By Terikel Grayhair
Long before Gaius Julius Caesar and his famous X Legion set foot on the rainy islands to the northwest of conquered Gaul, other peoples had crossed to take the lands from the natives and make it their own. Among these were the Pretani, a group of tribes sharing some characteristics of the Gauls whose lands they crossed, but whom most historians today consider a separate people. Pytheus met them and wrote of them, but over time, his Greek "PrettanikĂ§" was corrupted to Britannia, and thus began the long history of the Britons on Britannia.
The Pretani were not a single entity but rather a collection of tribes that fought incessantly- among their own, against the natives, against invaders. The Catuvellauni were one tribe, the Trinovantes another, the Brigantes a third. East of the Catuvellauni, north of the Trinovantes, and southeast of the Brigantes resided the Iceni, in what is now Norfolk. They were considered a strong tribe, though not the strongest- that honor fell to the Trinovantes, who lost strength and thus the honor to the Catuvellauni.
The Iceni were never in the race for the strongest, though they were not to be ignored. Their name came from the ancient word for slime or bog, which coincides with the land upon which they dwelt, but one cannot discount other, less-pleasant meanings of the name. Given that the land they occupied was covered with fens, marshes, and bogs, it seems the definition "Fenlander" the most likely for the name.
Position of power did not seem to matter to the Iceni, whose low lands were subject to flood by ocean and raider alike. Most Iceni settlements were unwalled hamlets on the more easily-defendable higher ground, and also where resources were located, such as flint. The Iceni flourished in their lands, and established some advances. Coins from 10 BC have been uncovered with Iceni markings (they were marked ECEN, an alternative spelling), proving that they used coins and writing before the Romans came.
The Roman Invasion of 43 AD was a world-shattering for the Britons. The Catuvellauni under Caratacus led the British tribes into several losing battles against the invaders, but he did not lead all tribes. Some, including the Iceni, were very favorable to the Romans. They saw the benefit of being a part of the world-spanning empire, and quickly allied themselves with this new power.
All was not roses under the Romans. In 47 AD the Roman procurator tried to pass a law forbidding the Britons from carrying arms. The Iceni revolted, and were in due course crushed. The old king was thrown out, and a noble named Prasutagus installed in his stead.
The Iceni hit their high point under Prasutagus, who was firmly pro-Roman. Their advancements continued, and their trade flowered. Prasutagus took out loans from Roman financiers to improve his lands, and duly bequeathed half of his lands to Rome, and the other half to his two daughters. And the Iceni thrived, until Prasutagus died.
The Iceni are probably best known from this moment onward. The death of the beloved king was made worse by Roman actions. The procurator, a fool named Catus Decianus, moved into Iceni lands to claim all the property of the dead king for Rome. Roman law at that time forbade female heiresses- even Fulvia, the granddaughter of the beloved and renowned Gracchi could not inherit her familyâ€™s wealth without a special law allowing it. Decianus used this to seize all Iceni property, and when the widowed queen Boudicca objected, Decianus had her flogged and the daughters raped by his soldiers.
The Iceni rallied to their queen, who now firmly believed the Iceni were doomed and thus decided to go down fighting in accordance with the warrior spirit. Boudicca swiftly gathered a warhost and descended upon the former capital of the Trinovantes Camulodunon, which now served as the Roman provincial capital Camulodunum. xx
The Iceni stormed the city and put all to the sword. The Romans responded by sending a legion- the VIIII Hispana from Eburacum (York) to quell the uprising. The Iceni chewed it to pieces so badly that even today with evidence a VIIII Hispana perished in Judea a hundred years afterward, some scholars still believe the legion was destroyed by the Iceni and reconstituted later.
Nor did Boudicca stop after the easy victory over the Romans in their capital. Disgruntled tribesmen from all over the east of the island, angry at the Roman ways of dealing with allies and humiliated by the arrogant treatment, flocked to her standards. She moved this horde on to the large Roman settlement at Londinium. That too was stormed and the people put to the sword and the town to the torch. Nothing and nobody of the people who whipped her back and raped her daughters was to survive, and nothing did.
Verulanium was next.
The governor at the time, Suetonius Paulinus, was now in a fix. The entire east was in flames, and one of his four precious legions was castrated. He called together his legions to form a proper army to crush this revolt. The XX Legion and the XIV Gemina legions came, but the II Augusta in southwest Britannia refused the call. Some say out of cowardice, others for political reasons. Irregardless, Suetonius had only two legions and the remnants of a third with which to face the growing Iceni warhost. Each victory the queen had increased her strength and stature, while weakening his own.
The Romans marched to meet the warhost, which was marching out searching for the Romans. The two met on Watling Street, a road from Londinium to the port city Deva (Chester) on the west coast. There, Suetonius picked a good piece of ground and moved onto it. The Britons, seeing the Romans trapped and brought to bay at last, moved to engage.
Suetonius formed his legions into wedges, usually an attack formation, but this time one used very well defensively. The Britannic advance- chariots followed by a mass of infantry- was funneled into the spaces between the wedges and there killed by swift stabs to thigh and belly. The Romans held the initial charges, then began their own advance. The wedges were a masterstroke of Suetonius- they pinched the Britons so close together they could not wield their weapons effectively, becoming little more than meat to be stabbed down and trodden upon.
The warhost broke, but the myriad civilians who had come to watch the battle from their wagons blocked any escape. The Roman charge destroyed the warriors, and after them, the civilians too.
Rome was firmly in command of southern and eastern Britannia from that point on until they withdrew in 410 AD.
The Iceni survived the disaster, though were sharply reduced in both population and power. Decianus had fled the revolt, and his replacement Gaius Julius Alpinus Classicianus showed himself to be a far better man for the job. The Iceni quieted, and no further reports of them revolting have been discovered in ancient texts.
The Romans evacuated their forces from Britannia in 410. There is evidence that the Iceni survived this evacuation, though their eventual fate is unknown. It is known that the Angles settled in Iceni land and gave it their own name. The Book of Ely mentions dwellers in the fens and bogs called by the local "Fenlanders", and that these people did not speak the tongue of the English. Others say the Iceni fled. Genetic examinations lead one to believe the Iceni are still there, hiding in plain sight among those into which they assimilated.
All these wonderfully conflicting fates leave one wondering did these invaders assimilate the locals, drive them fleeing into Briton lands (Wales) as they did other tribes, or did the Iceni withdraw on their own into the fens and marshes of the northern shores, there to exist as people but not a tribe until their origins were covered with the mists of time and forgotten by the mind of man.