On all sides are ... gardens and orchards . . . pastures and plain meadows, with brooks running through them, turning watermills with a pleasant noise. Not far off is a great forest, a well-wooded chase. . . . . The cornfields are not of a hungry sandy mould, but as the fruitful fields of Asia.
So wrote the ancient chronicler, and, strange though it may seem, he was describing King's Cross (London), which now is a monotone of grey, and a place where the "pleasant noise" of the watermills has yielded to the roar of motor-'buses and the incessant shrieks of trains.
A thousand years ago, however, before the watermills turned, and before ever there was a city from which youths and scholars could come forth, King's Cross had other associations; there it was that Queen Boadicea fought her losing fight against the shining helmets and waving plumes of Rome.
It is a noble story, and well worth repeating. Britain then had been for a hundred years under the sway of Rome. The many little kingdoms of which England was composed had been reduced to subjection, and their kings were now no more than Roman deputies. A grasping mind turned even the prosperity of the land into the coffers of Rome, and the peasants worked not for their own gain, but for that of the conqueror. It was inevitable that there should be discontent, and, eight years before Boadicea made herself immortal, there was a great revolt. The Romans quelled it with a heavy hand; but Colchester, then called Camulodunum, they reserved for the glory of the emperor himself.
Accordingly, Claudius came to England in great pomp, surrounded by captains and legions, bent upon the reduction of proud Colchester. He advanced with a magnificent army, impressing the simple Britons with a line of gorgeously equipped elephants, with turrets filled with slingers and archers on their backs.
Claudius had an easy task. He subdued Colchester, and departed in a wonderful ship "like a moving palace" to celebrate at Rome the greatest triumph ever recorded. Rome went mad over him, and the poets vied with each other in adulation. "The last bars have fallen, earth is girdled by a Roman ocean," sang one - he referred unwitting to the Atlantic and Pacific waters. "One look from Caesar has subdued the cliff-girt isle, the land of the wintry pole," exclaimed another.
Claudius was succeeded by Nero, and Nero was quite as fond of wealth as any of his predecessors. When he heard, therefore, that Prasutagus, King of the Iceni (Norfolk and Suffolk) had died, leaving his kingdom and his riches divided between the emperor and his own two daughters, Nero promptly seized the whole. Prasutagus had fondly hoped that by making Nero his heir he would protect his family, but little had he gauged the rapacity of a conqueror. Rome argued that as the king had been put into power by the emperor, all his goods reverted to the emperor. When Boadicea, the incensed queen, resented this robbery, they flogged her in public, maltreated her daughters, and impounded all that had been left by Prasutagus.
Boadicea did not belie her name. Her name means victory, and accordingly she girded on her arms and placed herself at the head of the Iceni and the other petty kingdoms. Verulam, near St. Albans, she burned; Colchester she took, and left in ashes; on London she and her hordes of wild Britons descended, like a cloud of locusts, breathing fire. Here she halted in the " great forest " that clothed what is now Penton-ville Hill, after she had left nothing of the prosperous town of Londinum, which Tacitus has described as " famous for the great multitude of merchants and provisions." Seventeen hundred years later, eighteen feet below Lombard Street, the remains of a tesselated pavement were discovered, the pattern " lying scattered like the petals of a flower," and covered with charred wood, the remnants of the wooden houses which had not been replaced by Roman buildings.
Boadicea was very busy. She hung many wellborn women in the Grove of Andate, the British Goddess of Victory, and was meditating further revenges and slaughter - it was an age when it was considered natural and even right to slay as many people as possible if you were annoyed - when Suetonius Paulinus, the lieutenant of Rome in Briton, hastened back from the Isle of Mona (Anglesey) to quell the insurrection.
Figures differ. Some say there were 70,000 Britons and 10,000 Romans, others 230,000 rebels and 13,000 Romans. Be that as it may, they met in a narrow valley one day, the Romans with their discipline, their shining armour and rich cloaks; the Iceni rude and wild, many of them naked, with bodies painted blue, ill-armed, but valiant to death. Boadicea rode up and down their lines in her Roman-shaped chariot, her Roman cloak and ornaments shining, her voice ringing out words of encouragement and defiance. With her were her two daughters, the very sight of whom recalled their wrongs and raised a spirit of courage in the troops.
It was a case of Right against Might, and in personal combat Might always wins. The Romans utterly routed the rebels, but it took them a whole day to do it. Boadicea flashed about in the battle, exhorting her followers, in what inspiring words we may only guess; but all was in vain. Twilight fell upon a vanquished host, upon a valley of death wherein lay many thousand Britons, but only four hundred Romans. The day was decisive; Rome, the proud, the overbearing, Rome the great civiliser, was set firmly in dominion over England.
For Boadicea but one thing remained to do. Already Roman ideas of honour were permeating these islands, and it was a dishonour to live defeated. Boadicea had lost all - wealth, kingdom, the honour of her daughters; she had failed in her bid for justice, had been publicly flogged, and now she was defeated. Accordingly, before the sun rose upon her shame, she took poison and ended her life.
Eighteen centuries later, Thornycroft, the sculptor, looking for a theme for a heroic piece of work, chose the queen of the Iceni for his subject. For fifteen years he laboured at the group, building a special studio for it, and a little railway on which the work could be pushed into the open air for him to study the effect. But he did not live to see the fine bronze cast from his plaster group, which later was set up on Westminster Bridge.