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The Position of Women in History


Cartimandua, like Boudicca, was a Celtic Queen in first century Iron Age Britain. She ruled the large kingdom of Brigantia, in the North of England, when the Romans invaded in 43 CE. Unlike Boudicca few people today have heard of her. This is despite her being the first documented Queen in Britain to rule in her own right.

Based on how much she is written about, surviving Roman documents suggest that Cartimandua was seen as a person of much greater significance than Boudicca.


Colour image of a topographical map of southern Britain showing coloured arrow and dates of Roman campaigns and conquests
Roman Military Campaigns in Britain 43 - 60 CE

There’s little written evidence from the time about Cartimandua, so historians have to make informed guesses based on what they do have. The following information is based on a reading list which can be found in Teachers Notes.

Cartimandua was ruler over the large northerly kingdom of Brigantia. Brigantia’s precise borders are unknown but its territory covered present day Yorkshire, Lancashire and parts of County Durham. Evidence suggests Cartimandua may have spent the years leading up to the Roman invasion consolidating her power over this large area which is likely to have been a confederacy of semi-independent districts. By the time of the Roman invasion Cartimandua was undisputed Queen of Brigantia. Her stronghold is thought to have been Stanwick Iron Age Fort, eight miles north of Richmond in Yorkshire.

colour topographical map with the names of tribes printed in the areas they lived.
Peoples of Southern Britain circa 150 CE

Cartimandua would have been kept informed as the Roman army swiftly crushed resistance in the Southern Kingdoms and marched North. For all the fighting prowess of the Celts, they were no match for the Roman legions. Like most of the Celtic aristocracy, including Boudicca and her husband Prasutagus, Cartimandua made a pact with the Romans. This pact meant that Brigantia remained semi-independent and Cartimandua was client Queen of the Brigantes. It was a reasonable action but one which meant Brigantia was required to send tributes to Rome and supply the empire with enslaved people and army recruits. Many Britons would have felt humiliated and angry by the invasion and the terms of alliance.

In 51 CE, Cartimandua handed the defeated rebel Caratacus, leader of the Cattuvellauni, over to the Romans. For this she received wealth and favour from Rome, but a rebellion was raised amongst her own people, led by her husband, Venutius. Roman legions were sent to her aid and the rebellion was put down.

In 69 CE Venutius raised another rebellion. By this time Cartimandua had divorced him and married his chief armour bearer Vellocatus. Cartimandua once more called to Rome for aid but this time only auxiliary troops were available and Cartimandua was forced to flee to the Roman fort at Deva, now known as Chester. What happened to her once she arrived there is unknown. Venutius took control of Brigantia but Rome swiftly invaded and defeated him and Brigantia became part of the Roman province.

Most of what we know of Cartimandua, we know from the Roman historian Tacitus.

Roman views on the role and position of women were more restrictive than those of many of the tribes of Ancient Britain.

We do not know if Cartimandua’s divorce from Venutius influenced his leading another rebellion, but Tacitus wrote his history as though it did. He treated the topic of her divorce, marriage to Vellocatus and subsequent loss of Brigantia as a moral tale, a result of what happens when women break a moral code and divorce their husbands. He vilified her for handing Caratacus over to the Romans when this was a term of her pact with Rome. He presented her overthrow as a victory of masculine rightness to rule. Tacitus writes “her enemies, infuriated and goaded by fears of humiliating feminine rule, invaded her kingdom with a powerful force of picked warriors” (Tacitus Annals 12. 40) This is despite the fact that Cartimandua’s ‘feminine’ rule had lasted for more than twenty-five years at this point and any rebellion had actually been anti- Roman.

Colour photograph of a statue showing a muscular man with a beard wearing a toga.
Statue of Roman historian, Tacitus

In other words, Tacitus presented Cartimandua as a storybook villain for the ‘crime’ of being a powerful woman who divorced her husband. This may go some way to explaining her obscurity in the history books. The Victorian historians who shaped and influenced modern history did not find in Tacitus’s version of Cartimandua, the divorcee and collaborator,  as inspiring as Boudicca, the patriot and mother. This takes a simplistic view of history overlooking the complexities of the situations the two women found themselves in.

What little we know of Cartimandua suggests she was a strong, decisive and competent ruler. She succeeded in uniting and ruling a large Kingdom for many years. She faced an invasion and retained partial independence for Brigantia for over twenty-five years. She ruled effectively in an age that considered men to be the natural rulers and acted as a major player in the political situation of the time.



Documented – Recorded in writing, photographic or other form.

Confederacy – a league or alliance.

Client Queen – a client queen would be leader of their people in name but Rome was the true leader. They had to show respect to Rome and in doing so acknowledged their lesser position and in return would be offered protection.

Tributes – wealth.

Auxilliary Troops – Non-Roman Army recruits.


Discussion Ideas

  • Do you think making a pact with the Romans was a good idea?
    • What would you have done in Cartimandua’s situation?
    • Consider the potential consequences of not making a pact:
      • Would Brigantia have been able to withstand the Roman invasion?
      • What would the personal consequences of resistance and defeat have been for Cartimandua?
      • What about for her people?
    • Consider what a pact resulted in:

      • The enslavement of many people, payment of tributes and sending men to fight in Roman army.
      • Being controlled by a foreign power – potential mistreatment and being treated as second class citizens in your own land.


  • In Cartimandua’s story we see an example of history written by the victors, in this case Roman men. How has this male bias shaped history?
    • How might Cartimandua's story have been written differently, if it had been written by women as well as men?
  • We learn about Cartimundua through Tacitus. Who do we not hear from?
    • List the voices who are missing from this story.
      • What impact does this have on our understanding of events ?
  • Women continue to be vastly underrepresented as leaders in our society and workplaces.
    • Why do you think this is?

 Activity Ideas

  • Make a paper tile mosaic of Cartimandua. How do you imagine she looked?
  • Tell the story of Cartimandua.
    • Make a stop motion animation or comic strip of her story.
  • Hold a class debate on whether to resist or collaborate with the Romans. See the  downloadable powerpoint for support with this activity. 
  • Write a newspaper report describing the invasion or one of the many other dramatic events in Cartimandua’s story.
  • Consider what impact the Romans had in Britain. This could be done using the downloadable powerpoint, or through the use of props in a feely-bag, prompting class discussion of what the Romans contributed to Britain. Examples include:
    • a toy vehicle or chariot – representing roads
    • a book – representing improved literacy
    • a glass item or mini Lego window – representing glass/windows
    • coins – representing money
    • toy or ornament of house/building - representing towns
    • a water bottle - representing clean water
    • toy boat - representing trade.

You may wish to focus on the positives or have a combination of positives and negatives. Negatives you might wish to include could be

  • toy figure of a king - representing patriarchy
  • mini flag or flag badge -  representing loss of independence
  • toy weapon - representing warfare
  • toy soldier - representing military occupation and enforced conscription
  • gold, silver, copper or iron item - representing exploitation and export of natural resources
  • coins or treasure chest - representing payment of tributes.
  • Compare and contrast the lives of Boudicca and Cartimandua. This could be a writing or role play project.
  • Research and write about the Roman Army.
    • Why was it such a formidable force?
  • Consider and research life as a Celt under the Romans and write a diary entry about it from the perspective of a fictional character.
    • In what ways would it have made life difficult?
    • Would it have made life better in any way?
    • Does your character oppose Roman occupation or not?
  • Research both Celtic and Roman jewellery design and make a brooch out of craft tin that reflects one or both of the cultures.