BOADICEA, the flame-haired Warrior Queen who drove the Romans from Britain. Well, almost. And if she lost, she did so in spectacular style, hurling javelins from the back of a chariot with scythes on its wheels amid hordes of hairy, blue-painted tribesmen who had the temerity to prefer their mud huts and barbaric illiteracy to the obvious advantages of Roman civilisation.
If you went to the kind of school I attended , that’s what you were taught in the brief hour given over to ancient history, and the stereotype has been maintained ever since. The current rash of pseudo-history programmes on the box have their fair share of red-headed Xena-clones tearfully embracing a pair of manifestly wronged daughters (she was flogged and her daughters raped - it’s one of the few bits of the account that hold water) before leaping into her horse-powered warmachine and racing off to burn Colchester to the ground.
It’s enough to make your toes curl - mine anyway. From when I was very small indeed, even before I found she was Boudica - not Boadicea - this woman, her time, her age, the culture in which she lived, have been a source of fascination to the wandering Scott mind.
It was rampant escapism, really. I never fitted very well in contemporary society. The first novel I bought with my own money was James Fennimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans and it didn’t take long reading that to decide I’d rather be in frontier-land, USA, fighting the white men, than stuck in Eaglesham, Renfrewshire, fighting nobody in particular.
When the novelty of that evaporated, there was always the local library and its battered copy of Rosemary Sutcliffe’s Eagle of the Ninth to feed the need to escape into a saner, more relevant time. They didn’t have O Grades in the first century AD; if you were alive, you were passing the only exams - the ability to feed yourself, keep warm and keep out of reach of the Legions.
Even as a child, I knew Rome was the enemy, which was sad, because nobody else seemed to think so and all the literature, fictional or otherwise, had our ancestors as grunting savages clothed in skins and living in mud huts, just waiting for the nice, kind Romans to come and bring us brick-built villas (one per family) and hot baths and straight roads and slavery and crucifixion and taxation and a policy of deliberate urbanisation that crippled the rural economy almost as badly as Blair is doing now.
So from the days of my dim and distant past, when I cherished the James Herriot model of writing and practising veterinary medicine together, finding the real story of Boudica and bringing it to life was the goal - I just needed to learn to write and then to find the time to get into the library and read the books and the papers, to find the practical archaeologists who spend their lives making iron age sword blades and brooches, to hunt down the man in Norfolk who still makes his own harness to drive the horse so that we can, between us, decide what the ‘harness mounts’ found in the text books were actually for.
(You could try asking the archaeologists but they’ll tell you that "they were for mounting on harness", which isn’t quite what you need if you’re trying to recreate a world for a readership who have grown rather a long way from the inherited skills of their ancestors.)
And now I offer you the fruits of two years’ research. You could read the novel (be my guest) or you can have the super-condensed version that says:
She wasn’t Boadicea, she was Boudica, from the old Gaelic word ‘Boudeg’ meaning ‘Bringer of Victory’ and, from that, I would strongly suggest that it was a title and not a name - you don’t call a baby girl ‘She who brings Victory’ in the ardent hope that when she grows up, she’ll just happen to defeat the Ninth legion and very nearly drive the entire Roman army from Britain.
She was almost certainly a warrior long before the Romans got carried away with their tax-collection and decided that a bit of rape and pillage was a good idea. From all we know of the British tribes of the time, leadership of the armies was based on merit, which is to say fighting ability, not on the redness of your hair or the neatness of the pointy, tassly things on the Raquel Welch-style furry bra that you, of course, (didn’t) wear into battle. This only surprises people who have fallen for the Roman myth, carried down to the present day, that women can’t fight in battle.
If you read deeper into classical and Irish Celtic histories, you will find that women commonly ran the warrior schools and if you want personal experience, I can recommend nothing so heartily as taking up dark age/Celtic battle re-enactment. What it loses in authenticity, it makes up for in enthusiasm and I promise you, women can fight alongside the men. If all you have to carry is your own chain mail, a sword and a shield, it’s no problem. If you have a horse to carry them for you, it’s a piece of cake.
Which brings us to the knotty question of chariots. Sadly, two years’ experience has taught me that if you mention Boudica to anyone, the image that flashes up on their eyeballs is that ghastly Victorian bronze statue of a Wronged Mother clasping two lassies to her flimsy nightie while riding in a chariot with scythes on the wheels.
How stupid is that? Even if your chariot was made of bronze - which it wasn’t, it was made of wicker - the weakest link is the axle. If it breaks, you’re in deepest cow crud and the very worst place for it to break would be near the enemy lines in battle. So now remember back to those days in early childhood when you rode a bike with stabilisers. What happened if you hit a curb? Or a rosebush? Or, gods forbid, your dad’s leg? At best, you fell off. At worst, you wrecked the wheel . Well, I did.
Now imagine going as fast as a pair of galloping Shetland ponies can pull you, heading towards the enemy. If you hit a molehill, you are going to lose a wheel. If, by some miracle, you manage to get to the enemy lines and hit one of the bad guys, you are not only going to lose a wheel, but you’re going to lose it in the midst of his friends, which would be terminally foolish. Scythes were for Darius, High King of all Persia, who rode a chariot on flat desert sand and didn’t venture near the enemy, not for a warrior who led her people into war.
I don’t think Boudica would have been using a chariot at all - it takes two horses and two warriors to throw one set of javelins from a chariot, which is inefficient in anyone’s book. Add that to the fact that they can’t jump logs, ditches or dead bodies and you have every good reason to dispense with them the moment you breed your horses big enough to carry a warrior without her feet trailing on the ground. They don’t have to be huge. A 12.2 hands Dartmoor stallion can carry a grown man on a day’s hunting, however un-PC that might be today, and if they can do that, they can carry a warrior to war.
I could go on - in fact I could fill a book. The druids were not superstitious idiots prone to sacrificing people out of hand - a charge full of pretty nasty irony when it comes from a culture that invented wholesale public snuff pornography as a form of entertainment.
We were not illiterate barbarians - we simply chose to rely on an oral tradition for our deepest teachings - a fact of greatest regret to those of us trying to find them again. We lived in a highly organised, structured, creative, peaceful society until Rome came and wiped it out.
So - what did the Romans ever do for us? They taught us genocide and the advantages of spreading propaganda about the enemy. On principle, don’t believe them. Or at least read the other side and come to a balanced decision.
Boudica: Dreaming the Eagle is published by Bantam Press, 10.99
Separating fact from fiction
BONNIE PRINCE CHARLIE
The myth: As the Young Pretender, Charlie, right, has been plastered over shortbread tins as a heroic prince leading Scotland against the evil English to claim the throne that was rightfully his father’s.
The truth: BPC was, of course, not a Scot. The Stuarts were Catholic, but in 1745 the majority of Scotland was Protestant. Charlie’s popularity has long been over-rated. He led the Highlanders (mostly out of duty, rather than allegiance) through to Culloden, but was defeated within an hour. The "English" force that beat him contained a substantial number of Scots.
The myth: The soft-hearted lady of the lamp tended tirelessly to the wounded of the Crimean War and laid the foundations of modern nursing. She fought army and medical officials to ensure the wounded were nursed. All the soldiers fell in love with her.
The truth: Many historians now accept she was driven more by ambition than compassion and was a seething mass of neuroses, who saw female colleagues as enemies. She suffered a nervous breakdown and became a recluse on her return to Britain.
ROBERT THE BRUCE
The myth: In a cave one evening, he noticed a spider trying to attach its web to a wall. He watched closely as the creature tried and tried - and finally succeeded. Inspired, the future king continued his fight against English occupation.
The truth: At least a dozen caves across Scotland claim to be the site for this unlikely tale. However, it is now accepted that it never actually happened.