Blackborough: A Complete History of a Non-Existent Place (Part 1)
(The story of the entirely fictional town of Blackborough is the work of a number of talented contributors at alternatehistory.com. I have made only minor edits to the finished project for the sake of length and clarity. My thanks to everyone who helped to build this city.)
Roman Frontier (208 – 524 AD)
In 208 AD the Roman Emperor Severus arrives in Britain to conquer Caledonia. The Emperor orders a bridge be built across a river on the north-east coast of Britannia in order to allow the Roman army to travel north to Caledonia more easily. Parts of the forest on the north bank of the river are cleared to make way for the road and bridge through the area.
In 211 AD Severus’s campaign is cut short when he falls ill, Severus withdraws south to Eboracum and dies there on the 4th of February.
The campaign in Caledonia ends shortly afterwards, with the Romans falling back to Hadrian’s wall. Plans begin to be discussed to build a fort in this area, as part of a second line of defense against raids by the Caledonian tribes.
In 226 the Roman fort of Muro Orientem is established on the north bank of the river by the VI “Victorious” Legion, who quickly set up two barracks by the main entrance of the fort.
By 249 AD, the population has risen to 103 citizens (78 of which are civilians) and a market is established for trading goods and food.
By 258 farms are established to supply the fort with food.
In 265, a Caledonian raid almost breached the walls, prompting the legions there to thicken the walls.
In 267, an aqueduct was built to supply the people with fresh water.
In 273, a small dock was built for transportation and fishing needs.
Soon after the Cyprian Plague arrived in the region, a deeply unpleasant disease that wipes out about a sixth of the town’s population.
The plague initially caused food shortages due to a lack of men working the land but these shortages are alleviated somewhat when a number of members of a local Brigante tribe move into the area, drawn by opportunities for trade and employment at the Roman castra. Concerned by reports of Saxon raids on the east coast the Brigantes seek to settle close to the protection of the Roman legion.
From 280 AD onwards, farms are established by the Brigantes close to the walls of the castra, and in 286 the Romans permit a corall to be built attached to the walls, keeping Celtic Shorthorn Cattle.
Within the castra, the population slowly begins to recover from the Plague.
Many Caledonian and Brigante women settle in the camp, either drawn by the prospect of an easy living or captured during raids, and the population of the town increasingly becomes mixed Romano-British in origin.
Areas of forest around the town were cleared to improve lines of sight in case of attack and in 286 AD river flooding causes a partial collapse of the bridge.
In 297 AD one of the soldiers based at Muro Orientem begins privately practicing Christianity. He will be the first of many .
In the next century bans on Christianity in the Roman Empire are lifted and the seat of the Empire shifts eastward to the old market city of Byzantium.
This lifting of the ban allows Christians to feel more at ease with practicing their faith openly, although the main faith is still that dedicated to Mithra, as the cult has remained strong in the fort town. The Brigantes mostly celebrate their personal ascended heroes and deities, although the tribe collectively all worship Victoria Brigantia, their own goddess of victory. Both deities get a small shrine in their respective area whilst the Christians typically pray in private homes
More of the Britons settle peacefully in the area as Goidellic and Saxon raids force them into the town’s protection. In response, some watch towers with vigils were constructed along the road to keep the road and area safe, especially near the bridge.
In the 4th century he Christian population of the town grows from paltry to modest, converting a retired soldier’s house into a permanent church and establishing a graveyard, rejecting traditional cremation, just outside the walls.
Meanwhile, Britgantes continue to cluster around the fortress town as Saxon raiding increases. The local economy begins to rely more on trade of pottery brought in from Eboracum (and originating from points south) and local metalwork, a small smith having been established for this purpose near the south gate, for British foodstuffs and meat rather than produce grown within the walls.
Increasingly alarmed at the growing British population in the region, the watchtower on the North end of the bridge was expanded and given a palisade near the end of the 340s, both in hopes of controlling tribal movement and collecting tolls.
In 356, Emporer Constantinus II issues a decree closing all pagan temples, and banning the veneration of non-Christian images. The Mithraic population of the town is angered, and whilst some decide to convert to Christianity the old temples continue to ring with pagan ceremony.
In 393, a dock is built on the east bank of the river mouth, allowing farms to be built closer to the beach.
In 395, the Roman Emperor orders a statue be built in his honour, placed in the central junction of the town. By this time the population of the town is nearly a thousand.
At the start of the fifth century the legion, like so many forces in Britannia, are withdrawn to the continent. This was largely due to two factors: the first is that the armies were coveted by an enterprising General seeking to become Emperor. The second is that the protection of Gaul and Italia was to be prioritised. This leaves the hybrid Romano-British as the plurality alongside the Brigante, with very few Romans still around.
Mithraism in the town is on the wane as Christians slowly convert the townsfolk. This is mostly due to the fact that the mainstay of the faith, the old roman families, have left. The Christians decide to rededicate the small shrine of Mithra to Christ. However, the small standing stone dedicated to Brigantia remains a spiritual centre for those pagans still in the city. At this point the tribesmen are seen as full citizens having lived there since their grandfathers settled the area.
Older legionnaires who refused the call and stayed behind began training the tribesmen into disciplined units based on what they knew and what they had available. These forces were supplemented by those Romano-British who wished to defend their homelands from raiders. It’s somewhat ad-hoc, but through these means, a small defence force is still available. In terms of size, it would be about two-thirds of a century fully mobilized, a far cry from the legion that stayed behind the wall, but better than nothing. At this point, one of the barracks is disassembled for building materials and walling, while the other barracks remains in the hands of the townsmen, who are increasingly operating on their own.
The town by this point begins to grow outside of the fort proper. This comes from people who fled from Damnonia or Rheged, two sections that experience bad raids by the Goidels and the Picts. This means that while overall the population dips noticeably, technically it’s more of a town as we know it now rather than a fort.The smithy grows slightly, as the smith becomes wealthier due to being the only person who can make metal implements readily available now.
In 456 heavy rains cause flooding, leading to the collapse of the dock on the southern bank, and part of the aqueduct.
With the departure of the Romans, no one in the town has the expertise to repair the aqueduct.
Following the flood, the standing stone to Brigantia in the centre of the town is destroyed by angry Christians. The remaining pagan population is now forced to use the standing stones outside of town for worship.
More areas of forest are cleared to make way for new farms.
As one of the few towns in the area that has not yet been raided by Saxons, Britons flock to the protection of Muro Orientem.
In 482 AD an Anglo-Saxon raiding party from the south sails into the mouth of the river and attacks the town.
In the ensuing battle for the town many farms and homes outside of the town walls are burned and looted, as well as the church and one of the old Roman guard posts.
One brave/stubborn townsperson by the name of Dubnus refuses to leave the church during the attack and blocks the door way, singing and praying to God.
The invaders cut off Dubnus’ head where he stands and toss his remains into the river, but (according to several townspeople) his head continues singing the praises of the Lord even as it bobs down the river and is subsequently recovered from the water. The head is placed in the shrine inside the town walls after the battle and St. Dubnus is venerated by Christians from miles around, becoming an early English Christian Martyr.
The Anglo-Saxons attempt to raze the Roman walls to the ground, but the walls hold against the onslaught, albeit blackened and scorched by flame, and after several days of fierce fighting, the Britons ultimately prevail and drive off the Anglo-Saxons. The would-be invaders begin calling the town Blæcburh (literally “blackened fortified town”) in reference to the scorched walls.
The townspeople, angry that they had to face off this threat alone, pull down the statue of the Emperor in the centre of town and dump it in a ditch in the forest, where it may remain lost for centuries.
Shortly after the Battle of Blæcburh the Anglo-Saxons lose another, more important battle, the Battle of Badon, bringing about a temporary reprieve for the Britons.
The first decade of the 6th Century is a time of peace for the town. The townsfolk are not idle. They reinforce the blackened walls with earthworks, on both sides. Wooden palisades are erected around the areas of the town outside the walls. It is during this period that rumours come from the south of a chieftain or King named Artorius organising the Britons to drive back the Saxon tide.
For the next ten years Saxon forces come up. The town continues to hold.
In 523 a permanent Saxon camp is established on the south side of the bridge.
In October 524 the Saxons launch their final attack the town. Like all previous attempts the Saxons are unable to pierce the walls. That is until the town is betrayed.
Some Pagan Britons turn on their Christian neighbours, causing dissension within the town. Other Pagans open the gates, allowing the Saxon chief to lead his force into the town.
The town is occupied.
Saxon Blæcburh (525 – 876 AD)
The Saxon village’s population begins to move into the town. As they do so, many Britons head North, leaving room for more Saxons to move in, who officially rename the town. The local Chieftan builds a giant house in the center of town that serves as his home and as a meeting place for court cases (in a sense, an early castle). Many people also begin to move within the city walls, filling out the empty space within. Talks of building a larger, outer wall are made, but do not see any action yet. However, the town is not completely converted over to Saxon culture, as the locals begin adopting the name of “Dubnus” as the river name after the legendary townsperson whose head continued to sing even as ut floated down the river.
In 550 AD Blæcburh is absorbed into the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Bernicia, ruled by King Ida. King Ida permits the Saxon leader who conquered the town to remain as its local ruler in exchange for committing men to aid King Ida’s ambition of expanding his kingdom further inland.
As such Blæcburh becomes an important beach head for Anglo-Saxon campaigns against the Britons to the west, and a large outer fortification is built made up of a steep bank topped by a palisade of wooden stakes.
Areas of forest are hacked down in the construction of the palisade, and part of the old Roman Aqueduct is cannibalized for stone to reinforce the newly constructed bank.
Several of the British traders who had flourished for generations under the Romans are forced to work the farms to keep the Anglo-Saxon warriors fed, however at the same time the demand for blacksmiths and bladesmiths increases.
Several ruined buildings crumble further.
On September 20, 582 AD, the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Blæcburh, a local man finds the ancient statue of the Roman Emperor whilst chopping wood . He then goes on to claim that the ghost of St. Dubnus lead him to it and said that it was to be readorned as a statue of Dubnus and that he would someday return to help fend off invaders from Albion once more. The statue is taken outside of the village and erected there (since the Anglo-Saxons aren’t keen on putting a statue of an enemy in the center of town). September 20 officially becomes a day of celebrating the bravery of St. Dubnus.
Between the years of 583 and 599, the farmland is expanded outside of the walls and more Anglo-Saxons occupy the town.
In 604 AD King Aethelfrith unites Bernicia and Deira to form the Kingdom of Northumbria, however in 616 AD Aethelfrith is defeated by King Raedwald, who places Edwin on the throne of Northumbria.
Over the following years Edwin conquers a number of neighbouring Briton Kingdoms and Blæcburh benefits from Edwin’s successes, becoming a moderately important town in the powerful new Kingdom of Northumbria.
The farmlands surrounding the town are once again expanded and a small well is dug to supply the farmlands on the north side of the road.
A number of crumbling old Roman homes in the town are replaced with new buildings.
In 620 AD, smallpox arrives in the town, and over the next two years kills more than two hundred people.
King Edwin plans to marry the sister of King Eadbald, but in order to do so he will have to convert to Christianity.
In the 620s a group of Byzantine traders arrive in the area and settle across the river from the town proper, calling their settlement Vedras after the roman name for the river. In 643 AD construction begins on a monastery, using part of the old standing stones, and incorporating the rest and in 645 a graveyard is added.
Saxons in the town begin to accept Christianity with many converting.
In 675, the Cult of Dubnus is established, worshiping the Saint as a protector Deity of England and the descendant of the Roman Emperors (something established when the statue was rediscovered).
In 682, on the two hundredth anniversary of the death of Saint Dubnus, the cult attacks and burns down the trading settlement of Vedras and its Monastery, claiming it was beginning to take away Dubnus’ spirit from the town. During the raid, Benedict Biscop is killed. A few members, however, save some of the scrolls from his collection and store them in the town church with intentions to make a new Monastery dedicated solely to St Dubnus and not St. Peter. Those that survive the attack move into the city, along with many other immigrants.
In 684, the fairgrounds are expanded along with a few farms and a new inn is added by the fair to house travelling merchants.
Despite the cracks that were appearing in the Kingdom of Northumbria at the time, Blæcburh experiences a period of peace and prosperity, becoming a major trade centre on the Dubnus River.
Another dock springs up north of the Roman walls to accommodate this influx of trade.
With the newfound influx of wealth, the chief’s daughter, Hild becomes abbess of St. Dubnus’ Monastery and a separate quarters for nuns is created, along with a small chapel and graveyard.
The last vestiges of the Byzantine traders disappear, with the final Byzantines interbreeding with local Anglo-Saxons to the point where the majority of their culture disappeared. The community on the east bank of the river continues to be called “Vedra”, the last legacy of it’s Roman heritage.
The area surrounding the stone circle becomes overgrown with a young forest. Some even say that the area is haunted due to its bloody history.
In the midst of the peace and prosperity, residents of Blæcburh see little need to have two watchtowers near the Roman bridge. The south one is gradually abandoned until by the 770s, it is little more than an aging hulk of stone. The final remnants of its stone are used to crudely repair part of the Roman wall after it crumbles due to the combined brunt of raids, flooding, and age.
Even in the twilight of Northumbria’s golden age, oral poetry becomes more popular than ever, and some monks in the newly-expanded monastery begin to write this down, especially religious poems, though one monk in secretly pens the popular tale of Beowulf.
The continental Saxon Wars trouble the people only slightly, with a few refugees–almost all those who had already converted to Christianity and were caught up in the war–arriving in town.
The monastery is expanded upon, with the living quarters adding several stories to become a belfry as well. Otherwise, the late 770s and 780s pass largely uneventfully save for the gradual decline in central power. Monks pass the time by recording and inventing riddles in secular manuscripts.
In 790, Charlemagne–having rebuffed in an offer of marriage for his son Charles the Younger by Offa of Mercia–receives a better offer from the King of Northumbria and accepts. Having prayed to St. Dubnus (as he needed to strengthen his weakened position), the grateful king donates a beautiful altar screen to the monastery’s chapel.
In 793, dreadful news arrives from the north: the holy island of Lindisfarne has been attacked by savage heathens referred to vaguely as Northmen or Danes.
The following year, longships appear in the Dubnus.
The Viking attack is rapid, probably hurried, and it is this that saves the town from total destruction. The heathens land at the north dock and at the harbor gate of the town, using primitive siege weapons to breach the weakened town walls. Their primary targets are the monastery, churches, and castle, but anyone who gets in their way is cut down. The monastery is sacked, with the chapel shattered, the monks’ quarters collapsed, and the nuns’ quarters heavily damaged (though it survives, barely). The altar screen is taken in pieces to be melted down or used as jewelry. In the city, a fire sweeps through the eastern side, and the Vikings attack the church, just enough to tear it down and steal all valuables. The fishing village is sacked. The invaders retreat then, almost as quickly as they came, paying no attention to Vedras. Only a few Vikings were killed; most of the cavalry and huscarls were slain in return, along with many, many civilians. Some of the monks survived, however, by being in the loft and belfry of the quarters, with the ladder up where they could not be reached. Important manuscripts are saved.
Rebuilding is rapid within the walls, with a new church and new houses springing up (though the wall is now beyond the skill of any artisans in the town to fix). Paranoid about the attacks, the chief establishes a formal army training ground on the square by the docks, where a piece of the old church has been set up as a makeshift monument. A new dock is built. Some of the survivors migrate to the Vedras area to start over. Others leave. No new attacks come…yet.
The next decade passes without further Viking raids and Blaecburh slowly repairs and rebuilds.
The outer walls are rebuilt however the townspeople lack the expertise or materials to effectively repair the inner Roman wall and instead plug the gap with a mound of earth and simple palisade.
The nun’s quarters are repaired and a small annex built for the surviving monks.
The people of Blaecburh and Vedras (now anglicised to Vedram) remain fearful of further attacks and there is a steady flight away from the coast, with the fishing village largely abandoned and many people leaving the town or resettling within the inner walls.
In 812 AD the worst fears of the townspeople are realised when the Vikings return. However fortunately for the town the Vikings come in small numbers for a hit-and run raid against the monastery.
The exact circumstances are lost to history but the version of events which passes into legend is that a Viking longboat was wrecked upon the shore several miles to the north, and that the Vikings sought to capture women from Blaecburh to keep themselves entertained until they could repair their ship and return home.
One of the men of the town, bitter at having been spurned by a nun at the monastery, opens the north gate to the Vikings out of spite and the Vikings raid the monastery, slaughtering the remaining monks and kidnapping several nuns.
What really happened next is open to debate. Perhaps the fighting men of the town managed to track down and defeat the small Viking party, with some of the remaining nuns from the monastery accompanying them in order to help identify their missing sisters. However the version of events that becomes widely told (and will one day be immortalized by a certain bard) is that the nuns, filled with righteous divine fury, chased down and killed the Viking raiders themselves. Regardless of the truth, the story of “The Battling Nuns of Blaecburh” proves popular and ultimately passes into legend.
The following years bring a temporary reprieve from further raids, although the population of the town continues to flat-line as births barely match the numbers of people leaving.
In 820 AD refugees from Iona arrive in the area, establishing a small hamlet to the south-west.
It is rapidly becoming clear, even in sleepy Blæcburh, that the “Anglo-Saxon Golden Age” has ended, and a new age had begun, one where the Anglo-Saxons would gradually come to fear a ferocious enemy, more and more often…
Northumbria accepts the hegemony of Wessex at the town of Dore in 826. However, this doesn’t impact Blæcburh very much.
The exodus from Blæcburh continues, with many residents deciding that potential death by a Viking sword was less attractive than living outside the city walls and not having as much protection from wild beasts and such. Many Blæcburhans choose a less radical option than living in the wilderness by moving outside the town walls, but living close enough to Blæcburh for help in case of an emergency. Many move to the Ionan refugee hamlet, and a new hamlet is formed next to the small lake on the south bank of the Dubnus River.
The earl of Blæcburh, Deorwine decides to rebuild the section of the palisade that was taken down when the docklands were constructed to defend better against possible Norse raids.
Most of the remains of the old fishing/trading settlement at Vedram either have crumbled into the sand by now or have been swept away into the sea.
As more people move inside the Roman walls, a new well is dug.
To further protect against raids, two new watchtowers are built, one near the north gate of the town and one far to the north of the town, at the mouth of the Dubnus. A larger stable is also built in the southwest corner of the walls.
In 848, however, residents of Blæcburh awoke just before dawn to the horrible sounds of the largest longship fleet assembled so far in the Dubnus sail into the estuary. The fleet was not a hastily-planned raid, but a full-fledged attack. The signal fire at the far northern tower was lit, but it was too little, too late and shortly afterwards, the tower was overrun and the guard was slaughtered.
What followed next was complete and utter chaos. Monks and nuns rapidly fled the monastery and some hastily hid the treasures and books in latrines and holes while the garrison assembled at the north gate. The walls were set on fire by flaming arrows and were soon breached. The garrison fought bravely and to the last man, but were eventually overwhelmed by a smaller surprise party of Norse warriors closing in from the south, surrounding them and eventually slaughtering the vast majority of them. They then closed in on the inner walls, looting and burning much of the outer town and eager with bloodthirsty rage to plunder the inner town. The paltry defensive force, led by Earl Deorwine himself gathered near the makeshift patch in the wall. The Norse quickly broke through the patch and engaged the Anglo-Saxon force. Fierce fighting ensued, yet many Norse abandoned the carnage to loot the town, evening the odds a bit. Despite this, the Saxon force found itself quickly outnumbered, and the earl blew his war horn in a desperate call to victory before being stabbed in the back by a Norseman. The true story of what happened next was lost to history, but according to an old monk hiding in a nearby home, the spirit of Saint Dubnus the Musical himself, leading an army of Christian martyrs came through the streets and passed through the bloodbath, empowering the earl’s son, Cyneburg, to lop the head of his father’s killer clean off, pick up his horn and blow a note through it that was “straight from heaven”. The remaining Anglo-Saxons then rallied and slaughtered the Norsemen attacking them, parading through the streets with Cyneburg blowing the now-hallowed horn, and mopping up the remains of the Norse force, singing in praise all the while.
The battle was over, but it had grave consequences for the town. Nearly all of the remaining farms outside of the Roman wall were torched from the fire started by the burning palisade, the monastery and nunnery were obliterated, parts of the wall had crumbled, and even the old Roman bridge partially collapsed. The town’s population had fallen in the hundreds. Cyneburg was hailed as a hero and Deorwine became a martyr, yet many of the town’s residents wondered if Blæcburh could survive, despite the miraculous battle.
The next few years were harsh. With many of the farms gone, the town had struggled to feed itself, but eventually prevailed. The exodus to the countryside continued, with many of the farmers relocating to the two new hamlets (someone please name them soon, I am garbage with place names).
The surviving monks and nuns decide to relocate their monastery to the southwestern hamlet, as many people there had a monastic background and were glad to become monks again. Besides that, it was shielded, by the forest from the Norse. Deorwine’s horn is taken there, along with many of the hidden manuscripts and treasures.
Rebuilding continued uninterrupted for the next few years.
As the Kingdom of Northumbria breathes its last breaths and the Norse change from an attitude of raiding to an attitude of conquest and colonization, Blæcburh is definately affected, but not in the ways one might think.
In 876, a raiding party of Vikings coming from the south, led by Halfdan Ragnarsson, King of Jorvik marches to Blæcburh to plunder local monestaries. The old earl Cyneburg, in an event that would further solidify him as a local hero, met Halfdan south of Blæcburh and allowed him to appoint a follower as a ruler of Blæcburh and its environs and would collect tribute for the Kingdom of Jorvik to the south. Though Cyneburg was essentially stepping down and offering the city up to pagan rulers, he saw that Blæcburh could not survive many more attacks by Norsemen, and he achieved the favor of many, though some pious clergy scoffed at him, though the monks were secretly grateful (the monastery would’ve been destroyed AGAIN). Halfdan accepted and after several months, a follower of Halfdan, Gunnar Njordsson came up to Blæcburh to rule. Cyneburg spent the final year of his life as a farmer before dying a humble death.