Monday, 1 April 2013

Norfolk - The Heartland of the Iceni

In the run-up to the publication of my novel, An Accidental King, set in southern England in the 1st Century AD, I have already begun exploring some of the places (Fishbourne Roman Palace, the temple on Hayling Island, Rome itself) that will feature in the book. A significant part of the action, however, will take place in Norfolk, and for good reason. It is the heartland of the Iceni, whose queen, known to history as Boudicca (although it is unclear whether this is a name or a title) instigated the revolt of 60/61 AD, in the course of which Britain was almost lost to the Roman Empire.

Judging from the amount of Iron Age gold-work that has been found in Norfolk, the Iceni seem to have been among the wealthiest of the British tribes, a wealth that was undoubtedly based on agriculture, but also, perhaps, on the breeding and raising of high-quality horses (the horse features on almost all Iceni coins, and bridle fittings are found on many sites). Prior to the revolt, the Iceni are recorded as having been Roman allies, but clearly something happened to change this (a theme to which I will return at a later date).

I knew, when I started researching the book in 2009, that the relationships between the Iceni, the other tribes of Southern England, and the Roman administration would be a key theme, and that, consequently, Norfolk would feature quite prominently. John Davies's book, The Land of Boudica (Oxbow Books), was a useful starting point for my research. The location of the Iceni capital prior to the revolt is unknown. Stonea Camp, in modern Cambridgeshire, is one possibility, but I was drawn to another place, in the heart of Norfolk itself, the modern village of Thetford. There are two sites, within a short walking distance of each other, which seem to have had particular significance during the Iron Age. Both are places that the woman who became "Boudicca" is likely to have known well, and I am using them as the settings for some of the most dramatic scenes in the novel.

The first is Thetford Castle. The castle itself (of which only the motte - an artificial mound - survives) dates to the early years of the Norman occupation of England, but it is surrounded by the massive banks and ditches of an earlier hill-fort. This probably pre-dates the Roman invasion by several centuries, but I decided to explore the notion that it may have retained some significance, and been used for certain ceremonies.

The Iron Age bank of Thetford Castle, viewed from the top of the Medieval castle mound.

The second is at Gallows Hill, to the west of the modern village. Nothing can be seen of this site today, but excavations by Tony Gregory in the 1980s revealed an enclosure which, in its final phase (perhaps around 50 AD, mid-way between the Roman invasion and the revolt) had three buildings within a rectangular enclosure, surrounded by an artificial "thicket" or "grove."

A reconstruction of the Gallows Hill site as it may have appeared in 50 AD.

Nearby is a third site which, perhaps more surprisingly, will also feature in the novel. I first visited the Neolithic flint-mines of Grime's Graves as a Cambridge undergraduate thirty years ago but, when I revisited in the course of my research, I found that some of the mine-shafts had been re-opened during the Late Iron Age or Early Roman period and, since I was in search for a location for a particular scene, this seemed like too good an opportunity to miss.

The Neolithic flint-mines of Grime's Graves, Norfolk.

More photographs (coins, gold torcs, sites) relevant to this post can be seen at

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.


  1. Can't wait to read it, Mark. My own work is going so slowly, mostly because I'm getting sidetracked so easily in my researches. The 'History versus Archaeology' you referred to some time back is kicking in good style. I'm writing something maybe loosely based on Tacitus and then find it doesn't tie in with the most recent marching camp 'evidence'. Hence a huge dithering! But I'll get there.

  2. Thanks, Nancy. I should have mentioned that Nancy is blogging related topics at

  3. Fascinating. I have always been enthralled by the the Boudicca and her glorious but doomed "last stand". Really looking forward to your book, Mark.

  4. A very interesting post, Mark, about a fascinating era in 'British' history.

    Wishing you much success with An Accidental King.

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  6. The Boudicca's last stand doesn't look very glorious from the point of view of my protagonist, Cameron, but then exploring things from different viewpoints is one of the reasons I love reading and writing historical fiction. Manda Scott has very ably told the story from the Boudicca's own viewpoint, so I deliberately chose a different angle, but it is one, I hope, that respects the humanity of all concerned.

  7. Great academic style. More, more, more.

  8. Thanks, PK. Those of us who write both academic prose and historical fiction (I'm not the only one, there's also Harry Sidebottom, Hallie Rubenhold and several others) walk quite a precarious path between known facts and imagined worlds. These blog-posts are, in a sense, the connective tissue between them, where we show our workings. Then we have to go off and imagine ourselves into the mind of someone who has left no record of what he or she actually thought or felt.