The story is set in England in the twelfth century, towards the end of the reign of Richard I. Richard is absent from the country. He has been imprisoned in Austria on his return from the Crusades in the Holy Land. In his absence, the nobles have established a tyranny, and the lower classes suffer under it. This situation arose as a result of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. Although four generations have passed since then, there is still hostility between the Normans, who were originally from France, and the conquered population of Anglo-Saxons.
It is an early evening in summer in a forest in the area of northern England known as the West Riding of Yorkshire. Gurth, the swine-herd, is talking to Wamba, the jester. Both are in the employ of Cedric of Rotherwood, a Saxon noble. Gurth appeals to Wamba to help him round up the herd, but Wamba is reluctant. Wamba then makes a series of pointed jokes at the expense of the Normans, whom they both dislike. Gurth then complains that the Normans take the best of everything, although Cedric has been valiant in the preservation of Saxon rights. But he fears the imminent visit of a Norman noble, Reginald Front-de-Boeuf.
A group of ten horsemen overtake Wamba and Gurth on the road. The two most important men in this group are an easy-going, generous-minded monk, Prior Aymer of Jorvaulx, and a stern knight of the order of the Knights Templar, Brian de Bois-Guilbert, who has been fighting in the Holy Land. The other men are their attendants. The prior and the knight ask Gurth and Wamba the way to Cedric the Saxon’s home, where they desire to stay the night. Gurth is reluctant to give these Normans directions to his master’s dwelling, and he quarrels with the knight. The prior intervenes to keep the peace. Then Wamba gives the men the wrong directions. But when the men reach the place called Sunken Cross, where Wamba told them to turn left, they cannot remember what the directions were. They stop a stranger, who says he is also going to Cedric’s. The stranger, who says he is a palmer (pilgrim) just returned from the Holy Land, then leads them in the right direction until they arrive at Cedric’s mansion.
In Cedric’s mansion, the hall is prepared for the evening meal. Cedric sits at his table on a raised dais, waiting for the dinner, which has been delayed, to be served. Several servants stand behind him, and his dogs are at his feet. Cedric is anxious because Gurth has not returned with the herd, and he fears that some misfortune has befallen them, although he is more worried about the herd (which is valuable) than about Gurth. He is also impatient for his favorite clown, Wamba. When Oswald, his cup-bearer, says that Gurth is not that late, since the curfew bell only tolled an hour ago, Cedric is put in an even worse temper. This is because the curfew is a Norman imposition. Cedric rants about all the injustices that accompany Norman rule, and he also mentions his son that he banished. Then the sound of the Knight Templar’s horn outside interrupts him. Cedric is none too pleased to hear who the visitors are, because both are Normans, but he wishes to show hospitality nonetheless. The guests are shown in.
Cedric greets his hosts with dignity, although there is some tension between the Saxon Cedric and his Norman guests. Wamba and Gurth return, to Cedric’s complaints about how tardy they are. The feast is a fine one, and the diners are joined by Cedric’s beautiful young ward, the Lady Rowena. Brian de Bois-Guilbert, the Knight Templar, is captivated by her and stares at her, which displeases both Rowena and Cedric. In the discussion over dinner, it transpires that the Knight and Prior are on their way to a tournament at Ashby-de-la-Zouche. Another stranger arrives at the gate, and Cedric authorizes his page to allow him to stay the night.The opening chapters introduce a number of the themes of the novel and show the situations of many of the main characters. Chapter I makes is clear how divided the country is between Normans and Saxons, and how the Norman nobles have established a tyranny. In this theme the author, Sir Walter Scott, is not being true to history. Scholars of the period agree that any hostility between Norman and Saxon did not last for four generations after the Norman Conquest. In those days, people were more conscious of divisions of rank than of national origin. Scott’s picture of Saxons and Normans in fact represents more the typical nineteenth century view of the good-hearted, rough-and-ready English and the foppish, pretentious French. Hostility between England and France was a habit acquired over several centuries of frequent wars between the two countries. (The war in which the English defeated Napoleon was fresh in the minds of the first readers of Ivanhoe, which was published only a few years after Napoleon’s final defeat.)
The lines of conflict that are to dominate the novel are clearly drawn in the opening chapters. Cedric’s disinheritance of his son is mentioned, and this father-son drama will become an important element in the plot. Lady Rowena is introduced, and as a beautiful young unmarried woman she is clearly going to be the subject of a romantic plot, although De Bois-Guilbert’s early interest in her does prove to be something of a red herring.
The Norman villain of the novel is also introduced in these early chapters. De Bois-Guilbert is presented as an arrogant, quarrelsome knight, as his treatment of Gurth in Chapter II shows. His susceptibility to women, later to become one of the main plot elements, is also shown. It runs counter to the vow of chastity he took as a member of the Knight Templar Order.
Just as the representatives of medieval chivalry do not emerge as admirable characters, neither do the representatives of the medieval church. One such representative is introduced in these chapters. The initial description of the Prior tells its own tale. His clothes are much finer than the rules of his Cistercian order permit—a sign of his hypocrisy. The fact that he is overweight, not to mention the twinkle in his eye, indicates that he enjoys the pleasures of eating and drinking.