Monday, 8 March 2021

Queen Cartimandua, a strong leader or a vilified adulteress?

Today, 8th March, is International Women's Day.

It's a day marked for celebrating women who have in some way made their mark politically, scientifically, or are memorable for some special exploits. Or in the case of the 2021 theme, they have done something to 'choose to challenge'.

I have some very strong female characters in my Celtic Fervour Series, but today I'm mentioning someone who is believed to have been a real historical person of the era, and not one of my fictional characters.

18th C engraving. Cartimandua giving up Caractacus. 

In AD 71, the year that my series begins, my (fictitious) warrior clan from the Brigante Hillfort of Garrigill are facing a deadly new threat. The background to their situation is this:

During the late AD 60s, a destructive civil war raged for many years between the rival Brigante factions of Queen Cartimandua and those of her ex-husband King Venutius. Pitched battles have taken place between the forces of Cartimandua, and those of Venutius, causing massive disruption across the territory of Brigantia. Old loyalties die slowly and lingering enemies are made amongst the Brigante peoples. After one particular confrontation between the two factions in AD 69, Cartimandua disappears. It's unknown if she was slain, there's no body to prove that. Rumours abound that she has enlisted Roman help, yet another time, having already been rescued from an earlier battle by the Romans. She may, this last time, have been safely secreted off the battlefield and escorted all they way to Rome, though that cannot be corroborated either. However, for the Brigantes who remain in the territory, now that Cartimandua has gone, there is no leader around who is in cahoots with the Roman Empire like Cartimandua had been for many years. Her collaboration with Rome meant no massive Roman invasion of Brigante territory, but by AD 71 that is no longer the case. Venutius clings on as the Brigante leader but now has to face a new enemy- the legions of the Roman Empire. led by the current Governor of Britannia, a man named Petillius Cerialis. Cerialis leads a determined force northwards to dominate the territories of the Brigantes and properly absorb it into the Roman Empire. My Garrigill warriors, as loyal followers of Venutius, go to battle against Rome.

Much of the above plot was real, according to the Ancient Roman writer Cornelius Tacitus.

But what are the historical facts surrounding Cartimandua who was Queen of Brigantia?

Sadly, since the Late Iron Age tribes of Britain left no written records of their own, we have only the writings of a few Ancient Roman writers who mention her name and who wrote according to their own bias. Cornelius Tacitus is the main source, but what can we believe of his account of Cartimandua?

Tacitus writes that after the Claudian invasion of Britannia in AD 43, an arrangement of some kind was made with Queen Cartimandua who was the current ruler of the Brigantes federation of tribes, and who may possibly have been the Brigante leader for a while prior to the invasion of Claudius. In exchange for some form of bribes (possibly gold and promised Roman support against any of her tribal enemies), it appears that the territory ruled by Cartimandua, a queen in her own right by birth or perhaps even by merit, was largely left uncontested by the marauding Roman legions for many years.

Many of the tribes of Britain fought bravely against the domination of Rome but others seem to have acquiesced relatively readily. Tacitus mentions some of these male leaders in derogatory terms, others as being more honourable. Female tribal leaders seem to have been far less common and he only mentions two of them.

In Ancient Rome, a female leader/ ruler was unthinkable. It was a concept prohibited by by the senate, so females like Bouddica of the Iceni and Queen Cartimandua of the Brigantes were written about with different degrees of suspicion by Tacitus. The story of Bouddica's trials and tribulations comes to us down the centuries as of her being a female freedom-fighter - but does Tacitus hint that Cartimandua was the same? I don't think so.

Tacitus is somewhat scathing about Cartimandua (her name possible meaning sleek pony). He writes of her as more of a collaborator, treacherous and self-seeking, someone who was happy to collude with Rome possibly in order to make her own life more peaceful. The real historical reasons remain a mystery but according to Tacitus, in c. AD 61 or 62, Queen Cartimandua handed over King Caractacus of the Catuvellauni tribe to the Romans. Caractacus had been rebelling against Roman domination for years, had fought some bloody battles against the forces of Rome but was eventually defeated in the lands of the Ordovices (modern day Wales). Caractacus, having abandoned his family, fled northwards in the hope that Cartimandua would give him shelter and aid but, according to Tacitus, she calmly handed him over to Rome.
Caractacus appealing to Emperor Claudius-18th C engraving

Tacitus further writes that Caractacus, and his family who had been scooped up as spoils of war, were dragged off in chains to Rome. They were all paraded around the city as defeated 'Celts' of Britannia, execution being the norm after a public degradation. However, according to Tacitus, an eloquent plea by Caractacus to the current emperor (Claudius) got Caractacus a pardon, after which he and his family lived out their lives in Rome. Whether, or not, that was pure fabrication on the part of Tacitus is unknown, but he writes of Caractacus as being almost a male champion of liberty, his abandonment of his family to save his own skin a forgotten element. Claudius gained some clout as an emperor prepared to grant clemency to defeated opposition so Caractacus is written as almost a hero.

Cartimandua, on the other hand, is vilified for handing Caractacus over and for being a loyal 'client Queen' of Rome.

Tacitus goes on to heap scorn on Cartimandua as an adulteress. Sometime between 61 and 67 AD, Cartimandua divorced her consort King Venutius. This would have been yet another unpalatable fact for Romans to contemplate. It was fine for a Roman male to divorce his wife, a very simple process, but not the same for a female of an Iron Age 'Celtic' tribe to do the same. Cartimandua was thus called an adulteress when she went on to marry Venutius' shield bearer- Vellocatus.

Whether she was a devious collaborator, or a strong woman who snatched at the only methods available to keep her lands from being decimated by the thudding feet of the Roman legions, we will probably never know. But I'd love to hear her side of the story! Whatever the truth, she was a strong woman. SlĂ inte!

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