“Women hold up half the sky.” – Mao Zedong.
Queen Cartimandua. First-century leader of the Brigante tribe of northern Britain. She ruled for nearly a quarter of a century, from approximately 43 AD to 69 AD, and she was a formidable force for her time. Roman historian and writer Tacitus names her as the only native regina, or queen, in Roman Britannia. Not even the great female Celtic Iceni leader Boudica is given this title in his writings.
Cartimandua ruled the Brigantes by inherited right, rather than through marriage. She did eventually marry, but later divorced her husband and ruled alone. Making a treaty with the occupying Romans during a time of great Brigante tribal upheaval, she was defended by the fabled Ninth Legion Hispana – an honor in and of itself that showed her significant importance to the male-dominated hierarchy of Rome.
Things did not end well for Cartimandua – nor, it must be said, for the Brigantes. In 69 AD, a Brigante revolt during a time of Roman political unrest led to the downfall of the queen and to a long period of Brigante rebellion in the north of Britannia. Cartimandua disappears from the record at this point. The Brigantes themselves were eventually defeated by the Romans, and their culture, like most native British tribes, absorbed by the invading Anglo-Saxons following Rome’s departure from the island in the fifth century.
But she was there for twenty-six years, leading her people in a time of occupation, a time of great social and political upheaval in ancient Britain. At a time when the forces of Rome were transforming her island into yet another defeated province of the empire, Cartimandua remained proudly Brigante while balancing a solid peace with the very Romans who had come to bring a change of politics, language, and social fabric. Indeed, the Romans found her so valuable that they defended her from her enemies with one of their greatest legions.
Cartimandua. Queen of the Brigantes. Regina.
Forgotten now, like her people. But remembered, perhaps, for a moment or two, today.
Her life has been fictionalized in Daughters of Fire by Barbara Erskine.
For a more scholarly read, try Cartimandua: Queen of the Brigantes by Nicki Howarth.