Queen of the Brigantes (c. 43 - 70 AD)
Who was she?
The Brigantes were a Celtic tribe, or to be more accurate a confederation of tribes, whose domain stretched from coast to coast across the neck of Britain, between the Humber in the south and the Forth-Clyde line in the north. When the Romans invaded Britain in the year 43 AD they found this tribal confederation united under the rule of queen Cartimandua and her consort Venutius.
Unlike her more famous contemporary Boudicca, Cartimandua was no warrior queen; although she was queen, it was her husband Venutius, also acknowledged as king, who assumed the role of war leader. From subsequent events it seems clear that Venutius enjoyed considerable authority in his own right over a substantial portion of the Brigantian kingdom but Cartimandua was the ultimate authority within the kingdom. 1
A Friend of Rome
Almost from the first appearance of the Roman invaders in 43 AD, it appears that Cartimandua adopted a pro-Roman stance, and sought alliance rather than confrontation with Rome. It is quite likely that Cartimandua viewed the expansionism of the Catuvellaunian kingdom under Togdumunus and Caratacus as the greater threat, and welcomed the Roman intervention which was primarily directed in its early stages against the Catuvellauni dominated south-east. Hence Cartimandua felt no compunction in delivering up Caratacus to the Roman authorities in the year 51 AD when he fled north after his defeat at the hands of Scapula an act which Tacitus heralded as "having set the seal upon Claudius's triumph".
To the Romans, the establishment of the Brigantes as a client kingdom had important strategic benefits, as it essentially protected the vulnerable northern frontier of the province. They were experiencing enough problems at the time with the Silures and Ordovices on their western borders and therefore maintaining Catimandua in power and ensuring that the north continued to be in the hands of a friendly power was an important consideration.
Trouble at Home
However Cartimandua was not entirely secure in her rule, there were elements of dissent within the Brigantian federation who opposed her pro-Roman policy. Already in 47 AD, Roman intervention had been necessary to suppress those anti-Roman elements who had sought to join with the Iceni in their first revolt against Roman domiantion. But it was Cartimandua's betrayal of Caratacus that seems to have eventually triggered a breach with her husband Venutius. Around the year 54, Venutius sought support from the anti-Roman faction within the Brigantes and sought to dislodge his wife from power.2
Cartimandua reacted to this challenge by taking some members of Venutius' family as hostages to secure his loyalty, an action that failed as a brief civil war ensued and the new Roman governor Didius Gallus found it necessary to send in troops to maintain Cartimandua in power. Venutius was not however entirely defeated and it may well have been that Cartimandua's authority was afterwards restricted to the more southerly territories of the Brigantes.
Thereafter Cartimandua seems to have remained in charge until the year 69 when, after the suicide of Nero and in the year of the four emperors, she decided that she'd finally had enough of her old husband Venutius and divorced him and took as her new husband another warrior named Vellocatus3, Venutius' former armour bearer. This seems to have been a deeply unpopular move within the tribe, and which (fairly obviously) must have considerably widened the breach between Cartimandua and her now former husband. Tacitus blamed it all on "the queen's libido and her ferocious temper"
The result was civil war amongst the Brigantes with Venutius rapidly gaining the upper hand. At the time the Romans were entangled in their own civil war and provincial governor Vettius Bolanus was only able to rescue Cartimandua and were unable to prevent Venutius from taking over.
Stepping into the mist
Thereafter Cartimandua disappears from history. What exactly happened to her is not known, but with the kingdom of the Brigantes now in the hands of her ex-husband Venutius it is probable that she spent the remainder of her life in exile somewhere in the Roman held south of Britain.4
This left the Romans with a problem; no longer was the northern frontier of their province of Britannia protected by a friendly client kingdom, now they faced a potential enemy. It was perhaps inevitable therefore, that Cartimandua's ultimate failure to hold together the kingdom of the Brigantes led to its later incorporation into the Roman Empire by military conquest.
As Tacitus put it "Venutius inherited the throne, and we the fighting."
1 The Brigantes seem to have worshipped the goddess Brigantia and probably regarded Cartimandua living manifestation or at least representation of the goddess.
2 Perhaps Venutius now thought of himself as the natural leader of the British, now that Caratacus was out of the way, or it may well have been that Venutius felt he wasn't getting his fair share of the wealth that flowed from the Roman connection.
3 Whose name meant 'better in battle'
4 Quite probably the Romans would have entertained ideas of restoring Cartimandua to power at some later, more advantageous date, and kept her close at hand.
Roman Britain by Peter Salway (OUP 1991)
Brigantia, Cartimandua and Gwenhwyfar by Michelle Ziegler (The Heroic Age, Issue 1, 1999)
The works of Publius Cornelius Tacitus