Cartimandua – Licentious Ruler or Political Pawn?

Caractacus at the Tribunal of Claudius at Rome : Wiki Commons

Two thousand years ago, as the Romans invade Britannia, the princess, who will become the powerful queen of the great tribe of the Brigantes watches the enemies of her people come ever closer. Cartimandua’s world is, from the start, a maelstrom of love and conflict, revenge and retribution. (Erskine 2006)

Carti who? ……….. As well you may ask, yet Cartimandua was quite possibly the first true queen in Britain ruling under her own right. The classical writers have not been kind to her, focusing on her ‘treacherous’ handing over of the rebel Briton Caratacus to the Romans, and what was believed to be an adulterous affair with her husband’s armour-bearer thus accusing her of being licentious. Digging through the facts and clearing away the personal opinions one finds a woman who ran a kingdom, kept peace throughout the northern areas of Britain, was an important ally of Rome, and who disappears from history without a trace.

The name Cartimandua is believed to mean ‘Sleek pony’ or Sleek filly’ (Birley 1980; Fraser 1990; Salisbury 2001; Koch 2006), the etymology of her name is explained as follows

The second element, mandua, means a pony colt, or filly of the kind employed for chariots….. The first element carti-, while not uncommon, is less certain. If …. it is connected with the Irish root ‘to clean’ it might well mean something like ‘well-groomed’ or ‘sleek’ (Richmond 1954: 43).

There has been some debate as to whether Cartimandua took on a Roman name when she agreed to client-kingdom status and possibly gained Roman citizenship, ‘she would have received it from Claudius and had the right to call herself Claudia Cartimandua’; (Braund 1996: 125). Roman citizenship or a Roman name is not mentioned by Tacitus, but this does not mean it never happened. One aspect of Cartimandua’s life that Tacitus does relate to is her right to rule as a queen.

Cartimandua was born to her position as Tacitus informs us ‘due to her most noble descent’ (Tacitus cited in Koch 2006: 346), however it is not known whether there were any siblings. It is believed ‘She may have been placed on the throne after the Brigantian uprising of c.AD 48’ (Hanson & Campbell 1986: 73), suggesting that the Romans chose her as the Brigantian leader, but why would they have chosen a woman unless the male line had died out (Kenyon 1991: 46). A hint at a ‘noble descent’ is recorded in the archaeological record in the form of coins, suggesting there may have been at least one prince,

Northernmost series of ancient British coins begins by commemorating personalities whose names are abbreviated and obscure; though it has been observed that one of them Tigir, seems to represent the word tigernos or tigirnos, meaning prince (Richmond 1954: 46).

The name Volisios appears on some of them, ‘Volisios also occurs in company with the legend Carti-Ve, which has been generally accepted by numismatists as referring to Cartimandua’ (Richmond 1954: 46), signifying a continuation of a ruling family.

The coins bearing the Carti-Ve impression did not continue once she became a client-ruler to Rome,

Her existing scarce issues may thus be recognised not as the product of the rerum secundarum luxus which marked her later golden era, but of her early years of power, before she entered into relationship with Rome. This explains in a convincing manner the strikingly exact correspondence of her silver coins with those of Dumnove(llaunos) which, in their gold issues, are in turn identical with the staters of Dumnocoveros. All are manifestly produced by the same mint and would seem to connote a series of coeval dynasts. The coinage thus seems usefully to confirm the statement of Tacitus attesting the family basis of Cartimandua’s power (Richmond 1954: 47).

The numismatist evidence, therefore, illustrates the continuation of a ruling family, of which Cartimandua was possibly the only remaining member. As alluded to in the Apocolocyntosis, a poem about Claudius by Seneca (c. 4 BC – 65 AD), where the Britons are referred to as the Brigantes, one may indeed hypothesise whether it is the image of Cartimandua that is represented as Britannia on Roman British coins, which appear only after Brigantia was subjected to Rome.

The length of Cartimandua’s reign has been estimated at approximately twenty six years. She is first mentioned as a ruler in the classical records in AD 51, the year she handed Caratacus over to the Romans (Braund 1984: 1), and it has been suggested that she was one of the 11 monarchs that surrendered to Claudius in AD 43 (Frere 1973: 69). However her reign may have begun earlier,

Protection by Rome must be referred back to events of almost ten years before, when the campaign of Ostorius against the Deceangli of Flintshire was rendered abortive by disturbances among the Brigantes, which had called for direct interference from Rome, involving both killings and amnesties. …..There can thus be no doubt that the recognition of Cartimandua as Queen of the Brigantes by Rome was the acknowledgement of an existing state of affairs; in short, that by AD 43 her rise to paramountcy was an accomplished fact (Richmond 1954: 47).

Protection from Rome could only have been given if a policy already existed, whether this had been agreed with Cartimandua herself or with her predecessor, we do not know, but it is clear from the actions of Ostorius that one existed and was highly regarded given the abandonment of the Welsh campaign in order to quash the restlessness in Brigantia.

Cartimandua commanded the respect of her people and the loyalty of her warriors, as there are few hillforts in the north, as compared to southern Britain, and this has been taken as a sign of peace throughout her lands. Her headquarters and main residence have remained elusive; however Stanwick and Aldborough are the favourite sites. Stanwick has been partially excavated and turned up a considerable amount of Roman finds,

It was occupied by the 40’s AD, if not earlier, when considerable quantities of Roman pottery were arriving at the site. The presence of Roman tiles indicates Romanised buildings (Kenyon 1991: 46).

Part of the earthworks at Stanwick Iron Age fort : yorkshiremixture

It is the largest hillfort within the Brigantian lands and covers approximately 17 acres (6.9 ha) There were three phases of construction and alterations with the last of these including the enclosure of an area covering 600 acres and ‘is linked to the disaffection between Venutius and Cartimandua’ (Hanson & Campbell 1986: 76). There is no evidence that the site was stormed or came to a violent end.

Aldborough, covering 8 acres, is also a contender for the headquarters due to,

Roman Republican coins have been found alongside British gold coins at the site, a single piece of Arretine pottery from the excavations there, further indicating Roman contact, and signs of vitrification of the ramparts such as might have been caused by their destruction at the hands of the Roman army (Hanson & Campbell 1986: 74).

Both sites may have been utilised by the queen at different periods with perhaps Stanwick being the main residence due to its larger area. Either way, the lack of hillforts demonstrates the relative peace that the Brigantes enjoyed whilst under Cartimandua’s reign. The people’s loyalty to their queen was one matter, and the queens loyalty to Rome, was a completely different one.

The loyalty Cartimandua showed to Rome was best demonstrated in her actions concerning Caratacus. Tacitus writes in his Histories,

She strengthened her throne, when, by the treacherous capture of king Caratacus, she was regarded as having given its chief distinction to the triumph of Claudius Cæsar (Tacitus Hist. iii. 45).

Roman ruins at Aldborough : yorkshiremixture

There are two versions as to how the queen captured Caratacus in AD 51; one states it was through treachery, the other through trickery – either way, the rebel leader was ‘duly bound hand and foot’ and handed over to the Romans. This action was to have two very different affects upon Cartimandua’s life; on the one side it saw her people begin to mistrust and became suspicious of her actions; on the other, it secured her position as client-ruler, which in turn bought her ‘abundant material manifestations of Roman civilization [that] could be acquired without cost or the disadvantage of direct Roman rule’ (Hanson & Campbell 1986: 74)

Only two fine examples of this wealth are visible today in the form of uncovered artefacts. The first is a piece of bronze work from Elmswell, near Driffield,

It is a beautiful example of hybrid northern art, and represents the mounting from an elaborate piece of a two sided equipment or furniture. The top to which it is attached is of purely Roman-provincial workmanship, a bronze strip inlaid with a leaf-scroll pattern in niello….. The work is undoubtedly northern, with close affinities to the Stanwick material. It is also a superb piece of craftsmanship, plainly the property of a tribal aristocrat (Richmond 1954: 49).

The other example also demonstrates a high level of craftsmanship and beauty, uncovered at Aldborough,

It takes the form of a human bust; but it would be a mistake to exaggerate either its anthropoid form or its humanity…. the pattern, a lyre design linked at each end to a bold trumpet scroll which once encircled an enamelled boss. This design, …. a human face, with an imperial and moustache, lentoid eyes with prominent pupils, once enamelled, and a frowning brow…. From the back of the head sprout the twin elements of a two-leaved crown, now reduced to stumps: from the sides grow great horns, whose core is formed by an iron ring which was once continuous…. It was a turret or ring for reins…. one of a pair fixed to the twin yoke of a two-horsed chariot. (Richmond 1954: 49-50).

The two pieces are unfortunately all that have been uncovered and very little has survived in the archaeological record, or still remains to be found. The wealth bestowed upon the client-queen would also have extended to her husband, Venutius, and it is to his chariot that the above mentioned artefact may well have been affixed.

Venutius was ‘of royal blood’ (Fraser 1990: 53) ‘and a Brigantian’ (Howarth 2008: 46). As such he ‘had been loyal to Rome and under its military protection’ (Breeze & Dobson 1985: 2), but was always subordinate to his wife, as her consort for ‘she came from the more powerful of the two groups’ (Howarth 2008: 48).

The handing over of Caratacus appears to have driven a wedge between the two. ‘For a long time he was loyal and enjoyed the protection of Roman arms’ (Mattingly 2010: 90), however, following the Caratacus affair dynamics changed resulting in Venutius taking ‘leadership of the anti-Roman elements in Brigantia’ (Frere 1973: 97).

The division within the Brigantian kingdom reached a climax in AD 57 when Cartimandua and Venutius separated. Their separation had ‘considerable repercussions for Rome’ (Hanson & Campbell 1986: 77). Cartimandua had maintained peace and stability in northern Britain, with the hostilities between the queen and her husband, not only did it affect their tribal lands but also the order Rome needed to maintain its hold over Britain. Added to their separation/divorce was Cartimandua’s decision to either wed or bed her husband’s armour-bearer, Vellocatus.

Vellocatus, as Venutius’ armour-bearer, was his best friend and closest confident. He is described as having an affair with Cartimandua, but if she and Venutius had divorced then the ‘affair’ would be perfectly legal. So the big question is, did Cartimandua and Venutius actually divorce or had they just separated? Did Tacitus exaggerate the actual events in order to paint the queen in a more unfavourable light? Why did the people of Brigantia become so angry towards their queen with her choice of suitor? Could this indicate that she was still married or could it be that Vellocatus was not a Brigantian, and therefore, not considered worthy of being the partner of their queen?

Tacitus states, in both his Annals and Histories, that events reached a pinnacle when Cartimandua took Vellocatus as her husband and this so incensed Venutius that he declared war upon his queen. Howarth (2008) states ‘It is much more likely that Vellocatus was of noble birth’ (Howarth 2008: 99), and continues by hypothesising it was not his position which may have caused conflict, but his background – as a possible Roman. However, if this were true then surely Tacitus would have made mention of this fact in either his Histories or Annals? If Vellocatus was of Roman descent, then by taking him as her consort would explain why the people of Brigantia backed Venutius.

Events reached a climax in AD 69 when Venutius attacked Cartimandua, and for the third time during her reign Rome intervened – however, this time all they could do was rescue her and leave the kingdom to Venutius, who held it for approximately two years before being overthrown.

What became of Cartimandua in unspecified. There are suggestions that she retired to Chester, however, this has been disproved,

Reed suggests that the so called ‘elliptical building’ at Chester was intended as a residence for Cartimandua but was left unfinished in AD 79. But it must be stressed that there is nothing to connect this building with Cartimandua and the known facts about the two are not consistent (Braund 1984: 5).

A woman of Cartimandua’s standing, and considering the loyalty she had shown Rome, would have been taken care of. Chester has been ruled out. Could she have remained in Britain?

It is unlikely that she would have lived in another part of Britain as tribal relations were fractious at the best of times and military settlements would  not have been the most congenial places for a displaced royal (Howarth 2008: 133).

If not in what is now England, could she have retired to Wales or even to Ireland where there were Brigantian connections in the south? (Koch 2006).

Caratacus went to Rome as a prisoner, but was given a villa and led what is believed to have been a comfortable life following his eloquent speech to the Emperor Claudius. Could Cartimandua have succumbed to the same fate, ‘It is just as likely that she retired to Italy, even Rome, where she might have seen Caratacus again’ (Braund 1996: 131). Her fate is all speculation. There is no known mention of her again, no marked grave – she simply disappears.

Cartimandua was a woman, bought up in a society where women were considered equal in respect to fighting alongside their men as well as ruling in their own right. This was in direct opposition to the Roman world where women had their ‘place’. What makes Cartimandua stand out is that Rome allowed her to continue to rule and went to certain lengths to ensure she remained in her position of power and influence, even though this went directly against their own societal norms.  She stabilized her realm and kept peace for over twenty years; she was a diplomatic leader who helped her people remain free form the tyranny that had enslaved other British tribes.

Yet history has painted her in a different light. Accused of an adulterous affair and being licentious, ‘Her story is spiced up by the guaranteed crowd-pleasers of sex, intrigue and betrayal’ (Waite 2011: 209), and her name has been muddied through the centuries (Fraser 19990: 54-55). Is this the way we should be treating the woman who was possibly the first true queen in Britain ruling under her own right, with more political prestige and power than Boudica? Was she the inspiration behind the legends of King Arthur and Guinevere?

Cartimandua achieved incredible results, for a woman of her time, and should be remembered, acknowledged and have her story told and learned about in our schools, along with that of Boudica, as a British queen, peace keeper and most importantly as a ruler who commanded respect from the might of Rome and its conquering army.


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Hanson. W. S. & Campbell. D. B. 1986. The Brigantes: From Clientage to Conquest. Britannia. Vol. 17 (1986), pp. 73-89.

Howarth. N. 2008. Cartimandua Queen of the Brigantes. Gloucestershire: The History Press.

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Mattingley. D. J. 2010. Imperialism, Power and Identity: Expanding the Roman Empire. Princetown, NJ: Princetown University Press.

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Salisbury. J. E. 2001. Women in the Ancient World. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Waite. J. 2011. Boudica’s Last Stand. Stroud, Glos: The History Press.

Written by Sue Carter

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