Song for a Dark Queen
First edition cover






Young adult

Historical era



The Other Award

"See, I am binding your sword with harp-song, so that it will never break."

– Cadwan of the Harp, chapter One

Song for a Dark Queen is a short novel first published in 1978 and winner of The Other Award. It is based on the life of Boudicca, the queen of the Iceni who led a rebellion against Roman rule in 60 CE.


Cadwan of the Harp, narrator and harper to the chiefs of the Iceni, promises a sword song to Boudicca, the Royal Daughter and future Queen (1). Boudicca is resentfully betrothed to Prasutagus, a stranger who will become King of the Iceni by virtue of their marriage (2). Boudicca's father the King is killed in battle against the Catuvellauni, the strongest tribe of the southeast, and Boudicca and Prasutagus become the Queen and King. Boudicca publically refuses to sleep with Prasutagus (3).

The Romans land in Britain for the second time and crush the Catuvellauni, whom Boudicca chooses not to support. Prasutagus along with the other British chieftains reluctantly swears allegiance to the Emperor Claudius. Prasutagus is severely injured protecting Boudicca during a stampede and she reverses her feelings towards him (4). They have two daughters to carry on their royal line. The Roman governor disarms the allied tribes and Prasutagus makes a will leaving half his private wealth to the new Emperor Nero, a customary buy-off (5). He dies young and suddenly of a fever, and the Roman government, believing that the royal line is ended, seizes the opportunity to annex the semi-independent state into the provincial government proper (6).

Decianus Catus, the Roman Procurator, arrives with a legionary escort to claim Prasutagus's estate and usher Boudicca and her daughters into retirement. The Iceni tolerate his insulting manner until his Escort Commander attempts to molest Essylt the Royal Daughter and her betrothed Duatha kills him. The Romans overwhelm the lightly-armed Iceni, lay waste to the Dun, and the Procurator has Boudicca beaten, while her daughters are raped (8).

Boudicca declares that they will wait until the Governor, Suetonius Paulinus, is preoccupied fighting the Druids in the west before they take to the war trail (9). The Iceni organise a secret alliance of the British tribes while Paulinus reduces the Druid stronghold of Mon (10). The British war host attacks the unprotected Roman city of Camulodunum, whose surviving women Boudicca has brutally killed in a sacred grove (11). Several war bands leave the host after looting the town, but Andragius, prince of the Brigantes, points out that none of the leaders, who witnessed the sacrifice of the Roman women, can ever be forgiven by the Romans. Boudicca fears she has profaned the goddess by turning the ritual to political purposes, but Andragius defeats a detachment of the Ninth Legion above Camulodunum (12).

The commander of the Second Legion refuses to reinforce Paulinus, ad he abandons Londinium as indefensible. Boudicca's war host burns the town and slaughters the civilian defenders, but the detachment sent to intercept the Twentieth and Fourteenth Legions at Verulamium fails to make contact, and they rejoin Paulinus south of Londinium where he awaits reinforcements from the south (13).

Two months later, supplies are dwindling for both armies. At the Corn Feast, two young warriors attempt to take liberties with the Princesses Essylt and Nessan and are only spared ritual sacrifice because the Romans begin finally to advance (14). The heavily outnumbered Romans take up a position backing onto a valley and manage to foul the thrust of the British chariot charge before pressing their advantage. The British retreat is hampered by their own wagon train and Essylt and Nessan are killed (15). Boudicca is concussed in the charge and Cadwan brings her back to her Royal Dun, where she takes poison and Cadwan lies down to die of his wounds (16).


Song for a Dark Queen follows Boudicca over the course of "more than five and twenty summers", from age six to her death in the uprising of 60 or 61 CE. This timeline uses 61 CE according to the eighteen years cited in the text between the Roman conquest and the rebellion, and in conformity with the date given for the overlapping story "Death of a City" in The Capricorn Bracelet .


  • 55-4 BCE: Julius Caesar invades Britain "five lifetimes ago" (1)
  • Cunobelin overran the Trinovantes "Less than one lifetime ago" (1)
  • 27 CE: Boudicca born (2)
  • 31 CE: The Queen and her fetus die, Boudicca is 4 (2)
  • 33 CE: Spring, Boudicca is 6 (1): Cadwan promises her a sword song
  • 37 CE: Boudicca is 10 (2): scars her temple falling out of a tree
  • 40 CE: Autumn, Boudicca is 13 (2): 3 day Choosing Feast
    • 5 days later: Prasutagus arrives (3)
  • 42 CE: 2 years later, "less than half a moon before" the wedding day: Catuvellauni attack
    • 7 days later: King is dead.
    • 9 days of mourning
    • "a day not long before Samhein": Boudicca and Prasutagus's appointed wedding-day
  • 43 CE, Late spring: the Romans return (4), engage the Catuvellauni
    • High summer: the emperor arrives, with elephants (4)
    • Late summer: the emperor accepts allliances for 3 days at Dun Camulus (4)
    • Early autumn: Prasutagus nearly dies (4), Boudicca reconciles
      • Many days' convalescence
  • 44 CE, The winter after next: Essylt born (5)
  • 47 CE, 3 years later: Nessan born (5)
  • 49 CE, 6 years after the treaty with Rome: Governor disarms the tribes (5)
    • Southwest Iceni clans revolt, are crushed after 9 days
  • 3 years of poor harvests and debt
  • 52 CE, 3 years later: Caratacus betrayed by Cartimandua and imprisoned in Rome (6)
    • Claudius poisoned and Nero enthroned
  • 60 CE, "One year ago", autumn, Essylt is 15: Choosing Feast for Duatha (6)
    • Prasutagus makes his will
  • 61 CE, "towards winter's end": Prasutagus takes ill. Dies 3 days later (6)
    • Early March, a month later: Iceni to be folded into provincial government. Agricola lands in Britain. (6, 7)
    • Spring, "the full moon of Corn Sowing": Decianus Catus arrives to dun Boudicca (8)
    • 3 months later: the time Boudicca appoints for the war-trail against the Romans (9)
    • Just before midsummer: Suetonius defeats Mon. Boudicca sends out the Cran Tara (10)
      • 3 days' Hosting
      • 5 days to Dun Camulus (11)
      • Next day: take Camulodunum
      • Next day: attack on the temple of the Divine Claudius, sacrifice of the women
      • War bands loot the town, desert (12)
      • Meet the Ninth Legion at the ford
      • 3 days south to Londinium (13)
      • 2 days waiting for the Catuvellauni at Londinium
      • August 2nd: Romans encamped south of Londinium waiting for reinforcements
    • 2 months later: The Corn Feast. Paulinus moves to the attack (14).
      • 3 days later: battle
      • Days afterward: Boudicca and Cadwan return to the Royal Dun to die (16)


  • The Iceni, horse-breeding tribe of eastern Britain (1). Matrilinear royalty. "We are not like some tribes whose women go to war with the men in the usual pattern of things, only in time of sorest need our women follow the war trail with us and we lead our mares under the chariot yoke" (2). "ritual questions" asked of the chosen king on arrival. Queen wears silver moon headdress and white mare's skin, King red stallion's hide. Kingmaking=marriage to the Queen (3). Choose not to support the Catuvellauni against Rome. Swear allegiance to Claudius (4). Stripped of their weapons by Ostorius Scapula (5). Stripped of their wealth by Nero and debt-collectors. Lead a British war host against the Romans (10). Defeated at Londinium (15). Royal line ended (16).
    • Cadwan of the Harp, harper to the Icenian queens. An avuncular favourite of the young Boudicca. "at all the great happenings of a tribe, the Chief's Harper must be there to make of it a harp-song that may pass into the history of the tribe." (4). "A harper speaks to all living things as equals." Not unfamiliar with the sword (5). Concussed and left for dead during the Roman attack on the Royal Dun (8). Speared defending Nessan at the final battle (15). Helps Boudicca back to the Royal Dun, where he dies shortly after her (16).
    • Boudicca, Royal Daughter of the Iceni. Blonde, determined, proud (1), tall, blue-eyed, tempestuous. Would prefer to lead her own army than marry a stranger (2). Made Queen at 15 at the King's death. Accepts Prasutagus with bad grace (3). "there was often war between them at that time, the attacking for the most part on her side". Changes her mind after Prasutagus almost dies (4). Becomes very happy and slightly fat. Gives birth to Essylt and Nessan (5). Refuses to accept Prasutagus's death (6). "the glow of warmth and life that had always come from her came no more." Wakes up from her grieving at the Procurator's insulting treatment (7). "she is without mercy, on them, on herself, on any living thing" (9). Sacrifices the women of Camulodunum to the goddess (12). Intends to sacrifice two warriors at the Corn Feast (14). Plunges into the third chariot charge at the battle of Londinium and is concussed. Carried back to the Royal Dun, where she takes poison (16).
    • Boudicca's mother (1), Icenian queen, dead before Boudicca is 6
    • The King (1), Boudicca's father. Killed fighting the Catuvellauni a week before Boudicca's wedding-day (3).
    • Rhun (1), Boudicca's nurse, "like a hen with one chick". "Old Nurse was of the Dark People herself" (6). Offers to poison the Roman Procurator (7).
    • Oak Priests (2), dwell in forest clearings
    • Merddyn (2), chief Oak Priest. Has the ear of Boudicca (4).
    • Vadrex (2), spotty youth
    • Cassal (2), youth
    • Cadog (3), Prasutagus's armour-bearer
    • Gretorix Hard-Council (4), badger-bearded and conservative.
    • Bran (4), goes for the Healer Priest when Prasutagus is injured
    • Healer Priest (4). Detected Prasutagus's heart murmur before his Choosing (6).
    • Essylt (5), Royal Daughter of Boudicca and Prasutagus. Born in winter, red-headed (5). Freckled. Resembles Boudicca in eveything but her hair (6). Raped by the Romans (8). Reacts violently to free treatment by a young warrior at the Corn Feast (14). Dies fighting at the wagon line (15).
    • Nessan (5), younger daughter of Boudicca and Prasutagus. Dark and quiet (5). Born at midsummer. Grey-eyed. Good singer. Close to Cadwan (6). Raped by the Romans (9). The only person Cadwan would allow to touch his harp, but no longer inclined to music (10). Violently rejects, but protests the intended killing of, the warriors who took liberties with the princesses at the Corn Feast (14). Killed at the wagon line (15).
    • Fand (5), Prasutagus's favourite hound bitch, second of that name. Dies giving birth (6).
    • Duatha (6), companion of Essylt, "whose father was chief of the household warriors". Chosen as Essylt's consort. "A tall, hot-blooded lad with the manhood-scars still on him...the choice was a happy one" (6). Attacks the Escort Commander and is killed in the ensuing fighting (9).
    • Arviragus (6), Duatha's dad, "chief of the King's companions"
    • Baruch (6), "chief of the kennel slaves", old
    • Caer (7), one of Boudicca's waiting-women
    • Cerdic (8), Prasutagus's cup-bearer
    • Meradoc Wide-Mouth (9), a warrior "who made laughter out of all things"
    • Brockmail (10), Prasutagus and Boudicca's charioteer
  • The Parisi (2), "the chariot warriors who had spread along the coasts to our north and become bound to us by blood ties so that now we counted almost as one people. Almost, but not quite." (2) "the Parisi have ever been strongly linked to Gaul" (4). south of Lindum (5). Join Boudicca (10).
    • Prasutagus (2), "son of Dumnorix, who was of the Iceni on his mother's side, but his father a chieftain of the Parisi." Boudicca's betrothed=future King of the Iceni. 17, "two years past his manhood-making." (2). "a man who liked best to be his own driver" Short, broad, redheaded, intelligent, courteous (3). Patient. Gets a concussion and breaks his ribs protecting Boudicca from a stampede (4). "He always grew pale and deathly quiet when he was angry." Has a heart defect. 'It is not easy to be a king and think too much." (5). Wills half his private estate to Nero as the customary bribe. Dies of a fever after a soaking (6).
    • Dumnorix (2), "Prasutagus's father was among the richest of the chiefs of the Parisi" (3)
  • The Catuvellauni (1), "the Cats of War", enemies of the Iceni. "a tribe many times greater than we." Cut to pieces by the Romans (4). Join Boudicca (10).
    • Cassivellaunus (1), Catuvellauni king
    • Tasciovanus (1), Catuvellauni king
    • Cunobelin (1), Catuvellauni king
    • Togodumnos (1), son of Cunobelin. Killed at battle of Londinos (4).
    • Caratacus (1), son of Cunobelin. Inherits from Togodumos (4).
    • Andragius (12), prince of those who join Boudicca, commander against the Ninth. Leads half the warhost against Verulamium (13).
  • The Romans, aka Red Crests
    • Julius Caesar (1), repulsed by the Catuvellauni
    • Claudius (4), emperor. Paunchy, small-headed, stammering, lame, clever (4).
    • Ostorius Scapula (5), governor of Britain.
    • Suetonius Paulinus (6), new Governor. "a great soldier, so said his reputation, following him from the ends of the Empire; but a hard man like an east wind and a hammer." (6). Campaigning against Mon (9). "not much mercy in him, I think; but he never asks any of his men to do what he will not do himself" (10).
    • Nero (6), new Emperor, "a man with music in him, even as I, but possessed by spirits of darkness."
    • Lady Julia Procilla (6), mother and correspondent of Agricola, resident of Massilia
    • Gnaeus Julius Agricola (6), dutiful son and new Tribune on Suetonius Paulinus's staff, secondary narrator. Chosen as the Governor's Tenting-Companion. Fights in the attack on Mon (10). Fights at Londinium. Burns his letter to his mother (16). Future Governor of Britain and conqueror of Caledonia.
    • Marcipor (6), Agricola's body-slave, a poor traveller
    • Decianus Catus (6), Procurator of Britain, disliked by Agricola. Turns up to dun Boudicca after Prasutagus's death (7). Has Boudicca flogged and the Royal Dun destroyed (8). Escapes to Gaul; blamed by Agricola for the uprising (12).
    • Seneca (6), philosopher and money-lender to the Iceni
    • The Escort Commander (8), sexually harrasses Essylt, killed by Duatha
    • The Twentieth Legion (10), attacking Mon under Paulinus
    • The Fourteenth Legion (10), attacking Mon under Paulinus
    • Frisian auxiliaries (10), vanguard of the attack on Mon
    • Felix (10), Agricola's ugly horse, with "a heart to match Bukephalus". Killed at Londinium ford (14).
    • The Second Legion (10), based in Glevum, called up by Paulinus.
      • The camp Commandant (12), refuses to reinforce Paulinus in Londinium
    • The Ninth Legion (11), based in Lindum. A vexillation marches south against Boudicca
    • Petilius Cerialis (11), commander of the Ninth
    • Sylvanus (15), one of Agricola's fellow Staff Tribunes, "normally a rather exquisite young man"
  • The Trinovantes (1), the Iceni's southern neighbours, conquered by the Catuvellauni (1). Treated as a conquered people by the Romans. Join Boudicca (10).
    • Vortrix the Bear (10), aggrieved chieftain from Camulodunum
  • Camulus (1), Celtic war god
  • Epona (3), the Lady of Foals, the All-Mother, chief god of the Iceni
  • The Washer at the Ford (12), goddess who portends death
  • The Silures (4) of the western hills. Shelter fugitive Caratacus. At war with Rome (5).
  • The Regni (4), southern tribe closely-linked to Rome
    • Cogidubnos (4), chief of the Regni, speaks Latin: "almost a Roman princeling before ever the Red Crests came"
  • The Dumnoni (5), far southwestern tribe on the Roman frontier
  • The Brigantes (5), the Bearers of the Blue Warshields, unpacified. Join Boudicca, "the proudest of the proud" (10). 3 warbands depart after Camulodunum (11).
    • Cartimandua (6), Queen of the Brigantes, betrayed Caratacus to Rome
    • Tigernann (12), prince of the Brigantes who join Boudicca
  • The Coritani (10) of the Midlands. Join Boudicca. Some leave after Camulodunum (12).
  • The Cornovi (10), west of the Coritani. Join Boudicca. Some leave after Camulodunum (12).


  • The Great Water (1), the British Channel
  • Catuvellauni territory (Thames valley, Suffolk)
    • Dun Camulus (1), Strong Place of the Trinovantes, then the Catuvellauni. "many times larger and finer than the Royal Dun of the Iceni; and set about with its wide forecourts and chariot courts, its craftmen's quarter and its Women's Place." Made into a veterans' colony Camulodunum by Claudius (4). "there begins to be something of civilization. The great temple to the Divine Claudius, the circus and the theatre..." (8) Unwalled city on a "whale-backed hill" with a river on two sides, Togodumnus's Dun pulled down for other building projects (10)
    • The Father of Rivers (4), the Thames
    • Londinos (4), trading post below a ford, site of 2nd Catuvellauni-Roman engagement. "It's something of a shanty town still, lacking in roots. Well of course none of it is more than eighteen years old, even the army depot...But it seems prosperous enough; lots of shipping below the bridge...shiny new temple" (6). Next target of the war host, for its supplies and Roman character. Occupied and abandoned as indefensible by Paulinus (12).
    • Villa of the cherry tree (10), near Camulodunum
    • The Grove of the Mother (10), outside Dun Camulus
  • Iceni territory (East Anglia)
    • The Royal Garth (1) at the king's summer steading. Foaling runs and pens and stables; hedge and oak woods and marsh pools; Women's Quarters; grazing lands, salt marshes seawards, oak woods inland
      • Guest-huts, Hall, Royal Village, in-pasture below, Weapon Court before the Hall (2).
      • Royal House of Sleep (3), columbarium grave mound
    • The High Chalk (3), "a ridgeway linking us to the outside world." (3)
    • Forest clearings of the Oak Priests (3)
    • Island of the nine thorn trees (10), where Boudicca holds her secret war councils
  • Deva (6), Chester, Roman base of the 20th Legion on the west coast
  • Mon (9), Anglesey, reduced by Suetonius. Stronghold of the druids and "chief granary of much of western Britain" (10).
  • Segontium (10), Roman base commanding the straits of Mon
  • Noviomagus (12), direction in which Paulinus withdraws from Londinium
  • Verulamium (13), between the Legions from Deva and the British war host
  • Calleva of the Atrebates (13), the 20th and 14th swing south through it to join Paulinus

Historical and literary backgroundEdit

  1. Tacitus, The Annals. Chapters 29-37, translation Andrew Murphy 1794.
  2. Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book LXII

From the Author's Note:

  1. T. C. Lethbridge, Witches and Gog-Magog: "the theory that the Iceni were a matriarchy"
  2. Lewis Spence, Boadicea: "gave me the most help with the actual revolt"
  3. A. R. Burn, Agricola and Roman Britain: "that young Gnaeus Julius Agricola...was a tribune on the staff of the Governor Suetonius Paulinus"

Publication historyEdit

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