It's the 1190s, and England is in a shambles. It's been 150 years since the Normans invaded England from northern France. Since then they have been dominating the Saxons, descendants of Germanic tribes who came to England many centuries before. The Saxons, you won't be surprised to hear, are not happy about this situation. But they don't have much of a defense against the Normans, who control the best lands and riches in the kingdom.
To make matters worse, the great king Richard I (a good guy, even if he is a Norman) has been out of the country for years. On his way back from fighting a Crusade against Muslim forces in Jerusalem, King Richard was captured by the Duke of Austria. He is currently being held prisoner, waiting for someone to ransom him from the Duke. In King Richard's absence, his awful brother John has been ruling the roost. Prince John clearly favors the Normans over the Saxons, and he has been letting the Norman lords behave even more harshly than usual towards their Saxon subjects. In response to this bad treatment, law-abiding Saxons have been fleeing into the forests to become outlaws and avoid heavy taxes and exploitation by the Normans.
With all of this in mind, we head to the hall of landowner Cedric of Rotherwood in South Yorkshire, a county in the north of England. The first and most important thing to remember about Cedric is that he is Saxon. He despises the Normans for stealing England away from his people. In fact, he hates the Normans so much that he has disinherited his only son, Wilfred of Ivanhoe, for joining the army of King Richard I and going on a Crusade to Palestine. Cedric thinks that the rightful place for any Saxon is in England, not off gallivanting abroad under the flag of a Norman king.
Even if he does hate the Normans enough to cast off his own son for joining them, Cedric can't attack the two Normans who arrive at his hall this night looking for a place to stay: monk Prior Aymer and Crusader Brian de Bois-Guilbert. As a nobleman, Cedric has to obey the rules of hospitality.
Unlike her guardian, Cedric's beautiful ward Rowena is eager to meet these visitors. Rowena is curious about news from the Crusades and she asks Prior Aymer and Bois-Guilbert what they have seen in Palestine. Bois-Guilbert boasts about the strength of his military order, the Knights Templar. Another visitor, called the Palmer (meaning he's a pilgrim who traveled to Jerusalem, the Holy Land) speaks up: the Norman Knights Templar are fine, but the true English knights are even better! The Palmer reminds Bois-Guilbert that he lost to Wilfred of Ivanhoe at a tournament in Palestine before they all left the Holy Land. Tempers flare, and Bois-Guilbert eventually swears that if he ever sees Ivanhoe again, he'll challenge him to another duel.
To this tense mix of people we now add Isaac of York, a Jewish man. Anti-Semitism (prejudice against Jewish people) is rampant in 12th century England, so Isaac has a lot of difficulty just traveling from place to place without getting attacked. Isaac asks Cedric if he can stay at Rotherwood for the night. Cedric agrees, but he treats Isaac really badly, refusing to give him space even at the servants' table in the hall. It's only thanks to the Palmer's help that Isaac gets anything to eat at all.
Later on that night, the Palmer helps Isaac even more. He knows that Prior Aymer and Bois-Guilbert are plotting to rob Isaac as he travels through the forest the next day, so he volunteers to help Isaac reach the nearby town of Sheffield safely. The Palmer seems to somehow know Gurth (Cedric's slave and pig-herder), because he convinces him to let him and Isaac sneak out of Rotherwood in the middle of the night. In thanks for the Palmer's help, Isaac offers to loan him a full suit of armor and a horse. Isaac knows the Palmer wants to compete in an upcoming tournament – and to wipe the snotty smirk off the face of that Norman knight, Brian de Bois-Guilbert. The Palmer is thrilled and swears that he will repay Isaac for the loan ASAP.
At the tournament at the local castle of Ashby-de-la-Zouche (which is a real place), Brian de Bois-Guilbert and a bunch of other Norman knights appear ready to take on all comers. Prince John is also there to watch the action and sneer at the Saxons. But just as it seems that the Normans have wiped the floor with all the locals, another knight appears. (Sounds like the Palmer is competing.) This knight refuses to say his name or take off his helmet. His shield announces that he is El Desdichado – which Scott translates as "The Disinherited." (It actually means something more like "the unlucky," but no one has ever said that Scott is careful with the details in his novels.)
The Disinherited Knight takes on Brian de Bois-Guilbert and wins. Then he goes on to fight all four of the remaining Norman knights, each in single combat. He wins all four duels. Watching this mysterious knight defeat all these bullying Norman lords, the Saxons in the audience are filled with patriotism. As the winner of the first day of the tournament, the Disinherited Knight gets to select the tournament's Queen of Beauty and Love. He picks Rowena. Then he rides off without ever revealing his identity, not even under the orders of Prince John. The Disinherited Knight uses the money he wins in the tournament to pay back Isaac of York for his loan. (Aha! The Disinherited knight is the Palmer.) Isaac's daughter, Rebecca, refuses the gift. What's her interest in the Disinherited Knight, we wonder?
On the second day of the tournament, it's time for group battles. Basically the knights split into two teams and throw themselves at each other. The Disinherited Knight is leading one team and Bois-Guilbert the other. On the Disinherited Knight's side is another unidentified knight dressed all in black. He doesn't seem to be participating very actively, so the audience calls him the Black Sluggard. (A sluggard is a lazy man.) For the sake of politeness, we'll just call him the Black Knight. Keep an eye on him; he'll come up later.
After beating Bois-Guilbert again, the Disinherited Knight wins the tournament overall. The referees for the tournament force him to take off his helmet to accept his winnings. It's none other than Wilfred of Ivanhoe, Cedric's disinherited son and Rowena's beloved! Suddenly he collapses from a wound in his side.
The plot really starts to jump around at this point, so bear with us. Prince John gets news that his brother, King Richard I, is returning from Austria. Prince John wants to hurry up and meet with his lords to plan his rebellion against his brother. He doesn't want to leave his people unsatisfied, though, so he holds one last contest at the tournament: archery. The guy who wins the archery contest is a Saxon free man who clearly hates Prince John's guts. His name is Robert Locksley. Take note! Like the Black Knight, Locksley will be important later.
A bit of time passes. One of Prince John's men, De Bracy, gets the brilliant idea that he should marry Rowena, since she's beautiful and has tons of money. He comes up with a deeply stupid plan. Rowena and Cedric are staying at a monastery not far from Rotherwood. They will travel back home through the forest. De Bracy will get together a couple of guys and dress them in green, like the outlaws of the forest. These "outlaws" will attack Rowena and her guardian and carry them off to the home of Reginald Front-de-Boeuf (one of the Norman lords in the area). Then De Bracy will ride in and "rescue" Rowena from this band of "outlaws." She will be so grateful that she'll immediately fall at De Bracy's feet (so he thinks).
Meanwhile the Black Knight rides off into the forest. There he gets lost and makes a new friend: the Friar (another word for "monk"). This friar is living in the middle of the forest like a hermit (a religious person who has chosen to live outside of society to concentrate more completely on prayer and meditation). But in fact, even though he is living in the middle of the forest, this Friar is not leading a particularly religious life. He loves to drink, sing comic songs, and eat deer meat (poached from the forest without permission). The Black Knight spends several chapters partying with this Friar.
We switch perspectives to Cedric, who is riding back from a visit to a nearby monastery with Rowena, Athelstane, and several servants. With the sudden reappearance of Ivanhoe at the tournament, Cedric is in a terrible mood. The only thing that cheers him up is the thought that his dear friend Athelstane, a descendant of the Saxon royal family, is willing to marry Rowena. The two of them will doubtless produce a new line of great Saxons to boot the Normans out of England. Rowena encourages Cedric to forgive Ivanhoe (since her heart obviously lies with him), but Cedric still hasn't gotten over his son's disobedience.
On the road through the forest, Cedric & Co. bump into Isaac. Isaac is traveling to York with his daughter and a horse litter (a kind of wagon rigged up between two horses). Isaac is frightened because he has heard rumors of a large party of outlaws waiting to ambush travelers on the road. He begs to be allowed to join Cedric's party, and Cedric reluctantly agrees. So now the group traveling through the forest includes Cedric, Rowena, Athelstane, Gurth (Cedric's pig-herder and slave), Wamba (Cedric's jester and Gurth's friend), Isaac, Rebecca, and a couple of servants. And don't forget Isaac's luggage. It's going to matter a bit later on in the novel.
Finally we get to the ambush. De Bracy and his disguised "outlaws" quickly defeat and kidnap Cedric & Co. The only two people to escape are Gurth and Wamba. They rush into the forest and find Robert Locksley (the archer from the tournament) nearby. Locksley knows who has taken Cedric & Co. captive. Locksley hates the Normans and refuses to let a good Saxon like Cedric stay captive. He brings Gurth and Wamba into the forest so they can come up with a plan.
It turns out that Locksley is the leader of the real outlaws of Sherwood Forest. He goes to gather his forces, which includes the drunken Friar with whom the Black Knight has been singing. The Black Knight agrees to join Locksley and his men in their plan to rescue Cedric & Co. The Friar sobers up, dresses as an outlaw rather than a monk, and they're ready to go.
The action of the next several chapters takes place at Torquilstone, the castle of Reginald Front-de-Boeuf. Inside the castle, (a) De Bracy is trying to woo Rowena, (b) Bois-Guilbert is trying to woo Rebecca, with whom he has fallen in love at first sight, and (c) Front-de-Boeuf is threatening to torture Isaac to death unless he gives him an enormous amount of money.
Outside the castle the outlaws are planning their attack. They have exchanged threatening letters with the Normans. The Normans have offered to allow a priest into the castle to give last rites (Catholic rituals administered by a priest to the dying) to the Saxon prisoners, since the Saxons will never leave the castle alive. The Normans are trying to intimidate the outlaws with this threat, but the outlaws decide to take advantage of the offer. They send Wamba the jester into the castle dressed as a friar so he can deliver news of the outlaws' plans to Cedric. The Normans bring "the friar" to Cedric and Athelstane's cell.
Wamba quickly dresses Cedric up in his friar's disguise and sends him out of the castle. Cedric joins the Black Knight and Robert Locksley outside the castle gates, and they begin their attack on Torquilstone. Inside the castle, Rebecca is busy tending to the wounded Ivanhoe. Remember that horse litter that she and Isaac were taking to York through the forest? It had Ivanhoe's unconscious body on it. Rebecca is skilled with medicine, and all of this time she has been treating Ivanhoe's tournament wound. She has convinced an old woman who's also imprisoned in the castle to lead her to Ivanhoe's side.
This old woman, Ulrica, is a Saxon who has long been a prisoner of the Front-de-Boeuf family. During the commotion, she sets fire to Torquilstone. The Normans continue to fight back even as their castle burns around them. The outlaws save Isaac, Wamba, Rowena, and Ivanhoe. Rebecca is carried off by Bois-Guilbert, while Ivanhoe is too weak to stop him. Athelstane appears to be killed when he tries to block Bois-Guilbert's escape and is thumped on the head with Bois-Guilbert's sword. The Norman who started this whole mess, De Bracy, is taken captive by the Black Knight. The Black Knight whispers something in De Bracy's ear that makes De Bracy follow him quietly. Torquilstone burns to the ground.
In the forest, the outlaws congratulate themselves for triumphing over the Norman bullies. Cedric tells the Black Knight that he owes him a favor, anything he asks for. Locksley agrees that the Black Knight was a huge addition to his fighting forces. The Black Knight wants Locksley to let De Bracy go free. Locksley agrees, and De Bracy rides off hell-for-leather, obviously panicked over some secret knowledge that the Black Knight imparted when he took him prisoner at Torquilstone.
One of the outlaws tells poor Isaac that he saw Rebecca being carried off by Bois-Guilbert. Isaac leaves the forest in panic over his daughter. The Black Knight also prepares to leave the outlaws. He tells Cedric that they should meet up again at Athelstane's castle, where they will attend his funeral together. Wamba accompanies the Black Knight as his guide through the forest.
Meanwhile, Prince John is waiting at York for his trusty knights Front-de-Boeuf, Bois-Guilbert, and De Bracy. De Bracy rides up bloodied and filthy. He explains what's happened at Torquilstone and confirms what we might have suspected: the Black Knight is King Richard I. King Richard is getting closer and closer to Prince John. But John refuses to panic quite yet. He notes that Richard is still traveling in disguise. Why not send a group of men to kill him while he's on the road by himself?
Isaac hurries to the Knights Templar community at Templestowe to try to negotiate with Bois-Guilbert for Rebecca's safe return. Unfortunately for Isaac, he bumps into Lucas Beaumanoir, the leader of the Knights Templar. This Beaumanoir is a stern man and a terrible bigot. He hates Jewish people and women, which automatically prejudices him against Rebecca, who is both. When he finds out that Bois-Guilbert has taken a Jewish woman captive, he immediately blames Rebecca instead of Bois-Guilbert. Beaumanoir assumes that Rebecca must be a witch who enchanted Bois-Guilbert into behaving so horribly (instead of Bois-Guilbert just being his usual jerkish self). Beaumanoir starts to set up a witchcraft trial for Rebecca.
Of course, with such a biased judge hearing Rebecca's case, she is condemned to death for the crime of witchcraft. Before her execution, Beaumanoir agrees to give her a trial by combat. He names Bois-Guilbert as the representative of the Knights Templar. If another champion agrees to fight for Rebecca, they can decide her case with a duel. Rebecca gives her father a note asking him to send for Ivanhoe. Even though he is injured, she believes he is the only man who might stand up for her in a trial by combat.
We cut to the Black Knight riding through the forest with Wamba. He is ambushed by a group of assassins sent by Prince John. He calls for help from the outlaws and they arrive to assist him. Once the outlaws see that the Black Knight is none other than King Richard I, they kneel before him. King Richard pardons them for their crimes and promises to help right the wrongs that drove them into the forest in the first place. Robert Locksley, the outlaw captain, introduces himself by his right name: Robin Hood. Now everybody knows everybody else's true identity. (Can you believe that it's taken 40 chapters for all of this information to come out?)
Ivanhoe and Gurth arrive on the scene. (Honestly, is this forest the size of a quarter? People are constantly bumping into each other whenever it's convenient.) Ivanhoe swears his loyalty to King Richard once again. After hanging with the no-longer-outlaws for a bit, King Richard, Ivanhoe, Gurth, and Wamba all travel to Athelstane's castle to pay their respects.
At Athelstane's castle, King Richard makes Cedric promise to forgive Ivanhoe as thanks for Richard's help in getting Cedric out of Torquilstone. Cedric agrees to make up with Ivanhoe, Athelstane returns from the dead (for more on that disaster, check out his "Characters"), and a messenger arrives with Isaac's message for Ivanhoe. Ivanhoe immediately rides off to help Rebecca, with King Richard following soon after.
The next day the Knights Templar go to their dueling ground. A stake has already been set up with plenty of wood for burning Rebecca if her champion loses or fails to show up. Just in the nick of time, a knight rides up: it's Ivanhoe (of course). Even though he's still injured, he's not going to let Rebecca burn undefended. Ivanhoe and Bois-Guilbert prepare their lances and ride against each other. Even though Ivanhoe barely gets in a hit, Bois-Guilbert still keels over, dead as a doornail. They find that he has died suddenly of a heart attack or a stroke. Beaumanoir takes this as proof that God is on Rebecca's side and sets Rebecca free.
At last we're at the grand finale. King Richard arrests or exiles the Norman knights who joined his brother's rebellion. He also sends Beaumanoir and the Knights Templar out of England. Cedric finally gives up the dream of seeing a Saxon king on the throne of England. He encourages Ivanhoe to marry Rowena.
Soon after their wedding, Rowena receives a surprise visitor: Rebecca. She wants to see Rowena before she leaves the country. England is too prejudiced for Rebecca and Isaac to feel comfortable there. They have decided to move to Spain, where they have some family. However, Rebecca wants to leave a box of jewels as a gift for Ivanhoe and his family. Rebecca leaves without seeing Ivanhoe again, but Ivanhoe never forgets her. And Ivanhoe and Rowena live happily ever after. (Sort of. See "What's Up With the Ending?" for more on the weird tone of Ivanhoe's last chapter.)