BOUDICA AT MANCETTER.
What do we know?
There are many books recounting Boudica’s magnificent campaign against the Romans.
But the manner of her death remains a mystery.
As does the place of her death: where did she fight her last fight?
Now a new book is out about Queen Boudica, and it explores that very question.
It proposes the answer is: Mancetter.
Boudica At Mancetter offers credible reasons for the claim in its title.
And…… it’s an absorbing read !
BOUDICA AT MANCETTER: the Latin, the land, the logistics
Published by Atherstone Civic Society 2020 ©
Chapter One Why another book about Boudica?
They seek her here, they seek her there,
Boudica’s fate’s sought everywhere
Where did she muster, where did she fight?
On which elusive battle site?
The familiar Scarlet Pimpernel lines adapt nicely to our present-day search for the site of Boudica’s last battle. The date of that confrontation is reasonably well agreed: AD60, perhaps AD61. Otherwise, everything about this warrior queen’s life and campaign remains teasingly obscure. The final stages of Boudica’s famous resistance to Roman oppression are particularly puzzling. This book faces up to that dearth of evidence by presenting a trail of discoveries that can be summed up, as our sub-title suggests, as the Latin, the land and the logistics.
This first chapter nods to Atherstone Civic Society’s first project on Boudica, stimulated by Graham Webster’s suggestion of a Mancetter battle site, culminating in a Boudican battle-site conference at Warwick University in 2013.
The author organised that conference, and from it grew a serious interest in the topic, now expressed in the research she sets out in the chapters which follow.
Latin sparked this research, and it proved to be the beginning of a series of surprises.
- The first surprise was the realisation that a specific word chosen by Tacitus to describe the battle-site (in his Annals, a key source) carries extremely interesting implications. The connotations of the word fauces (faucibus) feature in Chapter Seven.
- The second surprise was to find that the actual Mancetter landscape does indeed conform precisely to the Latin description, as in the LIDAR images in Chapter Seven.
- The final surprise was the recognition that the logistics selected by the Romans for this battle not only were designed to fit the landscape, but also were summarised in one neat Latin word. The ramifications of the word cuneo are a focus of Chapter Eight.
The Latin, the land, the logistics: it all comes together.
It comes together so well that further confirmation via the Romano-British name for Mancetter (Manduessedum) almost seems inevitable. (See Chapter Two)
The chapter introduces the framework upon which this book is built: three puzzles encapsulated in the titles of Chapters Six, Seven and Eight, and four categories of necessary evidence.
The rest of Chapter One summarises the history of Roman Mancetter, to set the Boudican campaign in context.
Chapter One, then, leads readers towards what to expect. But it also flags up very clearly that the author understands that her research is tentative. She respects its provisional status, and uses parts of Chapters One and Nine to discuss the nature of hypotheses: subject to caveats, yet more than educated guesses.
What’s in a name?
Researching the Romano-British name for Mancetter – Manduessedum – Chapter Two begins with the evidence for the name’s use in Roman times. That established, it goes on to present research, new in its detail, into the derivations of the name’s two components, mandu and essedum. It sets out their links to the era and the battle tactics of the Celts who fought this battle. The research concludes with the stunning insight from Professor Kenneth Jackson that there is only one explanation for the unique conjunction of the name’s two elements: “The answer must be that some local legend or historical event is involved.”
The chapter summarises its claim by pointing out “it all adds up”:-
- a place name with two elements, each conveying a freight of battle-related references,
- a name-form unique in the entire list of British-Romano names,
- coined to commemorate a historic event.
Indeed, it does all add up. The derivation of Manduessedum is hard to explain without recourse to a Celtic, first century, battle-based origin.
Chapters Three and Four
For the benefit of readers who are unfamiliar with the events of Boudica’s campaign and defeat, Chapter Three tells the story of her campaign, with Chapter Four to outline the battle.
Chapter Five considers Mancetter’s general suitability as a battleground, through the lens of Alfred Burnes’s framework of Inherent Military Probability.
Chapters Six, Seven and Eight
The central chapters Six, Seven and Eight form the core of the book’s hypothesis for Mancetter’s status as the site of Boudica’s last battle.
- Why the Midlands?
- Why Mancetter?
- Why an ambush within a battle?
Along with Chapter Two (on the derivation of Manduessedum) they represent new thinking in support of the Mancetter claim.
Chapter Six: Why the Midlands?
After Boudica’s attacks on Colchester (Camulodunum), Londinium and St. Albans (Verulamium), the historical record suffers a large, un-chronicled gap before coming to the decisive battle that ended the campaign. What is needed is a credible theory on the movements of the two armies within that blotted-out time, to help suggest the region within which sits the location of the final confrontation.
Chapter Six offers a careful appreciation of the choices that eventually brought Paulinus and Boudica to the decisive battle.
The probabilities are of two kinds. One kind involves second-guessing the mind-sets of the protagonists, surmising their thought processes via informed guesswork. The other kind concerns the balance of probable timings of one set of happenings against other simultaneous events……..the “who-was-marching-where-while-somebody-else-was-marching- somewhere-else” conundrum. We can use these probabilities to suggest motivations and movements for Paulinus and for Boudica. Each big question rests on a host of sub-questions.
The lynchpin in the reconstruction of Paulinus’s pre-battle movements is the reconnaissance he made on Londinium. The conduct of that operation is germane to the evaluation of all the battle site theories, governing, as it does, the choice between locations south-of-St.Albans and north-of-St.Albans.
Chapter Six does not skirt this issue. It plumps for a small foraying party, drawing on clues from Tacitus’s account in the Annals – facets of his choice of vocabulary, an aspect of relevant evidence not frequently discussed. Beside those indications, and along with other theorists in this field, it also ventures assumptions of Paulinus’s mind-set. Both these avenues of reasoning bring us to settle on the choice of Wall (Letocetum) as his rallying point before the great engagement at Mancetter.
Then the chapter has to apply similar speculation to the motivation which brought Boudica north from St. Albans: the big “Why?” of her campaign. Was she simply driven by revenge, pure and raw, in a rampage of vengeful destruction that continued even after Londinium and Camulodunum? Or was it the wider ambition to gain independence, either by moving her people to a safer homeland, or by shaking off Roman domination? Alongside that: a suggestion that Chapter Six examines thoughtfully – was she propelled to protect Druidic interests? And if any of those, then at what point was she guided by her awareness of Paulinus’s movements, and the necessity of facing him? Was there a point at which that became a now-or-never mind-set? Was that what drove her to go northwards after Londinium? Or had she been fixed on now-or-never from the start?
Chapter Seven: Why Mancetter?
This is the finicky chapter. We discuss specific evidence for the Mancetter location. We discuss the Latin, and the land.
Sceptics may question the premise of evidence for Mancetter. However, there is a surprising amount. In this chapter we set out archaeological and archival evidence, two areas often regarded as unproductive in the Boudican search. However, we have found ourselves led towards a most interesting, and perhaps provocative, thesis.
First, archaeological evidence. Here we re-tune the “archaeological evidence” dial, as it were, away from “Finds” and on to the setting “Landscape Archaeology”. Under that heading we discuss two branches.
- The possibility that the composition of the soil has had a negative effect on the probability of relics and remains.
- A strikingly interesting landscape feature which puts Hartshill Ridge at the centre of Mancetter’s claim; a double spread within the centre of the book displays a LIDAR image of a complex trident-shaped defile.
Second, archival evidence. Tacitus’s description of the battle site includes a key feature – fauces – which is usually translated as a “narrow valley”, or a variant of that. Such translations fail to take account of the particular connotations of fauces. The author’s research shows it to be a peculiar plural form, with further implications of a multiply-branched shape.
So here we are handed a most pleasing and exciting connection, in that this vital account from Tacitus… discussion of which makes up a significant part of the chapter…. correlates with the shape of the land now so clearly visible via LIDAR. Archives and landscape archaeology shake hands; the Latin meets the land.
Chapter Eight: Why an ambush within a battle?
Chapter Eight considers logistical evidence, describing how Mancetter’s unique contours enabled a Roman tactic specific to this battle.
We are told by Tacitus that Paulinus adopted the typical battle lines that placed legionaries in the centre, flanked to right and left by auxiliaries, and wider still, by cavalry. Our hypothesis sits comfortably with that. However, we suggest his tactical brilliance could have led him to diverge from custom in one very clever ploy: he hid much of the central battle-lines – the legionaries – within the trees and defiles of Hartshill Ridge. They were hidden within the several recesses of the fauces, this specifically named feature, way back behind its “exit” where it melded into the plain. The smaller contingent, his legionary vanguard, he placed across that outlet, open to the British sight lines. And so with mis-placed confidence and “much shouting and threatening war songs”, the Britons closed on what they must have assumed was a manageably sized opposition.
But in the end far more poured forth; the major part of the legionary force operating like an ambush. At a signal, the majority of the legionary force erupts…velut cuneo erupit. Perhaps it was the Hartshill Ridge itself that inspired Paulinus to create this “ambush within a battle”.
Tacitus’s use of that specific word cuneus contributes to the evidence for the ambush.
The word is interesting. A cuneus is a troop formation employed in aggressive action, and, curiously, in the era which includes the Boudican uprising, it appears several times in Roman battle history. The term resists rigid definition. Indeed, it might almost be deemed untranslatable. Previous translations give it as a “wedge”, or “wedge formation”, “in a wedge-like column” or “wedge-shaped formation”. Recently it has been said to be broadly applicable to any deep but narrow-fronted formation. That could be an apt description of an army’s response to a complex defile winding its way up through trees away from its narrower endpoint onto a plain. It was useful when a regular battle line could not be formed because of obstacles such as trees, ditches and vineyards. Perhaps we may add “defiles” to that list? The tactician Vegetius brought life to the stratagem when passing-on the soldiers’ nickname for a cuneus as a “pig’s head”: the shape of a troop-unit narrower at the front than it was at the rear, with the “snout” comprising a flat row of men, unlike other assumptions that imply the point of a wedge.
This abbreviated version of Chapter Eight needs must halt the discussion here, hopefully having suggested sufficient evidence of Paulinus’s strategy unique to this battle. We must skim over the massive destruction which befell Boudica’s troops after the eruption upon them of the cuneus.
Finally, the chapter reconciles Graham Webster’s 1993 map of the battle site with this latest interpretation, and concludes by pointing to the construction of the Lunt Fort in this period, quite possibly in response to the Roman need to appropriate the huge number of abandoned Celtic horses.
Chapter Nine: What if?
Chapter Nine concludes the book’s argument by returning to the discussion opened in Chapter One on the nature of hypotheses, viewing a good hypothesis as a tool towards further investigation. It sums up the Mancetter theory as resting on the agreement between Tacitus’s account of the battle-site and battle – one major constituent of the argument, and the other major strand: terrain that is uniquely congruent with Tacitus.
It looks forward to possible next steps:
- Specialist landscape archaeology focused on the local soil, and even more importantly, on the configuration of the defiles.
- Scrutiny at a professional level to intensify the search for archaeological evidence; skilled, responsible detectoring.
Chapter Eight makes a passing reference to Vegetius, and by chance it happens that a comment ( from his translator, Milner) about his sketchy life-story also offers a thought that could well be applied to the theory proposed by Boudica At Mancetter: ” New research suggests ample evidence exists to elucidate the background, but it has simply been overlooked” . That resonates!
To conclude, it is instructive to switch our gaze to Mancetter’s neighbouring battle site, Bosworth. With just three or four miles separating the sites, it is not surprising that a label for the area has gained some currency : Two Battles, One Place. In Bosworth, we have a Battlefield Centre that was founded with confidence on what was then a hypothesis; confirmation only came many years later. May we draw a comparison?
The impact of the Boudican defeat was huge, if one accepts that her victory would have averted four centuries of Roman rule. Yet nowhere is there any commemoration to the number of lives lost: massive – even allowing for probable exaggeration in our sources. Commemoration of Boudica we have, yes; of the mass of her fallen, no. Here is Mancetter, close to the geographical centre of England, twenty five miles from the National Memorial Arboretum. Could it be that, regardless of any claims to the battle’s site, it is the place for a memorial to the thousands killed in one of England’s most significant and iconic battles?
M Hughes © 2020