The novel opens on the road: a "middle-aged man" is walking home from Shaston to Marlott (both fictional towns, set in an area southwest of London—see "Setting" for more on the location of Tess of the D'Urbervilles). The time is evening in late May, and the year is sometime in the late nineteenth century.
The man passes an elderly parson (i.e., a pastor or minister of the Church of England). The man says "Goodnight t'ye" politely, and the parson responds, "Good night, Sir John."
This puzzles the man—apparently the parson has passed him on the road twice in the last month, and has called him "Sir John" on both occasions. He asks the parson what he means by it, when he's not "Sir John," but only "plain Jack Durbeyfield, the haggler" (1.9).
The parson hesitates before explaining himself. He says that he is Parson Tringham, and that he is an antiquary (someone who studies local history and genealogy), and that he had discovered recently that Durbeyfield was the "direct lineal representative" of the ancient, aristocratic family of the D'Urbervilles, and that his ancestor, Sir Pagan D'Urberville, came to England from Normandy with William the Conqueror (1.11).
Let's break for a Historical Context Lesson:
It's important for you to understand the history here, because Jack Durbeyfield so often gets it wrong: the current line of kings and queens in England (yes, even down to the present-day royal family) descends directly from King William I, who is often referred to as William the Conqueror.
He was a Duke in the northern region of France called Normandy and, for various reasons, felt that he had a claim to the throne of England. Never mind that England already had a king at that point (his name was Harold).
So William set off across the English Channel with a group of knights and their armies, and in the great Battle of Hastings in 1066, they conquered the Saxons in England, and Harold died in battle with an arrow in his eyeball (ouch). So the French Normans became the rulers of England from that time forward.
For a long time, the ruling class in England spoke French, and the peasants and lower classes spoke old English—they had a hard time communicating with each other. After a while, the two languages kind of merged.
But many of the Norman, or French-sounding names, lived on in the aristocratic families that descended from William the Conqueror's knights, and their names were recorded in a list (which was possibly a fake) called the "Abbey Roll," which Parson Tringham refers to here.
If you've read Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, for example, you'll remember that Darcy's snobby aunt's name is "Lady Catherine De Bourg"—a very French, and therefore very "old-money," kind of aristocratic name.
In the context of Tess of the D'Urbervilles, D'Urberville is most certainly a French-sounding name, while "Durbeyfield" sounds more English, and therefore more common and less aristocratic (see Tess's "Character Analysis" and the "Tools for Characterization" section for more on those names).
Now, back to the story:
Jack Durbeyfield has never heard any of this before, and he's very interested.
Parson Tringham goes on to tell him the history of his family in brief—although his family is now debased, there have been "generations of Sir Johns among you, and if knighthood were hereditary, like a baronetcy […] you would be Sir John now" (1.13).
Another quick historical side note, again:
Jack Durbeyfield can't quite get his head around this. Knights, as you know, are called "Sir whoever." So are baronets, who are below dukes and earls and such on the social ladder, and just above knights. But knights can't pass on their title to their sons—only baronets, dukes, earls, and other "hereditary" titles can do that.
So, for example, Paul McCartney might be "Sir Paul McCartney," thanks to the Queen's appreciation of the Beatles, but he can't pass the title on to his children. Jack Durbeyfield doesn't quite understand all this. He seems to think that because his ancestors were knights, he just needs to get his name to the right people to become recognized as "Sir John" himself.
Back to our story:
The parson explains that no one else knows anything about Jack Durbeyfield's connection to the noble family of D'Urberville, because the D'Urbervilles have all but died out—they no longer have a family estate anywhere in England.
Jack reflects that he remembers hearing his father and grandfather say that their family had known better times, but he had assumed that that only meant that they used to keep two horses, instead of just one.
They also have a "graven seal" and an old silver spoon in the family (a "graven seal" would be the distinctive family crest and motto carved into a small, flat shape that could be pressed into hot wax to seal a letter closed, so that the recipient would know from whom it came. Only fancy families had them.)
The parson concludes by informing Jack Durbeyfield that his ancestors are buried in a little place called "Kingsbere-sub-Greenhill."
Jack Durbeyfield is eager to know whether his family might ever rise to power again.
The parson doesn't know, of course.
Jack asks what he should do about it—the parson says he shouldn't do anything, and closes their conversation with the cliché about "how the mighty have fallen."
Jack offers the parson a quart of beer "on the strength of it" at the local pub (he already seems to think that he'll have some money coming to him based on this new knowledge of his family history).
The parson declines and rides on, reflecting that he probably shouldn't have told Jack Durbeyfield about his aristocratic connections.
Jack sits under a tree to daydream until a young man walks by. Jack calls to him, and the young man hurries over, rather displeased that Jack called him "boy" in such a patronizing way.
Jack explains that he's just discovered that he's of noble blood, and that he is actually "Sir John D'Urberville." (You see, he doesn't understand about how knighthoods aren't actually passed down from father to son.)
He tells the young man, whose name is Fred, to take his basket and run into town to send a horse and carriage to carry him home, and then to run to his house to tell Mrs. Durbeyfield that he has something important to tell her.
Fred seems hesitant, until Jack Durbeyfield gives him a shilling (one of rather few that Durbeyfield has in his pocket) for his trouble.
Just before Fred leaves "Sir John" on his errand, Jack hears some music over the hills, and asks what it is.
Fred reminds him that it's the "women's club-walking," and that Durbeyfield's own daughter is one of the members. ("Club-walking" gets explained more in the next chapter. Basically it's a neighborhood women's club that parades through the town every spring before dancing on the town green—it's a holdover from old pseudo-pagan May Day celebrations of springtime.)
Then Fred leaves, and Durbeyfield stays lying in the grass, listening to the music.