Epping Forest is a remnant of the primeval forest that once stretched from the Thames to the Wash and from the Lea to the Essex coast. In this forest were two Iron Age earthworks, Loughton Camp and Ambresbury Banks, in the parishes of Epping Upland and Waltham Holy Cross.
Ambresbury Banks, thrown up some time between 300 BC and AD 10, is a rectangular plateau fort defended by a single rampart in places still seven feet (2 m) high, and a ditch twenty-two feet (6.7 m) wide and ten (3 m) deep. Traces remain also of a counterscarp bank. It is impressive still, and must have been more so in the past. Local guides in the nineteenth century glamorized it further by calling it the Roman Camp, and the Loughton earthwork Boadicea’s Camp, and accordingly Essex tradition claims that the last battle of Queen Boadicea was fought here, and that her ghost wanders around the fort.
The Roman historian Tacitus says that, after destroying the Roman colonia at Camulodunum (Colchester), Boudica, as she is more properly called, turned on Londinium (London). The British governor, Suetonius, hurriedly returned from campaigning in Wales, necessarily without most of his army, so ordered an evacuation. Boudica set fire to the town and any remaining inhabitants were massacred. Meantime, Suetonius had gone north to meet up with his main forces – the Fourteenth Legion, part of the Twentieth, and auxiliaries from the nearest forts – and Boudica stopped to torch another hated colonia, Verulamium (St Albans), before following on.
Suetonius had sent word to the Second Augusta, stationed in Exeter, to join him, but its acting commander would not budge (disgraced, he afterwards fell on his sword, some said compelled by his own troops). Though Suetonius consequently had only 10,000 men to pit against Boudica’s great host, he decided not to wait for more reinforcements, but make a stand while he could still choose his battleground. Tacitus records:
He chose a position in a narrow defile, protected to the rear by woods: he was sure there were no enemy forces except to his front, where the open plain was without cover, so that there was no fear of a surprise attack.
The Iceni and their allies were less circumspect. Knowing they outnumbered the Romans roughly ten to one, they had brought their wives and children to witness their latest victory, stationing them on wagons round the battlefield, cutting off their own retreat.
‘Don’t worry about these yelling savages,’ said Suetonius, in a speech perhaps passed on to Tacitus by his father-in-law Agricola, who had been the staff officer at Suetonius’ side. Having disposed his small forces, the legionaries in the centre with the lighter-armed auxiliaries on either side and the cavalry on the wings, he awaited the attack.
Boudica began the battle, her troops advancing in loose array, some historians say uphill, always disadvantageous. The Romans broke her charge with a hail of javelins (their normal procedure, as might have been anticipated) and then launched the counter-attack. The Britons were driven back and trapped against the wagons. Though not normally wasteful of valuable animals, the legionaries slaughtered the draught oxen, so the wagons could not be moved. Having created a killing ground, they conducted a general massacre. Tacitus put the final toll at 80,000 Britons, 400 Romans.
Tacitus gives no idea of the whereabouts of Boudica’s last battle, but archaeologists now suggest that it was near Mancetter in Warwickshire. This is a few miles north-west of High Cross, near Hinckley, Leicestershire, where Watling Street, up which Suetonius himself had come from London, and down which his infantry had come from North Wales, meets the Fosse Way along which the Second Legion was expected. The local terrain fits Tacitus’ description, and the area has also produced evidence of a battle.
In the past, in the absence of archaeological evidence, Essex imaginations got to work. According to the Revd Sabine Baring-Gould in his gloomy novel Mehalah (1880), this last, decisive battle took place on Tiptree Heath, while a contributor to William Andrews’ Bygone Essex (1892) declares as fact that it was fought at Ambresbury Banks – this in defiance of both Londoners (who set it around Battlebridge Road near King’s Cross Station) and of the people of Middlesex (who said it took place on Stanmore common).
Tacitus says that, after the fatal battle, Boudica ended her own life by poison. There is no record of what happened to her body, hence a proliferation of ‘Boadicea’s Graves’, including sites in Wales, Norfolk and London. Wherever and however the real queen perished, Essex legend said that, having seen that her men were losing, she committed suicide with her daughters by eating poisonous berries near Epping Upland.