Set in England in the last years of the twelfth century, Ivanhoe tells the story of a noble
knight involved with King Richard I--known to history as "Richard the Lion-Hearted"--and his
return to England from the Crusades, the long wars during which the forces of Christian Europe
sought to conquer the Holy Land of Jerusalem from its Muslim occupants.
Richard mounted the Third Crusade in 1190, shortly after attaining the English crown.
Richard had far less interest in ruling his nation wisely than in winning the city of Jerusalem and
finding honor and glory on the battlefield. He left England precipitously, and it quickly fell into a
dismal state in the hands of his brother, Prince John, the legendarily greedy ruler from the Robin
Hood stories. In John's hands, England languished. The two peoples who occupied the nation--
the Saxons, who ruled England until the Battle of Hastings in 1066, and the French-speaking
Normans, who conquered the Saxons--were increasingly at odds, as powerful Norman nobles
began gobbling up Saxon lands. Matters became worse in 1092, when Richard was captured in
Vienna by Leopold V, the Duke of Austria. (Richard had angered both Austria and Germany by
signing the Treaty of Messina, which failed to acknowledge Henry VI, the Emperor of Germany,
as the proper ruler of Sicily; Leopold captured Richard primarily to sell him to the Germans.) The
Germans demanded a colossal ransom for the king, which John was in no hurry to supply; in
1194, Richard's allies in England succeeded in raising enough money to secure their lord's
release. Richard returned to England immediately and was re-crowned in 1194.
England, before the king has revealed himself to the nation. Throughout the novel, Richard
travels in disguise, waiting for his allies to raise a sufficient force to protect him against Prince
John and his allies. The emphasis of the book is on the conflict between the Saxons and the
Normans; Ivanhoe--a Saxon knight loyal to a Norman king--emerges as a model of how the
Saxons can adapt to life in Norman England. But more outstanding than any metaphor in Ivanhoe
is the book's role as an adventure story, which is by far its most important aspect. With its scenes
of jousting knights, burning castles, and damsels in distress, Ivanhoe is one of the most popular
historical romances of all time. Walter Scott was first and foremost a storyteller, and Ivanhoe is
his greatest tale.
It is a dark time for England. Four generations after the Norman conquest of the island,
the tensions between Saxons and Normans are at a peak; the two peoples even refuse to speak
one another's languages. King Richard is in an Austrian prison after having been captured on his
way home from the Crusades; his avaricious brother, Prince John, sits on the throne, and under
his reign the Norman nobles have begun routinely abusing their power. Saxon lands are
capriciously repossessed, and many Saxon landowners are made into serfs. These practices
have enraged the Saxon nobility, particularly the fiery Cedric of Rotherwood. Cedric is so loyal to
the Saxon cause that he has disinherited his son Ivanhoe for following King Richard to war.
Additionally, Ivanhoe fell in love with Cedric's high-born ward Rowena, whom Cedric intends to
marry to Athelstane, a descendent of a long-dead Saxon king. Cedric hopes that the union will
reawaken the Saxon royal line.
Unbeknownst to his father, Ivanhoe has recently returned to England disguised as a
religious pilgrim. Assuming a new disguise as the Disinherited Knight, he fights in the great
tournament at Ashby-de-la-Zouche. Here, with the help of a mysterious Black Knight, he
vanquishes his great enemy, the Templar Brian de Bois-Guilbert, and wins the tournament. He
names Rowena the Queen of Love and Beauty, and reveals his identity to the crowd. But he is
badly wounded and collapses on the field. In the meantime, the wicked Prince John has heard a
rumor that Richard is free from his Austrian prison. He and his advisors, Waldemar Fitzurse,
Maurice de Bracy, and Reginald Front-de-Boeuf, begin plotting how to stop Richard from
returning to power in England.
John has a scheme to marry Rowena to de Bracy; unable to wait, de Bracy kidnaps
castle of Torquilstone. With the party are Cedric, Rowena, and Athelstane, as well as Isaac and
Rebecca, a Jewish father and daughter who have been tending to Ivanhoe after his injury, and
Ivanhoe himself. De Bracy attempts to convince Rowena to marry him, while de Bois-Guilbert
attempts to seduce Rebecca, who has fallen in love with Ivanhoe. Both men fail, and the castle is
attacked by a force led by the Black Knight who helped Ivanhoe at the tournament. Fighting with
the Black Knight are the legendary outlaws of the forest, Robin Hood and his merry men. The
villains are defeated and the prisoners are freed, but de Bois-Guilbert succeeds in kidnapping
Rebecca. As the battle winds down, Ulrica, a Saxon crone, lights the castle on fire, and it burns to
the ground, engulfing both Ulrica and Front-de-Boeuf.
At Templestowe, the stronghold of the Knights-Templars, de Bois-Guilbert comes under
fire from his commanders for bringing a Jew into their sacred fortress. It is speculated among the
Templars that perhaps Rebecca is a sorceress who has enchanted de Bois-Guilbert against his
will; the Grand Master of the Templars concurs and orders a trial for Rebecca. On the advice of
de Bois-Guilbert, who has fallen in love with her, Rebecca demands a trial-by-combat, and can do
nothing but await a hero to defend her. To his dismay, de Bois-Guilbert is appointed to fight for
the Templars: if he wins, Rebecca will be killed, and if he loses, he himself will die. At the last
moment, Ivanhoe appears to defend Rebecca, but he is so exhausted from the journey that de
Bois-Guilbert unseats him in the first pass. But Ivanhoe wins a strange victory when de Bois-
Guilbert falls dead from his horse, killed by his own conflicting passions.
In the meantime, the Black Knight has defeated an ambush carried out by Waldemar
Fitzurse and announced himself as King Richard, returned to England at last. When Athelstane
steps out of the way, Ivanhoe and Rowena are married; Rebecca visits Rowena one last time to
thank her for Ivanhoe's role in saving her life. Rebecca and Isaac are sailing for their new home in
Granada; Ivanhoe goes on to have a heroic career under King Richard, until the king's untimely
death puts an end to all his worldly projects.