Why Has History Overlooked Cartimandua?

Jill Armitage

4 mins

16 Dec 2019

Mention the name Cartimandua and people look blank, yet Cartimandua is the first documented Queen to have ruled part of Britain in her own right.

She was queen of the great Brigante tribe whose land, according to the geographer Ptolemy writing in the 2nd century AD, extended to both seas – east to west, and reached as far north as Birren in Dumfriesshire and as far south as the River Trent in south Derbyshire.

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The Romans arrive

Cartimandua is largely unknown, yet she was a central player in the drama of the Roman annexation of Britain in the 1st century AD. At that time Britain was made up of 33 tribal groupings – each with its own individual kingdom. This, however, was a time of immense change, the merging of the old and new worlds, the new millennium.

In 43 AD Roman General Publius Osteorius Scapula invaded Britain and called the natives Celts or Celtae coming from the Greek – Keltoi, meaning ‘barbarian’.

Danebury Hill Fort. Artist: Karen Guffogg.

A reconstruction of Danebury Iron Age Hill Fort, a Celtic stronghold. Artist: Karen Guffogg.

The Celts were not necessarily barbarians; they were inestimably brave and had a reputation as ferocious warriors, painting themselves with a blue dye called woad and hurling themselves without fear into the conflict.

What they lacked in military skill, they made up for with bloodthirsty ferocity, but sadly the Celts were no match for the well-disciplined Roman army.

Cartimandua and her elders watched and waited as the Roman legions invaded the south. She called together other tribal leaders and they debated whether to unite and go south to fight or wait.

If the Roman legions defeated the Cantiaci and the Catuvellauni, would they be content with the richer land and the wealth of the more compliant southern kingdoms, or would they turn their attention further north?

The Roman authorities believed in their ‘right by might’ – that lesser people should be subject to them or exterminated, and the tribal lands of defiant tribes who resisted the Romans were scorched, making them unfit for habitation.

The Roman leader Agricola was praised for the almost total slaughter of the Ordovician people and news of his thoroughness travelled before him.

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Averting bloodshed

Queen Cartimandua looked for signs from the gods, but the gods did not stop the Roman armies advancing north. The sheer number of troops and the splendour of their arms and armour as thousands of men marching across the countryside in orderly columns would have been an impressive, though terrifying sight to their enemies.

By 47 AD Agricola and his vast armies were on the very edge of Brigante territory. They had fought their way north and a new Roman province lay south of the Trent-Severn line, its boundary marked by the Fosse Way.

Agricola was ready to bring the weight of the Roman armies into Brigantia, but Queen Cartimandua was a strong, practical leader. Rather than fighting the invading forces, she negotiated to preserve her people’s tribal independence without bloodshed.

The Brigantian tribes of Derbyshire, Lancashire, Cumberland and Yorkshire united to became a client kingdom of Rome which meant that they were controlled by diplomacy not war. Cartimandua’s collaboration would have allowed her to administer her own area as long as tributes were paid to Rome, recruits were provided for the army and slaves were always available.

Roman farming, c3rd century, (1990-2010). Artist: Ivan Lapper.

Cartimandua’s collaboration allowed her to administer Brigantia. Artist: Ivan Lapper.

Enemies of Rome

It became a practical Claudian policy to have pro-Roman kingdoms flanking its boundaries, but sadly not everyone agreed with Cartimandua’s compromise and the greatest anti-Roman hostility for Cartimandua came from her husband Venutius.

In 48 AD Roman troops from Cheshire had to be sent into Brigantia to shore up Cartimandua’s position. Her loyalty to Rome was tested to the full when in 51 AD Caratacus, the former leader of the Catuvellauni tribe, fled into Brigantia seeking political asylum after military defeat by the Romans.

Unlike Cartimandua, Caratacus had chosen to fight the Romans right from the start, but fearing for the safety of her people, Cartimandua handed him over to the Romans. Her enemies considered this an act of treachery, but the Roman authorities rewarded Cartimandua with great wealth and favours.

Venutius, Cartimandua’s husband organised a palace coup and again Roman troops were sent to restore Cartimandua to the throne. According to the Roman writer Tacitus, Cartimandua lost a husband but preserved her kingdom.

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Venutius takes the kingdom

Throughout the 50s and 60’s the Roman legions were hovering on the borders of Brigantia poised for intervention in support of Cartimandua, then in 69 AD another Brigantian crisis broke. Queen Cartimandua fell for the charms of Vellocatus, her husband’s armour bearer. The Roman writers had a field day and her reputation suffered.

A furious Venutius organised another coup as revenge against his erstwhile wife who fled to the protection of Rome.  The anti-Roman party triumphed and Venutius was now undisputed leader of the Brigante tribe and bitterly anti-Roman. It was only then that the Romans made the decision to invade, conquer and absorb Brigantia.

Tor Dyke Section

Section of Tor Dyke, built on the orders of Venutius to defend the Kingdom of Brigantia from the Romans. Image Credit: StephenDawson / Commons.

Despite all Cartimandua’s efforts, Brigantia became part of the vast Roman empire and the armies went on to conquer the north as far as the Scottish highlands.

Sadly, the courageous Queen of the Brigantes who had faced the Roman invasion with such determination has not found her rightful place in our history books.

Celtic Queen, The World of Cartimandua follows the life of Cartimandua through contemporary writers and examines archaeological evidence and Celtic finds. It locates the hill-forts that would have been Cartimandua’s headquarters. It gives many references to popular Celtic culture, living conditions, their gods, beliefs, art and  symbolism presenting an intriguing insight into the life of this fascinating woman and  the Celtic/Romano world in which she lived.

Jill Armitage is an English photo-journalist who has written numerous historical books. Celtic Queen: The World of Cartimandua is her latest book, and will be published on 15 January 2020 by Amberley Publishing.