When the Roman Emperor Claudius invaded Britain from the south over 2,000 years ago there were no major figures who led the whole country unlike today, instead there were many native tribes which had their own leaders and written sources show us that at least 2 of these tribal leaders were women.
Now if you hear the name of the first one ‘Boudica’ I’m sure you will have heard about her achievements and her hatred of the Romans and the revolt she led against them. The other leader isn’t that famous, and her name was ‘Cartimandua’ the queen of the Brigantes who in pre-Roman times controlled the largest section of what would become Northern England.
Their territory, often referred to as Brigantia, was centred around what was later known as Yorkshire. When the Romans arrived Cartimandua along with other neighbouring leaders met one another and debated whether to march south and fight against the Romans. They would have undoubtably heard that the Romans were pretty much destroying anything in their path as they made their way up North towards Yorkshire. Unlike Boudica, Cartimandua cleverly negotiated with the Romans in order to preserve her tribe’s independence without any bloodshed, this effectively made Brigantia a client kingdom to Rome. In return for showing this loyalty she gained Rome’s protection, and she was given great riches, she was however required to supply the Roman army fit young soldiers which kept the army fighting, also a healthy supply of slaves.
She would have undoubtably kept her people on the side of the Romans, which suited the Romans fine as this Northern stronghold meant they could mount attacks further North without many resistance from local tribes and the Brigantes being a large area of people was a great benefit to Rome.
We know very little of Queen Cartimandua and her life other than she may have already been the Brigante queen at the time Claudius invaded. Evidence does tell us of her marriage to Venutius but there is no record of the two having any children, although this does not mean they didn’t have any, there just isn’t any record of it.
One thing we do know is that she handed over the rebel Caractacus to the Romans when he escaped capture and made his way to Cartimandua seeking her protection. Instead of a safe place he was placed in chains and handed to the Romans where he was said to have been sent to Rome and held prisoner and paraded through the streets as a spoil of war. He escaped death by giving the emperor an inspirational speech, after which his life was spared and he and his family was said to have lived out their days in Rome.
Cartimandua was highly criticised for handing him over by her own tribe and neighbouring tribes around the Yorkshire Brigantes, yet her loyalty to Rome was shown as strong as ever to the Romans. Soon after Cartimandua and Venutius were divorced, and it is unclear as to the circumstances behind the split but the events of Caractacus may have forced it.
Venutius’ actions soon turned hostile towards the Romans and towards the queen, he gathered an army to attack Cartimandua and it was Rome’s famous IX Hispania Legion who came to her rescue and an uprising was soon prevented. Over the next few years Cartimandua stayed loyal to Rome and her loyalty was unquestionable after rejecting pleas for her to join the uprising. Might her people and her have joined them then the outcome may have been different and Rome’s stronghold on Britain would have been questioned.
Several years later Venutius seized another opportunity to raise an army and invade Brigante territory. This time the Romans were unable to answer her calls for help as they were held up elsewhere defending the empire against invasions and could only send an auxiliary unit, who was said to have got the queen out of danger and away. However, her territory fell to Venutius who ruled for two years before being deposed by the emperor Vespasian, who took the control of the Brigante territory. Vespasian stripped them of all their privileges and placed them under a strict Roman rule, this was when Brigantia was no longer free but another territory to fall under the strict rule of the empire.
Without this queen’s loyalty to the Roman conquest of Britain her story could have been told in a very different way today, and despite her leadership of the Brigante people and her extraordinary loyalty towards the enemy of which she is given credit by Tactius, the Roman historian, for where he mentions her loyalty.
Throughout history many of whom simply ignore the role she played and press the idea that her territory was just another Northern flank that allowed the Roman army to conquer the rest of the island. Tactius continuously refers to Cartimandua as ‘Regina’ which is Latin for queen, he further mentions her treacherous capture of Caractacus, and about her cunning and the strategically planned imprisoning of Venutius’ family as hostages.
Today there is still very little evidence as to what happened to Cartimandua next it has been noted that when she was evacuated, she was taken to the newly constructed Roman fort and Deva (Chester) then she seemed to disappear from all the sources.
This post was written by Wayne Newsome
Image: a print by F Bartolozzi showing Cartimandua handing over a chained Caractacus to the Romans © The Trustees of the British Museum
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