Walter Scott was born in 1771 in Edinburgh, Scotland. His father was a lawyer, and as a young man Walter was expected to follow in his footsteps. In 1786 he was apprenticed to his father, but he preferred reading to studying. After a childhood spent often in a sickbed, Scott married in 1797. Around the same time, he began publishing poems and slowly made a name for himself as a narrative poet. His long, novelistic poems, The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805) and The Lady of the Lake (1810), were extremely popular throughout England. However, by around 1813 Lord Byron had overtaken him in popularity and literary success as a narrative poet, and Scott turned to novels to revitalize his career. His Waverly (1814), a historical novel set during the Scottish Jacobite rebellion of 1745, became a huge success, and Scott began a long career as a historical novelist. Many of his works were about the history of Scotland, but his best and most famous novel, 1819's Ivanhoe, had nothing to do with Scotland at all. Set in England in the last years of the twelfth century, Ivanhoe tells the story of a noble knight involved with King Richard I--known to history as "Richard the Lion-Hearted"--and his return to England from the ##Crusades# the long wars during which the forces of Christian Europe sought to conquer the Holy Land of Jerusalem from its Muslim occupants.
Richard mounted the Third Crusade in 1190, shortly after attaining the English crown. Richard had far less interest in ruling his nation wisely than in winning the city of Jerusalem and finding honor and glory on the battlefield. He left England precipitously, and it quickly fell into a dismal state in the hands of his brother, Prince John, the legendarily greedy ruler from the Robin Hood stories. In John's hands, England languished. The two peoples who occupied the nation--the Saxons, who ruled England until the Battle of Hastings in 1066, and the French-speaking Normans, who conquered the Saxons--were increasingly at odds, as powerful Norman nobles began gobbling up Saxon lands. Matters became worse in 1092, when Richard was captured in Vienna by Leopold V, the Duke of Austria. (Richard had angered both Austria and Germany by signing the Treaty of Messina, which failed to acknowledge Henry VI, the Emperor of Germany, as the proper ruler of Sicily; Leopold captured Richard primarily to sell him to the Germans.) The Germans demanded a colossal ransom for the king, which John was in no hurry to supply; in 1194, Richard's allies in England succeeded in raising enough money to secure their lord's release. Richard returned to England immediately and was re-crowned in 1194.
Ivanhoe takes place during the crucial historical moment just after Richard's landing in England, before the king has revealed himself to the nation. Throughout the novel, Richard travels in disguise, waiting for his allies to raise a sufficient force to protect him against Prince John and his allies. The emphasis of the book is on the conflict between the Saxons and the Normans; Ivanhoe--a Saxon knight loyal to a Norman king--emerges as a model of how the Saxons can adapt to life in Norman England. But more outstanding than any metaphor in Ivanhoe is the book's role as an adventure story, which is by far its most important aspect. With its scenes of jousting knights, burning castles, and damsels in distress, Ivanhoe is one of the most popular historical romances of all time. Walter Scott was first and foremost a storyteller, and Ivanhoe is his greatest tale.