Roman Britain: British Tribal Rebellion to Roman Rule

From the Lecture Series: The Celtic World

By Jennifer Paxton, Ph.D., The Catholic University of America

After Emperor Claudius flexed the military might of the Roman Empire to conquer Britain, he planned to start collecting tributes from the British tribes, establish legions, and set up fortified sites throughout the country. Some tribes entered into agreements with the Romans, however, not all British tribes were willing to oblige. Let’s examine how different British tribes reacted to or rebelled against Roman rule.

A statue cast in bronze of Queen Boudica and her daughters in her war chariot.
Queen Boudica, the widow of Prasutagus, the king of the Iceni tribe, violently revolted against Roman rule in Britain. (Image: Aldaron/CC BY-SA 2.0/Public domain)

Cartimandua and the Brigantes Tribe

The British tribes responded in various ways to Roman rule. Some of the tribes, particularly the ones in the south and east who had already had a lot of contact with the Roman province of Gaul, were actually quite happy to collaborate with the new Roman regime.

In fact, in about A.D. 50, the queen of the Brigantes tribe, Cartimandua, actively helped the Romans to suppress the resistance of the Catuvellauni tribe by turning over their leader, Caractacus, to the Roman authorities.

Incidentally, Cartimandua had a rather colorful career. In A.D. 69, she got tired of her first husband Venutios and divorced him in order to marry her armor-bearer, Vellocatus. This did not sit well with Venutios or with the rest of the Brigantes. Venutios put together an anti-Roman faction that overthrew Cartimandua, and she had to call in the Romans to restore her to the throne.

There was a second rebellion after that, and this time, the Romans were not able to put Cartimandua back on the throne. All they could do was save her life. It took until A.D. 74 for the Brigantes to be subdued for good.

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Queen Boudicca and the Iceni Tribe

The rebellious factions within Brigantes were by no means alone in resenting Roman rule. One tribe, in particular, the Iceni of eastern England, broke out into a terrifying rebellion in A.D. 60, and this rebellion nearly swept the Romans out of Britain.

The king of the Iceni, Prasutagus, had died without any sons, leaving only his widow, Queen Boudicca, and two daughters. The Roman authorities decided to incorporate the kingdom into the administration of the province. However, some of the local Roman officials overreached themselves when they were sent to carry out this annexation. Roman soldiers ended up flogging Queen Boudicca and raping her daughters.

This is a transcript from the video series The Celtic World. Watch it now, Wondrium.

This was a seriously bad move. Queen Boudicca rose in revolt and carried many of the other southern British tribes with her. According to the classical historian Cassius Dio, Boudicca rallied the Celtic tribes while wearing a torc, which was a characteristic Celtic symbol of authority.

This sort of torc has been found in Britain, for example, at Snettisham in Norfolk, which was ruled by the Iceni. Some people like to speculate that this was actually Boudicca’s own torc, but that would probably be too good to be true.

A map showing Celtic British tribes in Pre-Roman period and Roman Britain.
The various British tribes in Roman Britain. A number of the tribes were minting coins from the Pre-Roman period. (Image: Notuncurious/CC BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

The Iceni and their allies seemed determined to erase all signs of the Romans in Britain. They killed the Romans and burned their settlements. They even managed to burn Londinium. To this day, if you dig down under London, you can find the layer of ash that is left from the huge fire that burned at the time of the revolt.

They then proceeded north to Verulamium and beyond. They met the main Roman force in the Midlands, but they were decisively defeated. The Roman historian Tacitus tells us that Boudicca took poison to avoid capture, surely in order to escape the traditional fate of the enemies of Rome, where they’re paraded in a Roman triumph, like the Gaulish chieftain Vercingetorix a century before.

Boudicca became very popular in the 19th century as an exemplar of the British fighting spirit. For some reason, Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, was a big fan of Boudicca. In 1902, a massive statue of Boudicca was erected on the Thames Embankment. So, residents of London, today can spend some time with the woman who burned the city to the ground and nearly drove the Romans from the island of Britain.

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The Caledonian Tribe

The encounters with the Brigantes tribe and the Iceni tribe, among others, had spooked the Roman authorities. Over the next couple of decades, they decided to concentrate their efforts in Britain in the south and east, where they had had the most success thus far.

The Romans mounted a major campaign into the north of Britain in A.D. 83, under the leadership of the Roman governor, a general named Agricola. Incidentally, the great Roman historian Tacitus was his son-in-law.

The Romans had been trying for many years to bring the northern British tribe known as the Caledonians to battle. The Caledonians wisely declined to fight the Romans, because they knew the Romans had a far superior army. Instead, the Caledonians would appear and disappear, never quite providing a target that the Romans could strike at.

A map showing the Battle of Mons Graupius between the Roman Empire and the Caledonian tribe.
Roman general Agricola’s campaigns in northern Britain, leading up to the Battle of Mons Graupius in A.D. 83 or A.D. 84 against the Caledonian tribe. (Image: Notuncurious/CC BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

Finally, the Romans brought the Caledonians to battle by marching north into Caledonian territory just as the harvest was being brought in, and the Romans went straight for the granaries. The Caledonians had to fight or starve.

The Romans and Caledonians fought a major battle at a site known as Mons Graupius, somewhere in present-day Scotland, but the location of the battle has never been positively identified. It was apparently a complete rout.

Tacitus tells us that 10,000 Caledonian soldiers were killed, while on the Roman side, only 360 auxiliary troops died. The Romans didn’t even have to deploy their main legionary forces. Rome seemed poised to bring all of the islands of Britain under its direct control.

The Battle of Mons Graupius took place in late A.D. 83 or early A.D. 84. The Roman conquest of Britain was mostly completed by A.D. 87. The skirmishes with the northern tribes continued into the 2nd century, and a little over three decades later, in A.D. 122 Hadrian’s Wall was constructed to mark the boundary of the Roman Empire. The northern tribes continued to rebel and oppose Roman rule well into the 2nd century.

Common Questions about British Tribal Rebellion to Roman Rule

Q: Who were the Brigantes tribe?

The Brigantes tribe was a British tribe that inhabited Britain before the Roman conquest of Britain. In A.D. 50, the queen of the Brigantes tribe, Cartimandua assisted the Romans to thwart the resistance of another British tribe named Catuvellauni tribe.

Q: What did Cartimandua do?

Cartimandua was the queen of the Brigantes tribe between A.D. 43 and A.D. 69. She helped the Romans suppress the Catuvellauni tribe, another British tribe. She remained loyal to the Romans throughout her reign. In fact, in A.D. 69 the tribe overthrew Cartimandua, and she had to call in the Romans to restore her to the throne.
There was a second rebellion as well when the Romans came to her rescue once again, but this time they were only able to save her life and failed to put her back on the throne. By A.D. 74, she had been subdued for good by the Brigantes tribe.

Q: Why did Boudica dislike the Romans?

Queen Boudica was the widow of Prasutagus, the king of the Iceni tribe. After the king’s death, the Romans decided to annex the kingdom, during which the Roman soldiers flogged Queen Boudicca and raped her daughters. Queen Boudica revolted against the Romans and formed an alliance with several southern tribes. They killed many Romans and burned their settlements, including Londinium, which was the precursor to present-day London.

Q: What happened at the Battle of Mons Graupius?

The Romans were able to conquer the British tribes in the southern part of Britain fairly quickly, but they faced stiff resistance from the northern tribes. The British tribe known as Caledonians, in the northern part of Britain, refused to fight the Romans for a number of years.
Finally, in A.D. 83, the Romans forced the case by marching into Caledonian territory during harvest time and attacking the granaries. This forced the Caledonias into a battle, which took place at a site known as Mons Graupius. Hence, the name Battle of Mons Graupius. The Caledonians were decimated and over 10,000 of their soldiers were killed.

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