Ivanhoe Told to the Children - Ethel Lindsay

Old England

Many hundreds of years ago the greater part of England was covered by thick forests. In those days the small towns which existed were few and far between, and to go a journey between these towns was an undertaking fraught with considerable danger, for there were often wild bands of outlaws roaming the woods who seized the opportunity to waylay and plunder the unwary or lonely traveler unprotected by a bodyguard of armed serving men.

In the valleys there were often swamps across which it was impossible to go unless well acquainted with the safe paths, or accompanied by a guide. In these woods the barons or rich nobles built their great castles and fortresses, and owing to the difficulty of travel in those days they often ruled as petty kings, caring nothing for laws or customs but such as they made for their own convenience and comfort.

About the time at which our story opens kings and nobles were vying with each other to raise armies to proceed to Palestine to fight the Turks and to endeavour to regain possession of Jerusalem, so that Christians might be able once again to visit the place where Christ was crucified and the Holy Sepulcher.

As soon as King Richard came to the throne of England he commenced preparations for the taking of a large army to Palestine. Before doing so he appointed three men to rule the country in his absence, who, as events turned out, proved themselves little worthy of the trust, and for various causes allowed all kinds of injustice to afflict the poor. These rulers were unable to check the already powerful barons. Each in his own territory endeavoured to strengthen his fortress and his hold on the surrounding country and to attack and conquer his weaker neighbours. So you will see that the country, especially the fairer and more useful portions of it which were already devoted to the growing of crops, was continually laid waste, while the poor peasants and small land-holders were stripped of their possessions and their homes burnt to the ground. There were few descendants of the old Saxon princes and nobles who had fought against William the Conqueror at Hastings who still retained possession of their estates and houses. Where these existed their dwellings were usually crude, wooden structures protected by a palisade of timber.

The Saxons had never learnt the art of building big fortresses of stone, and so their poor defenses were of little use in withstanding the onslaught of their Norman neighbours. One by one, where they had not been confiscated by the Norman kings and given to favourites, they had been attacked by their stronger neighbours and frequently burnt into surrender, and their friends and their dependents chased away from their own countryside to become wanderers. In many cases they took to the woods, and, joining themselves into bands, roamed the forest as outlaws and robbers, thus taking revenge on those who allowed them to be driven out and refused them justice or redress.

One of the few Saxons who still held his ancestral lands was named Cedric. He was very proud of his ancestors and noble Saxon blood, and from the very strength of his fiery spirit he had so far kept his enemies at bay, nor had his near and powerful neighbours attempted openly to attack his house. He was a fine, powerful man, proud, but obstinate, and with his beautiful ward, the Lady Rowena, he lived at Rotherwood, not far from the town of Ashby-de-la-Zouche. At this town many grand tournaments were held in those days. Now, a tournament was a very popular form of amusement, and was attended by nobles and knights who came together accompanied by gorgeous bands of servants and retainers to try their strength in warlike sports against each other. The most beautiful ladies were accommodated in gaily decorated stands, and people of all classes flocked to the place chosen for the tournament from the country round.