The Archbishop, Mowbray, and Hastings gather in Gaultree Forest. The Archbishop reveals that he’s gotten a chilling letter from Northumberland explaining that he’s gone to Scotland to raise the troops he unfortunately wasn’t able to raise in England. A messenger enters to inform the men that the enemy troops are fast approaching and look thirty thousand men strong. Westmoreland enters and conveys Lancaster’s greetings, then asks the Archbishop why such a noble, peaceful man of the church is involving himself in “base and bloody insurrection.”
Having feigned illness to dodge the Battle of Shrewsbury, Northumberland makes up another lie to again avoid joining the rebels. War, Westmoreland’s question implies, is a crude, distasteful action and inappropriate to such a noble, respectable man as the Archbishop.
The Archbishop, replies, “we are all diseased, and with our surfeiting and wanton hours have brought ourselves into a burning fever, and we must bleed for it; of which disease our late King Richard, being infected, died.” He himself, the Archbishop continues, is neither a doctor nor an enemy of the peace. Instead, he’s putting on a show of war in order to get people to give up their vices and clear the “obstructions which begin to stop our very veins of life.” He has considered matters very carefully and concluded that their grievances outweigh any harm they might cause by going on the offense, leaving them no choice but rebellion since King Henry IV has refused to listen to their grievances. They don’t want to break the peace, the Archbishop concludes, they merely want to establish a better peace.
The Archbishop is almost as elaborate and cunning an excuse-maker as Falstaff. Here, he blames his individual actions on a national disease of the spirit plaguing everyone in England. He and the rest of the rebels consider their military rebellion defensive—to protect themselves from what they see as an illegitimate king—rather than offensive, the way King Henry IV and his side see it. At heart of the debate is what makes a king legitimate, as Henry IV deposed Richard II not simply for reasons of ambition but because many were unhappy with Richard.
Westmoreland balks at the Arcbishop’s claim that King Henry IV has denied the rebels his attention and protests that the rebels have no legitimate cause to raise rebellion. He and Mowbray bicker about whether Mowbray deserves any recompense for the long-ago exile of his now-deceased father, Norfolk, during King Richard’s reign. Back then, Henry IV—who was still Bolingbroke at the time—accused Norfolk of treason, leading to his exile. Though, as Westmoreland points out, Henry IV has restored all of Norfolk’s old land to Mowbray, Mowbray still blames Henry IV for his father’s death and wishes that King Richard hadn’t called off the duel that had been scheduled between Norfolk and Bolingbroke, since Norfolk would have won. Westmoreland scoffs at the claim, reminding Mowbray that Bolingbroke was strappingly strong back then and fiercely beloved by all Englishmen.
Westmoreland articulates King Henry V’s side’s perspective on the rebellion: that it is an unprovoked and inappropriate attack, and not the well-meaning defense the rebels claim it is. Westmoreland and Mowbray’s intricate, petty argument demonstrate how absurd and complex the tensions surrounding King Henry IV’s throne have become and also shows how differently time (history) is remembered by different characters.
Westmoreland steers the conversation back towards the present and informs the rebels that Prince John of Lancaster will happily hear their grievances and do his best to negotiate peace. Mowbray gripes that Lancaster is only being politically savvy by agreeing to listen to the rebels once the rebels threaten war. Westmoreland retorts that Lancaster’s mercifulness is thoroughly genuine and not motivated by fear. He takes the Archbishop’s list of grievances and exits to deliver it to Lancaster. Mowbray keeps grumbling but the Archbishop and Hastings insist that things are looking up, that the king’s side is exhausted and will indeed negotiate peace with them. Westmoreland returns and summons the rebels to meet personally with Lancaster between the two camps.
Note Westmoreland’s insistence on the genuineness of Lancaster’s generosity towards the rebels. Mowbray’s and the Archbishop’s and Hastings’ respective unwillingness and willingness to accept the prince’s peace offering represent two different emotional strategies in war: never trust any compromise made by the enemy, or trust that all good faith offers will be upheld, even by an enemy.
The Archbishop, Mowbray and Hastings proceed to their meeting with Lancaster. Lancaster chides the Archbishop, a devoted man of God, for turning against the king, God’s “substitute.” Again, the Archbishop protests that he longs for peace but has no choice but to rebel, given the circumstances.
Through Lancaster’s scolding, the play again alludes to the common contemporary belief that a king’s throne was a god given right.
Lancaster tells the rebels that he has accepted all their grievances, swearing “by the honor of my blood” that it’s all just a misunderstanding, and that King Henry IV will redress them immediately as long as the rebels disband their troops. The Archbishop says, “I’ll take your princely word for these redresses.” “I give it you, and will maintain my word,” Lancaster replies. Hastings orders the rebel troops disbanded. The rebels, Lancaster, and Westmoreland drink happily together. Hastings briefly exits and returns to announce that the rebel troops are all disbanded and merrily heading home.
Note Lancaster’s doubly reiterated insistence that he is telling the truth. The Archbishop and rebels, in turn, trust that his words are true because they believe that the prince’s noble royal standing vouches for his honesty. Thus the play once again presents characters who equate nobility with moral rectitude.
Hearing this news, Westmoreland immediately arrests Hastings, the Archbishop, and Mowbray. “Is this action just and honorable?” Mowbray asks. “Was your rebellion just and honorable?” Westmoreland replies. The Archbishop accuses Lancaster of breaking his faith. Lancaster retorts that he never swore his faith, he merely promised to redress the rebel’s grievances, which he is now doing in the best possible way. The rebels are getting, he claims, exactly what they deserve, and sends them off to execution. He calls for his troops to capture the disbanding rebels. “God, and not we, hath safely fought today,” Lancaster exclaims. All exit.
Lancaster’s betrayal of the rebels is one of the most shocking moments in the play and shows just how cruel and cold “doing the right thing” can seem. Indeed, Lancaster’s defense of his betrayal—that he is simply acting to protect the throne and the English people, that the rebels were scheming criminals and thus don’t deserve to be well-treated—may make moral sense, but it nevertheless feels ruthless and inhumane.