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Samantha Frénée-Hutchins, Boudica’s Odyssey in Early Modern England
by Carolyn D. Williams

Frénée-Hutchins, Samantha. Boudica’s Odyssey in Early Modern England. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2014. x + 232 pp. ISBN: 978-1472424617. $104.50 cloth.

Samantha Frénée-Hutchins is to be congratulated on her timely contributions to the study of early modern historiography, politics, drama and verse narrative, as well as to the reputation of Boudica. An ancient British warrior queen who led a ferocious but ultimately unsuccessful rebellion against the Romans in AD 60-61, vanished into historical oblivion in the early middle ages, and reappeared with the wider dissemination of classical texts beginning in the fifteenth century, Boudica has frequently provoked controversy. No previous study has concentrated so consistently on the artistically fruitful but occasionally embarrassing impact of her rediscovery on early modern readers who had to make sense of her sensational return to a scene that, at first, seemed to have no room for her.

Frénée-Hutchins shows that much remains to be learned from considering Boudica as a product, even a shaper, of early modern Britain. For example, in The Faerie Queene, II, x, 55, her story is deliberately put in “the wrong chronological timeframe,” creating pressure which must ultimately replace Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “glowing and heroic English History” with “the historical reality of Roman Britain” (76). Although many other passages are specifically devoted to Spenser’s life and works, a specialist reader’s interest should not stop there: the industry and flair applied to the discovery of contexts and connections, enhanced by judicious engagement with a wide range of modern scholarship in history and literary criticism, results in a publication that casts new light on the whole intellectual environment of early modern Britain, whose inhabitants strove to understand, negotiate and formulate new and competing ideas about nationhood, gender, religion, ethnicity and power.

The introduction claims, correctly, that “This diachronic study of Boudica serves as a sourcebook of references to Boudica in the early modern period” (1). It outlines the development of Boudica’s impact on society from the early modern period to the present day, announcing that the project “identifies traces of Boudica in different cultural artifacts,” which, for the early modern period, include “pageants, woodcuts, chronicles, histories, plays, poems, maps, paintings and coins” (12). This promise, too, is abundantly fulfilled: the provision and analysis of illustrations is particularly praiseworthy, a high point being the discussion of the sophisticated debate occasioned by the Romans’ use of guns in the illustrations of Boudica’s story in Holinshed’s Chronicles (33-37).

Chapter 1, “Reclaiming British History,” meticulously analyses the processes which made the classical works containing Boudica’s story available for wider reading, assembling the relevant details from Tacitus’s Agricola and Annals, and Xiphilinus’s Epitome of Dio Cassius’s Roman History. According to these sources, Boudica was the widow of Prasutagus, King of the Iceni (a tribe now known to be located in Norfolk), who had tried to protect his two daughters by leaving half his estate to them and the rest to the Emperor Nero. When he died, Nero’s agents confiscated his goods, lashed Boudica and raped his daughters. Boudica responded by leading a revolt in which three towns were sacked: Camulodunum (now known to be Colchester in Essex), London, and Verulamium (near the modern St Albans). There were risings in other parts of the province: 70,000 Romans and sympathizers were subjected to hideous atrocities. Boudica confronted the Roman governor, Suetonius Paulinus, in a final battle: “Boudica herself, with her two daughters, drove from tribe to tribe in her chariot in order to address her warriors,” telling them that she was “ready to die rather than accept slavery,” but they might do as they pleased (24). Naturally, they stayed to fight, and were slaughtered by the Romans. Boudica either committed suicide or died of sickness.

The component narratives were so full of uncertainties, moral, geographical, chronological, and, where Boudica’s name was concerned, orthographical, that some early modern readers refused to believe they were telling the same story. Frénée-Hutchins deserves gratitude for her painstaking guidance through the resulting historiographical tangles, including a useful summary of Hector Boece’s account, in which Boudica’s story is set in Scotland and half her exploits are credited to her younger daughter; her lucid treatment of Polydore Vergil, who moves Camulodunum to the north of England and attributes Boudica’s adventures to two queens with similar names; and her judicious selection of passages from Humphrey Llwyd’s “patriotic British-Welsh book,” The Breviary of Britayne (27), in which Vergil and Boece are swiftly refuted. She sets these developments against the background of a 150-year period, beginning with the establishment of the Tudor dynasty in 1485, “marked by the emergence of two rival discourses; that of unity and obedience to the dynastic kingdom and that of patriotic allegiance to a geographically and linguistically defined nation” (13).

Chapter 2, “Female Power: Force, Freedom and Fallacy,” deals with the anomalous position of Elizabeth I as a female ruler, living, apparently like Boudica, in an overwhelmingly patriarchal environment; they both “based their military reputations on the fact that they were related to mighty men of the past” (56). Good use is made of The Faerie Queene Book V, where Britomart’s defeat of Radigund underlines the lesson that rightful women rulers are heaven-ordained exceptions.Similar reservations are implied by the Italian courtier Petruccio Ubaldini, “whose Le Vite delle donne illustri, del regno d’Inghilterra, e del regno di Scotia (1591) split Boudica into two queens, Voadicia, the ‘good’ queen and Bunduica, the ‘bad’ one” (9), though he admitted they were probably the same person, and he was writing to “please the sceptical reader” (73). Frénée-Hutchins persuasively speculates that this reader might be “Queen Elizabeth herself, to whom Ubaldini wanted to present his moral reflections on good and bad female leadership” (73). She also suggests that his fragmented treatment of Boudica might have influenced Spenser’s use of “the mirror allegory, in which Elizabeth is broken down into a number of conflicting but complementary characters” (74). It is possible that Spenser and Ubaldini knew each other, since they moved “in the same literary and political circles” (74), both being familiar with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and using the same printer, John Wolfe; Spenser may even have read Ubaldini’s manuscript. 

Chapter 3, “King of Great Britain,” discusses the strategies adopted by James I to depict the accession of a male monarch as a return to normality. Frénée-Hutchins compares The Ruines of Time and The Faerie Queene with James Aske’s Elizabetha Triumphans, Ben Jonson’s Masque of Queens, Shakespeare’s Cymbeline and John Fletcher’s Tragedie of Bonduca, to show that “representations of Boudica as a proud and courageous warrior queen under Elizabeth were circulated in England immediately following the Armada Invasion of 1588, but this image of Boudica was hardened into that of a fierce, destructive and unnatural mother under James when even her intelligence was seen as a negative trait for women” (93). There follows a thorough discussion of Cymbeline, where every character “seems to symbolize or comment on competing narratives of nationhood and historiography, in which ethnic distinctions are unstable and national origins unclear” (94). Among contemporary sources cited are The Valiant Welshman (1610), confirmed as Boudica’s first appearance on the professional stage, and Spenser’s View of the Present State of Ireland, used to demonstrate the possibility that she could be perceived as not only English and Welsh, but Scots and Irish. The most original suggestions concern Cymbeline’s evil queen, often associated with Boudica, but now additionally connected to Agrippina the Younger, wife of Claudius and mother of Nero, and to Cartimandua (fl. AD 50), Queen of the Brigantes in the north of England, who betrayed the British freedom-fighter Caractacus to the Romans. 

Chapter 4, “Taming the Wild in Fletcher’s Tragedie,” is an account of Fletcher’s Bonduca, in which the cases for and against Bonduca, Caratach, and the Romans are thoroughly argued. The “Wild” is variously defined as Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, America, and women. This leads to examinations of colonization as “cultural rape,” and of rape itself as “a military and political arm to symbolize the subjection, not just of a woman but also of a people and its nation” (156). But does the closing embrace between Caratach and his Roman conqueror indicate that colonization is the only way forward for Britain? Is Bonduca a fool, a monster, or a national heroine? Frénée-Hutchins reaches only a “provisional conclusion” on these matters, which is the best response to the courage with which Fletcher confronted the complexities of Boudica’s painful yet enigmatic story.

Chapter 5, “The Legacy of Boudica,” assembles material from many media, often new to Boudican studies, demonstrating how “historiography responds to the needs of the present and is as much a construct of that present as a reconstruction of the past” (199). It contains a particularly interesting discussion of Edmund Bolton’s Nero Caesar; or Monarchie Depraved (1624), which has never before received the critical attention its combination of thorough research and passionate, not to say cantankerous, engagement deserves. (Bolton’s inclusion of Spenser among his sources is one of many features inviting further investigation.) Best of all is the sensitive and richly informative interpretation of Paol Keineg’s Boudica in Keith Waldrop’s 1994 translation, carefully compared with the French original.

On a few occasions, the author has difficulties with the intricacies of early modern English. Most problematic, because unsupported by quotations, are the statement that “Spenser tells us that Britomart is the descendant of Bunduca (Boudica) and the ancestor of Elizabeth” (9), and Boudica’s resulting placement in the “genealogical line” of Britomart and Elizabeth (75). This presumably arises from a passage where Britomart’s nurse urges her charge to become a knight errant:

And sooth, it ought your corage much inflame,
   To heare so often, in that royall hous,
   From whence to none inferior ye came:
   Bards tell of many wemen valorous.


The “royall hous” is not an ancestral line, but a building in which bards, the object of “heare,” have sung. “The bold Bunduca” (54.7) is the first of five examples cited by the nurse. The fact that the fifth is a “Saxon Virgin” (55.5), and their contemporary, eliminates the possibility that Britomart’s ancestry is under discussion. This misreading does not, however, detract from the author’s point that linking Boudica with Elizabeth “uses history in order to legitimize the reign of a woman on the throne of England” (9). Nor does it weaken her argument that “Boudica’s defense of her Briton Gods against the invading Roman Gods echoed Elizabeth’s defense of the Anglican Church against the Roman Catholic one” (75). Boudica’s importance lay in her influence as role model and source of poetic inspiration: if Spenser had not believed in the power of bardic utterance he would not have written The Faerie Queene.

 In the other instances, quotations enable readers to interpret questionable passages independently. The first comes from Stephen Gosson’s Schoole of Abuse. Frénée-Hutchins describes it as a “speech” expressing “Boudica’s appraisal of the cultural degeneracy of her subjects under the colonial domination of the Romans” (67). Although its material is certainly derived from a speech attributed to Boudica by Dio, Gosson addresses the “gentle Reader” (66); he contrasts the untainted “Martiall discipline” of Boudica’s subjects with his contemporaries’ addiction to “all such delights as may win us to pleasure” (67). An unrecognized ambiguity is probably responsible for the author’s otherwise justified bewilderment when Fletcher’s Bonduca expresses the wish to be “A Saint,” which “echoes with a surprising Catholic resonance in an otherwise Protestant-sounding context and cannot be accounted for unless it represents Bonduca’s ironic retort to an impossible aspiration” (171). The word could be used by all Christians to denote the blessed dead, which is consistent with descriptions of the happy afterlife Boudica and her daughters expect. Finally, and sadly, Caratach’s reference to his and Bonduca’s “several charges” is insufficient evidence that Fletcher’s heroine led a “regiment of women” (144).

Overall, this book combines academic rigour with generosity of spirit. From start to finish, Frénée-Hutchins reveals her concern to open pathways for later exploration. Even the Appendix is a gift to future Boudicans: it consists of the Italian text of Ubaldini’s lives of Voadicia, Bunduica, and Cartimandua, with English translations by Dr. Valentina Vulpi. Boudica’s Odyssey in Early Modern England not only examines, but constitutes, a legacy.


Carolyn D. Williams
University of Reading, UK


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Cite as:

Carolyn D. Williams, "Samantha Frénée-Hutchins, Boudica’s Odyssey in Early Modern England," Spenser Review 45.1.10 (Spring-Summer 2015). Accessed April 15th, 2024.
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