The play opens as the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely worriedly discuss the potential passage of a bill that would strip the church of more than half its wealth and lands, turning them over to the king. This bill was originally proposed during the reign of Henry IV (the father of the current Henry V), but disagreement and unrest prevented it from passing.
The setting is England in 1415. At this time, the Church was a powerful landowner and Church leaders like Canterbury and Ely were frequently wealthy. The proposed bill, though, threatens to diminish that power and wealth and Canterbury and Ely thus fear its passage.
Yet Canterbury and Ely reassure themselves by reflecting on Henry V’s love for the church and newfound poise, reason, and maturity. Before the death of his father, Henry V was rambunctious, impetuous, and wild, but he has become a new man since assuming the throne. Ely guesses that, even before this change, the prince had been cultivating a more refined character under “the veil of wildness.”
Henry’s transformation took place in the play preceding Henry V in Shakespeare’s Henriad: Henry IV part 2. That transformation is crucial to his role in this play. Throughout the play, characters will continue to remark on the difference between Henry’s old appearance and behavior and his new one.
Ely asks Canterbury about Henry V’s attitude towards the bill, which the commons is eager to pass. Canterbury first replies that Henry V seems indifferent, then revises his answer and tells Ely that the king seems to be more partial towards the church than to those who want the bill passed. Canterbury explains that he has conveyed the Church’s approval of Henry’s claim to the French throne and has offered an immense donation from the Church to help raise the English army to aid in Henry V's campaign against France. He suspects Henry V is eager to hear Canterbury elaborate on England’s right to France (a right he says is inherited from Henry V’s great-grandfather Edward III), but their conversation was interrupted by the French ambassadors demanding a meeting. That meeting will take place momentarily, and Canterbury and Ely leave to hear it.
Canterbury has hatched a self-serving plot to protect Church property from the bill in question. By convincing Henry to wage war on France, Canterbury hopes to distract Henry from passing the bill (the bill’s passage was delayed by war in the past and Canterbury hopes to delay it thus again). Canterbury will speak with the authority of the Church to persuade Henry that England’s rights in France are God-given and justified. The archbishop is apparently willing to risk the deaths of many, many soldiers for the sake of his personal fortune. All of this might be taken as a dig at the Catholic Church, which by Shakespeare’s time had been rejected by England in favor of Anglicanism.