Mancetter (Manduessesdum) is a highly credible candidate for the location of Queen Boudica’s iconic battle in AD60. The claim has attracted much interest and gained well-founded support. First outlined by Graham Webster, Mancetter’s case holds up strongly against the several other sites that are candidates for the same role.
The Roman Mancetter information boards 1-4, and 6, are based on archaeological research. The fifth board, Boudica’s Last Battle, differs. It is based on other types of evidence, discussed in the first section of this paper, The evidence for Mancetter, where it is analysed under four category headings.
The paper’s second section summarises the claims of eight other candidate sites.
Some readers may prefer to begin with the third section, which outlines Boudica’s campaign (its background and events), and describes the final battle in the words of the only two existing records.
The evidence for Mancetter as the site of Boudica’s last battle.
To establish the credibility for candidacy, the following four categories are put forward as criteria for any historic location’s claim to be a battle-site:-
Let us consider what is involved in each category, and apply that to the Mancetter claim.
The absence of archaeological evidence
The assaults Boudica carried out as the rebellion progressed – Colchester, London, St. Albans – are archaeologically verifiable. However, beyond St. Albans the archaeological trail goes cold. Therefore, the first category in the evidence list can be removed from consideration at present. As yet, no archaeological evidence has been found for the battle that ended the Boudican campaign, at Mancetter, or anywhere else.
Archival evidence is more fruitful. It is also problematic. On the one hand, it does yield some information; on the other hand, that information is not only frustratingly cryptic, its veracity requires scrutiny. The archival information we have is slender indeed. Tacitus provides a description of the site which runs as follows:-
Ch 34. [The Roman commander Suetonius] chose a position in a defile with a wood behind him. There could be no enemy, he knew, except at his front, where there was open country without cover for ambushes. Ch 37. At first, the regular troops stood their ground. Keeping to the defile as a natural defence…. Tacitus, The Annals Book 14, trans Grant
Dio’s history contains a sentence of relevance:-
[Suetonius] divided his army into three divisions, in order to fight at several points at once. Cassius Dio, The Histories, Book LXII 7
These two historians, Tacitus and Cassius Dio, are the two remaining sources.
Tacitus’s account: the question of authenticity
The Annals of Tacitus were written some 50 years after the battle, a time-lag itself reason for caution. Moreover, Tacitus had not witnessed the event at first hand. To counter that failing, it is possible that he had the benefit of an eye-witness account from Agricola, his father-in-law. Agricola served in Britain mid-first century, as a young tribune, second-in-command of the Second legion, stationed near Exeter. However, Suetonius, military governor of the province, followed a common practice and chose Agricola ‘for his tent companion, in order to form an estimate of his merit’.1 Now, we need to consider that piece of information alongside the suicide of one Poenius Postumus, the acting commander of the Second legion. He took his own life in the aftermath of the battle, out of shame and remorse that he had failed to respond to a command to bring his troops north to take part. But Postumus, although in charge at that time, was mere third in command. Therefore, it seems the number one legatus and his deputy, Agricola, were elsewhere. It is tempting to conjecture that Agricola was with Suetonius. Hence, there could be grounds for assuming that he was present at the decisive battle.
Tacitus’s account: the question of bias
A second reason for caution in relying on Tacitus’s account concerns his aim in writing his histories; we need to keep in mind that he is propagandising. 2 We have to recognise that, in modern day parlance, he is engaged in spin. In his Annals he uses his analysis of past events as cover for comment on issues of the day, late first-century issues of Roman society and politics, on which it would have been unwise to speak openly. So he clothes his contempt for what he viewed as undesirable prevalent values by praising contrasting historical examples. To present Boudica, female warrior, and barbarian to boot, as honourable and brave (he has her poisoning herself, unlike other accounts in which she falls ill), was an oblique way of criticising a trend of extreme imperialism which Tacitus deplored.
Dio’s account: considerations
Cassius Dio wrote his account some 150 years after the event, even further removed than Tacitus; he may have used Tacitus as one of his sources. He was born in 150AD and raised as a Roman citizen in the province of Bithynia, (nowadays central/north Turkey), later finding success in Rome as a senator, and, twice, as a consul. He matched his public service with some 80 volumes of Roman history, written in his native Greek and permeated with his own vision of Empire. His rhetorical training reveals itself in his vivid writing style; books were often read aloud at Roman dinner parties, and Dio’s histories lent themselves to this practice. The possibility that he added narrative flourishes should not be discounted. He does, however, provide a useful detail on the deployment of the Roman forces at the outset of Boudica’s last battle, detail which if reliable carries implications for the size and shape of the battle arena: the division of the army into three, ‘in order to fight at several points at once’. 3
Archival evidence: issues of translation
There is one more factor to be considered regarding the archival evidence: the choices that are made in translation. In the debate about this battle’s location, a great deal of weight tends to be placed on the term ‘defile’, and yet its translation is contentious; it variously4 appears as ‘a spot narrow at the entrance’ (Murray 1794), ‘a narrow defile’ (Church and Brodribb, 1864-1877) or ‘a site with a narrow approach’ (Ireland 2013). Another interpretations is ‘narrow valley’ (Hingley 2005); Webster turns the bare defile into a ‘narrow’ defile. It seems that Tacitus’s Latin original, faux/faucibus, is an interesting choice; he has not selected the more usual convallis. Faux’s dictionary definitions include: pharynx, gullet, throat, neck, jaws; narrow pass; shaft, strait, chasm. Furthermore, the word is actually ‘defiles’; it’s plural…..more than one defile. It becomes even more intriguing when we realise that it’s an oddity of a plural, rather like ‘trousers’ and ‘scissors’, where a plural form denotes a singular item – albeit a singular item with a kind of built-in duality; these are bifurcated objects. But before we settle on such a solution, we must bear in mind that there is a use of the word in Seneca the Elder which denotes a clearly singular pass between the mountain and the sea at Thermopylae. Then, of course, the Latin syntax renders faux as faucibus in this account, steering us to consider its relationship to the preceding word, locum (place). But it does no more than imply a preposition; it is left to the reader to infer exactly which preposition. For instance, it could be a place ‘ with narrow defile[s]’, ‘before (in front of) narrow defile[s] or ‘beside narrow defile[s]’. The other reference to this landscape feature comes as the battle is under way, where, although translators have made various choices for munimento, all selections project a similar defensive quality: ‘a rampart’ (Murray), ‘a defence’ (Church & Brodribb, and Grant), ‘a natural protection’ (Jackson), ‘narrow confines as protection’ (Ireland).
Alongside the puzzles presented by the defile-like feature, the straightforward references to thick woodland and a wide-open plain come as a relief.
Archival evidence: how far does Mancetter match the description of the site?
A map produced by Webster ( see page 12) uses the label ‘Hartshill Ridge’ for the geologically interesting outcrop of hard rock more precisely designated the Pre-Cambrian/ Ordovician Nuneaton Inlier. This has been an important source not only of high-quality road stone but also of other minerals, and thus has been extensively quarried; some quarrying continues today. Railway and canal construction have also destroyed much earlier topography. The extent of these interferences with the original contours hampers attempts to imaginatively reconstruct the first century landscape. Nevertheless, there are accounts of outcrops of Hartshill stone creating crag-like scars of hard rock, commonly visible in the 18th century 5. Still, today, narrow valleys cut back from the plain into the steep hillsides of the Ridge. The top of the Ridge offers wide views across the flat ground that runs from its foot to the Watling Street and much further afield – an excellent military surveillance point, its range unsuspected from below. 6 The dense Hartshill Hayes and St Lawrence woods, part of Hartshill Hayes Country Park that covers the upper slopes of the Ridge, are known to date back to the 13th century at least; there are intimations of an even earlier provenance.
Any site put forward as the location of this important battle must have credibility as able to meet military requirements. Both leaders would be straining for the necessities of success, which may be grouped under three headings:
Resources: water, food, fodder, firewood
Both armies had to meet their supply needs on the move and in camp. As is well-documented 7, the Roman army was both experienced and disciplined in providing for its troops. Of the four resources – water, food, firewood and fodder – the most vital, water, was also the least portable and the most hand-to-mouth. Water supply would be crucial. Consequently, the Roman army’s marching route (with en-route encampments) and the choice of battle site would be planned with water in mind, for men and horses. Crucially, Mancetter would have a good supply of water: the river Anker, and other feeder streams. For the Romans, food would come from a combination of carried supplies, requisition, purchase, pillage, and foraging – each man carried a sickle for that very purpose. Firewood and fodder, too, would have similar sources of provision. This was a well-practised organisation. The British, on the other hand, may well have been more reliant on foraging for their food, fuel and fodder; perhaps also on negotiation, barter and looting – certainly when moving an operation of this scale. Although we have to assume their many wagons carried supplies as well as human cargo, their need to find food must have had some bearing on their direction of march. Certainly their demand for water would be massive, and even those who portray them as behaving precipitately must allow them at least some degree of logistical planning, and recognise that water supply must have featured in their choice of route.
Resources: to what extent does Mancetter provide?
The Mancetter environs would have offered means of survival for both armies for the duration of this phase of the campaign.
Access: roads, human support
Both armies would be looking for the most advantageous routes, not only to expedite their movements towards engagement, but also to allow swift withdrawal, if need be. An awareness of the mid-first-century road system is essential to forming any theory about Roman thinking on where to site their final act in the Boudican rebellion. It has to be assumed that the Romans travelled along their own roads: any cross-country off-road route is too illogical. Of the Britons’ use of Roman roads, however, we can only be more circumspect. It’s possible that, instead of, or as well as, Roman roads, they also used native trackways, so theories as to Boudica’s post-London direction could well consider any such, where known. Moreover, the British would not be marching in a neat linear column, but rather as something much more sprawling, something spreading out widely each side of the road, hence something moving quite slowly.
Linked to the choice of route, there is the matter of human support along the way. Neither army would choose to travel through hostile territory, if it could be avoided. For the Britons, especially, some native support could well prove vital in maintaining food supplies. The Romans, of course, would be keen to make use of their own network of forts and stations.
Access: to what extent does Mancetter provide?
Mancetter sits on the Watling Street, the road now labeled the A5. Running from London, in AD60 it extended as far west as Wroxeter. It is recorded that Roman troops returned from their engagement in Anglesey to address the Boudican challenge. Watling Street from Wroxeter8 would have been an obvious choice of route for them, just as it also could have offered a guideline for the British force travelling northwards from St Albans. Also to the Romans’ benefit, there were roads to bring reinforcements from Exeter to meet Watling Street close to the Roman fortress at Wall. In addition, the Roman-built Fosse Way runs north-easterly from the south-west to cross Watling Street at High Cross, site of a Roman settlement, Venonis. Mancetter, therefore, afforded the Romans a well-accessed situation.
Of utter importance, of course, is the nature of the site itself. Is it a place where it’s possible to stage a battle? One of the protagonists will likely choose the site; is it a place that will give them the advantage? That is: landscape supportive of battle success should offer the following constituents: good conditions for striking camp; sufficient space to fight; gradients working in favour of chosen tactics ; favourable direction of sun and prevailing wind; workable going, underfoot; cover; effective view-points. These factors are self-explanatory, but it is worth considering some details:-
Suetonius’s force comprised ‘in all about 10,000 armed men’, and Tacitus has him deploying his men in typical Roman formation: legionaries ‘stationed in close order, with the light-armed troops on the flanks and the cavalry massed on the wings.’ 9 Military theory recommended three feet of space per man side-by-side, and six feet between each line: numbers and dimensions to be held in mind whenever we assess the suitability of each ‘narrow defile’ put forward as potential Boudican battle site. At the same time, for this battle, according to Tacitus, we need to look for some aspect of the site that forms a natural defensive feature. Meanwhile, the British rebels occupied a wide area – this would be the open plain, where, presumably, the final terrible hand-to-hand slaughter was acted out.
Other necessary landscape features: Gradients working in favour of chosen tactics ; favourable direction of sun and prevailing wind; good conditions for striking camp; workable going, underfoot; cover; effective view-point
Suetonius would want somewhere propitious for his men to camp immediately preceding the battle. And it would need to be close to an arena that offered further features supportive of battle, based on well-honed Roman strategy10 which included guidance on the advantages of having height over the enemy, advice on facing away from the sun, and a recommendation to have the prevailing wind behind one’s forces. And of course, common sense dictates that downhill is the gradient of choice for moving forward. The Roman commander would also be looking to avoid difficult ground conditions – rocky ground, marsh land. He would want natural protection where strategic, and surveillance points where useful.
Military suitability: how far does Mancetter provide?
Tacitus, and to some extent Dio, imply that Suetonius was indeed the protagonist who chose the site; and the experienced commander would understand the whole range of military requirements and seek to include as many as possible.
The availability of suitable pre- and post- battle camping is clear, in the surrounds of the fort, most probably between the fort and the road. It is an interesting fact that there are crop marks indicating such activity in that area, as yet uninvestigated.
As a candidate site for this battle, Mancetter must accommodate the Roman fighting force in sufficient space to employ their practiced tactics, in conjunction with the defile or defiles of Tacitus’s description; also, perhaps, allowing for Dio’s three separate fighting locations. Suetonius would protect his flanks and rear so as not to be surrounded by the superior number of the enemy, while forcing the enemy to fight on a narrow front, where their numbers could not be put to good use. This suggests a position somewhat like a funnel (the ‘faucet’ implied by Tacitus’s choice of vocabulary). The length of the Hartshill Ridge as it borders the plain below affords more than one such configuration.
Favourable gradient, effective look-out points atop the Ridge, adequate cover from contours and woodland, all are evident. The position of the sun would depend upon the battle’s time of day, seemingly impossible to conjecture at this distance of time. The Hartshill Ridge runs roughly northwest to southeast, and were the British to be approaching from the east, an early morning engagement would give them the advantage, as the Romans would look into the sun. (Henry Tudor must have faced the same problem marching from Merevale to Bosworth Field.) Ground conditions would improve the further away from the river and the closer to the Ridge. Meanwhile, the wide sweep of the plain meets British requirements for their wagons and their camping space, and, crucially, deployment of their famed chariot manoeuvres.
Some evidence lies outside direct documentation, belonging rather to the province of speculation. It has to do with calculating the probabilities underpinning the coming-together of the two armies at any particular location.
One factor is the rate of travel achieved by each army. Various calculations have been made of the Roman army’s marching speed, ranging from Alan Cook’s carefully annotated12 miles per day, (Cook11 calibrates the different times of arrival at destination of the vanguard and the rear), to those researchers who favour a forced-march speed of 25 miles per day. But most researchers rely on a ‘regular’ rate of 20 miles per day, derived from Vegetius’s 12 training manual – where the mile, of course, is the Roman mile, slightly shorter than the present day version, and the season is given as summer. Likewise, estimates have been made of the rate of progress achievable by the British force; generally speaking, this is assumed to be about half that of the Roman speed.13
With these speeds in mind, the next speculation has to be about the routes taken by each army. The Roman itinerary has to account for the journey from Anglesey of the bulk of their forces, that is, the Fourteenth legion, together with detachments from the Twentieth and auxiliaries from ‘ the nearest stations’14. To be added to that more or less certain fact are two other considerations. First, as held by most of the Boudican battle-site theories, Suetonius had to journey back from his evaluation of the London situation, accompanied by a small supporting contingent, to rejoin this main force coming from Wales. Therefore, a battle-site at some junction of a London route and a Welsh route is to be sought. (However, there are at least two theories 15 which argue instead that Suetonius took the whole of his force to London, discounting any need for a later re-union.) Second, Suetonius appears to have ordered reinforcements from the south-west – the Second legion stationed near Exeter. For reasons unspecified, the Second did not respond, but the factor to be kept in mind in trying to second-guess the Roman thinking is their need to plan for suitable routes connecting their main force and any reinforcements.
And then, assumptions about British campaigning routes have to be aligned with those about Roman troop movements, although their case is even more nebulous than that of the Romans. As noted above, no definitive evidence exists as to their movements after London, and British impact on St. Albans may or may not have involved their full force.
Of course, all these speculations connect with another area open to informed guesswork: the mindsets of the two opposing commanders, the aims and intentions underpinning their decisions. Views are formed based on a background of known British tribal behaviour and typical Roman military calculation, and the hints provided by the brief historical accounts narrated above.
Probable movements of the two armies: how does Mancetter relate?
There is an obvious relationship between the candidate Mancetter battle-site and the Watling Street, with its connections to Wales, St. Albans and London. Twelve miles east along Watling Street, the Fosse Way intersects, with its link to the south-west. There was also a south-west link in the other direction along the Watling St, joining that road near Wall.
Had Boudica’s army continued across Watling Street, northwards, it would have reached Leicester (Ratae), and possible useful alliance with the Corieltavi. There is speculation16 that she had Ratae in mind as her next destination, but recognized she could make no further progress without turning westwards to face the inevitable final confrontation.
Arguments abound as to the credibility of each army being able to cover the suggested distances in a workable time-frame. However, as there is no definitive account as yet of the number of days over which this campaign took place, we are left with speculations as matter for debate.
Further circumstantial evidence specific to Mancetter
The Lunt fort. Just as the defeat of Caratacus spurred the Romans on to increased defensive activity, so the defeat of Boudica was followed by the building of a series of forts across the Midlands. One such was the Lunt fortress; the earliest evidence for its occupation is dated to around the time of the Boudican defeat. At Baginton, near Coventry, it stood some 12 miles from Mancetter. In its centre was a feature as yet unique in Roman Britain’s archaeology: a gyrus, a circular enclosure probably used for training horses. As the only known example in Britain, its situation and its date suggest its suitability for housing and re-schooling the large number of horses available to the Romans from their defeated British enemy.
Manduessedum, the name.
The Roman name Manduessedum comprises two elements: mandu, meaning ‘small horse’, or ‘pony’, and essesdum/esseda, meaning ‘war chariot/s’, or ‘gladiatorial chariot/s’. The first part, which also appears in the name of the British queen Cartimandua, is of Celtic or Gaulish origin. There are very few Roman place-names referring to ‘horse’; a similarity has been suggested with another Roman example, (Marcotaxon: the marco means ‘horse’), where the reference could have to do with local legend.17
The second part is interesting, and perhaps significant, in that essedum/esseda is a term specific to chariots involved in fight. Caesar 18 uses it in narrating battle situations in Gaul, and gladiators in chariot-based contests were known as essedari. Perhaps this context should be held in mind when evaluating suggestions that the place-name’s chariot reference has to do with civilian traffic along the Watling Street.
Webster’s case for a Mancetter battle site.
The late Graham Webster, archaeologist and specialist in Romano-British history, was the first to make the case for Mancetter, in 1978, in Boudica: the British Revolt Against Rome AD60. Having supported the various archaeological explorations of Keith Scott and members of the Atherstone Archaeological and Historical Society from 1968 onwards, Webster was in a position to recognize the potential of the Hartshill Ridge to provide the narrow defile[s] to which Tacitus alluded. He noted a number of such possibilities, ‘opening out to the river plain through which Watling Street runs’. That very proximity to Watling Street added further legitimacy to the site’s candidacy, as providing the route bringing Suetonius’s troops from Wales, while also linking to routes for possible reinforcements from the south-west. Furthermore, Webster believed the military fortress at Mancetter may have influenced Suetonius’s choice of site. (He also brought the significance of the Lunt gyrus to public attention.) The wide plain, meanwhile, allowed ample space not only for the British wagons but also for their fighting style. Webster illustrated his view of the battle deployment in his map of the ‘possible Mancetter context’:-
Map from Webster ‘Boudica’, (Routledge ,1978), p98.
Alan Cook’s research
More recently, in 2012-2013, Alan F. Cook, a locally-based geological and terrain evaluation specialist, searched for physical evidence of Webster’s theory, on behalf of Atherstone Civic Society. The basis of Cook’s search is his proposal that the intense human activity associated with the Boudica battle would introduce considerable quantities of iron, lead, zinc, tin and copper into the soils, all of which are rare in the area. Cook suggests that, decomposed, these metals would produce trace signatures. So, despite the inevitable plunder of spoils following the battle, he concludes that from such a significant number of protagonists, a percentage of trace signatures of lost metal artefacts would remain. It is that percentage that he sought. His work is based on three sources of data:
• The British Geological Survey
• information from the ASTER satellite on the terrain and the soils
• infra-red aerial surveys (Cook,1983-1990)
Cook investigated 136 Ordnance Survey 1 km. grid squares, shown on the map below. For each square he recorded the level of the soil’s acidity, and – in table form – quantified any traces of iron, copper, lead and zinc. Alongside that, he noted the possible causes of those traces, whether natural or of human origin. From this overview he identified 24 squares for further investigation. He based this advice on the level of traces of atypical metals, traces for which there appear to be no immediate explanations. To strengthen his recommendations, Cook applied a further requirement. For each square identified as of particular interest, he looked at the degree of correlation between his three data sources. The extent of that agreement guided him to organise the squares into three levels of priority:
Priority 1 High correlation = three data sources agree
Priority 2 Medium correlation = there are some points of agreement
Priority 3 Low correlation = one significant data finding
In his report, Cook suggests investigation appropriate to each priority level.
Cook’s aim was to extend the scientific support for the idea that Boudica met her end on the Mancetter plain; that aim remains a work to be progressed. There are challenges to Cook’s report, which has not yet been circulated beyond a small group of historians and archaeologists, so far meeting with mixed reactions. However, a large amount of data has been amassed, and it could possibly provide a background for further work.19
Cook’s Boudican battle search area based on Mancetter
Other candidate battle site
There are currently eight other sites challenging Mancetter as candidates for the final Boudican battle site, each with well-argued, well-researched detail, but none as yet bolstered by archaeological evidence. The nine theories together represent a range of opinion as to the likely progress of the campaign after London; the suggested sites are positioned variously along what is roughly a line northwards from London. The Mancetter claim is almost the farthest from London.
Eight of the candidate sites for Boudica’s last battle (Map: Steve Kaye). The ninth is Hints, on Watling Street some 12 miles west of Mancetter.
Eight candidate-sites were presented at a conference convened by Atherstone Civic Society in 2013 (On Boudica’s Trail, University of Warwick). They are listed here with their researchers, in the order south to north:-
[Ogbourne St George] – Steve Kaye
Dunstable – Barry Horne
Arbury Banks – Grahame Appleby
Cuttle Mill – Martin Marix Evans
Church Stowe – John Pegg
Clifton on Dunsmore – Kerry Sullivan and Christopher Kinsella
High Cross – John Waite
Mancetter – Graham Webster (with added research by
The ninth suggestion is a claim by Steve Campbell-Kelly for the candidacy of Hints, near Wall, some 12 miles north-west from Mancetter along the Watling Street, extending Boudica’s hypothesised progress from London even further.
Steve Kaye’s approach differs from that of the other site-claimants listed here, in two respects. In the first place, he has applied his own specialised analysis of the necessary military requirements to a very large number of possible sites (currently, 110; astonishingly, originally 236). His thinking at the 2013 conference led him to favour Ogbourne St George in the Kennet valley, but his work is ongoing, and Ogbourne St George may well give way to some other choice. His argument centres on a combination of terrain analysis, military requirements and circumstantial evidence. Secondly, Kaye follows the theory of Fuentes20, in holding that Suetonius took his whole army with him to London. He did not split off with a small contingent on a dedicated reconnoitre, thus obviating the need to journey back north to meet up with the whole force – his army was already with him. He is the only researcher in this group of nine to maintain this view. Kaye proposes that Suetonius took his force westwards from London, and drew Boudica to follow him.
Further reading: Http://independent.academia.edu/SteveKaye = A selection of Kaye’s essays, including:- Finding the site of Boudicas last battle: an approach via terrain analysis
Finding the site of Boudicas last battle: Roman logistics empowered the sword
Conference poster: Searching for Boudicas last battle an approach via terrain analysis hydrology and marching camps
Barry Horne’s core argument is based on his reconstruction of the day-to-day chronology of the rebellion, involving estimates of the relative speeds of movement of the two armies. This leads him to propose a very specific site just south of Dunstable, near Manshead Middle School.
Further reading: Barry Horne ‘Did Boudica and Paulinus meet south of Dunstable?’ in South Midlands Archaeology No 44 (October 2014) pp 89-91. (Includes a suggestion for finding the battlefield by looking for the baggage train.)
Grahame Appleby likewise relies on his own chronology of the rebellion, but also introduces a less familiar view of the British mindset and motivation, in having them at the point of turning homeward, onto the Icknield Way, when they were catastrophically intercepted by the Romans. Appleby queries the narrative of a pan-British uprising, seeing the east Anglian tribes as acting only on their own behalf.
Further reading: Grahame A. Appleby ‘The Boudican Revolt: Countdown to Defeat’, Hertfordshire Archaeology and History, Vol. 16, (2009), pp57-65
Martin Marix Evans brings together a wide range of evidence to support his claim for the Cuttle Mill site near Paulerspury, just south of Towcester, straddling the Watling Street: local tradition and place names; the armies’ relative marching speeds, and the impact of the contemporary road network on the movement available to each army; the spatial requirements of Roman battle techniques; Tacitus’s description of the battle site; conjectures as to the motivations and intentions behind the decisions of the two opposed leaders. He binds this together with expert knowledge of the locale, and presents a guide to the relevant topography.
Further reading: Martin Marix-Evans The Defeat of Boudicca’s Rebellion (Published by Gemini Press, Towcester, 2004), copyright: Osprey Publishing Ltd. Includes a guide to the public footpaths visitors can use to see the site for themselves. Available in pdf from Towcester Museum
Martin Marix-Evans ‘Boudica’s Last Battle’ Osprey Military Journal, Volume 3, Issue 5, (2001) Copyright Osprey Publishing Limited. Also in Battlefield (The Battlefield Trust’s journal), Volume 3, Issue 1, 2002.
John Pegg approaches the puzzle from his understanding of the time-scale of the battle-period – the time the Romans were able to give to preparing the site, the time it would have taken for the British to convene at the site, and their pre-battle preparations. He carefully identifies a series of features in a valley near Church Stowe which substantiate his claim; his overview includes the road system and the water-courses. Finally, he mentions a place, over towards the Watling Street, recorded in an 1849 guidebook as the site of finds of human bone, alongside horseshoes smaller than those of present-day.
Further reading: http://www.craftpegg.com/Battle_Church_Stowe_CP.pdf for John Pegg Landscape Analysis and Appraisal: Church Stowe, Northamptonshire, as a Candidate Site for the Battle of Watling Street (2010)
Co-researchers Kerry Sullivan and Chris Kinsella also present a wide range of evidence to support their case for Clifton on Dunsmore, arguing not only from strategic and tactical battle considerations (carefully attentive to Roman manuals on battle techniques) but also from a close study of topography and climatic evidence, historical sources – ancient, antiquarian and modern, relevant local archaeology and local traditions. Among those historical sources, Sullivan and Kinsella include a critical analysis of Tacitus’ reliability. They also discuss the pre-planning of the revolt by the Britons, and that people’s awareness of Roman military disasters in Europe.
Further reading : Kerry Sullivan and Christopher Kinsella Boudica and Clifton: the final battle of the Celtic Revolt of AD60 2004 Independent publication available in electronic form from firstname.lastname@example.org
John Waite deploys his expert knowledge of Roman military behaviour to good effect in arguing his claim for High Cross (Venonis) , a site some 12 miles east of Mancetter, where the Fosse Way crosses Watling Street. He offers a fresh perspective on Tacitus’s ‘defile’, suggesting Roman cunning in concealing themselves in a valley that runs laterally to the British advance. He has the Romans waiting out of sight in Smockington Hollow (which transversely crosses Watling Street, the line suggested as the guideline of the British advance ), until that point, implied by Tacitus, when the British were so far committed that retreat was impossible. Mancetter appears in the High Cross theory as the Roman base before the battle.
Further reading : John Waite Boudica’s Last Stand: Britain’s Revolt against Rome AD 60-61, (The History Press , 2007 and 2011) ISBN 978-0-7524-5909-7
Steve Campbell-Kelly considers that Suetonius must have been aware of the huge imbalance in the size of the two armies, a potential disadvantage which the Roman commander would try to counter by close attention to terrain, in order to use it to his benefit. Campbell-Kelly’s case rests on carefully detailing the topography at Hints, where the Watling Street plunges through a clear ‘defile’. He partners this with a blow-by-blow account of the battle’s tactics, backed up with evidence of a supportive fort close by, at Wall. Among other detail, he points to the possibility that the British may have had use of weaponry and armour acquired from their successful ambush of the Ninth legion before Colchester. He also notes a small cluster of British torques, found within 20 miles of each other: one at Needwood Forest, one at Alrewas, one at Glascote.
Further reading: S. H. Campbell-Kelly AD 60/61: Paulinus versus Boudica. An alternative battle-site considered. 1984
The Boudican rebellion21: background, events and final battle
In AD 43, during the reign of the Emperor Claudius, Britain was invaded by a Roman army, under commander-in-chief, Aulus Plautius. A number of the British tribes put up a strong resistance, but were forced to surrender, some eventually becoming ‘client kingdoms’ of Rome. Those who refused to submit were led by Caratacus in a determined and violent revolt which may have led the Romans to wonder why they had thought to conquer Britain in the first place. During this turbulent early period, the Roman fort at Mancetter was constructed by the Fourteenth Legion in AD 48/49, as a substantial military base to strengthen the Roman rule and to provide a base from which they could move north and thus extend their control to the whole of Britain.
The Iceni were an East Anglian people, living in what is now Norfolk. Despite their having elected to co-operate with the Romans as a client kingdom, their alliance seems to have been uneasy, so much so that AD 48 saw them joining with neighbouring tribes – perhaps the Coritani, perhaps the Trinovantes, too – to rebel forcefully against the governor at that time, Scapula. The trigger for the uprising was Scapula’s roughshod methods of pacification: the construction of a whole new set of forts, (Mancetter being one), and the confiscation of the weapons of any tribes he distrusted. The Iceni’s client status offered them no exemption from this policy. They carefully selected a defensive position for the culminating battle of the revolt, with a narrow entrance chosen to prevent the Roman use of cavalry. But Scapula ordered his men to fight on foot, and the British stance within the protection of earthworks proved no defence against their enemy’s superior battle strategies. Knowing there was no way out but death, the rebels fought with great ferocity, but were conclusively routed in the end. Yet not without a legacy of seething, bottled-up resentment.
It was under Scapula’s governorship that the colonia of Colchester (Camulodunum) was founded, in the tribal territory of the Trinovantes. As he prepared for continued action further north and west, Scapula would have been replacing long-serving troops with younger men. Following the Roman custom in the development of their empire, retiring legionaries were gifted native land forcibly requisitioned from its defeated owners. Camulodunum, the first such settlement in Britain, comprised an area of some 18 kilometres in diameter. Protesting owners and rebels were executed; six human skulls22 have been found from that time, one with a deep gash from a sword blade, one with a fracture caused by some blunt instrument such as a sword pommel. Presumably these victims were decapitated to create a warning display; the skulls eventually rolled away into the ditch where they have been found.
The Roman burden on the British grew. Taxes on the Trinovantes, already onerous, were made more so to help pay for the building of an immense temple in Camulodunum in honour of the emperor Claudius. Blatant exploitation took place: Britons were required to donate grain to temple officials; then, driven by the need to survive, were obliged to buy it back.
In AD 60, it is estimated, the Icenian king Prasutagus died. He left a will which shared his kingdom between his two teenage daughters and the Emperor; by this date, Nero. But Prasutagus’s trust was misplaced. The Romans had no compunction in using his death as a pretext to rescind the client kingdom treaty. It may be that a growing financial crisis in Rome underpinned the decision, because it coincided with a call from Seneca (financier as well as philosopher-statesman) for the repayment of the many high-interest loans which he had made to Icenian businesses. (This may account for a few hoards of money found to have been buried around this time). Seneca’s demand exacerbated the strains placed upon the bereaved state. Young Icenian men were made to join Roman auxiliary regiments, while the procurator – by this date, Catus Decianus – ordered a general seizure of property and goods. Estates of the aristocracy were confiscated and the owners evicted. The royal household itself was not immune. Boudica, widow of the dead king, was publicly flogged, her two daughters raped – atrocities designated as war crimes even by Rome. By these actions Decianus callously added the final straw to the massive Icenian store of anger. Rebellion hung in the air.
The time was opportune. The rule of a Roman province was shared between a civil procurator and a military commander, at this time in Britain Decianus and Suetonius Paulinus, respectively. Suetonius was far away on campaign in north Wales, with much of the Twentieth Legion and all the Fourteenth with him – their absence another powerful argument for the British that the time was right for rebellion. The Roman drive to destroy all druidical anti-Rome influence, on Anglesey and elsewhere, was acting in the rebels’ favour. It appears from the time scale and subsequent events that Boudica very carefully, with forethought and skill, took time to plan her revenge. A major religious and ceremonial site at Thetford may have been used as a rallying point, from where the Trinovantes, her equally resentful neighbours, could be enlisted. There is also an interesting debate to be had as to why the Iceni planted no crops that year. Were they too distracted, or were they confident of gaining access to Roman supplies ….or were they planning to follow their expected victory with a mass migration, northwards, to settle even further away from the Romans? (Similar migrations were undertaken in earlier centuries in Gaul and Germany.) This is one explanation as to why in the final battle the warriors were accompanied by their wives and children. Sadly, the failure to sow also led to the tribe’s near starvation after their defeat.
The events of the rebellion
At the presumed timing of late Spring AD 60, Boudica was ready. She had gathered an army of some 230,000. Their first target was to be Camulodunum, focus of anger that it had become. Its Roman settlers had never dreamt that defences would be necessary, believing their post-career colonia a secure haven. Nor had they suspected the motives of British fifth columnists within the town, who, keeping their allegiance secret, had talked down any need to evacuate the old, the women, the children. As the impending attack began to appear inevitable, the Roman inhabitants appealed to Decianus in London to protect them. But Decianus could find to send only 200 poorly armed and inadequately trained men.
Certainly, Boudica’s network of spies seems to have been effective, because she was able to organise guerrilla troops (a British forte) to ambush a large Roman force sent out to prevent her advance on Camulodunum. These emergency responders, legionaries of the Ninth, under one Petilius Cerialis, were from a base at Longthorpe, on the Nene near Peterborough, which had been established by the Romans shortly after quelling the earlier Iceni rebellion in AD48. Now, some 12 years on, this coup by Boudica astounded the Romans and shook their confidence, for the British were able to surprise and surround Cerialis, and kill almost his entire infantry force of 1,500 men.
At some point around this time, Decianus fled; he is later heard of in Gaul.
Boudica razed Camulodunum to the ground. The inhabitants – those who could – crowded into the temple for refuge, where they were besieged for two days. But eventually all was burnt; what’s more, everything was looted. Neither gold nor silver nor anything of value has been found. Tombstones were hurled down; they have been found un-weathered, which indicates but recent erection in this new-ish town. One showing cavalryman Longinus trampling a Briton beneath his horse’s hooves must surely have proved provocative.
London [Londinium] was next in the rebels’ sights.
By now Suetonius was apprised of the rising. He left his Welsh campaign in haste to ride to Londinium, aiming to arrive before Boudica’s attack and judge the situation for himself. But once there, he saw, hard-headedly, that his cause could best be served by re-positioning, rather than by staying to defend the settlement. We may imagine the pleadings of those Londinium inhabitants. Suetonius told them that all were welcome to leave with him – women, the elderly, anyone not particularly attached to the place – if they could keep up, otherwise it was a matter of taking their chance.
In due course the Boudican whirlwind arrived in Londinium. Cassius Dio23 has it that its impact was implacable and horrendously cruel. The town was thoroughly looted and the inhabitants subjected to terrible deaths. Women had their cut-off breasts crammed into their mouths, ‘so they seemed to be eating them’. Some, left in a grove sacred to the British, were impaled with spears through the length of their bodies. Was this symbolic revenge for the rapes? Now, with the burned-out remains of this fledgling Thames-side development strewn all around, the rebels must have paused to consider their next move, perhaps pre-planned, perhaps not.
Which raises the all-important question: what did Boudica do next?
Archaeology reveals St. Albans [Verulamium ] as suffering an attack. There was burning involved, but perhaps not quite as comprehensively as in Camulodunum and Londinium. And although the town was extensively looted, it appears that at least some of the inhabitants escaped with whatever belongings were portable. But lacking any historical documentary account, with archaeology their only guide, historians differ as to the precise composition of the attacking forces; it is unclear whether Verulamium’s fate was dealt by the full force of Boudica’s army as it moved northward, or by smaller rebel contingents, separated from the main army, which could have been… where?
But Verulamium was not the scene of the campaign’s immense and final show-down. Wherever that was, it seems clear that it did not transpire close to any town. Certainly, there is no doubt that Suetonius did not wait in London to face the imminent attack. He left; Tacitus says he gave the ‘signal of departure’,24 leaving the settlement open to the British mayhem. But for what came after that – the phase of the Boudican story that spans the time between Londinium and the iconic battle that ended the campaign – records are frustratingly sparse. Of the route and the time taken by Boudica to bring her huge following to the battle-site, there is no record. Of how and where Suetonius brought together his final fighting force to stand to face her, nothing is written. However, there are two slightly differing accounts of Suetonius’s decision-making at this stage. One history (Tacitus ) tells us: ‘At this point he resolved to abandon delay and fight.’ It would be so useful to know more about ‘this point’. Where was it? And about this ‘delay’: for how long? Why? Did something cause a definite hold-up in the Romans’ progress? Or are we simply being told of their commander’s resolve having reached the tipping point? Another history (Dio) introduces detail, and brings Suetonius from Anglesey (via London?) as follows:
“On learning of the disaster in Britain he immediately sailed back from the island. However, fear of the natives’ numbers and their mad fury dissuaded him from risking everything against them. Rather, he was inclined to put off battle till a more suitable occasion, but since he was short of food and there was no let up in the native onslaught, he was forced to engage them, even against his better judgement.” 62 8 (Trans Stanley Ireland Roman Britain, a Sourcebook, (3rd ed.) Routledge 2008)
Tacitus narrates the conduct of the battle as follows:
(34) By now Suetonius had the XIV Legion together with detachments from the XX and auxiliaries from the nearest stations, in all about 10,000 armed men, and at this point he resolved to abandon delay and fight. He chose a site with a narrow approach and backed by a wood, having made sure that he would only have the enemy in front and that the plain of battle was open and presented no danger of an ambush. The legionaries were stationed in close order, with the light-armed troops on the flanks and the cavalry massed on the wings. The forces of the Britons on the other hand pranced about far and wide in bands of infantry and cavalry, their numbers without precedent and so confident that they brought their wives with them and set them in carts drawn up around the far edge of the battlefield to witness their victory.
(36) [When Suetonius addresses his troops immediately before the battle he asks them to…. ] “…keep their close order, and once they had discharged their javelins, carry on felling and slaughtering the enemy with their shield bosses and swords, without any thought for booty. Once victory was won, all else would be theirs.” Such was the enthusiasm that greeted the commander’s words, and so ready and eager were the seasoned troops, with their great experience of battle, to hurl their javelins, that Suetonius gave the signal for battle, certain of the outcome.
(37) At first the legion did not move from its position and kept the narrow confines of the defile as its protection. Then, as the enemy came closer, they loosed off all their javelins against them with deadly accuracy and burst forward in a wedge-shaped formation. The auxiliaries attacked in the same manner, while the cavalry, with lances extended, broke through any stout resistance they encountered. The remaining Britons turned tail, but their escape was difficult because the ring of wagons had blocked the exits. In addition, the Roman soldiers did not refrain from slaughtering even the womenfolk, while the baggage animals too, transfixed with weapons, added to the piles of bodies. The glory won that day was outstanding and equal to the victories of old; for some there are who record that almost 80,000 Britons fell, while the Roman casualties amounted to some 400 dead and a slightly larger number wounded.
Tacitus Annals Book XIV, 34, 36 and 37 (Trans. Stanley Ireland Roman Britain, a Sourcebook, (3rd ed.) Routledge 2008.)
Having earlier mentioned that Suetonius ‘divided his army into three divisions, in order to fight at several points at once’, 25 Cassius Dio narrates the progress of the battle as follows:
“ The two sides closed on one another: the natives with much shouting and threatening war songs, the Romans in silence and order until they came within javelin range. Then, when the enemy was still advancing against them at walking pace, the Romans rushed forward at a given signal, and charged them for all they were worth. In the onslaught they easily broke through the opposing ranks of the Britons, though they were surrounded by great numbers, and engaged in fighting on all sides at once. The struggle took many forms: light-armed troops exchanged missiles with other light-armed forces; heavy-armed were matched against heavy-armed; cavalry engaged cavalry, and Roman archers clashed with the native chariots. The natives would swoop upon the Romans with their chariots, throwing them into confusion, and then be themselves repulsed by the arrows, since they fought without breastplates. Horsemen would ride down infantry men, and infantry men would strike down cavalry men. One group of Romans in close formation would advance on the chariots; another would be scattered by them. Some of the Britons would close with the archers and put them to flight; others kept out of their way at a distance, and all this was going on not just in one spot but in three places at once. Both sides fought for a long time, spurred by equal spirit and daring, but finally, late in the day, the Romans prevailed. Many Britons were cut down in the battle and before the wagons and in the woods. Many too were taken alive.” Roman History 62 12 (Trans Stanley Ireland Roman Britain, a Sourcebook, (3rd ed.) Routledge 2008)
The interest in locating the site of Boudica’s battle has been growing throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. It accelerated and broadened out from the 1970s onward, and now not only is the scholarship in place to judge the campaign details of the two armies, but also in place is new, effective technology. But whilst the search continues for the elusive battle site, perhaps we should also dwell on the big “what-if”: what if the Romans had lost the contest? It was a turning point in British history. Moreover, for those who cared so fiercely on that day, and fell, nowhere in Britain is there any monument. A commemoration of that huge, epoch-making loss of life would be fitting…. somewhere. Why not in Mancetter?
Atherstone Civic Society is grateful for funding from the LEADER initiative, which is a European Community programme for assisting rural communities to improve the quality of life and economic prosperity. LEADER’s funds derive from the European Agriculture Fund for Rural Development (Europe), and DEFRA. The initiative, with links to the Rural Development Programme, is administered locally through a Local Action Group convened by local authorities, in this case North Warwickshire Borough Council; Atherstone Civic Society thanks those officers for their support.
1 “He learned the rudiments of war in Britain, under Suetonius Paulinus, an active and prudent commander, who chose him for his tent companion, in order to form an estimate of his merit.” Tacitus Agricola Ch 5
2 David Braund, Ruling Roman Britain ( Routledge, 1996), p145.
3 Cassius Dio The Histories, Book LXII Ch 7
4 Arthur Murray The historical annals of Cornelius Tacitus published by L Johnson, London, 1794;
Alfred John Church and Wm. Jackson Brodribb, Cornelius Tacitus: The Annals Trans 1876, publ Macmillan, 1884;
John Jackson Tacitus: Annals Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press 1937;
Moses Hadas re-edited Church and Brodribb 1942, republished 2003 Random House;
Michael Grant, Tacitus: The Annals Penguin Classics 1956, 1996
For Hingley, and Webster, see footnote 21 on page 19
5 Alfred L Scrivener, No.8 Hartshill, Nuneaton Observer August 2nd 1878, and No. 13 Hartshill Quarries, Nuneaton Observer 5th September 1879. Cited in A. F. Cook The scientific and archaeological search for Boudica, in the Mancetter area of the central Midlands of England; 2013, unpublished
6 There are reports of a Roman look-out point at the eastern end of the Ridge, at the top of Tuttle Hill, at the edge of the area purportedly named after it: Camp Hill e.g Nuneaton and North Warks Family History Society website: “Camp Hill Hall is thought to have been built on the site of a Roman camp” ; www.prideincamphill.co.uk: “Camp Hill derives its name from a Roman camp which once stood on a raised escarpment providing an advantageous look-out over the surrounding countryside.”
7 For example, Jonathon P. Roth, The Logistics of the Roman Army at War: 264 B.C. – A.D.235, (Columbia Studies in the Classical Tradition , 1999).
8 Colin Baddeley details a probable route from Anglesey to Wroxeter, via Chester, in Chapter 5, pages 55-58, of Roman Mancetter, (Published by Atherstone Civic Society, 2013)
9 Tacitus Annals Ch 34
10 As set out, for instance, by first- century Frontinus in Strategemata, and fourth-century Vegetius in Rei Militaris Instituta ( also referred to as Epitoma Rei Militaris)
11 A. F. Cook The scientific and archaeological search for Boudica, in the Mancetter area of the central Midlands of England; 2013, unpublished
12 See footnote 10
13 Herbert W Benario , ‘Legionary speed of march before battle with Boudica’ in Britannia Vol XVII 1986 page 35.
14 Tacitus, Annals Book 14 Ch 34
16 For example, John Waite Boudica’s Last Stand: Britain’s Revolt against Rome AD 60-61, (The History Press , 2007 and 2011) ISBN 978-0-7524-5909-7
17 (Jackson, Britannia 1 1970 76 , cited in Rivet and Smith The Place Names of Roman Britain)
18 Julius Caesar De Bello Gallici Book 4 Chapters 2, 24 and 33
19 See footnote 11
20 See footnote 15
21 Sources for this section include:
Paul R. Sealey, The Boudican Revolt Against Rome (Shire Archaeology 1997 and 2004).
Miranda Aldhouse-Green Boudica BritanniaPearson/Longman 2006
Richard Hingley and Christian Unwin Boudica, Iron Age Warrior Queen Hambledon Continuum 2005
Grham Webster Boudica: the British Revolt against Rome Routledge 1978
22 Paul R. Sealey, The Boudican Revolt Against Rome (Shire Archaeology 1997 and 2004).
23 Cassius Dio, The Histories, Book LXII, Ch 7
24 Tacitus Annals Book 14 Ch 33
25 Cassius Dio The Histories, Book LXII Ch 7