Toward the end of the reign of King Richard I, England is in the grip of turmoil. The king is far from the country, having been imprisoned by the rulers of Austria and Germany on his way home from the Crusades. In his absence, the throne is held by Prince John, but the real authority lies in the hands of the nobles, who have used Richard's absence as an excuse to fortify their own power at the expense of the monarchy's. This state of affairs has aggravated relations between the two groups of people who inhabit England: the Saxons, who ruled England until 1066, and the Normans, a French people who conquered the island under William the Conqueror. The nation's powerful nobles are all Normans, and the Norman nobles have been seizing the lands of less powerful Saxon nobles, forcing many Saxons to become serfs. The remaining Saxon lords are tense and angry. The division between the two peoples is so great that even though a common English language exists between them, they generally speak their own native tongues--French for the Normans, Anglo-Saxon (sometimes called Old English today) for the Saxons.
In a forest near Sheffield, a Saxon swineherd named Gurth discusses the state of the country with his companion, a clown named Wamba. They note that pigs are called by their Saxon name (swine) when they are alive and a source of endless labor for Gurth, but that once they are slaughtered to become feasts for the nobles, they go by their Norman name (pork). Gurth and Wamba are in the service of Cedric, a Saxon lord whose son Ivanhoe has been fighting in the Crusades, to his father's great displeasure. Ivanhoe has been disinherited. Cedric also has a ward, Rowena, who, though not his natural daughter, is renowned for her beauty. A storm is coming, and the men begin to gather the swine. Suddenly, they hear the thunder of approaching hooves: A group of horsemen is riding toward them.
The horsemen, a party of about ten men, are led by Brian de Bois-Guilbert and Prior Aymer. De Bois-Guilbert is a powerful warrior of the Knights-Templars, a military/religious fellowship dedicated to the conquest of the Holy Land, which often indulges in secular politics as well. Prior Aymer is the Abbot of Jorvaulx. His disposition seems to indicate that, despite his holy orders, he covets pleasure and good food. The riders declare that they are looking for the home of Cedric the Saxon; resentful of their Norman imperiousness, Wamba intentionally steers them the wrong way.
As the Templar and the prior ride on, they discuss the beauty of Rowena; at a crossroads, they meet a palmer--a religious pilgrim wearing palm leaves as a sign of his trip to the Holy Land. The palmer says that he is native to this area of the country, and leads the men to Cedric's hall, Rotherwood. Here, in the rough, rustic, but well-appointed keep, the men are greeted by Cedric, who prepares a feast for them. However, like his jester Wamba, the Saxon lord prickles at the Norman arrogance of the men and refers to William the Conqueror--the Norman duke who led the conquest of England--as "William the Bastard." When Rowena enters, de Bois-Guilbert is struck powerfully by her beauty: he stares at her audaciously, much to Cedric's displeasure. In the midst of the feast, a page enters, saying that there is a stranger at the gate. Cedric orders that the stranger be admitted, saying that the stormy night is no place for a weary traveler.
The simple opening chapters of Ivanhoe efficiently present the main social conflict of the novel (the tensions between the Saxons and the Normans), the situations of the main characters (Ivanhoe's loyalty to Richard, his father's hatred of all Normans, Rowena's marriageability), and the personalities of much of the cast. Wamba and Gurth, as slaves to Saxons, represent the lowest of the low in terms of social class. The Templar, the prior, and the palmer represent various facets of the medieval church: The Templar belongs to its military wing, the prior to its monastic wing, and the palmer to its secular wing. (Palmers were individuals whose faith prompted them to make pilgrimages to the Holy Land during the time of the Crusades; to signify their position, they wear an emblem of crossed palm leaves.) But each of the three religious characters is in some way a sham: The Templar, supposedly a holy knight, is an outright villain; the prior, supposedly a monastic ascetic, is addicted to food, wine, and pleasure; and the palmer, supposedly a gentle pilgrim, is not a palmer at all--he is Ivanhoe in disguise, as becomes obvious when he claims to be "native" to these parts.
A subtle, understated criticism of the medieval church runs throughout Ivanhoe and stands as one of the book's important secondary themes. But most of the thematic content of Ivanhoe is anything but understated. The main project of the book is to illustrate the gradual erosion of the conflict between the Saxons and the Normans, and the story itself, as we shall see, ultimately proposes itself as a metaphor for the resolution of their conflict. These early chapters do not explicitly introduce this theme, but they establish the situation in which it can emerge: a socially divided nation whose problems are aggravated by an absent king (Richard) and a Saxon lord (Cedric) who has disinherited his son (Ivanhoe) for being loyal to a Norman monarch (Richard). This situation sets the stage for the return of Richard and for the capacity of Ivanhoe to herald a new kind of relationship between Saxon and Norman.