Ivanhoe is set in England during the reign of King Richard I, also known as Richard the Lion-Hearted. The time is a little over a hundred years after the decisive battle of Hastings, at which Harold, the Saxon claimant to the English throne, was killed by William, Duke of Normandy. The outcome of this battle is that the Saxons, who had owned and cultivated their lands since the early years of the first century, are now subjected to the rule of the foreign French Normans. The French language has overshadowed the old Anglo-Saxon, while French rituals and courtly manners mock the simple and homely Saxon way of life.
The few Saxon nobles left alive are resentful when their lands are either threatened or seized by the Norman lords. The common people are terrified of the cruel and unjust methods used to subdue them. The gap between the two races has widened because neither William of Normandy nor his successors care to blend with the people, or to even learn their language or their ways.
When Richard I comes to the throne, he spends almost all of his reign fighting the Saracens (Moslems) in the Holy Land. He is a good and fair man, but as he is hardly in England, his greedy and corrupt brother, John, finds it easy to take over. John encourages the Norman lords to squeeze the Saxons of whatever wealth and lands they possess. The country is, in fact, in a chaotic state.
It is against this background that Sir Walter Scott sets his narrative. Wilfred of Ivanhoe has been disinherited by his father, Cedric the Saxon. Ivanhoe has earned his father’s displeasure by showing tolerance and loyalty to the Norman King Richard. Ivanhoe has also fallen in love with Rowena, Cedric’s ward and a direct descendant of Alfred the Great. Being politically ambitious, Cedric has intended that Rowena marry Athelstane, who also has royal Saxon blood. Such an alliance would produce a powerful Saxon claim to the English throne.
At the tournament at Ashby-de-la-Zouche, Ivanhoe turns up in disguise as the Disinherited Knight. With the help of the mysterious Black Knight, he wins the tournament on both days. As the victor, he crowns Rowena his Queen of beauty and love. Having suffered some severe wounds, he faints at Rowena’s feet. Ivanhoe is looked after by Rebecca, the beautiful Jewess daughter of Isaac of York.
Cedric and Athelstane join in a grand banquet at Ashby Castle, hosted by Prince John. Here they are insulted by the Norman knights who mock their manners. After the banquet they travel through the forest towards York. On the way, they meet up with and join Rebecca’s party, unaware that the invalid with her is Ivanhoe. A little later, they are attacked by De Bracy and his men, disguised as yeomen outlaws. De Bracy has fallen in love with Rowena and wishes to persuade her to marry him. The prisoners are taken to Torquilstone Castle, now the property of Front-de-Boeuf.