The play opens on a room in the palace in London where King Henry, the Earl of Westmoreland, and Sir Walter Blunt gather with attendants. King Henry announces that, though England has been recently embroiled in bloody civil wars, such battles are, to his great relief, over. England can now focus its energies on the Christian crusades in the Middle East that Henry has been planning for the past year. He asks Westmoreland whether the royal Council has approved his proposed crusades.
The opening of the play immediately connects the themes of appearances, the right to be king, and warfare: King Henry seems at first to be a staunch pacifist, committed to a peaceful England safe for his subjects. Yet his eagerness to launch (inevitably violent) crusades contradicts his apparent pacifism.
Westmoreland tells King Henry that, in the midst of the Council’s discussions, they received a message from Wales that Edmund Mortimer (the Earl of March), has been captured by the “wild” Welshman Owen Glendower in battle. Glendower has brutally butchered Mortimer’s English troops and rendered unspeakable mutilations upon the corpses. King Henry replies that he supposes his crusades must be delayed.
Although upcoming speeches and incidents in this play will equate bloody, violent battle with masculine nobility and honor, the bloodshed here is not seen that way: Glendower’s violence is understood as “wild,” brutal, overly extreme and, by implication, dishonorable.
Westmoreland explains that there’s more bad news to top off the Mortimer tragedy. Hotspur (Henry Percy, son of the Earl of Northumberland), and Archibald (Earl of Douglas) fought bloodily at Holmedon. King Henry replies that he’s heard the outcome of this battle from his trusted friend Sir Walter Blunt, who has sped down from Holmedon to deliver the welcome message that Douglas has been defeated, that ten thousand Scots and twenty-two Scottish knights have been killed, and that Hotspur has captured Douglas’ eldest son and other noblemen prisoners. King Henry proudly declares the battle’s outcome “a gallant prize.” Westmoreland acknowledges that it’s “a conquest for a prince to boast of.”
Like the battle between Mortimer and Glendower in Wales, the fight between Hotspur and Douglas occurs at England’s edges (in this case the border between Scotland and England), where questions of power and the right to the throne are always in hot dispute. Whereas Glendower’s bloody acts were described as ignoble brutality, Hotspur’s are celebrated as honorable achievements and described as “gallant” and princely.
Hearing Westmoreland’s words, King Henry says he suddenly grows sad and jealous of Lord Northumberland whose honorable, upright son Henry Percy (Hotspur) puts the King’s own son Prince Henry (Prince Hal) to shame. The king wishes he could prove that the two sons had somehow been switched at birth by a fairy: “Then would I have his Harry, and he mine.”
The king, the prince, and Hotspur all share the same name—Henry—but, as the play will soon demonstrate, the three men appear vastly different and embody distinct strengths and weaknesses. King Henry wishes his son appeared more like Hotspur, who seems much more honorable than Hal.
Making himself change the subject, King Henry asks Westmoreland what he thinks of Hotspur’s pride, since Percy has sent word that he will keep all his war prisoners for himself and will only give the king one. Westmoreland replies that Percy’s behavior is influenced by his uncle Thomas Percy, Earl of Worcester, who hates King Henry. King Henry explains that he has already summoned Hotspur to a meeting to discuss the issue and declares that he’ll hold his Council next Wednesday at Windsor castle. He acknowledges that he must delay his crusades for the present. He tells Westmoreland to return for more discussion soon, since King Henry can’t talk everything through now since he is so angry.
The same bold assertiveness that makes Hotspur honorable (by fueling courageous and noble acts on the battlefield) can also make him too proud by leading him to act entitled and cocky (rather than humble and loyal to his superiors, like the king). King Henry sees through Hotspur’s appearance to the influence of his uncle Worcester, whom Henry believes to be inspiring and controlling Hotspur’s behavior.