Boadicea, Warrior Queen AD 61
But women had few rights under Roman law, and Nero’s local officials treated Boadicea’s succession with contempt.
‘Kingdom and household alike,’ wrote the Roman historian Tacitus, author of the first history of Britain, ‘were plundered like prizes of war.’ The lands of the Iceni nobles were confiscated and Boadicea was publicly beaten. Worst of all, her two daughters were raped. Outraged, in ad 61 the Iceni rose in rebellion, and it was Boadicea who led them into battle.
‘In stature she was very tall, in appearance most terrifying,’ wrote a later Roman historian, Dio Cassius. ‘Her glance was fierce, her voice harsh, a great mass of the most tawny hair cascaded to her hips.’
Joined by other Britons, Boadicea with her rebel Iceni fell on Colchester in fury, slaughtering the inhabitants and smashing the white-pillared temple and other symbols of Roman oppression. Over eighteen hundred years later, in 1907, a boy swimming in the River Alde in Suffolk, deep in what had been Iceni territory, was astonished to discover the submerged bronze head of the emperor Claudius. Looking at the jagged edges of the severed neck today, one can almost hear the shouts of anger that have attended the satisfying ritual of statue toppling over the centuries.
The rebels now turned towards Londinium, the trading settlement that was just growing up around the recently built bridge over the Thames. The vengeance they wreaked here was equally bitter. Today, four metres below the busy streets of the modern capital, near the Bank of England, lies a thick red band of fired clay and debris which archaeologists know as ‘Boadicea’s Layer’. The city to which the Iceni set the torch burned as intensely as it would in World War II during the firebomb raids of the Germans.
Temperatures rose as high as 1000 degrees Celsius – and, not far away, in the Walbrook Stream that runs down to the Thames, has been found a grisly collection of skulls, violently hacked from their bodies.
Boadicea’s forces had wiped out part of a Roman legion that had marched to the rescue of Colchester. But the bulk of the Roman troops had been on a mission in the north-west to hunt down the Druids and destroy their groves on the island of Anglesey, and it was a measure of Boadicea’s self-assurance that she now headed her army in that north-westerly direction. Her spectacular victories had swollen her ranks, not only with warriors but with their families too, in a vast wagon train of women and children. She laid waste to the Roman settlement of Verulamium, modern St Albans, then moved confidently onwards.
Meanwhile the Romans had been gathering reinforcements and the two forces are thought to have met somewhere in the Midlands, probably near the village of Mancetter, just north of Coventry.
‘I am fighting for my lost freedom, my bruised body and my outraged daughters!’ cried Boadicea, as she rode in her chariot in front of her troops. ‘Consider how many of you are fighting and why – then you will win this battle, or perish! That is what I, a woman, plan to do! Let the men live in slavery if they want to.’
These fighting words come from the pen of Tacitus, who describes the fierce showdown in which the much smaller, but impeccably armed and drilled Roman army wore down the hordes of Boadicea. At the crux of the battle, it was the wagon train of British women and children that proved their menfolk’s undoing. The camp followers had fanned out in a semicircle to watch the battle, fully expecting another victory. But as the Britons were driven back, they found themselves hemmed in by their own wagons, and the slaughter was terrible – eighty thousand Britons killed, according to one report, and just four hundred Romans. Boadicea took poison rather than fall into the hands of the Romans, and, legend has it, gave poison to her daughters for the same reason.
It was only when some of Tacitus’ writings, lost for many centuries, were rediscovered five hundred and fifty years ago that Britain found out that its history had featured this inspiring and epic warrior queen. Plays and poems were written to celebrate Boadicea’s battle for her people’s rights and liberties, and in 1902 a stirring statue in her honour was raised in the shadow of the Houses of Parliament. There on the banks of the Thames you can see Boadicea thrusting her spear defiantly into the air, while her daughters shelter in the chariot beside her.
But the menacing curved blades on Boadicea’s chariot wheels are, sadly, the invention of a later time. Remains of the Britons’ light bentwood chariots show no scythes on the wheels. Nor is there evidence of another great myth, that Boadicea fought her last battle near London and that her body lies where she fell – in the ground on which King’s Cross Station was built many years later. Her supposed grave beneath platform ten at King’s Cross is the reason why Harry Potter’s Hogwarts Express leaves, magically, from Platform Nine and Three-Quarters.
In fact, the bones of the great queen probably do lie near a railway line – albeit more than a hundred miles north of King’s Cross, near Mancetter in modern Warwickshire. The trains on the Euston line between London and the north- west rumble through the battlefield where, historians calculate, Boadicea fought her last battle.Back to the top of the page
Elmer the Flying Monk AD 1010
Elmer applied his experimental mind to classical history, making a particular study of Daedalus, the mythical Athenian architect and engineer who was hired by King Minos to build his sinister labyrinth in Crete. To preserve the secret of his maze, Minos then imprisoned Daedalus and his son Icarus, who only escaped by building themselves wings of feathers and wax. Their escape plan was working beautifully until Icarus, intoxicated by the joy of flying, flew too close to the sun, which melted the wax in his wings. The boy fell into the Aegean Sea below, where the island of Ikaria perpetuates his legend to this day.
Elmer decided to test the story of Daedalus by making wings for himself, then trying to fly from the tower of the abbey. In an age when Britain was still suffering Viking raids, many Saxon churches had high bell-towers, both to serve as a lookout and to sound the alarm. Whenever the Vikings captured a church, the bell was always the first thing they tore down. Its valuable metal could be beaten into high-quality swords and helmets – and anyway, to capture the Christians’ unique sound was a triumph in its own right.
Modern aeronautic experts have recreated Elmer’s flight, and they calculate that his launch platform must have been at least 18 metres high, which corresponds to the height of surviving Saxon church towers. They also presume that he built his paragliding equipment from willow or ash, the most lightweight and flexible of the woods available in the copses of the nearby Cotswolds. To complete his birdman outfit, the monk must have stretched parchment or thin cloth over the frame, which, we are told, he attached to both his arms and his feet. Today the ravens and jackdaws that live around Malmesbury Abbey can be seen soaring on the updrafts that blow up the hill between the church and the valley of the River Avon, and Elmer may have tried to copy them as he leapt off the tower and glided down towards the river.
According to William of Malmesbury, the historian who recorded Elmer’s feat in the following century, the monk managed a downward glide of some 200 metres before he landed – or, rather, crash-landed. He did catch a breeze from the top of the tower, but was surprised by the atmospheric turbulence and seems to have lost his nerve.
‘What with the violence of the wind and the eddies and at the same time his consciousness of the temerity of the attempt,’ related William, ‘he faltered and fell, breaking and crippling both his legs.’
William of Malmesbury probably got his story from fellow-monks who had known Elmer in old age. The eleventh-century stargazer was the sort of character dismissed as mad in his lifetime, but later seen as a visionary. In his final years Elmer’s limping figure was a familiar sight around the abbey – and the would-be birdman would explain the failure of his great enterprise with wry humour. It was his own fault, he would say. As William told it, ‘He forgot to fit a tail on his hinder parts.’Back to the top of the page
Henry I and the White Ship AD 1120
‘Woe to him that is not old enough to die,’ declared Robert Curthose, who finally expired in 1134 at the age of eighty, and whose tomb can be seen today in Gloucester Cathedral.
‘Exchequer’ is a modern word that comes to us from the reign of Henry I – a king with a sharp eye for a penny. We have seen him counting the silver his father gave him on his deathbed for his inheritance, then galloping straight to the treasury when his brother died; he was the last king for four hundred years shrewd enough to die without any debts. Now, sometime after 1106, he introduced the exchequer as a revolutionary new method of government accounting and of centralising royal power. Based on the Middle Eastern abacus or counting-frame, the exchequer was a chequered cloth like a chessboard. Counters were piled on the different squares, rather as croupiers handle chips on a gaming table. Twice a year, at Easter and Michaelmas (the feast of St Michael on 29 September), the sheriffs and royal officials from the shires had to bring their money to be checked and counted. To this day, the cabinet minister in charge of the nation’s finances is known as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and we all write and, if we are lucky, also sometimes cash ‘cheques’.
By 1120 Henry I controlled a well-financed empire on the two sides of the English Channel. He travelled quite frequently from England to Normandy in his own longboat or snecca, a Norse word literally meaning ‘snake’ or ‘serpent’. Merchants and nobles criss-crossed the channel on these medieval equivalents of the cross-Channel ferry, which, according to records from the next century, charged two pence for an ordinary passenger and twelve for a knight with his horse. In tapestries and paintings of the time the boats are depicted with striped sails, complete with masts, rigging, tillers and anchors. Often their prows were decorated with figureheads of dragons and other beasts.
As Henry was preparing to set sail from the Norman port of Barfleur at the end of November 1120, he was approached by a young seafarer, Thomas FitzStephen. Thomas’s father, Stephen, had been William the Conqueror’s personal sea captain, taking him on the historic voyage of 1066 to fight against Harold, and he had ferried him back and forth across the Channel to the end of his life. Now his son Thomas had a newly fitted-out snakeship of which he was particularly proud, the White Ship, and he offered it to the King for his voyage. Henry had already made his travelling arrangements, but he suggested it would be a treat for his son and heir, William, to sail on this state-of-the-art vessel. William was just seventeen and a young man on whom many hopes rode. He was popularly nicknamed ‘the Aetheling’, the old Anglo-Saxon title meaning ‘throne-worthy’ (see p. 65), because his mother Edith-Matilda was descended from King Alfred’s royal house of Wessex. Here was a part-Saxon heir – some much-cherished English blood – who would one day inherit the Normans’ empire.
Henry set sail for England, leaving William the Aetheling to follow in the White Ship, with many of the court’s most lively young blades, among them William’s half-brother Richard and his half-sister Matilda, two of the numerous illegitimate children that Henry had fathered outside his marriage to Edith-Matilda. Spirits were high as the White Ship loosed its moorings. Wine flowed freely among passengers and crew, and as darkness fell, the princely party issued a dare to the captain – that he should overtake the King’s ship, which was already out at sea.
The White Ship’s fifty oarsmen heaved with all their might to pull clear of the harbour, but as the vessel made its way through the night its port side struck violently against a rock that lay hidden just below the surface of the water. This rock was a well-known hazard of the area, uncovered each day as the tide ebbed, then submerged at high tide. It can be seen to this day from the cliffs of Barfleur, a dark shadow lurking beneath the water. But Captain Thomas FitzStephen, like his passengers, had been drinking, and the ship’s wooden hull shattered on the rock, the vessel capsizing almost immediately. It was still close enough to the shore for the cries and screams of its three hundred passengers and crew to be mistaken for drunken revelry. According to one account the passengers on the royal snakeship heard the cries behind them, but sailed on, unheeding, towards England, through the night.
The White Ship was the Titanic of the Middle Ages, a much-vaunted high-tech vessel on its maiden voyage, wrecked against a foreseeable natural obstacle in the reckless pursuit of speed. The passenger list constituted the cream of high society, cast into the chilly waters. Orderic Vitalis, an Anglo-Norman chronicler of the time, described the scene:
The rays of the moon lit up the world for about nine hours, showing up everything in the sea to the mariners. Thomas, the skipper, gathered his strength after sinking for the first time and, remembering his duty, lifted his head as he came to the surface. Seeing the heads of the men who were clinging somehow to the spar, he asked, ‘The king’s son, what has become of him?’ When the shipwrecked men replied that he had perished with all his companions, he said, ‘It is vain for me to go on living.’ With these words, in utter despair, he chose rather to sink on the spot than to die beneath the wrath of a king enraged by the loss of his son, or suffer long years of punishment in fetters.
Orderic was wrong about the full moon. Sky tables show that on 25 November 1120 the moon was new, so the night must have been dark. But the chronicler does seem to have gathered his information, directly or indirectly, from the wreck’s only survivor, a butcher from Rouen who had jumped on to the White Ship to collect some debts that were due to him from members of the court. The butcher was saved from the exposure that killed the others on that still, frosty night by the thick, air-retaining ram-skins he was wearing. Three fishermen plucked him out of the water next morning and took him back to dry land.
Over in England next day, King Henry became puzzled when the White Ship did not dock or even appear on the horizon. But the news of the catastrophe reached the nobles at his court soon enough, and everyone discovered they had lost family and friends. Stewards, chamberlains and cupbearers had all died – wives and husbands, sons and daughters. As the court mourned, no one dared break the dreadful news to the King, and a whole day and night went by before a young boy was finally pushed into the royal presence, weeping, to throw himself at the King’s feet. When Henry realised what had happened, he fell to the ground himself, grief-stricken at the news. He had to be shepherded away to a room where he could mourn privately – this stern Norman king did not care to display weakness in public.
In the years following the death of his cherished son, King Henry I governed his realm as busily as ever, and also found time for his pleasures. He founded England’s first zoo, where he kept lions and leopards, and a porcupine of which he was particularly fond. But he did confess to nightmares that terrified him so much that he would leap out of his bed and reach for his sword. He dreamed that his people – those who worked, those who fought, and those who prayed – were attacking him. The Conqueror’s shrewd, harsh, penny-pinching youngest son had provided England and Normandy with firm government, but the wreck of the White Ship meant that Henry left no legitimate male heir to succeed him. The drowning of William the Aetheling was not just a personal tragedy – it would lead to England’s first real and prolonged civil war.Back to the top of the page