“It’s subjunctive history. You know, the subjunctive? The mood used when something may or may not have happened. When it is imagined.”
My parents persuaded me to watch The History Boys a little while ago and, as they expected, I loved it. It’s a very funny, very profound film, and I’m astonished that it took me this long to get around to it. It’s a snapshot of an education system that doesn’t exist any more, but that doesn’t mean it’s lost its relevance or poignancy.
I love history. Okay, so I didn’t necessarily adore GCSE History that much, and I didn’t even take it for A-Level (because the earliest point studied at my school is 1865 or something and that’s hardly even historical — it’s almost all political without a medieval paper in sight), but actually reading about history is awesome, studying it on my own terms.
I’m particularly keen on the Dark Ages, as you may have noticed; then again, I’m writing a series that spans four hundred years including the English Civil War, the French Revolution, and the suffragettes movement, so my interest is fairly broad. Give me Vikings any day — give me revolutions and invasions and fascinating cultural shifts. And I’ll nerd out and probably scare you with my intensity.
But what really interests me as how much difference a single event can make, how one day can be a turning point so that if that had been different, everything would have changed, altering the course of an entire country’s development.
The Boudiccan revolt would be one of those turning points. You could call it a crossroads in history, where everything could have taken a different path (but didn’t), and I love imagining what would have happened.
Boudicca (also Boudica or, incorrect but popular, Boadicea) was the queen of the Iceni, a British tribe from what we’d now think of as Norfolk and Suffolk. She’s one of my favourite historical characters (in fact, I may or may not have a humungous historical-figure-crush on her, if that’s a thing. A large section of my Extended Project is just gratuitous indulgence of my overwhelming admiration for Boudicca).
Her husband, Prasutagus, was a ‘client king’ following the Roman invasion, which basically meant he worked with them in return for getting to keep his land and his people. But after his death, things went horribly wrong. Apparently, leaving half his land to the Emperor in his will wasn’t enough.
The lands of the Iceni were sacked. Boudicca was flogged and her two teenage daughters were publicly raped. It was a violent humiliation that was designed to stop the Iceni causing trouble … but it backfired hugely.
There were other factors in the rebellion that followed (the massacre of the druids possibly being one of them), but to cut a long story short, Boudicca got pretty mad, gathered up some tribes to help her, and raised hell. She burned Londinium (London), Verulamium (St Albans) and Camulodunum (Colchester) to the ground. She wiped out an entire legion.
Needless to say, the Romans weren’t very happy about this, not least because they weren’t expecting so much military trouble from a woman. But it’s never a good idea to annoy Celtic women, because they were hardcore.
Anyway, they meet for a Final Battle and the Romans win. Boudicca, after that point, vanishes from historical and archaeological records. Presumably, she died in the battle and was buried in the mud with everyone else, but they don’t entirely know where that battlefield was and they haven’t stumbled across its remains yet. The Romans had crushed the resistance and for a while, things went smoothly for them.
But what if they hadn’t?
I think the Boudiccan revolt was a turning point because if the Romans had been beaten, they’d not only have been decimated as far as military strength was concerned (and, of course, they’d lost three settlements) — they’d have been shamed, humiliated, beaten by a ‘barbarian’ and a woman at that. I’m pretty sure they would have turned tail and run, at least temporarily.
And once they’d left, the British would have grown in confidence. Maybe more of them would have joined to make sure the invaders never came back. They’d already picked up some ideas, after all; they’d had trade with Gaul for years. They didn’t need those occupying forces bothering them for the next 350 years.
I wonder what our society would have looked like if it had been more firmly founded on Celtic or British ideals, rather than the societal structures the Romans brought with them.
I wonder how long the Celts would have held out against the Saxons without the Roman army, and whether the new invaders would have obliterated their culture or whether it would have survived.
I wonder if we would be a tribal society led by fierce warrior queens who will never back down from a fight if you insult, hurt and humiliate her daughters.
I wonder how much of our heritage was shaped by the Romans, and how much depended on them winning that one, single battle.
Subjunctive history — history that’s been invented, imagined, following a different path to the one it actually took. It’s an interesting story to follow through and to try and work out where it would have led, but it’ll never be complete.
In my collection Crossroads Poetry, there’s a poem that takes that title, and it’s about Boudicca and the things I’ve discussed in this post. Like I said, it’s a crossroads, a meeting place in history where everything could have gone quite differently. I wrote the poem quite late, in January, a couple of days after watching The History Boys and during a Classics lesson in which we briefly discussed Boudicca.
But writing a poem wasn’t quite enough and, because it sparks the imagination more than the other poems in the collection, I decided that I would cosplay it. People dress up as book characters all the time, so I couldn’t see why I couldn’t turn my imagined modern-day Celt into a reality and then confuse my neighbours no end by running around my garden taking pictures.
Obviously, there are a couple of pictures in this post, but if you want to see some of the others, you can view them here, along with an excerpt from the poem. I had a lot of fun with the photoshoot, until it started raining and the acrylic paint I was using as face paint started to smudge.
I also filmed quite a lot of behind-the-scenes footage, as it were, which I hope to edit and upload soon. So if you’re interested in that, now might be a good time to subscribe to my YouTube channel? :)