Not-withstanding some rather elaborate, longwinded and sometimes old fashioned prose this novel seems to create a realistic feel for the atmosphere and history of twelfth century England at the time of the crusades. Packed with interesting characters and having a plot with many unexpected twists and turns to hold the reader's interest right to the final page. It is probably Scott’s best novel, although I was a little surprised by, and feel that because of the level of anti-semitism expressed in the storyline, this book may not be for the faint hearted. This though is probably just a reflection of the religious bigotry which existed in medieval times and essential to the authenticity of the story.
The novel is set in the area around north Nottinghamshire, north Derbyshire and south Yorkshire and features the settlement of Conisbrough near Doncaster. The politics of the day feature the ongoing antipathy between the indigenous Saxons and the invading Normans, and divided loyalties between the popular but absent King Richard Cur-de-Leon (whereabouts unknown) and his brother John plotting to fulfil his own ambitions for the throne. The protagonists include: Prince John himself and several Norman barons headed by Maurice de Bracy; Baron Front de Boeuf and Baron Brian Bois Guilbert who are helping him with his treasonous plans and expecting rich rewards, the villains of the piece; and the people on the moral “high ground”: notably Cedric the Saxon; his son Wilfred of Ivanhoe; his ward Rowena; Athelstane of Conisbrough, her admirer; the Jewish Isaac of York; his daughter Rebecca; Robin Hood and his Merry Men and of course King Richard himself also appearing incognito as the “Black Knight”. Although Cedric was one of the few exceptions among the Saxons to retain their estates after the invasion, many noble Saxon families had been displaced when their properties were handed to Norman nobles as reward for the successful invasion.
Ivanhoe is back in England after a reversal of fortunes in the holy land, King Richard’s whereabouts are unknown but there are suspicions he has been kidnapped on the return journey. Ivanhoe has impressed King Richard with his skills and courage in battle and become close to him fighting alongside him in the crusades. Disowned by his own father Cedric and dishonoured amongst fellow Saxons for becoming a knight and taking part in the crusades in the holy land, he is back in England taking part in chivalrous tournaments and hoping to be reconciled with his father. At one such tournament in Ashby de la Zouch sponsored by Prince John himself Ivanhoe hiding his identity in public using his visor defeats the Norman knights including De Bracy, Front de Boeuf and Bois Guilbert who, determined to seek revenge unseat Ivanhoe on the second day and in breach of the rules of the tournament, with swords drawn make ready to kill him. Fortunately the Black Knight comes to the rescue and delivers Ivanhoe from the hands of his enemies, he is declared tournament champion and after choosing the Lady Rowena, his father’s ward as queen of the tournament, being severely injured Ivanhoe is handed over to Isaac of York and his daughter who has inherited remarkable powers of healing handed down within the family.
On the road between Ashby de la Zouch and York, Isaac, Rebecca and Ivanhoe meet up with Cedric, Rowena, Athelstane, a descendent of previous Saxon Kings and pretender to the throne, and Gurth a swineherd who has served both Cedric and Ivanhoe. Having to pass through bandit territory the party is deserted by their servants and are kidnapped by De Bracy and his Norman companions disguised as Saxons and taken to Front de Boeuf’s castle at Torquilstone. Gurth having escaped raises the alarm and Robin of Loxley’s men, now augmented by the Black Knight, lay siege to the castle whilst the hostages are threatened with execution and ransoms are demanded. When the services of a priest are demanded to give the last rights to Cedric, Wamba the jester enters the castle in disguise and after they exchange clothes Cedric escapes to give valuable information to the group laying siege to the castle. In the knowledge that the castle is only lightly defended the besiegers storm the castle and in the melee that ensues Bois Guilbert escapes with Rebecca to make her his wife when Ulrica the daughter of the previous Saxon owner of the castle sets fire to the building. There are heavy casualties on both sides including Font de Boeuf and apparently Athelstane. Bois Guilbert takes refuge in a nearby preceptory of the Knights Templar where the jewess Rebecca is not entirely welcomed with open arms. Lucas de Beaumanoir the grand master of the knights templar accuses Rebecca of bewitching Bois Guilbert and drawing attention to her reputation of magical powers of healing puts her on trial for witchcraft, and when Rebecca claims trial by combat Lucas de Beaumanoir demands Bois Guilbert accept the challenge of Rebecca’s champion if and when she can find one. Rebecca puts all her hopes on Ivanhoe being willing to take up the challenge to defend her in battle and after a few difficulties finds a volunteer to take a message to her father to seek the help of Ivanhoe.
In the meantime, whilst enjoying the hospitality of Robin Hood in his forest hideout, the Black Knight reveaIs his true identity as King Richard and Cedric with the rest of his family are at Conisborough Castle arranging the funeral of Athelstane. On receiving the news of Rebecca, and although not yet fully recovered from his injuries, Ivanhoe wastes no time in setting out to take up the challenge on her behalf. Arriving at the preceptory of the Knights Templar with both horse and Ivanhoe exhausted by the long and arduous journey the two adversaries face each other for the joust with lances at the ready, but because of the parlous state of his health Ivanhoe is by no means confident of victory. However by a strange twist of fate Bois Guilbert falls from his horse as the tournament is about to commence and dies from an apparent heart attack or stroke. Ivanhoe restores Rebecca to her father’s protection and they leave the country for Spain and King Richard appearing on the scene, having witnessed the corrupt practices which have taken hold within the Templar’s organisation promises to rout the tyrants and evil doers and restore honour and justice to his realm. Back at Conisbrough, Athelstane, after being previously reported dead by local monks arrives back home, and in the knowledge that the Lady Rowena loves Ivanhoe and not him, he renounces his claim to her hand in marriage. A nice uplifting ending with England’s values restored by King Richard, Athelstane giving up his claim to the throne and swearing allegiance to Richard. Peace between Norman and Saxon is restored and the book ends with Ivanhoe and Rowena looking forward to a happy future together.
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Palafreyman - 25 February 2018