The True Queens of Ivanhoe – Examination of power and agency through Rowena and Rebecca in Ivanhoe

by Maya Mehrara

In a time when women had little to no rights, a female royal ward and a female Jewish healer influenced kings and exerted their power in twelfth-century England. In the nineteenth-century novel Ivanhoe written by Sir Walter Scott, however, by all appearances men  hold all of the social and political influence. Ivanhoe explores the social and political tension between the Normans and the Saxons in medieval England and the power dynamic between the two sexes. Although this novel is primarily known for popularizing modern-day perceptions of King Richard I, Prince John, and Robin Hood, it manages to exhibit women’s strength and the power of sisterhood in medieval England. Despite the fact that they come from different religious backgrounds, social classes, and both love the same man, Rowena and Rebecca bond and rise above their male counterparts, exerting power over the men in their lives in medieval England.  In chapter XXXVI, while talking to Brian de Bois-Guilbert, Albert Malvoisin, the preceptor of the establishment at Templestowe, says, “Women are but the toys which amuse our lighter hours; ambition is the serious business of life. Perish a thousand such frail baubles as this Jewess, before thy manly step pause in the brilliant career that lies stretched before thee!” (30 Scott).  Malvoisin both implies that women are objects to be owned rather than people, and that Rebecca is as insignificant as every other girl, implying that her life lacks both significance and any discernible individuality. Both women prove Malvoisin wrong throughout the novel, and show how they are strong women with more conviction and power than their male counterparts. 

Although it does not seem possible for Lady Rowena to have control over her fate, throughout the novel Lady Rowena uses what she has, namely words and inherent right to refusal  to steer the course of her destiny. Cedric, her adoptive father, wants her to marry his relation Athelstane while Prince John wants her to marry his comrade, Maurice de Bracy. However, Lady Rowena loves Cedric’s son, Ivanhoe, and refuses to submit to the patriarchal influence of both family and country. While imprisoned at Torquilstone, in chapter XXIII Maurice de Bracy attempts to woo Lady Rowena and convince her to marry him. He vows to take her out of her dingy home with the Saxons and promises to make her his metaphorical queen as his wife. Lady Rowena refuses, replying, “Sir Knight, the grange which you contemn hath been my shelter from infancy; and, trust me, when I leave it- should that day ever arrive- it shall be with one who has not learnt to despise the dwelling and manners in which I have been brought up.” (184 Scott) In this concise rejection of Maurice de Bracy’s proposal, Lady Rowena both shows pride for her people in the face of ignorance, and asserts her freedom over her own destiny. By saying “should that day ever arrive,” Lady Rowena maintains that she will decide when she leaves home, rather than leave her fate up to someone else. 

Throughout the tale, Rebecca also stands up for herself and exerts her power when others try to make decisions for her. After being accused of witchcraft due to anti-semitism and sexism, she is tried by the knights at Templestowe. Although it seems as if she has no choice but to plead guilty in order to live, Rebecca bravely takes control of her life even in the face of a fiery death. In chapter XXXVII, she makes her case to the Grand Master and the knights at Templestowe when she says, 

“Nor will I even vindicate myself at the expense of my oppressor, who stands there listening to the fictions and surmises which seem to convert the tyrant into the victim. God be the judge between him and me! But rather would I submit to ten such deaths as your pleasure may denounce against me than listen to the suit which that man of Belial has urged upon me- friendless, defenceless, and his prisoner… I will not therefore return to himself the charge brought against me…” (312 Scott). 

By stating that she will not “vindicate myself at the expense of my oppressor” and would rather “submit to ten such deaths” than plead guilty when she is innocent, she chooses death over conversion, asserts her power, and takes pride in her religion, rather than conforming to that of another. She further asserts her control over her uncertain destiny when she says, “There is yet once chance of life left to me, even by your own fierce laws… I deny this charge: I maintain my innocence, and I declare the falsehood of this accusation. I challenge the privilege of trial by combat, and will appear by my champion.” (313 Scott) 

Throughout the novel, the two strong women show that despite their differences, they are a united front. Scott emphasizes the bond of sisterhood while also acknowledging the socioeconomic differences between Lady Rowena and Rebecca. In chapter XLIV, Rebecca says to Lady Rowena, “Thy speech is fair, lady, and thy purpose fairer; but it may not be- there is a gulf betwixt us. Our breeding, our faith, alike forbid either to pass over it.” (378 Scott) In acknowledging the social separation between Lady Rowena and Rebecca, Scott sets the book up to ultimately show how the two women overcome it. In chapter XIX, Lady Rowena convinces Cedric to aid Rebecca and her father Isaac and provide them with transportation. When Cedric initially denies them any assistance due to their religion, Lady Rowena says, 

“The man is old and feeble, the maiden young and beautiful, their friend sick and in peril of his life; Jews though they be, we cannot as Christians leave them in this extremity. Let them unload two of the sumpter mules and put the baggage behind the two serfs, The mules may transport the litter, and we have led horses for the old man and his daughter” (157-158 Scott). 

In putting aside the differences in their religion and refusing to “leave them in this extremity,” Lady Rowena proves the bond of sisterhood, and demonstrates how women in this novel consistently support one another. 

Later, in chapter XLIV, Scott shows another instance in which the bond between these two powerful women is strong when Rebecca gives Lady Rowena some jewels as a gift and says, “Farwell, May He who made both Jew and Christian shower down on you His choicest blessings! The bark that wafts us hence will be under weigh ere we can reach the port.” (379 Scott) In blessing Lady Rowena despite their religious and class differences, and despite Lady Rowena’s marriage to the man she loves, Rebecca supports her and in doing so showcases a mutual identification of struggle that transcends superficial differences and conflicts.In a medieval world filled with jousting, archery, and witch trials, at first glance, it would not seem to be a very welcoming place for women. And it isn’t. While knights like Ivanhoe win royal tournaments, and thieves like Robin Locksley (Robin Hood) win archery competitions, women can only aspire to be crowned Queen of Love and Beauty at royal tournaments. While men could practice medicine and healing in medieval England, women who did so were called witches and put on trial for the use of black magic. Although medieval England was not a place in which women could flourish, Lady Rowena and Rebecca proved exceptional. Although Ivanhoe is primarily known for its male characters, Lady Rowena and Rebecca are the true champions of this tale of trials and tournaments.

Works Cited –

Scott, Sir Walter. Ivanhoe (Annotated) (Literary Classics Collection Book 15). G Books, 2011.