The location of the novel is centred upon southern Yorkshire and northern Nottinghamshire in England. Castles mentioned within the story include Ashby de la Zouch Castle (now a ruin in the care of English Heritage), York (though the mention of Clifford's Tower, likewise an extant English Heritage property, is anachronistic, it not having been called that until later after various rebuilds) and 'Coningsburgh', which is based upon Conisbrough Castle, in the ancient town of Conisbrough near Doncaster (the castle also being a popular English Heritage site). Reference is made within the story to the York Minster, where the climactic wedding takes place, and to the Bishop of Sheffield, although the Diocese of Sheffield was not founded until 1914. Such references suggest that Robin Hood lived or travelled in the region.
Conisbrough is so dedicated to the story of Ivanhoe that many of its streets, schools, and public buildings are named after characters from the book.
Lasting influence on the Robin Hood legend
Our modern conception of Robin Hood as a cheerful, decent, patriotic rebel owes much to Ivanhoe.
"Locksley" becomes Robin Hood's title in the Scott novel, and it has been used ever since to refer to the fictional outlaw. Scott appears to have taken the name from an anonymous manuscript – written in 1600 – that employs "Locksley" as an epithet for Robin Hood. Owing to Scott's decision to make use of the manuscript, Robin Hood from Locksley has been transformed for all time into "Robin of Locksley", alias Robin Hood. (There is, incidentally, a village called Loxley in Yorkshire.)
Scott makes the 12th-century's Saxon-Norman conflict a major theme in his novel. Recent re-tellings of the story retain his emphasis. Scott also shunned the late 16th-century depiction of Robin as a dispossessed nobleman (the Earl of Huntingdon). This, however, has not prevented Scott from making an important contribution to the noble-hero strand of the legend, too, because some subsequent motion picture treatments of the Robin Hood's adventures give Robin traits that are characteristic of Ivanhoe as well. The most notable Robin Hood films are the lavish Douglas Fairbanks 1922 silent film, the 1938 triple Academy Award winning Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn as Robin (which contemporary reviewer Frank Nugent links specifically with Ivanhoe), and the 1991 box-office success Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves with Kevin Costner). There is also the Mel Brooks spoof, Robin Hood: Men in Tights. In most versions of Robin Hood, both Ivanhoe and Robin, for instance, are returning Crusaders. They have quarreled with their respective fathers, they are proud to be Saxons, they display a highly evolved sense of justice, they support the rightful king even though he is of Norman-French ancestry, they are adept with weapons, and they each fall in love with a "fair maid" (Rowena and Marian, respectively).
This particular time-frame was popularised by Scott. He borrowed it from the writings of the 16th-century chronicler John Mair or a 17th-century ballad presumably to make the plot of his novel more gripping. Medieval balladeers had generally placed Robin about two centuries later in the reign of Edward I, II or III.
Robin's familiar feat of splitting his competitor's arrow in an archery contest appears for the first time in Ivanhoe.
The general political events depicted in the novel are relatively accurate; the novel tells of the period just after King Richard's imprisonment in Austria following the Crusade and of his return to England after a ransom is paid. Yet the story is also heavily fictionalised. Scott himself acknowledged that he had taken liberties with history in his "Dedicatory Epistle" to Ivanhoe. Modern readers are cautioned to understand that Scott's aim was to create a compelling novel set in a historical period, not to provide a book of history.
There has been criticism of Scott's portrayal of the bitter extent of the "enmity of Saxon and Norman, represented as persisting in the days of Richard" as "unsupported by the evidence of contemporary records that forms the basis of the story." However, Scott may have intended to suggest parallels between the Norman conquest of England, about 130 years previously, and the prevailing situation in Scott's native Scotland (Scotland's union with England in 1707 – about the same length of time had elapsed before Scott's writing and the resurgence in his time of Scottish nationalism evidenced by the cult of Robert Burns, the famous poet who deliberately chose to work in Scots vernacular though he was an educated man and spoke modern English eloquently). Indeed, some experts suggest that Scott deliberately used Ivanhoe to illustrate his own combination of Scottish patriotism and pro-British Unionism.
The novel generated a new name in English – Cedric. The original Saxon name had been Cerdic but Sir Walter misspelled it – an example of metathesis. "It is not a name but a misspelling," said satirist H. H. Munro.
In 1194 England, it would have been unlikely for Rebecca to face the threat of being burned at the stake on charges of witchcraft. It is thought that it was shortly afterwards, from the 1250s, that the Church began to undertake the finding and punishment of witches and death did not become the usual penalty until the 15th century. Even then, the form of execution used for witches in England (unlike Scotland and Continental Europe) was hanging, burning being reserved for those also convicted of treason. There are various minor errors e.g. the description of the tournament at Ashby owes more to the 14th century, and most of the coins mentioned by Scott are exotic.
"For a [Scottish] writer whose early novels [all set in Scotland] were prized for their historical accuracy, Scott was remarkably loose with the facts when he wrote Ivanhoe... But it is crucial to remember that Ivanhoe, unlike the Waverly books, is entirely a romance. It is meant to please, not to instruct, and is more an act of imagination than one of research. Despite this fancifulness, however, Ivanhoe does make some prescient historical points. The novel is occasionally quite critical of King Richard, who seems to love adventure more than he loves the well-being of his subjects. This criticism did not match the typical idealised, romantic view of Richard the Lion-Hearted that was popular when Scott wrote the book, and yet it accurately echoes the way King Richard is often judged by historians today."
It has been conjectured that the character of Rebecca in the book was inspired by Rebecca Gratz, a Philadelphia teacher and philanthropist and the first Jewish female college student in America. Scott's attention had been drawn to Gratz's character by novelist Washington Irving, who was a close friend of the Gratz family. The assertion has been disputed, but it has been supported by "The Original of Rebecca in Ivanhoe", an article that appeared in The Century Magazine in 1882.
Moreover, there are some inaccuracies about English kings' history and genealogy. For instance, William II of England, cited as William Rufus (in the scene of the Joust in Ashby-de-la-Zouch), is said to have been John Lackland's grandfather, whereas he was actually his great-grand-uncle. Furthermore, while describing the violence and lack of respect of Norman barons towards women, Scott refers to Matilda's temporary vows in a nunnery, but it is unclear whether he refers to Matilda of Scotland, wife of Henry I of England (since she is defined as queen of England and daughter of the king of Scotland) or to her daughter Empress Matilda (since she is said to have been Empress of Germany and daughter and mother of kings, characteristics which can be applied only to her).