A circumstance which greatly tended to enhance the tyranny of the nobility, and the sufferings of the inferior classes, arose from the consequences of the Conquest by Duke William of Normandy. Four generations had not sufficed to blend the hostile blood of the Normans and Anglo-Saxons, or to unite, by common language and mutual interests, two hostile races, one of which still felt the elation of triumph, while the other groaned under all the consequences of defeat. [...] All the monarchs of the Norman race had shown the most marked predilection for their Norman subjects; the laws of the chase, and many others equally unknown to the milder and more free spirit of the Saxon constitution, had been fixed upon the necks of the subjugated inhabitants, to add weight, as it were, to the feudal chains with which they were loaded. [...]
This state of things I have thought it necessary to premise for the information of the general reader, who might be apt to forget, that, although no great historical events, such as war or insurrection, mark the existence of the Anglo-Saxons as a separate people subsequent to the reign of William the Second; yet the great national distinctions betwixt them and their conquerors, the recollection of what they had formerly been, and to what they were now reduced, continued down to the reign of Edward the Third, to keep open the wounds which the Conquest had inflicted, and to maintain a line of separation betwixt the descendants of the victor Normans and the vanquished Saxons. (1.4-5)
Scott loved outsiders. He made his name as a novelist writing about outlaws and soldiers who rebelled against English authority in 18th century Scotland. Even though he has chosen a very different historical period for Ivanhoe, we can still see the same preoccupation with people resisting conquest. In this case, it's the Saxons (descendants of Old Germanic tribes that occupied Britain in the 5th century) vs. the Normans (who invaded Britain from France in 1066).
Scott has chosen to set Ivanhoe in northern England, sometime between 1189 and 1199 – over a hundred years after the invasion of the Normans. Even though the Normans have become the lords of the land, the Saxons are still doing their best to resist their domination.
Scott admits right here in Chapter 1 that this resistance is not going to be successful. "The great national distinctions" between the Saxons and the Normans only continue on to "the reign of Edward the Third" (so, the 14th century). Modern English is a mixture of Saxon and Norman words, and there is no distinction between Saxon and Norman culture or lineage in England today. As for why Scott would choose to write about a cultural distinction that no longer really matters, see our "Setting" section.
"Why, how call you those grunting brutes running about on their four legs?" demanded Wamba.
"Swine, fool – swine," said the herd; "every fool knows that."
"And swine is good Saxon," said the Jester; "but how call you the sow when she is flayed, and drawn, and quartered, and hung up by the heels, like a traitor?"
"Pork," answered the swineherd.
"I am very glad every fool knows that too," said Wamba, "and pork, I think, is good Norman-French; and so when the brute lives, and is in the charge of a Saxon slave, she goes by her Saxon name; but becomes a Norman, and is called pork, when she is carried to the castle hall to feast among the nobles. What dost thou think of this, friend Gurth, ha?" (1.17-18)
Wamba points out that Gurth, the pig-herder, is a Saxon slave. Gurth uses a Saxon word to refer to his herd ("swine"), but when the pigs are slaughtered and eaten they are called "pork," a Norman-French word. The hard work of pig-herding is Saxon, but the delicious reward, pork, is Norman. Wamba sums up the whole Norman/Saxon injustice of this book with the contrast between these two words: the Saxons make the things that the Normans consume.
Of course Wamba overlooks the fact that Gurth is not a slave to the Normans; his master is a Saxon. Wamba's anti-Norman rant sounds good, and the swine/pork split is really clever. But even at this early stage of the book, we're already getting the sense that at least some of this anti-Norman feeling is just a cover for deeper problems among the Saxons.
"Forgive me, lady," replied Bois-Guilbert; "the English monarch did indeed bring to Palestine a host of gallant warriors, second only to those whose breasts have been the unceasing bulwark of that blessed land."
"Second to NONE," said the Pilgrim, who had stood near enough to hear, and had listened to this conversation with marked impatience. All turned towards the spot from whence this unexpected asseveration was heard. "I say," repeated the Pilgrim in a firm and strong voice, "that the English chivalry were second to NONE who ever drew sword in defence of the Holy Land. I say besides, for I saw it, that King Richard himself, and five of his knights, held a tournament after the taking of St. John-de-Acre, as challengers against all comers. I say that, on that day, each knight ran three courses, and cast to the ground three antagonists. I add, that seven of these assailants were Knights of the Temple; and Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert well knows the truth of what I tell you." (5.27-28)
The squabble between the Saxons and the Normans continues. Bois-Guilbert says the knights of his order, the Templars, are the best, while the Palmer (Ivanhoe in disguise) swears the English knights are the best.
What's interesting is not so much that the Normans and the Saxons don't like each other (that's pretty obvious), but the terms Scott uses. Ivanhoe doesn't say the Saxon knights are the best; he's talking about the English knights. Even in 1189, "English" could mean Saxon, Norman, Dane, Celt – any of the peoples who had overrun the British isles for centuries. Ivanhoe expresses patriotism for a new England made up of both honorable Saxons and great Normans like King Richard I (and excluding proud, oppressive Normans like Bois-Guilbert). Cedric can't let go of old Saxon/Norman struggles, but Ivanhoe represents a new, more integrated England.
I'll give thee, good fellow, a twelvemonth or twain, To search Europe through, from Byzantium to Spain; But ne'er shall you find, should you search till you tire, So happy a man as the Barefooted Friar. (17.18)
This is the first verse of "The Barefooted Friar," an "old English ditty" (17.17) that the Friar sings to the Black Knight. For a novel, Ivanhoe has a surprising number of songs. We discuss the popularity of the ballad during Scott's time in "What's Up With the Epigraph?" Here we'll just say that the Friar's song is supposed to make us think of jolly, earthy English humor. Scott helped shape our modern notions of what medieval English ballads sounded like. For more on his invention of an idealized English tradition, check out "Characters: Robin Hood."
Athelstane, it is true, was vain enough, and loved to have his ears tickled with tales of his high descent, and of his right by inheritance to homage and sovereignty. But his petty vanity was sufficiently gratified by receiving this homage at the hands of his immediate attendants, and of the Saxons who approached him. If he had the courage to encounter danger, he at least hated the trouble of going to seek it; and while he agreed in the general principles laid down by Cedric concerning the claim of the Saxons to independence, and was still more easily convinced of his own title to reign over them when that independence should be attained, yet when the means of asserting these rights came to be discussed, he was still "Athelstane the Unready," slow, irresolute, procrastinating, and unenterprising. (18.37)
To sum up: Athelstane may be of royal Saxon blood, but he's lazy and unlikely to ever fulfill Cedric's dream of getting a Saxon king back on the throne of England.
In Scott's first novel, Waverley (1814), he depicts a real historical character named Charles Edward Stuart, popularly known as Bonnie Prince Charlie. Like fictional Athelstane, real-life Bonnie Prince Charlie was the descendant of a family with a claim to the English (and the Scottish) throne, but his family was put out of power by the English Parliament in 1688. In 1745 Bonnie Prince Charlie, with help from some Scottish gentry and troops from France, tried to attack England and regain the throne. He was defeated and fled in fear back to France. This uprising was called the Jacobite Rebellion.
We bring up Bonnie Prince Charlie because, in a lot of ways, his character in Waverley seems to be the model for Athelstane. Bonnie Prince Charlie has nicer manners and more energy than Athelstane, but he is also self-centered and vain. And like Athelstane, Bonnie Prince Charlie is never really a serious contender for the English throne.
There are actually a lot of echoes between Waverley and Ivanhoe. Both focus on romantic but ultimately doomed resistance movements. And both depict the struggles of living under colonization: in Waverley, it's the Scottish Highlanders under the English, while in Ivanhoe, it's the Saxons under the Normans. The two novels may have very different settings (see "In a Nutshell" for more on these differences), but clearly Scott understood what themes the British public wanted to see in their novels.
"But for my purpose," said the yeoman [Robin Hood], "thou shouldst be as well a good Englishman as a good knight; for that, which I have to speak of, concerns, indeed, the duty of every honest man, but is more especially that of a true-born native of England."
"You can speak to no one," replied [the Black Knight], "to whom England, and the life of every Englishman, can be dearer than to me." (20.49-50)
When the Black Knight tells the captain of the outlaws (a.k.a. Robin Hood) that there is no one "to whom England [...] can be dearer than to me," his phrasing is rather loaded. Robin Hood's interest in Cedric seems to be at least partly due to the fact that Cedric is a Saxon. For Robin Hood, it seems, Saxon equals English. But the Black Knight (a.k.a. King Richard I) is a Norman by birth, so his definition of what an Englishman is must be different from Robin Hood's – it has to include both Saxons and Normans. Like Ivanhoe, King Richard represents a new way of imagining English identity, as a fusion of both Saxon and Norman cultures.
"Farewell, Front-de-Boeuf! – May Mista, Skogula, and Zernebock, gods of the ancient Saxons – fiends, as the priests now call them – supply the place of comforters at your dying bed, which Ulrica now relinquishes! (30.39)
Both Ulrica and Cedric frequently swear oaths to ancient gods. While Scott is not always correct about where these gods come from (Zernebock is not an ancient Saxon god), it's significant that these two figures from an older Saxon generation don't swear to the Christian saints Dunstan and George. Instead, they look further back, to a time before the Saxons were Christian. These older gods represent a Saxon heritage that Ulrica and Cedric value but that the younger Saxons – like Athelstane and Rowena – never even mention. Ulrica and Cedric's oaths to Zernebock, Skogula, Odin, and Thor draw attention to the shift away from their old-fashioned Saxon culture to a more mixed English culture that combines a broader range of influences.
"No, damsel!" said the proud Templar, springing up, "thou shalt not thus impose on me – if I renounce present fame and future ambition, I renounce it for thy sake, and we will escape in company. Listen to me, Rebecca," he said, again softening his tone; "England, – Europe, – is not the world. There are spheres in which we may act, ample enough even for my ambition. We will go to Palestine, where Conrade, Marquis of Montserrat, is my friend – a friend free as myself from the doting scruples which fetter our free-born reason – rather with Saladin will we league ourselves, than endure the scorn of the bigots whom we contemn. – I will form new paths to greatness," he continued, again traversing the room with hasty strides – "Europe shall hear the loud step of him she has driven from her sons! – Not the millions whom her crusaders send to slaughter, can do so much to defend Palestine – not the sabres of the thousands and ten thousands of Saracens can hew their way so deep into that land for which nations are striving, as the strength and policy of me and those brethren, who, in despite of yonder old bigot, will adhere to me in good and evil. Thou shalt be a queen, Rebecca – on Mount Carmel shall we pitch the throne which my valour will gain for you, and I will exchange my long-desired batoon for a sceptre!" (39.39)
It is hard to imagine that Bois-Guilbert could be successful in this insane plan to become king of Palestine by taking his loyal knights loyal away from the Knights Templar and joining Saladin, the leader of the Muslims in Jerusalem. In effect, he wants to switch sides in the Crusades and crown Rebecca queen of the Holy Land.
What we find interesting is that Rebecca is so horrified by his disloyalty. Beaumanoir, the leader of the Knights Templar, wants to burn her. The people of England regard her with scorn, fear, and suspicion. Yet even though she has been treated so poorly by the Normans and England, she still despises Bois-Guilbert for turning his back on them. She tells him she cannot "esteem" someone who is "willing to barter these ties [to country or religious faith]" (39.40). Rebecca admires patriotism as a virtue in and of itself.
"It is Richard Plantagenet himself," said Cedric; "yet I need not remind thee that, coming hither a guest of free-will, he may neither be injured nor detained prisoner – thou well knowest thy duty to him as his host."
"Ay, by my faith!" said Athelstane; "and my duty as a subject besides, for I here tender him my allegiance, heart and hand."
"My son," said Edith, "think on thy royal rights!"
"Think on the freedom of England, degenerate Prince!" said Cedric.
"Mother and friend," said Athelstane, "a truce to your upbraidings – bread and water and a dungeon are marvellous mortifiers of ambition, and I rise from the tomb a wiser man than I descended into it. One half of those vain follies were puffed into mine ear by that perfidious Abbot Wolfram, and you may now judge if he is a counselor to be trusted. Since these plots were set in agitation, I have had nothing but hurried journeys, indigestions, blows and bruises, imprisonments and starvation; besides that they can only end in the murder of some thousands of quiet folk. I tell you, I will be king in my own domains, and nowhere else; and my first act of dominion shall be to hang the Abbot." (42.59-63)
Athelstane's brush with the money-grubbing monks gives him a new perspective on his claim to the English throne. He realizes that the cost of actually waging a war to get the kingdom back in Saxon hands would be too high. Athelstane is essentially a peace-loving man: all he wants is to stay home and eat. (Oh, and also to execute that abbot who tried to keep him locked in a basement.) He dismisses his earlier patriotism as impractical, vain, and arrogant. What do you think of Athelstane's change of heart? Is Scott trying to make some larger point about rebellion or nationalism? If so, what is it?