Did the Romans finally defeat Queen Boudica and her rebel army in an enormous battle in Dunstable?
The site where the two great armies met, and where thousands of Britons were killed, has never been traced and its whereabouts has long been a subject for research.
Now archaeologist and local historian Barry Horne has put forward theories that it happened at Dunstable to a conference, held by the University of Warwick, which discussed various ideas about the location of the battle.
Queen Boudica led a revolt against Roman rule in AD 60, during which her followers sacked Colchester, London and St Albans, slaughtering thousands of Romans. They then marched north up the Watling Street and were confronted by an army led by the Roman general Paulinus, who had hurried south when told of the rebellion. Although the Romans were heavily outnumbered, they achieved a great victory, killing (it is said) 80,000 Britons.
No-one knows where the battle took place, but it could have been at the foot of Blow’s Downs, where Manshead School now stands.
The only description of the battle was made by the Roman historian Tacitus, who indicated that Paulinus chose a defensive site in front of a plain, where his men were protected at the sides by wooded hills. The theory is that the mass of Britons were restricted and trapped in a narrowing pass in the Chilterns where they could not make use of their superior numbers.
Barry Horne has written a detailed article, published in South Midlands Archaeology, where he discusses how long the two armies could have taken to march towards each other and which confirms that a Dunstable confrontation was possible within the estimated timescale. He describes what he thinks happened:
“The Boudican army would have been spread out over many miles as they travelled up Watling Street. I estimate there would have been about 10,000 to the mile so an army of 40,000 might have covered three to four miles, much of this army being beyond the pass when the fighting started. This would have stacked the odds heavily in favour of the smaller Roman force. The best and keenest warriors would presumably have led the Iceni columns so once the Roman army had beaten them the rest would have realised the game was up and fled in terror.
“The last thing (Paulinus) would have wanted was a large force of well-armed, blood-thirsty natives rampaging around the countryside on a system of roads Rome had provided...By choosing a site just south of Dunstable the Roman army could place itself between the rebel army and the Icknield Way.”
Barry Horne writes that the Watling Street, as it heads north, enters a pass roughly where the traffic lights are in Markyate, The pass becomes more pronounced at the Packhorse public house. Turnpike Farm is roughly where the pass widens into the plain occupied by Manshead School. It is likely, he says, that the Roman Army was deployed in the plain between the road to Caddington and Turnpike Farm.
The conference has prompted a number of new investigations of the possible battleground at Dunstable, including metal detecting, and an informal group called The Watling Street Project has been set up.
But so far nothing relevant has been discovered. There ought, at least, to be traces of equipment abandoned by the British baggage trains in the Markyate/Friars Wash area when families, who had been following Boudica’s army, fled southwards. But such material might now be buried to a depth of a foot or so, and Barry Horne is suggesting that archaeological investigations be extended by drilling dozens of test holes in fields close to the road.
A copy of his detailed article is available by contacting him on firstname.lastname@example.org