Why Were the Battles of the Medway and Watling Street so Significant?

History Hit Podcast with Simon Elliott

3 mins

02 Aug 2019

The key engagement of the Claudian invasion of Britain in AD 43 under Plautius was what is now known as the Battle of the Medway.

The primary sources tell us this was a river crossing battle, which we think today was probably on the River Medway probably near Aylesford to the south of Rochester. So you can imagine the Roman legionary spearhead marching east to west along the slopes of the North Downs until they get to the River Medway.

It’s there, on the western bank, that the native Britons are waiting for them in force. There takes place a dramatic battle, a battle the Romans nearly lose. It takes them two days to win.

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How did the battle progress?

On the first day the Romans try and force the river, but they fail. Therefore, they have to retreat to their marching camp to lick their wounds, pursued by the Britons who are throwing javelins and firing slings at them.

Plautius is an experienced general, and determines what he’s going to do. He’s going to flank the Britons overnight.

So he gathers an auxiliary unit of Batavians from the Rhine Delta who are used to swimming, and who allegedly are famous for being able to swim in armour. He sends them to the north, just immediately below Rochester.

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They cross the River Medway to the north of the British camp, and in the early hours of the following day, circle around behind the native Britons. They attack the British horses (that pull their chariots) in their corrals by hamstringing them. This causes panic in the British forces.

As dawn breaks, Plautius orders his troops to fight their way over the river, but it’s still a hard fight. Ultimately they succeed at the point of the gladius, and the Britons break and flee down the river back to their capital. Eventually they retreat all the way back to the Catuvellauni capital of Camulodunum, later Colchester.

What was the Battle of Watling Street?

The key battle of the Boudiccan Revolt took place somewhere to the northwest of St Albans, along Watling Street. Boudicca had already marched all the way from East Anglia, and torched Camulodunum, the provincial capital. She’s already torched London, and she’s reached torched St. Albans.

Statue of Boudicca by Thomas Thornycroft.

She’s seeking an engagement because she knows if she wins, it’s the end of Roman Britain. The province will fall.

The British governor, Paulinus, has been fighting in Anglesey in Wales. He also knows, as soon as he hears word of the revolt, that the province is in danger. So he hotfoots it down Watling Street. Paulinus had probably got about 10,000 men with him: one legion, bits of other legions.

He gets to High Cross in Leicestershire where the Fosseway meets Watling Street. He sends word down to Legio II Augusta who are based in Exeter and he says, “Come and join us”. But the third in command of the legions is in charge there, and he refuses. He later commits suicide as he’s so ashamed of his actions.

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What happened during the battle?

So Paulinus has only these 10,000 men to face Boudicca. He’s marching down Watling Street and Boudicca is marching northwest up Watling Street, and they meet in a big engagement.

Think of the numbers. Boudicca has got 100,000 warriors and Paulinus has only got 10,000 troops, so the odds are hugely against the Romans. But Paulinus fights the perfect battle.

He chooses the ground spectacularly well in a bowl-shaped valley. Paulinus deploys his troops with the legionaries in the middle and the auxiliaries on the flank at the head of the bowl-shaped valley. He has woods to his flanks as well, so they can protect his sides, and he puts the marching camp at his rear.

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Boudicca comes into the bowl-shaped valley. She can’t control her troops and they attack. They get forced into a compressed mass which means they can’t use their weapons. As soon as they’re disabled like that, Paulinus forms his legionaries into wedges and then they launch a savage assault.

They get their gladiuses out and their scutum shields ready. The pila and javelins are thrown at point-blank range. The native Britons fall in rank after rank. They’re compressed, they can’t fight.

The gladius has started doing its murderous job. The gladius creates hideous wounds and soon it becomes a slaughter. Ultimately, the Romans are fabulously successful, the revolt ends and the province is saved. Boudicca commits suicide and Paulinus is the hero of the day.