The year is 1402. King Henry delivers a lengthy speech to his council at his palace in London. He says he's totally spent from all the civil warfare the country has endured. But, he's looking forward to uniting English soldiers in a crusade against the "pagans" in the Holy Land.
But, he says it's too bad he can't do this yet – he's recently learned some bad news that will force him to put the rumble in the Holy Land on hold.
Westmoreland gives us the low-down – in a skirmish with the Welsh rebels, Edmund Mortimer, the Earl of March, has been taken captive by the Welsh leader, Owen Glendower. What's worse, 1,000 of Mortimer's English soldiers have been slaughtered in combat and the Welshwomen have mutilated the genitals of the corpses.
Westmoreland also says there's more not-so-good news from the battle at Holmedon (in Northumberland near the border of Scotland). Harry Percy (a.k.a. Hotspur) has been duking it out with the leader of the Scottish forces, the Earl of Douglas. It's a real nail-biter and news of the outcome hasn't yet reached London since the messenger departed from the battlefield before the fight was over.
(Remember, there was no such thing as text-messaging or Twitter. Messages were carried via horseback and it's a lengthy ride from Northumberland to London. Check out this map of Britain – it's got all the important locations in the play.)
Then, King Henry tells us that Sir Walter Blunt has just arrived at the palace from the battle at Holmedon, revealing that Hotspur has defeated Douglas in battle and taken him prisoner. Hotspur's army has also taken out 10,000 Scottish soldiers and 22 knights.
King Henry and Westmoreland agree that Hotspur is awesome – he's the embodiment of "honour" and acts more like a prince than King Henry's own good-for-nothin' kid, Prince Hal.
Wouldn't it be great, asks King Henry, if it turned out that some mischievous fairies had switched Prince Hal and Hotspur at birth? That way, Hotspur would be the king's son instead of Hal.
Henry continues to admire Hotspur, even though Hotspur's dissed the king by refusing to give Henry his important prisoners. (Traditionally, the king's got dibs on all important captives.)
Westmoreland says Hotspur's uncle, Worcester, is the reason why Hotspur's acting like such a punk about the prisoners. Worcester's a bad influence on the kid.
Not to worry, says, King Henry. Hotspur's been summonsed to the court so the king can straighten him out.
In the meantime, given that the Scottish, the Welsh, and the Percy family are all acting up and giving Henry a big headache, the King's little trip to Jerusalem is going to have to wait while he deals with problems at home.
(History snack: Technically, Shakespeare collapses events from the first couple of years of Henry's reign. The battle with the Scots at Holmedon (1402) came after the skirmish with the Welsh that resulted in Mortimer's capture (1401). While we're being technical, we should also note that Shakespeare conflates two historical figures – Lord Edmund Mortimer, who was captured by Glendower and his nephew, Edmund, the Fifth Earl of March – into one character. No big whoop for the story line, but we thought you might want to know.)