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Cartimandua - Queen of the Brigantes - a powerful Briton in Roman times

Everyone seems to have heard about Boudicea, the warrior queen who led her army against the Romans. But very few people have heard about Yorkshire’s equivalent Cartimandua who ruled much of the North during the same period.

At the time of the Roman invasion, an Iron Age tribe known as the Brigantes ruled much of Northern Britain. The Romans invaded in 40 AD but they did not start to rule Yorkshire until 70 AD. What was the reason that it took 30 years for the Romans to conquer the North and build a fort in York (known by them as Eboracum)?.

Much of this is actually down to Queen Carimundua – who actually was the Roman’s first documented Queen of one of the Britain’s tribes and became an important ally of the Roman Empire.

The Brigantes

When the Romans invaded Britain it was divided into a number of independent tribal groups, each with its own distinctive culture. The Brigantes being so far North were not immediately top of the Romans priority list to subdue. The Romans had a policy of building up relationships with some local rulers on the margins and leaving them as friendly client rulers. Rome could still benefit from trade but the tribe would also benefit from Roman wealth and protection.

Cartimundau had secured a position of respect from the Romans, which was mutually beneficial but how did this come about?

Much of this respect from the Empire was gained by a gesture.

The Romans had established control down South and in the East of Britannia with 11 different tribal leaders surrendering or being defeated by the Romans. The Catuvellauni tribe was one which had been conquered but, Caratacus the King’s son had escaped to what is now Wales. For 9 years he continued to be a thorn in the Roman’s side leading insurgencies and eventually leading two tribes the Silures and the Ordovices against the Romans.

In AD 51 he was finally defeated but fled into Brigantian territory hoping to be protected by Queen Cartimandua. The Roman author Tacitus recorded that rather than shelter Caratacus, Queen Cartimandua handed him over to the Romans as a prize.

Cartimandua handing over Caratacus to the Romans

He was taken back to Rome and paraded in public by Emperor Claudius. The gesture was never forgotten by the Romans and proved to be a shrewd move by Cartimandua who received great wealth and support from the Romans after this.

Where was Cartimundau based?

There is no written evidence about this, but many believe that her capital could have been the Iron Age earthwork at Stanwick. The settlement dates to the time and is documented to have grown in size to 1.2 square miles in size during Roman rule. Excavations have shown a wealth of Roman goods there indicating the trade between the Brigantes and the Romans. Wine pots, tableware and glassware have all been found in great quantities.

Cartimundua in turn needed the Romans help later in her rule in AD 57. Tacitus again records that her former husband Venutius rebelled and led an anti-Roman faction of Brigantes against her. The Roman provincial governor sent a legion to Cartimundua’s aid quelling the rebellion and preserving Carimundua’s rule.

The end of Cartimundua’s Rule

Peace did last 10 years after this war but in 69 AD Venutius led another uprising – possibly made worse by the fact that Cartimundua had just married his former Arms Bearer Vellocatus! The Roman Empire being in disarray for a while with the death of Emperor Nero, could not send a legion to protect Cartimundua’s rule and the auxiliary soldiers sent proved not enough to protect her.

Venutius prevailed and replaced his former wife as King of the Brigantes.

It is not recorded as to what happened to Cartimundua next, but it is assumed she escaped and the Romans gave her land to live out her days for her former loyalty.

Interestingly, Venutius’s reign was very short. The Roman governor Quintus Petillius Cerealis marched to Yorkshire to take back control of the region. He conquered Venutius and the Brigantes placing them under direct Roman rule.

We only have evidence of the life of Queen Cartimundua from Roman authors and mainly Tacitus, so the views of Cartimundua are believed to be tainted. Because of Cartimundau’s divorce, then marrying her husband’s Arms Bearer she is described by Tacitus as “driven by lust” and then Tacitus made it sound like treachery that Cartiundua handed over Caracatus, when maybe she was just thinking about the bigger picture and the long term benefits to her people. She definitely felt that Rome was a beneficial friend and it helped her reign over a large tribe for many years.

So whilst Boudicea was celebrated as the warrior queen, it is very possible that Cartimundua was a far more clever, powerful female icon of her times.

We shall never know the full story, but for someone who lived nearly two thousand years ago she was definitely a very powerful and influential woman.


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