one can easily check the more 'ignoble' aspects of the battle.

What the 'papers' said

The nearest we have to an eye witness account of the battle is from Tacitus. He was a contemporary of Paulinus but, living in Rome, could only draw upon unreliable hearsay from the distant parts of the Empire. Nevertheless, he informs us:

'Suetonius Paulinus had the XIVth Legion with the veterans of the XXth and auxiliaries from the neighbourhood, to the number of about 10,000 armed men. He prepared to break off delay and fight a battle. He chose a position approached by a narrow defile, closed at the rear by a forest, having first ascertained that there was not a soldier of the enemy except in his front, where an open plain extended without any danger from ambuscades. His legions were in close array; round them, the light-armed troops, and the cavalry in dense array on the wings. On the other side, the army of the Britons, with its masses of infantry and cavalry, was confidently exulting, a vaster host than ever had assembled, and so fierce in spirit that they actually brought with them, to witness the victory, their wives riding in wagons, which they had placed on the extreme of the plain.

'At first the legion kept its position, clinging to the narrow defile as a defence; when they had exhausted their missiles, which they discharged with unerring aim on the closely approaching foe, they rushed out in a wedge-like column. Similar was the onset if the auxiliaries, while the cavalry with extended lances broke through all who offered a strong resistance. The rest turned their back in flight, and flight proved difficult, because the surrounding wagons had blocked retreat. Our soldiers spared not to slay even the women, while the very beasts of burden, transfixed by the missiles, swelled the piles of bodies. Great glory, equal to that of our old victories, was won on that day. Some indeed say that there fell little less than 80,000 of the Britons, with a loss to our soldiers of about four hundred, and only as many wounded. Boudica put an end to her lie by poison.'

Writing slightly later, and maybe with access to now-lost accounts other than that of Tacitus, the Greek-speaking writer Dio (or Dion Cassius Cocceianus) who live from c.150 to 235 CE wrote:

'Paulinus had already brought Anglesey to terms and so, on learning of the disaster in Britain [the Boudican uprising and sacking of London and Verulamium (St Albans)] he at once set sail thither from Mona [Anglesey]. However, he was not willing to risk conflict with the barbarians immediately, as he feared their numbers and their desperation, but was inclined to postpone battle to a more convenient season. But as he grew short of food and the barbarians pressed relentlessly upon him, he was compelled, contrary to his judgement, to engage them. Boudica, at the head of an army of about 230,000 men, rode in a chariot herself and assigned the others to their several stations. Paulinus could not extend his line the whole length of hers for, even of the men had been drawn up only one deep, they would not have reached far enough, so inferior were they in numbers; nor, on the other hand did he dare join battle in a single compact force, for fear of being surrounded and cut to pieces. He therefore separated his army into three divisions, in order to fight at several points at one and the same time, and he made each of the divisions so strong that it could not easily be broken through.'

Key dates in the Boudican revolution

Dio then describes at length the fighting tactics of the Roman army, stating that 'They contended for a long time . . . but, finally, late in the day the Romans prevailed and they slew many in battle beside the wagons and the forest, and captured many alive. . . . In the meantime, however, Boudica fell sick and died.'

Historians have established much detail about the Roman army's fighting tactics. The Legions formed three ranks in line. Only one third of the Romans were engaged at any one time. The others were either calmly waiting their turn with the sullen patience of veterans, or if just relieved from the front, and stabbing line of locked shields, binding their wounds or drinking water.

Against this faultless drill there was no answer until, centuries later, the horsemen of the plains invented stirrups so that a lancer could charge home without being unhorsed. The charioteer was easily stopped without a blow by spikes on the ground.

A 'cover up' conspiracy?

Alas, neither Tacitus nor Dio give us any real clue to the location of the last battle between Boudica and Paulinus at the head of the XIVth and the XXth Legions.

Possible reasons for the mystery about the location of the battle could be that:

a: Paulinus (as a junior officer) and Agricola probably fled the field on horseback leaving the two legions to their fate.

b: The bad behaviour of the legions in cutting down the women and children and then making an excuse by slandering the Druids.

c: Tacitus the historian and Agricola were related (Agricola was to become the father-in-law of Tacitus).

Suggested sites for the massacre

Various suggestions for the location of the battle have been made, a selection of which are:

  • Virginia Water, Epping Forest
  • under platform 10 of Kings Cross Station, London.
  • Whittlebury Forest, near Towcester
  • High Cross or Mancetter along Watling Street

To my mind, Whittlebury Forest makes sense for it could have been there that 'the host' left the new Roman route and took to the Welsh (drove) road, perhaps after meeting a Roman patrol, in order to hasten the attempt to prevent the two legions reaching safety in their new fortress at Chester.

Who can say at this time precisely what roads were accessible by chariots, but there is a terrible logic here, for the next tradition we meet is in Flintshire! Although illogical at first glance, there at least is some evidence and tradition which is totally absent elsewhere.

The evidence for north Wales

The location in north Wales is a local 'secret', known only to those familiar with local traditions. There are at least 547 bronze age burial mounds in Clwyd, mostly in north Flintshire, and a number of other prehistoric earthworks such as iron age hillforts.

Gop Hill is to the north-west of Trelawnyd and is surmounted by a prominent cairn (116:087803). Underneath the hill, on the side of the cairn, are natural caves into the limestone. According to the eighteenth century antiquarian, Pennant, earlier it was known as Copa'r'leni, perhaps from Cop yr goleuni or 'Mount of lights', as it was used as a beacon site in the early seventeenth century.

Another name for the hill was Gop Paulini, which put Pennant in mind of Suetonis Paulinus (although the early Welsh forms of Paulinus is Peulin). Part of the brow of the hill was known as Bryn y Saethau, which he translates as 'Hill of arrows'. Pennant is the first to speculate, in print at least, that Gop Hill was the place of 'the slaughter of the Ordovices by Agricola'. (It should be noted that Pennant specifically uses the name of the local iron age tribe, not that of the Iceni of East Anglia.)

On the top of Gop Hill is a massive cairn made up of the local limestone. It is said to be the largest cairn in Wales, about 100 yards across and 40 feet high. In 1886 and 1887 a shaft was dug into the centre of the cairn, and side tunnels dug at the base. Animal bones were found but no evidence which enabled the nineteenth century antiquarians to date the cairn. No modern excavations have taken place and it is assumed that the cairn is neolithic.

The idea that Gop Hill was the site of Paulinus's battle was resurrected by Edward Parry, in his Royal visits and progresses to Wales of 1851. Rev R.W. Morgan, in St Paul in Britain (1860), notes that 'The British traditions place [Boudica's last battle] on the Wyddelian road, near the modern town of Newmarket [the name foisted on Trelawnyd in about 1700 and which remained in use until 1954 when the older name was restored], in Flintshire. The names still attached to the various sites of the field confirm this statement. Here are "Cop Paulinus", the "Hill of Arrows", the "Hill of Carnage", the "Hollow of Woe", the "Knoll of the Mel e", the "Hollow of Execution", the "Field of the Tribunal", the "Hollow of No Quarter". Half-a-mile away is a monolith, the "Stone of Lamentation", and on the road to Caerwys was formerly - now removed to Downing - the "Stone of the Grave of Vuddig". He has previously speculated that Boadica's nickname was Buddig or Vuddig, translating this as 'Victorious Ones'.

Unfortunately there is no indication where these interesting names were located. It is reasonable to assume that they are translations of Welsh toponyms, but if so may be merely far-fetched translations.

Among the first authors to discuss at length the possibility that Boudica's demise was in Flintshire was Owen Morien Morgan in his book Queen Boadicea - her life, battles and death near Rhyl, published in 1913. He effusively speculates that the battle took place on the Rhuddlan Plain, near the village of Newmarket. This is shown on modern maps as Trelawnyd but an earlier was Rhyd y Lyvnwyd, which Morgan [mis-]translates as 'the road that was harrowed'. Fields nearby are known as Cydio ar Leni, translated as 'Seizing Legions'.

Maen Achwyfan stone (9k)

Much of his elaboration is best dismissed as fanciful. He draws further upon place-name evidence, referring to an elaborately carved 10 feet high disc-headed Anglo-Scandinavian cross of the late tenth century which still stands in its original location. It is known as Maen Achwyfan (116:129787), which Morgan translates as 'the sacred stone of the place of lamentation'.

Carreg Bedd Buddig  stone (5k)

Another stone was rescued last century after being reused as a gatepost and is now in Whitford Church (116:146782). It bears an inscription in Latin which has led to it being the reputed gravestone of Boudica.

Hic iacit mulier bona nobili
[Here lies a good and noble wife]

A namesake of Owen Morien Morgan, Rev W. Morgan, writing in the mid-nineteenth century, records that this stone was known as Carreg Bedd Buddig which he translates as 'The gravestone of Boadicea', although why Buddig should be Boadicea is unstated.

Owen Morien Morgan refers to the finding of a gold torc in the vicinity, on a hill known as Bryn Sion (Hillside of Zion) near Caerwys (116:138720). This time the dating is correct, as the torc has survived and is, indeed, of iron age date. With typical enthusiasm Morgan assumes that:

'Boadicea's horses were slain or fell on the slippery declivity, and she and her two daughters received mortal sabre cuts on their heads, and the three ell, and the gold torque and coronet fell off and were trodden in the quagmire out of sight . . .'
[With little ingenuity, the same automatic association with Boudica was made when a similar gold torc was found near Mancetter; see separate article. It is rather like assuming that every Mini car one sees must be the one driven by Mr Bean . . . R.N.T.]
Morgan conveniently ignore the fact that Bryn Sion is six miles, as the chariot flies, from Gop Hill and nearly five dead straight miles from Maen Achwyfan.

Clear evidence of iron age activity in the vicinity can be found about two miles south-west of Gop Hill, where a dramatic promonitory is surmounted by the hillfort known as Moel Hiraddug (116:064784).

Ghosts

Local lore provides a number of tantalising suggestions of this link with the Roman battle:

a: The ghosts of the adversaries, Paulinus and Boudica, still walk the lanes in Flintshire.

b: The whole Roman army has been glimpsed in the clouds above Trelogan.

c: A Roman general on a white horse has been seen on Gop Hill.

d: About three years ago I met an old man (not a native of the area) walking his dog on Gop Hill who told me he had seen Boudica in her chariot, racing down the road at night, but he had not seen her recently as his sight was going.

e: A psychic friend 'picked up' a dying man on Gop Hill. She reported that he was Roman auxiliary whose foot had been cut off so he could not run away. He was about to be thrown (alive) on a bonfire on Gop Hill with other Roman soldiers. He did not know the name of his commander and worked on a catapult. He said the British had no chariots (as they were on the coast plain presumably) were high on some drug as they seemed not to feel pain. He thought the Romans had lost the battle (but it would seem they had the least casualties because of armour and drill). He was not impressed by the Britons and thought they had succeeded by sheer numbers saying they shouted a lot!

Placing the battle site near Gop Hill

Gop Hill overlooks the present-day A5151, which has greater antiquity as is revealed just over a mile to the east, where the modern road follows the course of the Anglo-Saxon boundary earthwork known as Offa's Dyke. The road runs through a 'defile'.

Based on Vegetias' account of the classic drill employed by the Roman army when fighting against superior odds, the legions could have formed a shield wall about a mile and a half long. On their left flank they were protected by Gop Hill with archers and, on their right, by the Roman cavalry. At the blast of a trumpet the legions and cavalry formed wedges and literally cut their way through the, by now exhausted, Britons. Forced against their wagons and camp followers Boudica was surrounded and wounded. Some say she poisoned herself rather than be taken home for a Roman 'triumph'; others say that she left the battlefield but within a few months died of her wounds.

I noticed in a book published in 1935 Roman Britain by C. M. Franzero, (Allen and Unwin 1935) that the Italian author somehow knew that Boudica died somewhere near Rhuddlan. Similarly a friend born and brought up in Rome was told at school that the battle was near Chester.

Boudica's last battle - introduction | In search of Boudica at The Gop | Boudica and The Gop | Buddug in Flintshire | Boudica - the case for Atherstone and Kings Cross Originally published in Mercian Mysteries No.25 November 1995.


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