When the Palace of Westminster burnt down in 1834, a royal commission determined that the architecture of the new building should be Elizabethan or Gothic. John Soane’s neoclassical remodelling of the medieval palace was abandoned. The interior decoration was to include scenes from Britain’s Roman past: Caractacus in chains by George Frederick Watts, Caesar’s first invasion of Britain by Edward Armitage, and Boudica haranguing the Iceni by H C Selous. But none of these was executed. In their place ‘Saxon kings are converted to Christianity, Shakespearean heroes play out their stories and Good Queen Bess reigns again.’ The closest Boudica got to the Palace was Westminster Bridge. Charlotte Higgins reads the turn away from a Roman past as a conscious statement that British history and civic institutions commenced with the Anglo-Saxons. She suggests that Britain’s Roman past was too ambiguous to pull into line: was Boudica a patriot or a savage, and anyway, was she not on the losing side, along with Caractacus?
Downplaying Rome’s influence on British history is one tradition in the understanding of Roman Britain, and the aftermath of the collapse of Roman rule in Britain in the early fourth century seems to lend it support. The archaeological record suggests that civic life imploded, and the ‘historiographical void’ created by