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There were two hills that made the valley called Santlache, meaning a sandy lake in modern English. Most likely the land here was slightly marshy and that was why they called it a lake, though obviously not a lake in actual fact. The origin of the name is unknown, but it was not called Senlac until the the Normans, or the French, changed the original meaning to Sanguelac, which translates as bloody lake, as a sort of pun on the original meaning, and very apt for what it was to become. It was not until Orderic Vitalis wrote in 1140, that it began to be used, before that, chroniclers seem to have called it plain old Battle of Hastings (Howarth 1977). It was in this valley that the battle was going to take place, Harold, having chosen to defend the ridge that ran across the road to Hastings, at the top of the of incline on Caldbeck Hill.
Harold and his army met by the Hoary Old Apple Tree on Caldbeck Hill the night before, approaching via the road from Rochester with the men from the west joining them from a prehistoric pathway that joined the London to Lewes road (Gravett 2000). Knowing that Duke William was waiting in Hastings, Harold knew that he had the best position on the high ground, to defend against an oncoming army that contained cavalry. He must also have known the mustering place quite well to have chosen this as the spot. No doubt this place was a local meeting point for the local levies who would meet every year to train and hone their skills. He would have seen the advantages of the terrain. The ground was around 235 feet higher than the bottom of the slope and behind the ridge on Caldbeck Hill was open heathland and the forest lay at the edge of the hill, which would be a good escape route if it were to be needed.
William was about 6 miles away in his encampment at Hastings when he was told that his rival for the English throne, King Harold, had taken up the position on the top of Caldbeck Hill, his army arriving in units from all over the country. As is the usual custom, more messengers were sent to and fro, not because the matter of the messages were important, but to spy on each other, to see what their plans were and to report anything of importance that they might find out whilst within their camps. One of the messengers reported back to Harold that there were a lot of priests accompanying the Norman army, but Harold knew the habit of the Normans to shave the back of their heads, and so was not surprised. He knew he would not be fighting a bunch of wet, weakling clergy. He had seen William’s army in action. Another messenger reported that William was going to march at dawn (Guy de Amiens) Harold knew they were coming, and this is where I am convinced that William did not surprise Harold and his troops the next morning. He would have known by now a rough count of their numbers and would have also worked out how long it would take for the invaders to march the 6 miles to Santlache. He would be ready. Unfortunately, there are no contemporary English sources of the battle itself, all we have to go on were those that came from the victorious winners, Guy of Amiens in the Roman de Rou and the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, being the main ones. What we know of the English side is what the Normans saw, and not what it was like from within the army. Some sources insist that William’s convoy came over Telham Hill and into view just as he was still marshaling his troops along the ridge, but on reflection, so many troops would have taken some time to sort out who went where etc. Plus some were still arriving.
What was the mental state of these two men on the eve before battle. William was buoyant, ensured and confident of a victory, with everything going his way. So far, he had been lucky, but he wouldn’t have seen it as just luck; everything that had happened so far was God’s will: the change of wind, the safe sea crossing, the safe landing with no opposition. And now Harold had come to him, ok, he had a few miles to go and meet him, but he was confident that he would win tomorrow. He had the papal banner to prove he had the right of it. God was on his side.
Harold, he would have been in quite a different state of mind. He had recently marched north to destroy his brother and the Norse. His brother… dead. That can’t have been happy news for him to give to his mother and his sister. So Tostig had betrayed him, but he was still his brother. The psychological impact this must have had on him must have been traumatic. And just when he thought he had dealt with all that he had thought he needed to deal with that year, along comes the news that William was waiting on his doorstep. The stress of rousing his men, having to march back down in just a few days again. Must have been a considerable amount of pressure on him. And then, it was said, that he had heard that the pope had excommunicated him, something that the Roman de Rou, would claim caused men to dessert him before the battle had even started. Harold would now know, that God had deserted him.
Gravett C (2000) Hastings 1066 The Fall of Saxon England Osprey Publishing Ltd, Oxford.
Howarth D (1977) 1066 The Year of the Conquest Viking Press, New York.