Boudica and St Helen ~ two women who hoped to change the world.
Separated by about three hundred years, there is little that connects these two women beyond the town of Colchester, or the fact that they were both women fighting to achieve something in what was mostly a man’s world.
Boudica (or Boudicca or even Boudicea; the spelling varies) was the Iceni queen who took on the might of the Roman empire in the Iceni revolt of AD60. Outraged (and rightly so) by the Roman’s welching on the deal her late husband made with them to allow her to retain half his lands after his death, and by their punishing of her presumption by publicly flogging her and having her two daughters raped, the warrior queen swept across southern Britain burning and slaughtering all in her path. Britons were not spared; if they had not joined her army, they were considered collaborators and their deaths were horrific. In Colchester, then the capital of Roman Britain, hundreds of scared people huddled into the newly built temple to Claudius, hoping they would be spared. She had the temple barred and set fire to it, burning it to the ground with every soul inside. St Alban’s and London met the same fate before she was finally bested in battle, and she is thought to have taken poison to avoid capture. The clash of cultures that was the meeting of Roman and Celtic worlds had only one end, the destruction of the Celtic. Boudica was a liberated woman by Roman standards, as her society allowed much greater freedoms to women than the Romans did. With her died the spirit of resistance and until the Romans got as far as Northumberland they met with little concerted resistance.
I stood outside Colchester castle a few days ago, built on the foundations of the temple, and using many Roman materials recycled and I felt a wash of sadness for that vibrant, independent woman and for the thousands of innocent people she had killed. Given the might of the Roman war machine, the outcome was inevitable but she tried to hold it back, hold back the darkness a little longer and save her people’s ways.
Less than a hundred yards away stands a small blocky building built also from recycled tiles and dressed stone salvaged from Roman ruins. The precise date is obscure but certainly a building stood here from the late 4th century. The plain chapel is probably Saxon, standing on the site of an earlier church. This is the chapel of St Helen, mother of the emperor Constantine the Great and finder of the cross of Christ according to legend. I walked in expecting nothing, and found myself in a place that seemed to be scented with peace. Icons lined the walls and a fragrance of incense persisted. One single hand-dipped taper flickered in the quiet. The few high small windows admitted little light and it felt like a cave belonging to a hermit. St Helen is the patron saint of Colchester, traditionally thought to be the daughter of King Coel, ruler of Colchester in the 4th century, and her statue tops the town hall, holding a cross. Below her other dignitaries portrayed in typical Victorian style stare blindly down; Boudica clutches a spear, poised to hurl it.
Like Boudica, Helen was a woman in a man’s world. She’d be remembered more as the wife of one emperor and the mother of another had it not been her determination to make a difference. Her discovery of the cross of Christ enabled her to build churches all over the world.
It’s hard after almost two millennia to really know who these women were, really. Warrior queen and cross-finding Empress they couldn’t be more different, yet I think they have much in common. They were both subject to the rule of men and yet they tried to achieve massive change. Boudica did so by taking up weapons and going to war. Helen took up the challenge of finding a symbol that would unite all the different factions of the new faith.
No one knows where Boudica http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boudica is buried or if she has a resting place. I’d visit and shed a few tears for her and for her lost dreams at the hands of the Romans.
Buried in Rome, St Helen http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helena_(Empress is considered the patron saint of new discoveries (something I am keen to espouse, considering myself an explorer). A relic of her is housed somewhere in that small chapel.
Two women who tried to change the world. They both succeeded to some degree, though it is debatable how much difference either of them made. Yet to know that in history, strong women have existed and have fought the status quo in their own fashion must have given heart to secretly rebellious girls and women of all ages, nurturing their hopes of finding a better way for all.