Is Celtic Birdlip Grave the Final Resting Place of Queen Boudicca?
Over a century ago, a group of workmen stumbled upon three ancient Celtic graves near Birdlip in Gloucestershire, England. The central grave contained the remains of a woman, along with a hoard of treasures, including a bronze mirror described as one of the finest items of Celtic art to survive today. A number of scholars have suggested that the grave may be the long lost resting place of Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni tribe, a Celtic clan which united a number of British tribes in revolt against the occupying forces of the Roman Empire in 60-61 AD.
View overlooking Birdlip, Gloucestershire, where three ancient Celtic graves were found that may belong to Queen Boudicca and her two daughters ( Wikimedia Commons )
Boudicca, the Celtic Queen that unleashed fury on the Romans
In 43 AD, before the time that Boudicca reached adulthood, the Romans invaded Britain, and most of the Celtic tribes were forced to submit. However, the Romans allowed two Celtic kings to retain some of their traditional power as it was normal Roman practice to allow kingdoms their independence for the lifetime of their client king, who would then agree to leave his kingdom to Rome in his will. One of these kings was Prasutagus, whom Boudicca went on to marry at the age of 18. Together they had two daughters, called Isolda and Siora.
In 60 AD life changed dramatically for Boudicca, with the death of her husband. As Prasutagus had ruled as a nominally independent, but forced ‘ally’ of Rome, he left his kingdom jointly to his wife and daughters, and the Roman emperor. However, Roman law only allowed inheritance through the male line, so when Prasutagus died, his kingdom was annexed, the nobles were taken as slaves, Boudicca was publicly flogged, and their daughters were raped. This would prove to be the catalyst that would see Boudicca demanding revenge against the brutal invaders of her lands.
Artist’s depiction of Queen Boudicca with her army in the background. Image source .
Boudicca united a number of Celtic tries to fight against the Romans, and famously succeeded in defeating the Romans in three great battles at Camulodunum (now modern-day Colchester), Londinium (modern London), and Verulamium (now known as St Albans), but their victories would not last. The Romans rallied and eventually crushed the revolts, executing thousands of Iceni and taking the rest as slaves.
- Boudicca, the Celtic Queen that unleashed fury on the Romans
- Boudicca, the Celtic Queen that unleashed fury on the Romans – Part 2
- Golden hoard of Roman jewellery found hidden from Queen Boudicca and her army
Boudicca’s death and burial
It is not known exactly what happened to Boudicca after the war. Ancient Roman historian Tacitus stated that she escaped with her daughters to another part of Britain, where they drank from a poisoned chalice and died, while Greek historian Cassius Dio wrote that she died from illness and was given a lavish burial.
Either way, it seems that Boudicca and her daughters were saved from a fate worse than death. Had they been captured, the Romans would have made them walk in a victory parade before torturing them and displaying their bodies to cheering crowds. The whereabouts of their bodies is also shrouded in mystery and there is no shortage of theories as to where she was finally laid to rest. Some people believe that Boudicca was buried at Stonehenge while others suggest Norfolk, Hampstead in north London, or even under a platform belonging to London's Kings Cross Station. While there is little evidence to tie Boudicca to any of these locations, the graves found in Birdlip, Gloucestershire, contain some interesting features that might just suggest they hold the remains of Boudicca and her two daughters.
Boudicca Haranguing the Britons’ by John Opie. ( Wikipedia)
The Birdlip Grave Group
The Birdlip graves were first discovered in 1879, by a couple of men digging stone for road repair on the scarp overlooking the Vale of Gloucester in Birdlip. John Bellows, who is often called ‘the father of Gloucester archaeology’, investigated the graves and recorded three burials in a row dated to the middle part of the 1 st century AD. The central grave is said to contain the skeletal remains of a woman, along with numerous grave goods, including an ornate handheld mirror of bronze, two fine bronze bowls (one of which was placed over the woman’s face), bracelets, the stylized face of a bird in a silver gilt brooch, a pair of tweezers, five cast bronze rings, a bronze knife handle shaped like the head of a bull, an amber necklace, and an exotic stone that possibly originated in China. The treasures are now housed in the Gloucester City Museum and Art Gallery.
The most important object found in the grave was the spectacular bronze mirror, which was highly polished for reflections on one side, and decorated with patterns worked into the metal on the other. The handle is composed of a series of interlocking loops enclosing red enamel dots.
The bronze mirror found in the central Birdlip grave. ( realmsofgoldthenovel)
Do the Birdlip graves belong to Boudicca and her daughters?
The valuable and ornate grave goods found in the main Birdlip grave has led experts to conclude that the individual buried there was of royal or elite status. A number of other factors hint at Boudicca as the owner of the grave.
- The presence of amber provides a connection with East Anglia, the territory governed by Boudicca’s Iceni tribe around two millennia ago – amber primarily came from the North sea coast of East Anglia.
- Birdlip (once the region ‘Dobunnic) was home to the Dobunni tribe in the late Iron Age. Some historians believe that Dobunnic was Boudicca’s tribal origin, and that she may have fled to her homeland after losing the final battle against the Romans. Others suggest the Dobunni were allies of the Iceni and offered to give Boudicca safe haven. Dobunnic currencies have been found in East Anglia, suggesting a link between the Dobunni and Iceni. Many Dobunnic coins have also been found inscribed with BODVOC, which has been suggested as Boudicca’s Celtic name.
- One primary female grave and two accompanying female graves fits well with the possibility of being Queen Boudicca and her two daughters.
- The graves have been dated to the mid-1 st century AD, the same time period in which Boudicca’s tribe fell to the Romans.
While the possibility of the Birdlip graves belonging to Boudicca and her daughters is incredibly exciting, there still remains a lack of hard evidence linking the two together. Malcolm J. Watkins, authors of ‘The Mysterious Birdlip Grave Group: Trying to Understand the Story of One of Our Finest Archaeological Treasures’, also points out that the graves have been labelled as female burials only based on the type of grave goods and not on a proper analysis of the remains. He thinks it is equally possible that the primary grave is a male burial and belonged to a shaman priest.
Until further evidence emerges, the Boudicca – Birdlip connection remains only a hypothesis, and while her final resting place cannot yet be confirmed with certainty, Boudicca’s name continues to be remembered as the courageous warrior queen who fought for freedom from oppression, for herself, and all the Celtic tribes of Britain.
Top image: A group of iron-age treasures buried around AD 50 along with their owner, housed in the City Museum and Art Gallery, Gloucester ( BBC).
Birdlip Grave Group, Bronze Mirror – BBC. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/objects/SUcI8OreTIObvmYUqnMRig
The history behind ‘The Eternal Fire’: Queen Boudicca By Dr. Mark Horton – BBC. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/bonekickers/history3.shtml
Boudica - the case for Atherstone and Kings Cross by Bob Trubshaw – Indigogroup. Available from: http://www.indigogroup.co.uk/edge/boudica6.htm
Celtic Mirrors: Birdlip Grave Group – Realms of Gold. Available from: http://realmsofgoldthenovel.blogspot.com/2014/10/celtic-mirrors-birdlip-grave-group.html
Hand Mirrors Made by the Celtics (or "Keltik") from Approximately 300 B.C. to A.D. – Celtic Mirrors. Available from: http://www.celticmirrors.org/#5