Ygritte & Boudicca: The Red Haired Warriors Beyond the Wall

boudicca-ygritte

This guest article is by the Brittany Garcia, who specializes in classical studies. Please give Brittany a warm welcome and check out her blog at A Classics and Ancient History Blog.

While many characters within George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones resemble historical figures, fans often argue and dissect the parallels, differences, and even  the ambiguities between the two. In a previous article I wrote, I argued that Boudicca, the Celtic warrior queen, highly resembled the Targaryen warrior queen, Daenerys. However, the similarities between Ygritte and Boudicca were brought to my attention by a History Behind Game of Thrones reader  “abhinav91.” This article seeks to analyze and acknowledge the ambiguities and differences between these two female warriors.

A little background on Boudicca

Boudicca by John Opie

Boudicca by John Opie

For anyone who is unfamiliar with Boudicca (sometimes spelt Boudica or Boadicae), she was a Celtic queen of Iceni tribe and renowned for leading an uprising against the Romans in the 60s CE. Although Boudicca lived 150 years before the construction of Hadrian’s Wall, she lived behind an equally oppressive, yet figurative wall: a “wall” the Romans enacted in her lifetime (hence this article’s title). Boudicca’s legacy survives through the works of Roman historians, such as Cassius Dio, Suetonius, Tacitus, and others. Although these Romans write of her legacy, she is not as demonized as one would imagine. Dio and Tacitus lend the most informative opinion of Boudicca’s actions, appearance, and impact on history.

Appearance

In regards to Boudicca’s appearance, historians have stated that she was “tall and terrifying in appearance [with] a great mass of red hair.” Boudicca’s possible counterpart in Game of Thrones, Ygritte, is also known for having red hair. She is described as “…short for her age, skinny but well-muscled, with a round face, small hands, a pug nose, crooked white teeth, and blue-grey eyes that are too far apart. Her most distinctive feature was her fiery red hair.” The Wildlings or Free Folk consider red hair to be lucky and very attractive. It is rare among the Free Folk, and those who have it are said “to be kissed by fire.”

Ygritte

Rose Leslie as Ygritte. Image: Helen Sloan © HBO

In Ancient Rome, red hair was commonly attributed to those of Germanic origins. Therefore, red hair was thought to be more primitive, but it eventually became a sign of beauty, exoticness, and uniqueness. Pliny the Elder even recorded recipes for how Roman women could dye their hair red: “Dying hair red requires a mixture of animal fat and beechwood ashes.” The relation between red hair and exoticism is even seen with Melisandre. However, beyond their red hair, Boudicca and Ygritte would appear to be physically different. Boudicca was tall and terrifying; Ygritte was short and skinny.

Warrior Status

Boudiccastatue

Boudicca’s statue in London – note how she is depicted with her favorite weapon, the chariot.

Both women are considered warriors by their people and enemies. Boudicca is a known warrior commander who leads her people to an uprising. Her specialty weapon was the Celtic chariot, and it was even commemorated with a huge Thomas Thornycraft statue in London.

Ygritte is not a leader, but rather a loyal spearwife (the term for a female Wildling warrior) in Mance Rayder’s army. Ygritte uses a bow and arrow as her weapon, and not a chariot. That being said, I would argue that while Ygritte is not a leader in the strictest sense, she embodies the female Wilding leader (or representative one) for audiences and readers.

ygritte-arrow-watchers

Ygitte’s weapon was the bow and arrow. (As portrayed by Rose Leslie.) © HBO.

In regards to social status, Boudicca is a queen amongst her people whereas Ygritte is not. There is no class status for the Wildling; they do not “bend the knee.” As Mance Rayder states to Jon Snow, “Free Folk don’t follow names, or little cloth animals sewn on a tunic. They won’t dance for coins, they don’t care how you style yourself or what that chain of office means or who your grandsire was. They follow strength. They follow the man.”

Why They Fight

YGRITTE

While their enemies viewed both women as savages or uncivilized individuals fighting against a more “civilized” or “regimented” adversary, the women’s reasons for fighting were completely different. Ygritte remarks to Jon Snow that “They’re not your lands! We’ve been here the whole time! You lot came along and just put up a big Wall and said it was yours!” Ygritte’s reasoning is entirely reminiscent of the age old dilemma — “the Natives vs. the Settlers” — an issue that time and history has seen many times between countless countries. However, Ygritte’s reasons for fighting against the Crows eventually evolve into a personal vendetta between her and Jon Snow.

ygritte-sword-jon-snow

Although Ygritte may not have her favorite weapon, she remains unbowed and defiant even in the face of death. © HBO.

BOUDICCA

Boudicca’s reasons for fighting are more complex and personal than those of Ygritte. Boudicca’s husband, King Prasutagus of the Iceni, had attempted to keep peace with the Romans when they invaded. Thereby, he chose to become their ally instead of their subordinates. Eventually, the Romans did not see an alliance as a sufficient relationship. So, King Prasutagus, wanting to avoid bloodshed, bequeathed his land to a local Roman governor in order to appease the Romans from taking his land forcefully. King Prasutagus was under the assumption that his land, wealth, and resource would be divided evenly between his wife, children, and the Roman governor upon his death. However, Prasutagus did not realize that Roman law allowed (at times) inheritance to pass only to the male heir. As a result, the Roman governor inherited everything: King Prasutagus had only two daughters. After Prasutagus died, the Romans mistreated Boudicca and her daughters, although noble, as slaves. They severely flogged Boudicca and raped her daughters. The governor confiscated Boudicca’s property and land; simultaneously, Roman money lenders sought to collect Prasutagus’ debts from these battered women.

boadicea-daughters-army

Boudicca captured the Victorian imagination. Here she appears with her two daughters on a chariot, leading her army. Image: Joseph Martin Kronheim (1810–96).

Boudicca’s reason for vengeance is the mistreatment of her family, herself, and her people. The historian Tacitus recounts one of her battle speeches, which explains Boudicca’s reasons for the uprising:

“She took the field, like the meanest among them, to assert the cause of public liberty, and to seek revenge for her body seamed with ignominious stripes, and her two daughters infamously ravished. From the pride and arrogance of the Romans nothing is sacred; all are subject to violation; the old endure the scourge, and the virgins are deflowered. But the vindictive gods are now at hand. …Look round, and view your numbers. Behold the proud display of warlike spirits, and consider the motives for which we draw the avenging sword. On this spot we must either conquer, or die with glory. There is no alternative. Though a woman, my resolution is fixed: the men, if they please, may survive with infamy, and live in bondage.” (Tacitus The Annals Chapter 35)

Boadicea_Haranguing_the_Britons_by_John_Opie

Boudicca shields her daughters as she harrangues the Brittons. Image by John Opie via Wikimedia Commons.

Boudicca emphasizes her reasons for leading, fighting, and rebelling. Two strong positions she takes are for the revenge of she and her daughter’s abuses and the importance of “public liberty.” The actual Latin word that Tacitus uses is “libertas,” which means “the state or condition of a freeman, a being free, freedom, liberty, freedom from restraint or obligation, free will, Civil freedom, liberty, opp. to slavery.”

Therefore, the “public liberty” that Boudicca is talking about is the direct opposite of slavery. It would then lend itself to assume that Boudicca despises slavery, having been treated as one. This aspect of Boudicca reminds me more of Daenerys Targaryen’s opposition to slavery than Ygritte’s moral stand on the issue: Free Folk were known for taking slaves.

How They Fight

Boudicca-chariot

ITV recreated Boudicca’s famous chariot for their drama Boudicca. © ITV.

Ygritte and Boudicca came from a brutal people who practiced scorched earth tactics and “left no survivors.” They utilized whatever assets they possessed to win — whether it was a weapon, ambush, or strategy.

When raiding and fighting, the Free Folk (or Wildlings) saw to it that everyone (men, women, and children) was killed. If the Free Folk spared people, they took  them as slaves. However, if the Free Folk’s mission was to wipeout a village, no one was spared. They usually took towns by guerilla warfare, force, and fear. The cruelty and harshness Free Folk showed to the northern towns (like Mole’s Town) includes rape, abuse, and even cannibalism. The Mole’s Town raid is depicted in the season 4 episode 8, known as “The Mountain and the Viper.”  However, there is a rare moment within this episode where Ygritte spares Gilly and baby Sam.

ygritte_sssh

Ygritte takes pity on a woman and a child: she warns Gilly to be quiet so they aren’t killed in the raid. © HBO.

Roman historians may have grossly exaggerated Celtic and Brittonic fighting and raiding in order to show the difference between civilized and barbarian. But, it is important to consider if there is any truth in their claims. The written accounts portray Boudicca and her battle followers as savage and brutal. Tacitus says that the Celts had no interest in taking or selling prisoners, only in slaughter by gibbet, fire, or cross. They took the heads of their captives and offered them to their goddess of victory. Dio Cassius gives a detailed description of how Boudicca’s followers tortured the Roman noble women: “their breasts were cut off and stuffed in their mouths, so that they seemed to be eating them, then their bodies were skewered lengthwise on sharp stakes.”

Battle Strategy (Wildlings Vs. Castle Black and Boudicca vs. Colchester)

 

Boudicca_haranguing

Boudicca haranguing her troops. Image: The History of England by Edward Farr (1873).

 

Just as in Game of Thrones, the Night’s Watch was oblivious to the Wildling’s alliances and underestimated their united power, so too did the Romans underestimate the Celtic tribes. Around 60 AD, Boudicca united and led several neighboring tribes, who came together their hate and resentment against the Romans. Boudicca obtained 100,000 men, women, and children for her uprising against the Roman cities.

Mance Rayder also unites many tribes and attempts to take The Wall by guerrilla warfare, force, and fire; he states he will make “the biggest fire the North has ever seen.” Mance Rayder delivers this fire and it discourages the already afraid Night’s Watch. The Wildling strategy in taking Castle Black is to throw everything they have against it. It’s not a bad strategy either because the odds are in their favor: 100,000 Wildlings, Giants, and Mammoths vs. 102 Crows.

signal-fire-watchers-wall

This is the massive signal fire Mance Rayder’s army set, and it fills Jon with horror. Only an unprecedentedly large army would need such a large signal fire. © HBO.

It is this strategy that, in fact, works for Boudicca and her people but not for the Wildlings. Boudicca was capable of taking the Roman town Colchester by storm, and her people looted, ransacked and torched the city. It is said that if you dig anywhere in Colchester today there is a thick layer of red soot from the time when Boudicca set the city on fire. At the time, it must have been one of  “the biggest fires the Romans had ever seen.”

frost-colchester-temple-destroyed

This Peter Frost painting imaginatively reconstructs how Boudicca’s rebels destroyed Claudius’ temple at Colchester.

While Jon Snow emphasizes that the enemy cannot win due to the fact that they are undisciplined, he doesn’t realize that not all of the Night’s Watch are trained and disciplined men. Hypothetically, some Roman soldiers might have thought like Jon Snow. If that’s the case,  unfortunately for the Romans, they were wrong. Historians estimate that Boudicca and her army killed over 70,000 Romans during her rebellion.

Fate

Although Boudicca and Ygritte shared many traits, their fates are quite different. Boudicca succeeded in capturing and destroying many Roman towns; Ygritte failed and died in her first attempt to take Castle Black and the Wall. Ygritte expires in battle because she hesitated to kill Jon Snow, but Boudicca actually committed suicide to escape capture and humiliation. (However, some historians believe that Boudicca simply fell ill and died.)

There is a clear similarity between the two women. George R.R Martin often draws upon strong historic women to inspire and influence his character development. Boudicca appears to be one historic figure that is manifested within Ygritte, Daenerys, and perhaps Arya. Boudicca is an archetypal figure that represents the untamed side of a woman. She is the epitome of the wild, savage, strong, fierce, unrestrained, and independent woman. Her morals are ones that are honorable (fighting for her land, people, family, and against slavery), but are not the norm of other female morals. Although Cersei, Lady Lysa, Catelyn, Brienne, Sansa, Margaery, and other popular Game of Thrones’ characters are strong, they do not channel this same raw energy as Ygritte or even Daenerys does.

Sources

Libertas [Def. 1-3]. (n.d.). In Lewis & Short Latin Online, Retrieved  June 12, 2014, from http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?l=libertas&la=la#lexicon

Dio, Cassius. Roman History.

Dudley, D. R. and G. Webster.(1962) The Rebellion of Boudicca. NY:Barnes and Noble.

Field, Connie. (2006, April 30). Battlefield Britain – Boudicca’s Rebellion Against The Romans. http://www.culture24.org.uk/history-and-heritage/war-and-conflict/pre-20th-century-conflict/tra22669

Martin, George. R.R. Game of Thrones. New York, New York: Bantam Books

Martin, George. R.R.  Clash of Kings. New York, New York: Bantam Books

Martin, George. R.R.  Storm of Sword. New York, New York: Bantam Books

Oxford Latin Desk Dictionary

Pliny the Elder. Natural History.

Tacitus, Cornelius. Annals.

Webster, G.  (1978) Boudicca, the British Revolt against Rome, NJ: Rowman & Littlefield.

 

6 Comments

  • Reply September 4, 2014

    Watcher on the Couch

    Thank you for this stimulating article Ms Garcia. I believe GRRM has said he liked Rosemary Sutcliff’s books while growing up. You may be aware that her “Song for a Dark Queen” is about Boudicca. Many of Ms Sutcliff’s books were for children though she wrote some for adults and I would hazard that SFADQ is either a book for adults or young adults. Ms Sutcliff wrote from the point of view of the Iceni taking royal descent through the maternal line. I do not know that that was the case but the book was a good read and Ms Sutcliff was never one of those writers who contended that her fictional treatments of historical subjects were factual.

    From a later period of history my understanding is that Mary Queen of Scots and the English Queen Elizabeth I were redheads though if they inspired any ASOIAF character in part I think it’s more likely they inspired the personnage of Sansa.

  • Reply September 4, 2014

    Grant

    It’s possible that she was at least in part an inspiration for Melisandre as well. Aside from her hair and powers, Melisandre is also noted for her height.

    As for the Iceni and slavery, unless someone specifically noted whether or not they made a custom of slavery we can’t say for sure what their views were. The American southern slave-owning saw no contradiction in their rebelling for independence in the American Revolutionary War and American Civil War and their own practices of enslaving others.

  • Reply September 7, 2014

    Jun

    If I had not discovered these articles, I would not have known that there were so many female warriors in history.

    What I find particularly interesting is the type of conflicts Boudicca and Ygritte represent. Both the Celts and Wildlings (First Men) are native peoples who had been displaced or colonized by new settlers (Romans and Andals). Waves of migration (and conflicts between natives and newcomers) is a theme that runs through human history all over the world. Obviously, Martin had this pattern in mind when he set up the history of Westeros.

    —————-SPOILERS BOOK 5———————–

    A common interpretation of the romantic plot between Jon Snow and Ygritte is that they were, like Romeo and Juliet, separated by their tribes, and Jon’s side “won” while Yigritte’s side “lost” with her death. But I see this differently. Haven’t the Wildlings eventually gained the right to settle within the Wall? Of course, this is largely supported by Stannis, and he has his own reasons for letting them in. But Jon Snow as the commander of the Nights Watch would never have agreed to this settlement plan (in fact it is a kind of amazing reconciliation) if he had not lived among the Wildlings and loved a Wildling woman.

    Most readers and viewers perceive Jon as a spy among the Wildlings and that his return to Night’s Watch to defend the Wall as confirmation of his loyalty. But I see him as having been psychologically turned in a fundamental way. At some point either Ygritte or Tormand said something to effect of “You think you are still a crow, but once you’ve tasted being a Free Folk you can never go back” (I don’t remember the specifics). It is true. To take in the Wildling refugees is a radical reverse of Nights Watch’s tradition (and has indeed caused internal strife within the organization). The only reason Jon could have done it is Ygritte’s influence. In other words, she has won.

    • Reply September 14, 2014

      Brittany Garcia

      Thank you so much for comment! I love the points you draw and I am that this article was able to show the truth behind much of the somewhat forgotten history of warrior women.

  • Reply September 13, 2014

    Watcher on the Couch

    On second thoughts, maybe it was possible there was a little of Queen Elizabeth I in Ygritte, though QEI didn’t actually fight but she made a rousing speech to the troops at Tilbury http://www.luminarium.org/renlit/tilbury.htm (loved the TV series where Anne-Marie Duff played Elizabeth and delivered that speech; got a soft spot for Helen Mirren as Elizabeth too). That being said I would agree that Boudicca (I was brought up to call her “Boadicea” but times have changed) as a historic person resembles Ygritte more closely than any other “real” person I can think of.

    I think Ms Garcia is likely right that it’s possible that GRRM took aspects of Boudicca as inspiration for both Daenerys and Ygritte (and maybe Arya) – and as Grant has observed, perhaps Melisandre. It’s been noted by other people on other threads that GRRM does something of a mix and match in history, using many different sources.

    I must admit I had not picked up on the point that the burning of Colchester likely represented “the biggest fire the Romans had ever seen”, though being from the UK I knew it had happened. When I learned about Boudicca at school the more brutal aspects of Boudicca’s onslaught against the Romans were glossed over or even not mentioned though. Boudicca is another person I shall have to put on my list to read about in greater depth.

    • Reply September 14, 2014

      Brittany Garcia

      I have read both your comments and I appreciate the depth and analysis you have put in them. I hope that you do find some books to read to learn more about Boadicea (as I was brought up to call her the same since that is how my mother use to pronounce her name). I hope you found the article intellectually stimulating and I hope to see your presence and thoughts on future articles I write for this site. Thank you most sincerely for your comments.

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