Mighty Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes Tribe and Friend to Rome
Standing next to Westminster Bridge and the Houses of Parliament in the heart of London is a giant bronze statue of a woman with her two daughters on a chariot. This was Boudicca, the queen of the Iceni tribe, and arguably one of the most well-known figures from Roman Britain of the 1 st century A.D.
Less well-known, but perhaps more significant was Cartimandua, the queen of the Brigantes tribe. Although both women were powerful figures in their own right, one distinctive feature that separated the two queens was their policy towards the Romans. Whilst Boudicca famously led a rebellion against the Romans, Cartimandua pursued a more pro-Roman policy.
Cartimandua’s tribe, the Brigantes, occupied the region known today as northern England, and was said to be the largest tribe on the British Isles. When the Romans under the emperor Claudius invaded Britain in A.D. 43, Cartimandua may have already been the leader of the Brigantes. It is also possible that Cartimandua was one of the eleven rulers of Britain who surrendered to Rome without a fight, as mentioned on the inscription on the now lost Arch of Claudius. Thus, the Brigantes tribe was a client kingdom of Rome, whose loyalty to the empire ensured its autonomy.
County map of England & Wales, overlaid with Territory of the Romano-British Brigantes Tribe of Northern England. Wikimedia Commons
Inscription from the Arch of Claudius, Capitoline Museums. (Wikimedia GFDL )
In A.D. 51, the leader of the Catuvellauni tribe, Caratacus, was finally defeated by the Romans after resisting them for almost decade. He decided to flee to Cartimandua for sanctuary, only to be surrendered by her to the Romans. Although this ensured the favor of the Romans, it made her less popular with her own people. Cartimandua’s loyalty towards Rome, however, would not go unrecognized, and she was rewarded handsomely by the Romans. More importantly was the military support provided by Rome several years later.
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In A.D. 57, a quarrel arose between Cartimandua and her consort, Venutius. This resulted in a civil war when Venutius, angered by the capture of his brothers and relatives by Cartimandua, invaded her territory. The Romans decided to interfere by sending military aid, first auxiliaries, and then a legion, to their client. As a result, Cartimandua was able to secure her throne, and it seemed that the queen and Venutius were reconciled for the time being.
Rome’s support for Cartimandua would be repaid several years later in A.D. 60/61, when Boudicca led a revolt against Rome. Cartimandua did not join the revolt, thus relieving the Romans from the fear of being attacked from the north. Had the anti-Roman Venutius emerged victorious during the Brigantine civil war, the fate of the Roman army in Britain may have been quite different.
In A.D. 69, Cartimandua decided to divorce Venutius, and marry Vellocatus, his armor-bearer. According to the Roman historian Tacitus, this was prompted by the queen’s passions. Although this may be true, the situation may be more complex than just a simple love affair.
A.D. 69 was also the year of the Roman emperor Nero’s death, and the Roman Empire was plunged into chaos. The time was ripe for Venutius to settle old scores, and Cartimandua had to act swiftly. It has been argued that by taking Vellocatus as her consort, Cartimandua effectively deprived Venutius of his most trusted client-chief, and weakened his power. Nevertheless, Venutius had the affection of the Brigantes, and he led a revolt against Cartimandua. Once again, Cartimandua sought the Romans for help. This time, however, the Romans could only afford to send auxiliaries, as the legions were busy fighting in other part of the empire. Although she lost her throne, Cartimandua managed to flee to the Roman fort at Deva (modern day Chester).
Theatrical mask created by the historical Brigantes tribe, found at Catterick. Wikimedia, Fair Use
Following the defeat of Cartimandua and her Roman allies, Venutius would lead the Brigantes for a brief period of time. He would eventually be vanquished by the Romans, thus bringing the territory of the Brigantines under direct Roman rule.
As for Cartimandua, the once mighty queen simply vanished from the historical records, her fate unknown, and remains a mystery to future generations.
Featured image: A print, entitled ‘Caractacus, King of the Silures, delivered up to Ostorius, the Roman General, by Cartismandua, Queen of the Brigantes’. Public Domain