The most iconic image of Boudica (by Victorian artist and engineer Thomas Thornycroft) stands on the Embankment near Westminster Bridge, London. Here Boudica is portrayed with her two adolescent daughters—after they’d been raped by Roman soldiers—battle-enraged, and driving a scythe-wheeled chariot. The epitome of the defending mother, she captured the Victorian Brits, heart and head and has remained close to the British soul ever since.
But for those who don’t know her, in CE 60 Boudica (whose Celtic name translates as ‘victory’) led a combined Iceni-Trinovante force, and unnamed others, in a bloodthirsty rampage that killed in total over 70,000 people, Romans and Britons, and destroyed the Roman settlements of Camulodunum (today’s Colchester), Londinium (London) and Verulamium (St Albans) in the eastern province of Britain. Were it not for her eventual defeat by the Roman war-machine under governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus the Roman occupation would have failed; they would have withdrawn.
But this post isn’t about Queen Boudica. It’s about her people, the Iceni, and the riches they have bequeathed to the county of Norfolk.
So let’s get the pronunciation right from the start. It is not I-SeeNee, but E-KeeNee—witness their own minted coins with initial ‘E’, not ‘I’, and the Celtic ‘C’ always was hard.
The Iceni first appear in the form of the Cenimagni in Caesar’s account of his invasions of Britain (55 & 54 BCE), though it’s believed the name applies to a confederation of tribes headed by the Iceni. Caesar places them north of the river Thames. Later, as already said, they advertise themselves by minting coins bearing their name. But let’s go back some, to what is generally referred to as Iron Age Norfolk.
Today’s press—had they then been around—might have dubbed the Iceni, ‘People of the Horse’, for in Iron Age Norfolk horse-trappings and chariot accoutrements form the bulk of the archaeological finds, these dating from BCE 200-300, and even as early as BCE 400, long before the Roman invasion and Boudica’s rise (and fall). But as if to reinforce the ‘People of the Horse’ title, when the Iceni-minted coins begin to appear (from BCE 10 onwards) they mostly bear the image of a horse—though some few carry the wolf.
Yet it’s for their golden torcs that the Iceni are most famous, in particular the Snettisham hoard.
These highly ornate, some extremely heavy, items of Celtic neck-wear were deposited in their gods’ safety deposit box, i.e. the ground, to form an offering to an unidentified deity. Perhaps to Epona, the Celtic Horse Goddess?
Less well-known are the Iceni hill-forts.
What’s that, Norfolk has no hills?
While that’s true, there are none like those found in, say, Wales or Wiltshire, yet Norfolk does have some ‘bumps’, and Norfolk does have some exceedingly similar constructs: i.e. ramparted forts—just not sited high upon those ‘bumps’. In fact, in Norfolk the forts are found squatting beside rivers. Just look at the map.
You might note, also, that the forts congregate to the west of the county. So, too, the finds of gold torcs. So, too, the ancient track-ways. So, too, the Iceni?
This has been suggested: that the rebellious Iceni hailed mostly from West Norfolk and thus, to offer a visible slap to their defeated faces, the Romans sited the civitas-town of Venta Icenorum to the east. Alternatively (my own opinion), the Romans having annihilated the defeated Iceni (which the Roman sources certainly do report) there then were none left in the west and thus, the civitas-town of Venta Icenorum must, perforce, be sited eastward. In the east, sited beside the River Tas (then much wider and deeper than it is today—see photo below taken a tad upstream from Venta Icenorum) it was easily accessible via the ‘Great Estuary’, later to be protected by forts to north and south of the estuary (at Caister-on-Sea and Burgh Castle). But it must be said, Venta Icenorum never really took off as a Roman-style town. Norfolk, you see; we do things different.
But back to the Iron Age forts. Since I was recently hiking the North Norfolk coast and places inland, I couldn’t not go visit the most accessible fort. Warham, 3 miles south of Wells-on-Sea.
Though at the end of the North Norfolk Ridge, the terrain was still ‘hilly’ (Norfolk-style hilly). Roads fell away into valleys—well, the road we were walking fell into the Stiffkey’s valley. Though it’s now a stream the Stiffkey once was a navigable river.
The village of Warham All Saints presents the norm in vernacular architecture for this stretch of coast. Extremely hardwearing.
The church, intriguingly quaint on the outside, on entry revealed itself to have been, in its heyday, a wool church: i.e. a church fancified and enlarged on the profits of the wool trade (fleece and/or cloth). Alas, times change and later parishioners requested warmth with their worship and so the superfluous parts of the church had to be reduced. An aisle was removed, leaving only the pillars and arch-outlines to echo the region’s former wealth.
A track leads from the narrow switch-back of a road to what the University of East Anglia has described as ‘the best-preserved hill fort in Norfolk’. But without the way-sign track and fort would have been totally missable. I took photos.
I knew from previous experience at Maiden Castle in Dorset (a magnificent multi-ramparted fort) that chances were these wouldn’t do justice. Yet there was a difference between then (Dorset) and now (Norfolk). I no longer have to rely upon the weather god to provide perfect lighting. I have a programme does it for me.
But it still isn’t easy to show the restrained grandeur of the place (okay, so it measures a mere 230 yards diameter within its 10 foot high double bank & ditch yet that’s large enough for 2 or 3 round houses).
And so I have supplemented my efforts with an aerial photo snaffled off the Web.
But, though we might play with the notion, it’s highly unlikely that Queen Boudica ever set foot in this fort. Its active life predates the lady by several centuries. Still, I am a writer, it’s my prerogative to imagine.