Cartimandua (ruled c. 43 – 69) was a queen of the Brigantes, a Celtic people in what is now the ‘neck’ of England. A contemporary of the rebellious – and much more famous – Boudica, she is the only queen that the Romans recognised in her own right, referring to her as ‘regina’ in their writings. Her name may be a compound of common Celtic roots, meaning either “well-groomed” or “sleek” pony (mandu). There is very little archaeological evidence of fortified hillforts in the north of Britain, as opposed to the south, and this is taken as a sign of peace throughout her lands.
Cartimandua was already queen of the Brigantes when the Roman Emperor Claudius began his organised conquest of Britannia in 43. It is not made clear as to whether or not she was a puppet placed there by Rome or had ruled prior to their arrival. What is clear, however, was that she was royal-born. She was queen in her own right and the kingship of the Brigantes only came through marriage to her. It is likely that she was the daughter and legitimate heir of the previous king, making her installation by the Romans seem less likely. Her husband and king-consort was one Venutius; he was also royal, but from a lesser bloodline.
Either way, when the Romans arrived in 43, the Brigantes were one of 11 tribes of Britannia who surrendered to Claudius. From this point on, Cartimandua was a ‘client-queen’ of Rome. Another tribe who capitulated at this time were the Icenis, ruled by Prasutagus, husband of Boudica. It seemed that the Celts were well aware that they could not hope to succeed in the face of Roman imperialist might and compromised with ‘joint rule’ in order to maintain as much of their culture and freedoms as possible.
However not all the indigenous tribes surrendered. The Catuvellauni king, Caratacus, became the de facto resistance leader of the rebellious Brits. In 51, he was defeated by the Romans in Wales and sought sanctuary in Brigante land. Cartimandua, mindful of her arrangement with the Romans, felt she had no choice but to hand Caratacus over to them in chains, effectively breaking the back of the Celtic resistance.
This act of betrayal turned Venutius’ stomach. He separated from his wife and tried to take the kingdom by force. The Romans came to Cartimandua’s aid, and Venutius – and those loyal to him – fled into exile.
What had perhaps tipped Venutius’ over the edge was the fact that Cartimandua had taken another husband – this one, it appears, for love. He had once been Venutius’ armour-bearer, and the two had been as close as brothers. His name was Vellocatus, meaning “better in battle” (clearly better in some other respects too…). Although there were some grumbles about the unsuitability and low-birth of the new king-consort, Cartimandua remained queen – in collaboration with Rome – for a further nineteen years after her ex-husband’s aborted rebellion. When Boudica took queenship of the Icenis after the death of her husband and raised her rebellion against Rome, Cartimandua did not send Brigante forces to aid either side, skillfully keeping her people neutral and safe.
By 69, Rome was suffering from internal political strife; it was known as the “year of four Emperors”. The long-exiled Venutius saw his chance and invaded. As he had probably foreseen, the Romans were in no position to expend time and resources on such a small concern as the Brigantes. Venutius’ coup was successful; Vellocatus was slain and Cartimandua fled the north of England, and was lost into the mists of history. Nobody knows where she lived out her days, or where she is buried. Rome eventually annexed the Brigante land completely.
What makes Cartimandua so interesting is that the Romans treated with her at all. Although Celtic society was very modern in respect to their allowing women to rule and fight alongside their men, the Roman world was very traditional. Women had their place and that place was not one in control. Cartimandua went directly against Roman societal norms, yet unlike Boudica and her daughters, she was allowed to keep her position. She led a stable and peaceful realm for twenty years, whilst the rest of the British Isles were falling under Roman tyranny. Boudica is remembered for being brave enough to fight the imperialist invaders, but Cartimandua – when she is remembered at all – is derided for being a coward and an adulteress with her husband’s servant. She should be remembered for a different kind of bravery, that of facing the diplomacy and capitulation necessary to keep her people safe and prosperous.
Perhaps the most enduring legacy that the first British queen has left us is the Arthurian legend, which would come to prominence some 400 years after her time. Many scholars believe that the true life Cartimandua/Venutius/Vellocatus love triangle was the basis for the story of Gwenhwyfar/Guinevere – Arthur’s queen – and her affair with his companion, Lancelot, that lead to the downfall of Camelot. Although we of course can never know for sure, the parallels between the tales are thought-provoking indeed…
For more about Cartimandua, read Barbara’s Erskine’s excellent time-slip novel Daughters of Fire.
Cartimandua artwork by Genuine Genie at Deviant Art.