The Iceni: Queen Boudica’s People

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.


Photo: Mail On-line

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the Roman war-machine under governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus the Roman occupation would have failed; they would have withdrawn.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.

The Iceni

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.

Iceni Coins

A Horse and a Head: Images most commonly seen on the Iceni coins

Yet it’s for their golden torcs that the Iceni are most famous, in particular the Snettisham hoard.


Snettisham Hoard as displayed at the British Museum

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.

Iron Age Norfolk

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.

River Tas at Smockmill Common, Saxlingham

River Tas at Smockmill Common, Saxlingham

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.

Warham Camp

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.

Road to Warham Canp

Help! Where’s the road gone? Oh, into a valley.

The village of Warham All Saints presents the norm in vernacular architecture for this stretch of coast. Extremely hardwearing.

Warham All Saints

Typical flint-and-brick buildings at Warham All Saints

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.

Warham All Saints church

Evidence of a former aisle at Warham All Saints church

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.

Warham Fort

On approaching Warham Fort

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.

Warham Camp Ramparts

The ramparts at Warham Camp

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).

Warham Fort Interior

Inside Warham Fort. The sheep like it (yes, those barely visible grayish blobs). Internally more spacious than expected.

And so I have supplemented my efforts with an aerial photo snaffled off the Web.

Warham Camp Aerial View

Aerial view of Warham Camp, from Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Services

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.


About crispina kemp

Spinner of Asaric and Mythic tales
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16 Responses to The Iceni: Queen Boudica’s People

  1. Joy Pixley says:

    Sounds like a wonderful place for a hike — and thanks for the great history lesson! Along with a little fun imagining. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • crimsonprose says:

      Glad you liked. The photos aren’t that impressive hence the history to flesh it a bit. But as to imagining . . . yes. Though Warham isn’t a patch on Maiden Castle. I remember by visit there: standing atop the massively high ramparts, the Roman’s already visible, the Britons taking up their defence stations, the women and children piling up stones to be thrown. Well, in my head there was this entire film going on. I had to shake myself out of it. Too many time-slip stories! Alas, at Warham we didn’t have the place all to ourselves. It was actually quite busy, hence not to easy to get good shots without capturing the other visitors too. But they were a friendly lot, lots of chats and comparing of notes etc.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Joy Pixley says:

        I know what you mean, it’s hard enough to get the camera to capture what I can see (the light always looks better in person) much less capture all the things I’m imagining! And yes, the other people visiting the site make it harder to get a clear shot, but make up for it by being interesting to talk to.

        Liked by 1 person

      • crimsonprose says:

        Indeed, they were. Topic was wild flowers, fungi, and various other historic sites.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Joy Pixley says:

        I could chat for a long time on that last topic!


      • crimsonprose says:

        You and me both. And Norfolk is so rich in remains. An encouragement for anyone to delve into the stories, riffle around and generally research. So much so I often had to apply stern discipline to apply myself to the writing–despite that’s my love.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Joy Pixley says:

        Sometimes I think the writing is just my excuse for doing the research. 😉

        Liked by 1 person

      • crimsonprose says:

        I’m not sure I’ve the same problem. I have recently been inspired to write yet another Asaric Tale (though I’d said King’s Wife was to be the last) and now I’m busily researching the time-period (not a problem, it’s my favourie) but this is to include historical personages, so I don’t want to make any really big blunders. Trouble is, I will pick on people not very well documented. Ah, but I can go to town on the costumes!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Joy Pixley says:

        At least I am not crazy enough to write about real historical people, ha ha! But I did just get detoured this morning, yet again, by one of Millie Thom’s travel posts, this one on Iceland. If you’re not already reading her blog, I strongly suggest it, I think you’d love it —

        Even though the post is mostly about trolls, one photo in it led me down a whole rabbit hole trail of posts about turf houses. Of course, now I feel like I should retroactively justify that time by having some society in Eneana use turf houses, and feature it in a story. But wait — the continent I’ve been developing doesn’t have any regions cold enough for this. Clearly I need to start developing those other continents, and a culture to go on one of them that’s right for this, and… Okay, maybe this isn’t the best use of time this morning, given my long to-do list! 😉

        Liked by 1 person

      • crimsonprose says:

        Doesn’t need to be cold to have ‘turf’ houses. The settlers in America used them, even in California! Cool in summer, warm in winter. Almost as good as a cave. And thanks for the link. I shall investigate. And yes, I am mad to use an historical personage, even one not much known> Yet it does helps to fix the story in time, and to give it veracity. Which when we’re talking of a species more commonly known as elves, doesn’t hurt any. It’s just that it’s important not to put said person in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Less likelihood with such an unknown.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Joy Pixley says:

        Good point about the turf houses. They could be used anywhere there are grasses but relatively little wood or stone. Hm, I have a nice big plain on the eastern end of Pyann that might be just right for that… 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • crimsonprose says:

        As I said in the comment I left on the troll-and-turf-house blog, Serendipity. Go get building!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Brian Bixby says:

    I think I found the fort on Google Earth, south of the village. There’s a real problem in showing what this was like, because our sense of scale indoors and outdoors is different. Put walls on that hill fort, and people would find it impressive!

    Liked by 1 person

    • crimsonprose says:

      Excavations at other sites have shown that atop the earthen ramparts were timber palisades. Now that would have been impressive. Otherwise, a wide-angle lens might have helped some. Or a helicopter! But I’m glad I visited the site. See, it’s not only Dorset and Wales where hillforts are found. (Or should that be valley-forts?) Though these in Norfolk are later in date than those of the south. But definitely of Iceni province.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Chris says:

    visited this camp today for the fourth or fith time, Buzzards were soaring just above the camp but dispersed upon spotting our approach, no one else there, and a sunny day, this place is haunting and takes you back in time, the surrounding landscape is unspoiled and you can really imagine what it was once like. as we started walking back to the car, the buzzards returned to soar again. Truly well worth a visit. do go if you can.

    Liked by 1 person

    • crimsonprose says:

      Wow, didn’t know there were buzzards there. I’d have liked to have been there on my own, but other visitors appeared, and I was only in the area for that one day. As you say, a haunting place; and one little known, even by locals.


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