Boudica and the rationale for Church Stowe as a candidate site for the Battle of Watling Street

Very little factual or written evidence exists about Boudica and the role she played in a decisive period of Britain’s history. This is partly because her people, the Iceni, did not write, and partly because the Romans who defeated her would no doubt have wanted to remove all traces of her as a charismatic and troublesome leader.

What is certain however, is that she did exist, and relatively recent research suggests that Church Stowe is a strong credible candidate for Boudica’s last stand – the Battle of Watling Street – against the Roman invaders of Britain in c. AD 60.

The Battle of Watling Street, fought in the year 60 or 61 AD was one of the bloodiest battles in ancient British history. It was a battle between an alliance of the British tribes led by Boudica, Queen of the Iceni and a Roman army led by Gaius Suetonius Paulinus.

The Romans began to invade Britain from AD 43. At that time the population of ancient Britain was made up of a large number of independent peoples, or tribes. But in September AD 43 a major victory by the Romans resulted in the surrender of 11 British kings at Colchester in Essex. However, the relationship between the colonising Romans and the local population of ancient Britain was complicated.

Boudica’s husband, Prasutagus, ruled the Iceni. It is thought that the Romans appointed Prasutagus as a ‘client’ ruler of the Iceni territory. Coins were minted in his name symbolising the tribe’s positive relationship with Rome.

When he died in AD 60, and Roman officials were upset to learn that Prasutagus had not bequeathed his holdings to Rome. Instead, he left half of his wealth and territory to his daughters and the other half to the Roman Emperor Nero. The Roman imperial administrators were indignant. They seized all of Prasutagus’s property, beat his widow Boudica and raped her daughters. These outrages against the Iceni and their queen enraged the Iceni people and encouraged other tribes to join them against the Romans. They opposed the Roman avarice and the heavy taxes levied against the population, uniting them against the tyranny of the Romans.

Boudica assembled an army of c. 120,000 rebels who first destroy the Roman town of Colchester, then Londinium (London) a Roman settlement established on the banks of the Thames after AD 43 and then Verulamium (St Albans) – slaughtering over 30,000 Roman citizens. By this time Boudica’s army was increased to about 230,000. Boudica’s army advance along Watling Street – the famous Roman road to be confronted by the Roman army led by Paulinus as it returned from Anglesey.

The location of the battle field is described by Roman historians as a range of hills offering open space with thick woods behind and on either side. There was also a view over where Watling Street crossed a river in a wide marshy valley. This description reflects the topography of Church Stowe as it would have been at the time with the marshy valley across to Flore.

The Roman army had the advantage – as the rebel army approached they would have seen Roman troops in battle formation, with the legions positioned in the centre and auxiliary cavalry on either side. The chariots of the rebel Britain army initially wreaked havoc down the Roman lines. However, once the armies clashed the superior equipment and martial skills of the Romans was decisive. Once the rebels broke and fled from the slaughter they were trapped by their own carts and chariots in the marshes.

80,000 Britons, including women, were killed, while Roman casualties amounted to around 400 dead and a few more wounded. The Battle of Watling Street decisively changed the governance of Britain from tribal rule to Roman control for the next 350 years.

Research published in 2010 by John Pegg provides strong strategic, topographic and aerial photographic evidence that the valley below Church Stowe has a strong claim to be the site of the battle of Watling Street. Full details can be found here.