Reasons for English: Boudicca the Warrior Queen

This is the transcript for the second English with Stephen podcast on the story of Boudicca, the Warrior Queen and how she fought against the Romans.

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Hello and welcome to the English with Stephen podcast. The podcast that gives you everything you need to learn English in under 10 minutes.

Today I have the latest episode in my series called Reasons for English. In this series, I try to look at the history of English to discover why the language is the way it is. I have looked at how the Anglo-Saxons emigrated to Britain, at the influence of the Vikings and the Normans, and the way that new technologies affected the language.

Well, today, we are going to go back a lot further in time. We are going to go back over 2, 000 years and look at a story that every English kid knows and use this story to identify what the Romans did for the English language.

It is a story of betrayal, of war, of politics and how a small group of people almost destroyed the most powerful empire ever known.

It is the story of Boudicca, the warrior queen.

After this

If there is anything you do not understand in this podcast, then it might be a good idea to read the transcript and listen at the same time. This is an excellent learning strategy and one I regularly ask my students to do after they have tried to listen and understand at least once before. If you would like to read the transcript, you can find it on my site, EnglishwithStephen.com. You can also find all the past episodes and the transcripts for them as well. Remember, it’s EnglishwithStephen.com, that’s S T E P H E N, EnglishwithStephen.com.

Back to the Romans.

The Romans first invaded England around the year 60 BCE (or 60 BC if you’ve heard me talk about dates before). Julius Ceasar was the man credited with “conquering” the island, but he only stayed for one summer, so I don’t think “conquer” is the right word. But Julius Ceasar was the master of self-publicity, so that was the word he used.

The Romans finally came to stay in the year 34 AD (or 34 CE). And they stayed for almost 400 years before trouble on the continent meant they had to abandon the province. Surprisingly, modern English only has about 400 words that were used by the Romans and the people who lived on the island. It is true that English has literally thousands of words that come from Latin, but they were introduced much later, either from the Catholic church or from the invading Normans in the year 1066.

The words the original Romans left behind were associated with certain types of words. About half of the words they introduced were for plants, animals, food, drink, and household items, for example the words “plant”, “cat”, “wine”, “cheese”, and “candle” were all introduced to English at this time. There were also words associated with clothes, for example “belt”, buildings, such as “wall”, towns, like the word “street”, commerce, with the word “pound” and religion, for example “mass”.

One area in which the Romans left an impact that can still be seen today is in how they created, or adapted, towns and cities around England and Wales. Sometimes they created new towns, and at others they took over already existing settlements and renamed them.

Colchester, a town in the south-east of England likes to claim it is the oldest town in Britain. When the Romans invaded, they set up Colchester as their first capital. There is some disagreement about what the name means. Some claim the “col” part comes from the Latin “colonia” in that it was a sort of colony for the Romans, and the river that runs through the city got its name from the Roman name.

Other people claim that the river was called “Colne” before the Romans arrived, and the town got its name from the river. However, both theories agree that the final part of the name “chester” means “Roman fort”. In fact, you can see lots of places all over England that end in “chester” or “cester” and it nearly always means “Roman fort” and so tells you that the place has been in existence since at least the time of the Romans.

Near the town of Colchester, there was a Celtic tribe called the Iceni. The Iceni decided not to fight the Romans. Instead they did a deal with them. In this deal, the Iceni were allowed to live on their land and they would have two kings: their previous tribal king and the Emperor Nero.

When the Iceni king died, they assumed his two daughters would inherit and become queens with Nero. The Romans, however, had very different ideas about this. You see, Roman society was extremely patriarchal. This means that only men had any rights. Women could not own land or have their own property. And women could definitely not be queen of a land that they had conquered.

A Roman legion was sent to the Iceni to tell them that from now on they would only have one ruler: the Emperor Nero. The Iceni people were not very happy about this. So the Roman legion tried to teach them a lesson by attacking and killing many of the Iceni. They also flogged Boudicca and raped the two daughters. If you “flog” someone you hit them with a whip as a form of punishment.

This attempt at intimidation and humiliation did not work. Instead, the remaining Iceni decided to rebel against the Romans with Boudicca as their warrior queen. Other Celtic tribes joined this rebellion and they marched on the Roman capital of Colchester. Fortunately for them, there were no soldiers around to defend the city, so they completely destroyed it. They killed the people, burned all the houses and stole everything they could find.

The next place Boudicca headed to was Londinium, or as we call it today, London. London was in a very strategic place on the River Thames as it was the first place you could cross the river. It wasn’t the Roman capital, but it was still a very important town.

After the initial success, Boudicca had attracted even more followers to her army. Up to 120, 000 were supposed to be in the army. However, this number might not be correct for two reasons. First, the number comes from Roman sources, and there is a very good chance they wanted to inflate the numbers to make them look better.

Second, the followers were not just fighting people. It probably included families with children and older people. It seems the Celts didn’t have this idea that only the warriors should go to war, but the whole community should.

Whatever the actual size of Boudicca’s army, it was far too big for the few soldiers based in London. The Romans retreated and London suffered the same fate as Colchester. It was burned to the ground, the people were killed and everything of value was stolen.

Boudicca repeated the same trick at the city of Verulamium, or modern day St. Albans. It is estimated that in the three towns of Colchester, London and Verulamium, about 80, 000 people were killed.

Things were lookin bad for the Romans. The Emperor Nero wanted to evacuate the whole country, but there was one legion left on the island. They marched quickly to meet Boudicca in the open. The Celtic army had been very successful against civilians protected only by a few thousand soldiers, but now they were facing professional Roman soldiers. They had the numerical advantage, but that was about it. The Romans had better equipment, training and strategies. When the two armies met in the field the Romans took great satisfaction in getting their revenge on the rebels.

The story is that, after the defeat, Boudicca and her two daughters killed themselves instead of being humiliated again at the hands of the victorious Romans.

Today, Boudicca is an important cultural symbol for English people. She represents freedom and fighting for what you believe in. There is a statue of her and her two daughters in a chariot racing to kill some Romans. The statue is situated in a prominent space outside the Houses of Parliament in London.

Every country and community has its founding legends. England’s include King Arthur, Robin Hood and Boudicca, the warrior queen.

Thanks for listening to this story. I would love it if you would tell me about some of the founding myths and legends your country or community has. You can find me on my site, EnglishwithStephen.com, or on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. Just look for English with Stephen.

I hope to speak to you again next week.

Bye for now!

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