The opening chapters of Ivanhoe establish the novel’s historical and social context. King Richard I has been absent fighting in the Crusades, a series of wars fought between Muslims and European Christians over the holy city of Jerusalem. On his way home from the Crusades, Richard has been captured and imprisoned by the Austrians. In his absence, tension festers between two opposing political groups, the Saxons and the Normans. The native Saxon nobles held power and influence in England until the year 1066, when England was invaded by the Normans, a French people, under the leadership of William the Conqueror. The Normans have used Richard’s absence to conquer many of the Saxon nobles and reduce them to serfdom. In general, the Normans and the Saxons despise each other. The chief Saxon character in the novel, Cedric, opposed the decision of his son, Ivanhoe, to fight in the Crusades on behalf of Richard I—a Norman king—so he has disinherited Ivanhoe. Cedric also has a ward, Rowena, who is renowned for her great beauty. Cedric hopes to marry Rowena to Athelstane, a Saxon noble. Gurth, a swineherd, and a clownish jester named Wamba are in the service of Cedric. As a storm gathers, Gurth and Wamba seek shelter, but a party of men on horseback approaches. The riders are led by Brian de Bois-Guilbert and Prior Aymer. De Bois-Guilbert is a member of the Knights Templar, a powerful religious and military organization. Prior Aymer is the head of Jorvaulx Abbey. They ask the swineherds for directions to Cedric’s home, but Wamba, who resents the men’s Norman arrogance, intentionally gives them false directions. As the men ride on, they encounter a palmer (a religious pilgrim) who takes them to Cedric’s castle. Although Cedric, too, is put off by their Norman haughtiness, he prepares a feast for them. When Rowena enters, de Bois-Guilbert is struck by her beauty. A page announces that a stranger has arrived at the castle gate. Cedric orders that he be admitted because of the storm.
The page returns to inform Cedric that the stranger at the gate is a Jew named Isaac of York. Both de Bois-Guilbert and Prior Aymer are shocked that Cedric would even consider admitting a Jew to his castle, but the weather is stormy, so Cedric resolves to extend hospitality to Isaac. During the feast, the men discuss the Crusades. De Bois-Guilbert and the palmer debate the merits of Christian forces in the Holy Land. De Bois-Guilbert and Prior Aymer are on their way to a jousting tournament at Ashby-dela-Zouche. Isaac reveals that he, too, is going to the tournament. The palmer learns from de BoisGuilbert’s men that the Templar plans to rob Isaac. He helps Isaac avoid the robbery, and in exchange for his help, Isaac provides the palmer with a suit of armor and a horse from a friend so that he can take part in the tournament. The day of the tournament arrives. Present is Prince John, Richard’s weak and treacherous brother. John has been able to gather power because though Richard is a Norman, the Normans distrust him because he is enemies with King Philip of France. A dispute erupts over where Isaac, who has been joined by his beautiful daughter, Rebecca, will be seated. In the end, he is forced to sit with the commoners rather than the more prominent attendees. Meanwhile, Prince John takes a purse containing gold from Isaac. The jousting begins, and the palmer, who calls himself the Disinherited Knight, defeats all his opponents, including de Bois-Guilbert. He is thus allowed to name the Queen of Love and Beauty who will reign over the next day’s action.
Attention focuses on the identity of the Disinherited Knight, who stuns the crowd by choosing Rowena, a Saxon, as the Queen of Love and Beauty. Although he is allowed to take a horse, armor, or ransom money from the knights he has defeated, he refuses to take anything from the hands of de Bois-Guilbert. He also refuses to attend a banquet hosted by Prince John. The Disinherited Knight asks Gurth to return the horse and armor Isaac had loaned him. Isaac does not know it, but Rebecca gives Gurth money. As Gurth strolls along, dreaming of freedom, he is attacked by a band of robbers, who question him about Cedric. They tell Gurth that they will release him unharmed if he defeats a man called ‘‘the Miller’’ in combat. Gurth wins the contest, and to his surprise, the robbers make good on their promise and release him. The Disinherited Knight is attacked by de Bois-Guilbert, Athelstane, and Reginald Frontde-Boeuf. He fights them off with the help of a mysterious figure called the Black Knight. Athelstane and Front-de-Boeuf are driven off, and the Knight again defeats de Bois-Guilbert. Rowena steps forward to crown him champion of the tournament. When she removes his helmet, it is revealed that the Disinherited Knight is Ivanhoe, who is badly wounded and faints.
Attention shifts to the novel’s villains. Prince John and his advisors, including Front-de-Boeuf, Maurice de Bracy, and Waldemar Fitzurse, discuss the implications of the knight’s identity. John even hints that he could send his own physician to tend Ivanhoe’s wounds, hinting at foul play. A messenger appears with a message suggesting that Richard has escaped from his captors and is returning to England. The message panics John. An archery tournament follows. A yeoman named Locksley defeats Hubert. Prince John, meanwhile, wants to firm up his support among the nobles, so he hosts a feast, but tension between the refined Normans and the coarse Saxons continues. Fitzurse talks to the nobles individually in an effort to gather support for John. When he speaks with de Bracy, he learns that de Bracy has become infatuated with Rowena. Prince John plans to marry Rowena off to de Bracy, but the knight does not want to wait, so, over Fitzurse’s objections, he devises a plan to kidnap her and her party as they return home. In the forest, the Black Knight who came to Ivanhoe’s aid arrives at a hermitage, where he meets a hermit who calls himself the Clerk of Compmanhurst. The two men become friends and spend the remainder of the day singing and drinking.
Cedric, worried about his son, sends his page to check on Ivanhoe. Cedric takes Gurth captive after discovering that the swineherd has been serving Ivanhoe in disguise, but Gurth escapes and asks Wamba to tell their master that he will never serve Cedric again. The Saxons, including Cedric and Rowena, are returning home from the tournament when they come across Isaac and Rebecca, along with a sick old man being carried on a litter. Rebecca asks the group for protection, and Rowena persuades Cedric to agree. De Bracy and his men, disguised as outlaws, attack the party. In the confusion, Wamba escapes, but the Saxons, along with Isaac and his daughter, are captured. Wamba flees through the forest, where he encounters Locksley; they are later joined by Gurth. Locksley, along with his men and the Black Knight, agrees to help free the prisoners, who have been imprisoned in Frontde-Boeuf’s castle, Torquilstone. Isaac is told that unless he pays Front-de-Boeuf a thousand pieces of silver, he will be tortured. Isaac pleads for Rebecca to be released so that she can go to York to procure the money, but he is told that Rebecca now belongs to de Bois-Guilbert. As Isaac’s torture is about to begin, a bugle sounds at the gate and voices call for Front-de-Boeuf.
At Torquilstone, Rowena and Rebecca are confronted by the men who desire them. De Bracy demands Rowena’s hand in marriage, but she is in love with Ivanhoe, so she tearfully refuses. Her tears prompt a moment of human sympathy on de Bracy’s part. Meanwhile, Rebecca is imprisoned with a haggard old Saxon woman named Ulrica. De Bois-Guilbert tries to force Rebecca to submit to him, but she threatens to jump over the parapet of the castle and kill herself rather than do so. De Bois-Guilbert is amazed by her strength of character. Both men are interrupted by the bugle that sounded at the end of Chapter 22. The bugle announces the arrival of a letter from Locksley and the Black Knight, who are backed by some two hundred yeoman followers. The letter says that the men plan to free the prisoners, whether by combat or siege. Front-de-Boeuf demands that a priest be sent to hear the prisoners’ confessions, though his true intention is to send the priest to bring reinforcements. Wamba poses as a priest, sneaks into the castle, and changes clothes with Cedric. Cedric wanders about the castle, posing as a priest. He encounters Rebecca and Ulrica, who tells him that after the Normans seized the castle from her ancestors, she was forced to submit herself to them. Cedric then encounters Frontde-Boeuf, who, thinking Cedric is the priest, orders him to deliver a message to his supporter, Albert de Malvoisin. He gives Cedric a gold coin, but Cedric indignantly throws it at the feet of the Norman and leaves the castle.
It is revealed that the sick old man on the litter in the forest before the Saxons were captured is Ivanhoe. Rebecca, who is falling in love with Ivanhoe, continues to nurse him. Meanwhile, fighting breaks out, and Rebecca stands at the window to watch, telling Ivanhoe what she sees. The bloodshed causes her to condemn the institution of knighthood, but Ivanhoe defends the code of chivalry by which knights are ruled. During the fighting, Front-de-Boeuf is mortally wounded. Ulrica taunts him, accusing him of murdering his own father. She then sets fire to the castle. The Black Knight captures de Bracy, then runs into the burning castle to save Ivanhoe. The other prisoners escape, with the exception of Rebecca, who is carried off by de Bois-Guilbert despite the efforts of Athelstane to stop him. The castle continues to burn as Ulrica sings an eerie death song.
Ivanhoe is still suffering from his injuries and is being cared for in the priory of St. Botolph. The Saxons meet Locksley in the forest, where Cedric, out of gratitude, grants Gurth his freedom. The Black Knight releases de Bracy but warns him to behave with more honor in the future. The Friar, one of Locksley’s men, arrives with Isaac, who learns that de Bois-Guilbert has taken his daughter captive. Prior Aymer writes a letter to de BoisGuilbert urging him to release Rebecca. The characters then disperse. The Saxons depart for Athelstane’s castle at Coningsburgh to bury him, for de Bois-Guilbert apparently killed him during their dispute in Chapter 31 by striking him on the head. Isaac, in search of his daughter, leaves for the Knights Templar stronghold at Templestowe. De Bracy hastens to Prince John to inform him of Front-de-Boeuf’s death, de Bois-Guilbert’s abduction of Rebecca, and the rumored return of King Richard to England. In response, John plans an attack on Richard. Meanwhile, Isaac arrives at Templestowe, where he shows Aymer’s letter to Lucas Beaumanoir, the grand master of the Knights Templar. The letter strongly suggests that Rebecca has practiced witchcraft on de Bois-Guilbert, a claim that is backed by Malvoisin. Malvoisin does not believe that Rebecca is a witch, but he and Beaumanoir are troubled by the fact that one of their own has apparently disgraced himself and the order by falling in love with a Jew. They launch plans to try her as a witch.
The trial of Rebecca on the charge of witchcraft begins. Witnesses are brought forward to testify to her supposed supernatural powers. Ironically, her only defender is de Bois-Guilbert. As it becomes clear that Rebecca will be found guilty, de Bois-Guilbert proposes a trial by combat, with a champion who would fight for Rebecca’s freedom; de Bois-Guilbert is certain that no such champion will step forward, largely because Rebecca is a Jew. Nevertheless, a message is sent to Isaac, telling him to find a champion to fight on Rebecca’s behalf. De Bois-Guilbert urges Rebecca to elope with him, but she continues to resist him. Ivanhoe leaves the priory of St. Botolph. Meanwhile, the Black Knight and Wamba are suddenly attacked by a party of men. As they defend themselves, Locksley and his men arrive and join the fray. During the battle, the attackers’ leader, Waldemar Fitzurse, calls the Black Knight ‘‘Richard.’’ The Black Knight removes his helmet and announces that indeed he is King Richard. He banishes Fitzurse from England, but he orders that his brother, Prince John, not be held accountable for the attack. As the parties are about to leave the forest, two travelers ride toward them.
The travelers are Ivanhoe and Gurth. Ivanhoe berates the king for leaving his country to seek glory in a faraway war. Richard tells Ivanhoe that he cannot reveal his return to the country at large, for he has to raise an army to defend his throne. The men feast with Locksley and his men after it is revealed that Locksley is really Robin Hood. They then depart for Athelstane’s castle to attend his funeral, but when they arrive, Athelstane mysteriously reappears, claiming that he was merely knocked unconscious by de Bois-Guilbert’s blow at Torquilstone and that he had to escape from his own coffin. Athelstane persuades Cedric to give Rowena’s hand in marriage to Ivanhoe. The assembled party, though, are stunned to discover that Ivanhoe and Richard have disappeared. At Templestowe, the headquarters of the Knights Templar, a crowd has gathered to witness the trial by combat that will determine Rebecca’s fate. De Bois-Guilbert, armed for combat, impatiently waits for a champion to appear. He faces a strange situation: he is forced to fight on behalf of the Knights Templar. If he wins the combat, Rebecca, whom he loves, will be found guilty and executed. If he loses, he will likely be killed. As he paces on his horse, a champion appears. The champion is Ivanhoe, but he is so exhausted by his long ride to Templestowe that he falls from his horse, apparently defeated. De Bois-Guilbert’s strong emotions are so conflicted that he, too, falls from his horse and dies. The action concludes with the marriage of Ivanhoe and Rowena, who receives a visit from Rebecca, thanking her for Ivanhoe’s role in saving her life. Rowena tells Rebecca that she and her father are leaving England. In the years that follow, Ivanhoe finds distinction in serving Richard, though his career ends when the king is killed in battle in France.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Novels for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 31, Sir Walter Scott, Published by Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.