From Boudicca to modern Britain: the dream of island utopias, ruled by women
Once the British Isles were seen as a stronghold of female leadership. Patriarchal culture pushed these stories to the geographical margins – yet they live on, a force too potent to ignore
Throughout history, the idea of islands where women rule has been part mythological wish fulfilment, part male fantasy – and part cultural-geographical reality. In 2017 I moved to Orkney, an archipelago still dominated, as all of Britain once was, by its monumental neolithic architecture. Early one spring morning I visited the chambered cairn of Maeshowe, which is older than Stonehenge and much more complex in construction. Originally a circle of standing stones, around 2800BC it was encased in huge slabs of rock, making a domed chamber aligned to the setting winter solstice sun. Five thousand years later, on any clear evening a few weeks either side of solstice, as the sun goes down behind the hill of a nearby island, it hits the top of a standing stone, and is channelled into Maeshowe in a burst of golden light. It is a sacred moment in Britain’s year: when nature and culture collide, exploding out of winter’s darkness in a dramatic symbol of warmth and hope.
We were there to experiment with neolithic acoustics. Kristin Linklater, an Orcadian voice coach, crawled down Maeshowe’s entrance passage first, followed by me and my baby daughter, an archaeologist or two, musicians and students. Inside the central chamber, we stood up and began to sing. Kristin and I had already discussed our fascination with Maeshowe’s shape, which, with its green turf covering, looks like a giant grassy breast or pregnant womb. Together, we had enjoyed deploring the fact that the female symbolism of this monument receives little if any mention in academic literature, let alone tourist guidebooks. Yet it is just as likely that structures such as Maeshowe were designed to honour the female body as a safehouse of human potency in the world, as they were to serve a male elite priesthood.
I spent the rest of the summer at walking distance from Maeshowe, as writer-in-residence at the Ness of Brodgar archaeological site. I was given a trowel and set to work digging through layers of history. One of the things I found, here at the centre of Orkney’s sacred landscape, was an incredibly rare incense burner. For five thousand years it had lain undisturbed in the earth. Perhaps the last person to touch it, before I did that bright June morning, was a priestess, burning hemp or poppy.
My forthcoming history of the islands of Britain, The Britannias, demonstrates how the patriarchal mainstream has marginalised the ancient tradition of female rule in Britain. But I also wanted to unleash these islands of women into the 21st century in a novel. My novel, Cwen, is set in a fictional archipelago off the east coast of Britain, where I imagine a female coup.
This November, Britain will host Cop26, the UN climate conference, whose outcome will affect all our futures. When the government announced an all-male presidency team last September, there was outrage. SheChangesClimate.org was founded to campaign for gender balance in the leadership team. It might have seemed perfectly natural, to Boris Johnson and Alok Sharma, for the decisions on the British side to be made by men – after all, that is more or less how it has been for the past 3,000 years. Had Boris attended more closely to his classical education, however, he might have seen the potential for a very different story.
There was once a time when the islands of Britain were viewed by the outside world as a stronghold of female leadership. In 7BC, the Greek geographer Strabo wrote of a British island organised around the worship of the mother-goddess. Julius Caesar observed that, among other barbaric practices, British women were polyandrous. In his AD43 Description of the World, Pomponius Mela wrote of a British island inhabited by nine priestesses, “who stir up the seas and winds by their magic” – British women in charge of their climate.
From around the time of the Roman conquest of Britain, mythology and hearsay give way to historical documentation. In AD98, Tacitus marks Britain as a place of female rule when he writes in his Annals that “Britons make no distinction of sex in their royal successions” – an observation about Boudicca, Cartimandua and others that is borne out by the archaeology of Britain’s iron age and its sacred island goddess sites. Tacitus returned to this theme 20 years later, when chronicling the Roman assault on the Druid island stronghold of Anglesey. He observed that, during battle, women were ranged across the defending frontline:
On the beach stood … a serried mass … with women flitting between the
ranks. In the style of Furies, in robes of deathly black and with dishevelled
hair, they brandished their torches.
In the second century AD, Dionysius Periegetes wrote of islands near Britain where women perform “sacred rites”. In the sixth century, Procopius described a northern island, Thule (Orkney? Shetland?), where men and women “do everything in common”.
One afternoon in the British Library, I ordered up a book called Celtic Miscellany, a collection of early British texts translated in 1951 by the Harvard and Cambridge professor of Celtic languages, Kenneth Jackson. There on page 173, in a piece of trans-historical magic, was the idea I had been groping towards, preserved in an anonymous seventh-century Irish poem, The Voyage of Bran:
There is an island far away, around which sea-horses glisten … a lovely land through the ages of the world … begin a voyage across the clear sea, to find if you may reach the Land of Women.
I was electrified. Like a centrifuge, the patriarchal culture of mainland Britain had pushed these stories to the geographical margins – and yet they lived on, a force too potent to ignore.
Once I knew what I was looking for, I found these islands everywhere. I found them in other early medieval Irish poems; hinted at in the ancient Welsh tales called the Mabinogion. They survived the Norman invasion, to be picked up by Geoffrey of Monmouth who, in the Life of Merlin – written in Latin, in about 1140 – describes “the island of apples which men call ‘the Fortunate Isle’ … nine sisters rule by a pleasing set of laws.” When new epics of Britain’s origin as a nation came to be written, in Anglo-Norman, the main story is male: Britain, spawned by Brutus. But there is an earlier, female-born story, too, for Albion, founded by Albina:
Then Albina said:
‘This land to which we have come,
We do not know its name,
Nor if it ever had a lord.
Therefore, since I am the leader,
We will name it after me.
Albina is my name –
From which it will be called Albion,
And hence this country
Will remember us always.’
– On the Great Giants, c1250-1333
Albina is a Greek or Syrian princess, who, in an echo of Aeschylus’s The Suppliant Women, flees with her sisters from their forced marriages. They sail across the world to an uninhabited island, where they learn to hunt; make love to demons; birth a race of giants. There are overtones of Circe or Calypso, but the undertow is atavistic: an extraordinary vision of an alternative destiny for Britain. Moreover, the ancient name of this country, Albion, quoted by Pliny, is itself an echo of an earlier form, Albina, the ancient British goddess of art and death. As with the Voyage of Bran, the epic gives voice to female rebellion.
These ideas did not go away. In his 15th-century retelling of the story of King Arthur’s male-dominated court, Thomas Malory describes a parallel female-ruled island world. The “ladies of the lake” come and go from Arthur’s court as they please. They belong to a dimly remembered realm, where women were physicians and seers. As Merlin admits, the women of the island lake palace are the source of Arthur’s prowess, through their gift of his magical sword, Excalibur. At the end of Le Morte d’Arthur, the mortally wounded king is taken away on a ship to Avalon for healing by the Lady of the Lake, Morgan le Fay and two further queens.
Later writers are harsher about the islands of women. For Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare and others, islands ruled by women – Acrasia’s in The Faerie Queene, Sycorax’s in The Tempest – are too threatening and provocative to survive contact with men. Just as when the conquistadores sailed to the New World spurred on by visions of female-run islands dripping with gold, so too, these seductive islands and their women must be dominated, and, if necessary, destroyed.
A more positive iteration of Britain’s islands of women occurs with the Restoration, when almost all British writers, of whatever political persuasion, appear to be yearning for the ideal political paradise, so recently fought for and lost. Following Thomas More, islands – often faraway ones – become sites of potential metamorphosis. Among the most radical of these is the island in Margaret Cavendish’s feminist utopia, The Convent of Pleasure (1668), upon which Lady Happy sits, as she declares herself the source of the sun’s power – as if she is Maeshowe:
I feed the Sun, which gives them light,
And makes them shine in darkest night,
Moist vapour from my brest I give,
Which he sucks forth, and makes him live,
Or else his Fire would soon go out,
Grow dark, or burn the World throughout.
Fourteen years later, the apogee of this stubborn counter-current was published in Dublin, in the form of a faux-travelogue which purports to be an eyewitness account of an expatriate female colony descended from ancient Britons – “the Island so long sought for in the Western Ocean”.
Perhaps because of the rise of empire, and the acquisition of real islands as places to loot and exploit in far-off waters, from then on male-dominated dystopias tend to loom large: Treasure Island, Lord of the Flies, JG Ballard’s Concrete Island. But outside the English language, islands of women do survive. In the islands of Scotland, particularly, where pagan preliterate culture somehow outlived the onslaught of priests and kings, the ancient language of Gaelic encodes in its invocations and prayers, as well as in the names of hills and streams, a deeply buried reverence for women. On the tiny island of Handa, near Ullapool, there was even a “queen” until the mid 19th century; as the Reverend Tulloch noted, in his official report about this remote community:
they have established nothing less than Royalty amongst them, in the person of the eldest widow on the island, who is designed Queen; and her prerogative is recognized not only by the islanders, but by visitors from the mainland.
The idea of islands as places where women can be free has too long and complex a history in popular culture to disappear from view. In 1991, Julie Dash became the first African-American female director to have a feature film on general release. Daughters of the Dust takes place in the sea islands of Georgia, where her ancestors settled after being transported from Africa. Isolation gave them a measure of freedom, not just from Christian enslavement, but also from patriarchy; something impossible to imagine elsewhere in the deep south of the 19th and 20th centuries.
“Utopia isn’t elsewhere, it is here”, Bjork sang in 2017, just as I was discovering Maeshowe anew. Her album, Utopia, describes a female island paradise; to me, it is a vision that reaches back through the history of Iceland and Britain, to Viking times and earlier. It reminds me of the Old Norse epic the Voluspa: a creation story narrated by women, which makes the sun into a female goddess and has women as law-makers. The Voluspa, in turn, drew on those ancient Celtic legends which told of paradisal western isles where women ruled.
My novel, Cwen, draws on all these rich and inspiring stories to tell an alternative story of Britain and its women. The word “cwen” is Old English for queen. According to the etymologist Carl Darling Buck, English is the only Indo-European language in which words for queen are not derived from those for king. By Chaucer’s time, the word had taken on a more bawdy meaning.
In the 5,000 years since Maeshowe was built, we have entered a sixth mass species extinction event, and pollution and waste plague our soils and oceans. It is surely time to try something new – or old. Let us put female weather prophets in charge of Britain’s climate: Emma Howard Boyd, head of the Environment Agency, for example. Or Caroline Lucas, the Green party’s sole MP; or Farhana Yamin, an environmental lawyer. That Johnson and Sharma fitted out the Cop team with a group of their male mates was not a foregone conclusion, culturally speaking. Had Cop26 been hosted by Britain in the first century AD, rather than the 21st, Boudicca would have been leading the negotiations. Now, once again, it is time to inject some of Britain’s ancient female power into our modern social fabric.