Q is for Queens in the Celtic World

I love this image of Boudicca because I think she looks like Rachelle Lefevre.

“I am woman, hear me roar” may have been spoken out loud for the first time in the 1970s, but it may as well have been the mantra of Celtic women. Compared to their contemporaries in the Roman Empire, Greece and just about every other civilization, Celtic women had amazing rights and freedoms. I’ll go into more detail in the future, but suffice for now that they could own land, marry and divorce at will and were well represented under the law.

But yet, scholars disagree on whether or not Celtic Queens were the exception or the norm. Recent thought (in the books I’ve read) seems to show a disfavor for the idea of many historical queens, dismissing the ideal of the now mythologized matrilineal society/succession as unlikely, if not impossible. Personally, I think more women ruled than those we have records for. Do I have evidence for this? Absolutely not. But the Celts weren’t big on writing things down, so who is to say there weren’t more that are lost in history? I find it hard to believe that a society that was so supportive of women didn’t also have more women rulers. Since history is written by the victors (in this case, men), we’re lucky to know about the few we do.

But I digress. Here are two Celtic women from history who fought for and against the Romans, doing what they thought was best for their people.

  1. Cartimandua – Cartimandua was Queen of the Brigantes, a large tribe in northern Britain (around modern Yorkshire). According to the evidence we have to date, she was the first hereditary queen to rule any part of Britain. Unlike Boudicca, who married into her Queenship, Cartimandua was born to rule and her husbands held the role of consorts. It is likely that she was already Queen and married to her first husband, Venutius, before the Romans came in 43 AD. The Romans needed her help and protection if they were to extend their rule in Britain and Cartimandua was a wise woman, so she made a treaty with Emperor Claudius. However, her pro-Roman leanings were not popular and she had to quell a series of revolts among her subjects. In 48 AD, Roman forces helped her end these revolts. Three years later, her warriors captured the leader of the resistance, Caratacus, and turned him over to the Romans, winning their continued support. Twice during 52 – 57 AD, her husband attempted to overthrow her by allying with the anti-Roman Celts, but Cartimandua’s Roman allies intervened. During this time, some sources say she divorced her husband in favor of his cup-bearer (or armor-bearer, depending on the source), Vellocatus, while others say that eventually, Cartimandua and her husband came to an accord and reigned together until 69, when she then divorced him for Vellocatus. In 69, Venutius rebelled again and was successful in ousting Cartimandua from the throne. What happened to her after that is unknown, but her legacy is that during her entire reign, she kept her lands free from Roman occupation. Fun side note: Cartimandua is even said by some to be the model for the Arthurian character of Guinevere, thanks to the love triangle she created with her husband and lover.

  2. Boudicca – Boudicca (also spelled Boadicea) was of the Icini tribe in Southeast Britain in the early first century AD. Her husband, Prasutagus, saw advantage in allying with Rome, and this decision brought them many years of peace. When Prasutagus died, the Romans discovered he had named the Emperor co-heir with his two daughters. The Romans couldn’t bear the thought of sharing power – much less with two women – so they attacked the Icini villages. Boudicca, now Queen, was publicly flogged and her two daughters raped. Enraged, she rallied the people and they revolted, destroying several large Roman cities during the years 60-61 AD, including Camulodunum, Londinium (modern London) and Verulamium. Pursuing the Romans even further, she met Gaius Suetonius Paulinus and his forces in the Battle of Waltling Street. Although the Romans were vastly outnumbered, their military discipline and precision resulted in their victory. Thousands of Celts died. No one knows for sure what happened to Boudicca. She is believed to have survived the battle and either died from illness or taken poison (possibly along with her daughters) to avoid capture, public humiliation and eventual execution by Rome.

I was going to cover some mythological Queens, too, but I think this is enough for one day.

What do you think? Did the Celts have more Queens than these two? Have you  ever heard of Boudicca or Cartimandua before this? (Cartimandua was new to me, but I find her fascinating.)

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3 thoughts on “Q is for Queens in the Celtic World

  1. Nice post. Yes, I’ve heard of Boudicca and Cartimandua – they are mentioned in Diane Paxson’s Ravens of Avalon, one of the best books in the Mists of Avalon series she continued for Marion Zimmer Bradley.
    Another great Celtic queen is the Irish Queen Maeve – I saw the mound of her grave up on a mountain in Ireland when I was there. The archeologists have no been allowed to dig into it I understand. She may well be mythological, or at least legendary, but is a fascinating character.

    • Hi Tyler,

      Thanks for your comment. Maeve was on my list to cover in this post before I it got so long. I need to do some more research on her to understand the possible historical connections. She’s not one I know a lot about, but what I have read so far leans more toward mythological. There’s a great statue of her in Dublin.

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