Boudicca and the fall of London

It was the seventh year of the reign of Emperor Nero, The year AD61. A brutal rebellion of Celtic tribesmen erupted in the newly conquered, but still unpacified Roman province of Britain.

The Iceni tribe of Norfolk were roused to fury when Roman soldiers forced their way into the palace of their Queen, Boudicca, flogged her for resisting the confiscation of Iceni property and then raped her two daughters.

The vengeance the native Britons wrought was terrible. Their home territory was Norfolk but they headed first for the Roman stronghold of Colchester and, having sacked and burned the city, turned south west towards Londinium.

For two millennia the exact route of Boudicca’s army was lost to historians. But the recent demolition of the Lefevre Estate in Bow brought many things to light. When the first phase was razed, beads, bracelets, rings and burials were found, all dating from Roman habitation. But the most significant find was the remnants of the old Roman London to Colchester road. Londinium had been linked to Camulodunum, or Colchester by the road which passed through Old Ford, and thence over the River Lea. The road had been built in 50 AD within seven years of Emperor Claudius’s invasion of Britain.

The Iceni were travelling down a spanking new road to London then. And there wasn’t much traffic to impede their progress – although important to the Romans, London wasn’t the capital it was to become. It certainly wasn’t adequately fortified, being a riverside trading centre, not a military one. Around this perfect crossing point of the Thames – neither too deep nor too narrow – were grouped warehouses, shops and taverns, the wattle huts of charcoal burners and swineherds, but no defending legions.

The Roman governor, Suetonius Paulinus, away fighting to the north, quickly accepted the impossibility of defending Londinium. Instead he regrouped his forces for an all-out confrontation with the indigenous tribes. The ferocity of the Britons was no match for the organisation and tactical sophistication of the Romans, and Boudicca took poison as her army fell.

And though she had destroyed the first London, another and greater city rose in its place. By the middle of the third century it was the administrative and financial as well as the commercial capital of the province. Its population was 30,000, and 50 years later that had doubled. The prosperous city had wide straight roads. Its buildings were solid and imposing, and post-Boudicca they were built in brick, stone and tile. Roman style, their walls were painted dark red, their roofs a lighter, salmon colour. Fountains splashed in the courtyards and grapevines grew against garden walls. The market gardens to the east of the city walls, now lying beneath Aldgate and the Minories, provided excellent fruit and vegetables, and the waters of the Fleet the Walbrook and the Thames ran clean.

The size, prosperity and longevity of that capital was confirmed by excavations in Tower Hamlets from the 1980s onwards. Archaeologists working at a dig in Prescot Street in E1 uncovered a total of 672 inhumations and 134 cremations – the largest single sample of Roman burials in London, and one of the largest known in the country. But this was just a part of a much larger cemetery, an area of 51 acres extending to the east of the town, south of the main road between London and Colchester. The archaeologists could only guess at its full extent, but estimate that it could have contained well over 100,000 dead, during its use from the first century AD to at least the end of the fourth century.

But by the end of the fourth century London had fallen again. The Empire was crumbling and Londonium with it. The Emperor Honorius withdrew his Legions and Saxon invaders began to encroach. In 457AD, the diminished Londinium received the British survivors of a battle fought in Kent against the Saxon chief, Hengist. And then London disappears – for a century and a half, there is no recorded mention of the city at all.

About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
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