Senlac Hill (or Senlac Ridge) is the location where Harold Godwinson deployed his army for the Battle of Hastings on 14 October 1066. The name Senlac was popularised by the Victorian historian E.A. Freeman based solely on a description of the battle by the Anglo-Norman chronicler Orderic Vitalis. Freeman went on to suggest that the Normans nicknamed the area Blood lake as a pun on the English Sand lake.
It is not improbable that Orderic would have known the English name for Senlac as he spent his early life in England having been born to an English mother. His education, towards the end of his time in England, was from an English monk. However, Freeman's hypothesis has been criticised by other historians as it relies purely on the evidence from Orderic Vitalis. Orderic was born several generations after the Battle of Hastings and chroniclers who were more contemporary with the battle did not use the name Senlac.
The name Senlac was introduced into English history by the Victorian historian E.A. Freeman, his only source for this being the Anglo-Norman chronicler Orderic Vitalis. Freeman suggested that Senlac was the correct name of the Battle of Hastings site since the name of the hill was Senlac and was near a stream called Santlache. Orderic describes Harold's forces as assembling for the battle ad locum, qui Senlac antiquitus vocabatur, and the battle itself as being fought in campo Senlac .
Orderic was born in Atcham, Shropshire, England, the eldest son of a French priest, Odeler of Orléans and an English mother. When Orderic was five, his parents sent him to an English monk with the name of Siward, who kept a school in the Abbey of SS Peter and Paul at Shrewsbury. Although Orderic moved to a monastery in Normandy at the age of ten, he seems to have maintained his links with England. Freeman concluded that it was perfectly possible for Orderic to have known the English name of the ridge. The Chronicle of Battle Abbey describes what it calls Malfosse, which was a large ditch that opened up during the course of the battle (some sources say after the battle[a]), where many soldiers of both sides fell and were trampled to death, the result was rivulets of blood as far as one could see.[a] In fact there was a local legend that was maintained for centuries after the battle that the soil in that area turned red after a heavy rainfall.[b]
.."Asten once distained with native English blood; Whose soil, when yet but wet with any little rain, Doth blush, as put in mind of those there sadly slain, When Hastings' harbour gave unto the Norman powers. Whose name and honours now are denizened for ours. That boding, ominous brook !"
From Michael Drayton's Poly-Olbion 1612
Freeman suggested that Senlac meant Sand Lake in Old English with the Norman conquerors calling it (in French) Sanguelac. Freeman regarded this use as a pun because the English translation of Sanguelac is "Blood lake".[b]
The name "Senlac"
Several historians disagreed with the Freeman analysis. John Horace Round published his "Feudal England: Historical Studies on the XIth and XIIth Centuries" in 1895 and in it strongly criticises the Freeman view.[c] He pointed out that Senlac was not an English word and was simply a fad if not an invention of Orderic Vitalis.[c]
The Norman chroniclers William of Jumièges and William of Poitiers who were contemporary with the Battle of Hastings did not record the site of the battle as Senlac and the Chronicle of Battle Abbey simply recorded the location in Latin as Bellum (Battle).
The Anglo-Saxon origin of the name Hastings was probably Hæsta-inga (and variations) meaning "clearing of Hæsta's people". However another possible, again of Anglo-Saxon origin, is Asten-enge meaning "meadow of the Asten" (the Asten is the stream that runs through the battlefield).
Freeman considered what Orderic Vitalis called the battlefield, namely Senlac, may have been a corruption of the original Anglo-Saxon name. Other scholars have suggested that the Anglo-Saxon form would have been scen-leag meaning "beautiful meadow".
- The Malfosse incident is regarded as semi legendary but generally it is suggested that after the battle a contingent of Norman cavalry chased some English fleeing the battle ground. The cavalry fell into a hidden ditch on top of each other with a tragic loss of life. For an analysis of the subject see "The Battle of Hastings: Sources and Interpretations: Edited by Stephen Morillo".
- A more likely explanation is, the large ironstone content in the soil, would in periods of heavy rainfall cause the local River Asten's water to be coloured red.
- J H Round not only criticised Freeman for his use of the name Senlac but he also disagreed with many of Freeman's points about the battle itself.
- Freeman. The History Of The Norman Conquest Of England Its Causes And Its Results.Retrieved 20 November 2014 pp. 743-751
- Poole. The English Historical Review. pp. 292-293
- Vitalis. The Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy.Retrieved 20 November 2014
- The Historical Gazetteer of England's Place-Names Retrieved 20 November 2014
- Searle. The Chronicle of Battle Abbey. pp. 38-41
- Morillo. The Battle of Hastings: Sources and Interpretations. pp 215-217
- Sussex Archaeological Collections. Vol. 15. pp.155-157. Retrieved 24 November 2014
- Seward. Sussex. p. 6
- Poole. The English Historical Review. p. 301
- Drayton. Taken from the 17th Song of Poly-Olbion from the complete works. p. 229. Retrieved 24 November 2014
- Round. Feudal England: Historical Studies on the XIth and XIIth Centuries pp. 333-340
- Searle. The Chronicle of Battle Abbey. pp. 34-35
- Harris. Battle: Historic Character Assessment Report. pp. 15-17
- Lower. The Chronicle of Battel Abbey. pp. 23-24
- Searle. The Chronicle of Battle Abbey. pp. 62-65
- Gelling. Place-Names in the Landscape. p. 206 and p. 286
- Stephen Charnock. On certain Geographical Names in the County of Sussex in Report of the forty second meeting British Association for the Advancement of Science. p. 177 Retrieved 23 November 2014
- Drayton, Michael (1876). The complete works of Michael Drayton now first collected. With introduction and notes by the Rev. Richard Hooper. London: J.R.Smith.
- Freeman, Edward A. (1869). The History of the Norman Conquest of England its causes and results: Volume III. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Gelling, Margaret (1985). Place-Names in the Landscape. London: Phoenix. ISBN 1-84212-264-9.
- Harris, Roland B. (2009). "Battle: Historic Character Assessment Report". Rother District Council. Retrieved 20 November 2014.
- Lower, Mark Anthony (1851). The Chronicle of Battel Abbey, from 1066 to 1176. London: John Russell Smith.
- Lower, Mark Anthony, ed. (1848). "Sussex Archaeological Collections Vol. 15". Lewes, Sussex: Sussex Archaeological Society.
- Morillo, Stephen, ed. (1999). The Battle of Hastings: Sources and Interpretations. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press. ISBN 0-8511-5619-3.
- Report of the forty second meeting British Association for the Advancement of Science. London: John Murray. 1873.
- Poole, Reginald L., ed. (1913). The English Historical Review Volume: 28. London: Longman, Green and Co.
- Round, John Horace (2010). Feudal England: Historical Studies on the XIth and XIIth Centuries. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 1-1080-1449-6.
- Searle, Eleanor Tr, ed. (1980). The Chronicle of Battle Abbey. Oxford: OUP. ISBN 0-1982-2238-6.
- Seward, Desmond (1995). Sussex. London: Random House. ISBN 0-7126-5133-0.
- Vitalis, Ordericus (1853). Thomas Forester Tr., ed. The Ecclesiastical history of England and Normandy. Volume i. London: Henry G. Bohn.