It has to be remembered that Sir Walter Scott wrote what we know to be an historical romance. In the past I have read a few novels that have had a similar theme. One such novel was simply titled Katherine and it was about the woman who was the mistress of John of Gaunt, an affair that produced 4 children. They did marry and their children were legitimized. It was through this family that we have the rise of the Tudor kings with a return to stability in England. That stability only came after the hundred years war with France as well as the Wars of the Roses.
It was all about inheritance and it was all about claims to the English throne. The Duke of Normandy, otherwise known as William the Conqueror had a claim on the English throne. He came to England with the purpose of claiming that which he was supposed to inherit. (I am relying on the second hand information from Wikpedia, and yes I think the information is deficient but it is sufficient to get some idea about the period in general).
First of all, this was a period that had seen the collapse of the Roman empire. As a result of that collapse the “Church” assumed some of the powers that had been held by the Roman Emperor. I give this as a kind of background that leads into the reasons as to why the Princes of Europe wanted to be freed from the power of the Vatican. It is also the reason why I do believe so strongly in the separation of the powers of Church and State. The power that the Church assumed in this period meant that like the former pagan States, the Church considered any type of rebellion to be akin to treason against the State (if that makes any sense to you).
Second, most of the noble families of Europe were related to each other through inter-marriage. This is particularly true with regard to the noble families in England and France, especially the Anjou family in Normandy. Richard the Lionheart and Prince John were members of the Anjou family. Prince Philip of France was a cousin or relative of some kind, which explains why Prince John (later King John) plotted with Philip to keep Richard from returning. The nobles who plotted with prince John committed treason against the Crown. In the novel Ivanhoe the plotters are named, and the Malvoision brothers are punished for their treason by king Richard the Lionheart.
I am not here to criticize some of the things that Richard the Lionheart might have done because our sense of morality is different from how people thought more than 500 years ago. For example, I saw mention of a place named Acres. Since I do not know the details of what took place or the reason for any punishment then I cannot possibly make a judgement call with how people thought during that period. What I do know is that according to legend Richard the Lionheart was loved and prince John was hated by the people of England. What I do know is that certain of the Norman-English nobels plotted with John to help him keep the throne when Richard was supposed to return from the Crusades.
Third, with regard to the Crusades, something happened in or near Jerusalem during the time that Richard was in the region. It involved the Knights Templar and seems to have been some form of rebellion. This is the sense that I got from what Sir Walter Scott wrote in the novel Ivanhoe. Whatever it was that happened, it was bad, and it split the crusaders in two. There were two groups of fighting monks, the Knights Templar and the Hospitalliers.
Fourth, this was a period in which there was a general need for church reform, especially when a lot of friars etc. were no longer all that dedicated to the Christian religion. It was also a period of zealotry where there were attempts at forced conversion (in my view this is foreign to the ideals of real Christianity because Jesus never forced anybody to join Him) and it was a period of extreme bigotry. In the book this bigotry permeates through the treatment meted out to Isaac the Jew and his daughter, the beautiful Rebecca. It was also a period when the Church itself felt threatened because of the many heresies that abounded at the time. The growth of the Cathars was in fact a very big problem for the Church, and this is what led to the early Inquisitions which ended badly for anyone who was condemned to death for being a witch. Rebecca almost met a fiery end because she was accused of being a witch, even though she was in fact a healer.
During this period England was constantly at war. The five kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxons were under threat from the Vikings (the Danes and Norwegians) and then by the Normans. The Norman invasion is best understood when one finds out that it was all about inheritance because the daughters of the kings of England were often married off to the kings and princes in France. The 100 years war was all about inheritance. The Wars of the Roses was all about inheritance and claims to the throne of England. These wars ended with a marriage that brought the two families together.
What I cannot verify, or at least I have not found sufficient information on the Internet is the reason that so many occupied the forests in the first place, and that includes the man known as Robin Hood. At this stage I am assuming that these men took up their abode in the forests because they were dispossessed Saxons, who were then made into outlaws. The kings had a habit of taking lands from the Anglo-Saxons and giving those lands to the Anglo-Norman families, thus the dispossessed needed somewhere to live. According to the legend these thieves were quite honourable since they took from the “rich” and gave to those in need.
There are other novelists who have also romanticized Robin Hood and his merry men. These are the stories that tell us about the struggles against Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham. I remember reading one of these novels when I was a young person and yes I loved the story.
The issue is how these people came to be dispossessed, and how they came to band together, as well as whether or not they really were loyal to Richard the Lionheart.
Perhaps some of the answer comes in the background to the character of Ivanhoe, who was in fact Wilfred the son of Cedric. Richard had given him certain lands, but when Wilfred was in the Holy Land, John took the lands and gave them to his own nobels, thus Ivanhoe became the Dispossessed. The battle which is the big scene in the novel actually takes place in the lands that were supposed to belong to Wilfred Ivanhoe. It would seem that these men who were living in the forest were probably dispossessed for a variety of reasons and probably by Prince John’s nobels who would shake them down for money to be given to the Treasury. This would explain why there was some kind of code where they never took from poor people but helped them instead.
The period itself was very brutal. There is nothing nice about a jousting tournament. Men die during those events, depending upon the options taken by the challengers. There was a lot of blood and gore, and the wounds that they received in battle often turned out to be fatal.
What is so very interesting about how Sir Walter Scott wrote this novel, is the strength of purpose that he gave to the women who were the heroines of the story. If anything, Rebecca was a lot stronger than the Lady Rowena, although both repulsed the advances made to them. Rebecca’s strength came from the way that she dealt with her father, as well as the independence of her decisions, such as giving back to Gurth the money he paid for the horse and armour used by Ivanhoe, plus the way that she rescued Ivanhoe after the joust (he had been critically wounded). These women showed strength of character!!
One thing is certain, there is nothing new under the sun. The plotting to gain power is the same as always. The constant fighting and desire to gain power has not changed at all. Human nature itself does not alter all that much either.
What we have to thank with regard to this period is of course the Magna Carta. The nobels responsible for the document were probably the most far seeing of people in that they wanted justice rather than injustice to reign in the kingdom known as England. The Magna Carta is the reason that we have a justice system – the Parliament came in a slightly later period, and eventually the power of the king was eroded.