In the English camp, Gower and Fluellen discuss recent victories at the bridge over the River Ternoise. Fluellen praises Pistol, now a lieutenant at the bridge, for valiance and gallantry. Pistol enters and reports that Bardolph has stolen a pax (a golden image of the crucifixion) from the church and Exeter has ordered him to be hanged. Pistol asks Fluellen to lobby Exeter for Bardolph’s life, arguing that the pax was “of little price.” When Fluellen sides with Exeter, Pistol curses him and exits. Gower exclaims that Pistol is a dishonorable rogue and thief. Fluellen maintains that Pistol is a brave and gallant soul who has proven himself at the bridge.
Fluellen has misinterpreted Pistol’s appearance, thinking him a much more honorable person than he is. Curiously, even after Pistol curses him Fluellen continues to see Pistol as honorable (though Gower assesses Pistol more accurately). Pistol’s argument on Bardolph’s behalf presumes that the theft of something small is less wrong than the theft of something large.
Henry V enters with his soldiers. Fluellen reports Exeter’s victory at the bridge. When Henry asks how many English have been lost, Fluellen says just one: Bardolph, who will be executed for robbing a church. Henry approves of the execution and emphasizes that no English soldiers should rob, taunt, or abuse the French people on penalty of death. He observes, “…when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner.”
Unlike Pistol, Henry believes theft is deeply immoral regardless of the stolen object’s value. By approving Bardolph’s execution, he reiterates this viewpoint to his soldiers and warns them not to steal (or to perpetrate any other immoral cruelties) towards the French. It’s worth noting that as a boy under Falstaff’s mentorship, Henry likely engaged in petty crimes not so dissimilar from Bardolph’s. As king, though, he wants, and needs, his kingdom to operate with dignity and honor.
Montjoy enters and delivers King Charles’ message: though the French troops have “seemed dead,” they “did but sleep.” He orders the English to repent and to come up with a ransom to pay France back for the damage the English have caused. Henry V asks Montjoy’s name, then relays his response: though the English troops are tired and ill, they are not backing down. He tips Montjoy for delivering the message and Montjoy exits. Assuring a worried Gloucester that they are in God’s hands, Henry makes plans to camp beyond the river and rest before the next day’s march.
The French are at pains to make the English believe that they misjudged France’s appearance at Harfleur and that France’s defenses are much more formidable than they seemed. By asking Montjoy’s name and tipping him, Henry acts kindly and reasonably. Henry recognizes the messenger as a human being and doesn’t consider him too low for the king’s notice. Furthermore, Henry doesn’t take out his anger towards his enemy on his enemy’s powerless messenger.