The Battle of Watling Street – Part I


Late Spring, AD 61

Forty leagues from Londinium and ten from Verulamium, the small ragged band of horsemen, chariots and wagons pulled up at a rough crossroads. The horses were steaming and spent, chests heaving, and their riders urged them onto the rutted drover’s road that ran eastward. Moving with care now they were off the paved stones of Watling Street, they picked their way along for half a league before turning onto a muddy cart-way. At the end of the track, a low-lying encampment of flimsy huts and barns squatted at the base of a scrub-covered chalk ridge, behind which the sun was fast sinking.

Despite the imminent dusk, the sky was still light; several stars, as bright as a young summer moon, had lit the daytime heavens for several weeks, and were most clearly seen at sundown, but the weary riders had long since ceased to marvel at the strange phenomenon.. A rough palisade enclosed the settlement, probably hewn from the thin perimeter of woodland that fringed the base of the ridge. The scent of wood smoke and the steady cries of contented cattle came to the travellers along the breeze; soon enough the peace of this obscure village would be shattered, as it had been already for many.

The Spring Festival had just passed, but the riders had not attended to their spring planting, away home in the east; their harvest this day had been bitter and blood soaked. The groans from the wounded, crammed cheek by jowl in the wagons were already heralding their arrival; ears pricked and heads turned in the direction of the gore-spattered riders who now approached the compound, whose defences would bar only the most casual stranger from entrance.

“Why turn off here, d’you suppose? The Romans, devils take them, expect us to run this way, back to our own lands. And isn’t the going better on the main road, since Old Claudius laid down the hard stones? Naught but mud and holes along the Icene Way.”

The speaker’s name was Addedomaros, Dedo to his friends and family. He was a tall lad, thin and wiry; a handsome well-made stripling but for an ankle that turned out from his left leg at an ugly angle. Reason enough for his riding a mule; he would be unable to limp as much as a league unless riding or carried. But the break was an old one, sustained half a score of years ago when learning to ride. Lucky for him that his father had influence with the King; there was scant room for cripples in the court of the Warrior King and Queen of the Icene.

His companion, walking at the side of the mule shrugged in reply. He was slumped in misery and barely raised his head to look over the landscape. The stink of fear and death hung over him like a pall, and no wonder; unlike Dedo, young Vassinus had been closer to the battle, and had seen the bloody devastation wrought by the merciless Roman cavalry and infantry, sparing neither wenches, beasts or even children.

Up ahead the lead riders had halted by the gated entrance to the compound. A command to open up was shouted, the voice unfamiliar to Dedo; it was likely to be one of the few remaining Trinovantes warriors, their neighbouring tribe back home in the east that had joined their doomed cause. Had it come to this then, that so few of the Iceni were left standing that they could not hail a muddy hamlet for aid?

Dedo turned again to Vassinus, but seeing his friend’s chin sunk into his chest he said nothing, and instead patted his mule, Mallo, who stood stolid, reliable, indifferent to either kindness or hard use. Mallo: slow, that he was, yet not lazy.

“You shall have some grass when we stop boy, and aye, an apple if I can find one.” Mallo accepted the offer as he would the food, unmoved.

The last chariot had now caught up with the advance riders; grand though it was, decked in cow hide and pranked with bronze linchpins, mouldings and terret rings, it was an uncomfortable enough ride for three people, Dedo guessed, even though all three were slender women. As the rear of the company – a meagre group of foot soldiers, laden wagons and Dedo – came up to the stockade fence, the gates were pulled inwards, with much scuffing and jerking; clearly they were closed most of the time. The villagers and their livestock would come and go by the narrow shutter built into the fence, not more than four cubits high and three wide.

Beyond the roughly circular palisade lay a small, raw group of daub-and wattle roundhouses arranged in a rough courtyard, no more than two score; their timbers not yet blackened by age and the smoke that seeped through the thatched roofs, weather-and watertight yet. This was a recent settlement then, and a modest one; there were barely a dozen cattle corralled in a small birch-fence pen, and double that number of tawny-woolled sheep. No doubt the beasts were herded inside for fear of losing them to rustlers, either Roman or Briton. A flock of geese scrabbled self-importantly from between the huts and surged towards the gates, secure in their status as sacred pets. Stacked against the back of the fence were logs and small boughs of trees, harvested from the thicket beyond the compound.

Mallo trotted without prompting towards the front of his band of fellow travellers, now clustered by the front gate of the compound. Dedo allowed it; he was keen to hear what was said, and keener still for a chance to dismount, find a corner to rest in and maybe enjoy a bite of food and a sup of beer. A cordon of grim bodies, both men and maids, all dressed in the dark flowing robes of Icene warriors took position between the compound and the chariot.

Towering above all was the tall, erect figure of a woman, older than her two companions in the chariot, yet more striking than either, and standing straight as the spears strapped to her bodyguards’ shoulders. The family resemblance of the chariot trio was plain; this was a mother and her two daughters. Her dress, well made and of many shades of russet brown, dull damson and leaf green was in stark contrast to the dark, drab tunics of her guard, and the great fibula brooch fastening her plaid cloak was weighty, ornate and of gold.

Fitting close around her neck, a large neckband of heavy twisted cables, also gold, the opening finials framing her long, determined face. Rare too, to see such a magnificent torque, and on a woman. Grim and decisive of mien, the wild, long mass of tawny hair that tumbled in curling snakes to her waist accentuated, rather than softened her piercing gaze and fell expression.

A single figure emerged from the compound; a man of middle height and age, sombre but respectable in his belted tunic, cloak and dun woollen bracae. He approached the nearest of the travelling party, unhurried yet not hesitating. From among the body of guards circling the chariot, a figure stepped forward, and hailed the villager.

“You are Catuvellauni here?”

The man nodded, acknowledging his clan. “We are Catuvellauni. My name is Dias; I am one of the elders of this village.”

His tribe was as plain as his plaid, but the civilities must be observed. The villager was respectably garbed; no doubt he had been selected to parley for his clan. The farmer, no less than the chieftain or the Druid, was respected in Brittonic society, and all civility would be paid to this representative of his village, despite their desperate plight and immediate need of aid.

The Catuvellauni had not joined their neighbouring Iceni tribe in rebellion against the cruel Roman oppressors; since the capture of their chieftain Caratacus they had submitted to the Roman yoke. The two tribes had clashed in the past, but this settlement was too modest to oppose even a small band of hardened Iceni warriors. 

“We are in need of a place to stop, away from the main byways, and from Durocobrivis; we are twenty horse, assorted wagons and those you see on foot and mule. We ask not for what we could take by force, but what help you can give freely by way of cover, and food and drink.”

Dias gazed at the company, calculating their numbers against the meagre resources of the village.

“Shelter for all we ask for not, except that you allow us to camp men and beasts yonder”, the Iceni spokesman motioned to the small, enclosed fields beside the encampment; they had not yet been planted, and only the stumps of the winter root crops remained.

“We have grazing, and some cover in the paddocks; there is also a stream for water”, Dias replied, pointing to the roughly fenced in meads that were edged by the rough track that snaked upwards, to the summit of the hill.

The Icene nodded. “But yet we need at least one hall, and all the hospitality you can spare for one as noble and in want as our embattled leader.”

Dias bowed assent and called to one of the women clustered immediately behind the palisade, no doubt listening to all that passed.

“Wife, purify with prayers and prepare our hearth for an esteemed guest; draw water, and bring out beer and bread to feed this company. The freshly slaughtered mutton too.” The woman nodded and disappeared back into the compound.

The easing of tension among the Iceni was palpable; hoods were thrown back, and the spear-carriers dropped their weapons and shields at their feet, swinging their tired arms and shoulders, glad to be free, for a while, from the heavy armour they had carried and put to heavy use but a few hours before.

“I will open the gate to the meadows; your mounts can graze, if you will?” Dias seemed keen to appease the company, as well he might; tired and small in numbers though they were, they could take what he offered, with little enough fight. But as two young women emerged from the gates bearing flagons of beer and baskets of bread, he went before the chariot to address the tall woman who had not spoken. She was clearly the illustrious guest the village must entertain.

“Lady, you are injured I think”, he respectfully pointed to the bloodstain over her breast, “and the maidens with you are weary and droop – what would you have us bring you?”

The two young village women had laid the food and drink in front of the chariot on a rude trestle table, like an offering. Many hungry eyes fixed on the baskets and jugs, yet none moved; food and drink could only be taken when the necessary prayers were uttered.

Bracing herself, the woman in the chariot lowered her head graciously in acknowledgement to the elder and then raised it, as one comfortable with addressing an audience. A crowd of villagers now clustered, afraid yet curious, by the rarely-opened gates. Her voice, like her appearance, was imperious, aristocratic, yet harsh and stern. She was hoarse; cracked and smoky were the words she uttered, her voice strained to breaking yet commanding, for all its croaking quality.

 “I thank you, and the Gods thank you, for your help; it is meet that you should give us aid, when your King did not. But we thank you right well, and what can be done to defray your bounty with coin, we will do.”

She grimaced in pain, her face pinched and pallid. Dedo noticed the furtive movement of her hand beneath her cloak; withdrawing it from under her breast, she wiped her fingers on her tunic. She was clearly blooded. Moving with ill-concealed care she descended from the chariot, followed by the two younger women, who held back respectfully.

“We have travelled hard, from our capital at Venta Icenorum, from Londinium, and Verulamium. The Imperial despots have put us to the sword and pila, and many, too many of our tribe fell. We few who are left have sore need of rest and of food before we continue on our way. So now, at sunset, at the start of the day, we will give thanks to our gods, and give them their due. To you, O Sucellos, let fall your hammer and rain down a storm of destruction on our cursed traitorous oppressors! We will never bow to the Roman yoke!” she screamed. Her throat was taut, her voice so hoarse it failed her, and her words became a gasp of pain.

Her defiance was shocking, profane, following as it did a blessing and a prayer. She beat her breast in fury, oblivious in her spiritual agony to her body’s obvious hurt. “We will never lower our necks before any corrupt Roman paterfamilias! Warriors are we, Iceni, and we will avenge our fallen brothers and sisters, or die in the attempt!” Falling forward from exhaustion, loss of blood and passion, Queen Boudicca, widow of King Prasutagus and the last survivor of the Iceni warrior chieftains swooned at the feet of the astonished villagers.

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