An exhausted King Henry describes the horrors of civil conflict which his realm has endured during the twelve months that he has ruled England. At last he will be free to lead a united force of English soldiers to fight the enemies of Christendom in Jerusalem. But the Earl of Westmoreland brings news which forces the king to postpone this crusade. In Wales, Mortimer's forces have been badly defeated by Glendower, and Mortimer himself has been captured. Furthermore, English troops led by young Henry Percy, "the gallant Hotspur," are engaged in a battle at Holmedon against the Scots commanded by Douglas. The king has already learned the outcome of this battle, thanks to the services of Sir Walter Blunt. Young Percy has won a great victory and taken many prisoners. This is indeed, as Westmoreland states, "a conquest for a prince to boast of" (77). The king sadly replies that he wishes his own derelict son were more like the valiant Hotspur. He is concerned also because that admirable son of the Earl of Northumberland refuses to turn his prisoners over to the Crown, especially because many of them are ranking nobles. Westmoreland informs him that Hotspur's arrogance is the result of his uncle's influence: "This is his uncle's teaching; this is Worcester, / Malevolent to you in all aspects." The king announces that he will hold council at Windsor and instructs Westmoreland to order the Percies to be present.
The titular hero, King Henry IV, whom we meet and hear in this opening scene making what amounts to a formal address, had made the vow to fight the infidel in the Holy Land shortly after his usurpation of the throne from Richard II and the death of his predecessor for which Henry himself was responsible (Richard II, V.vi.3052). Primarily, therefore, it is Henry, the sinner, the man guilty of the heinous sins of usurpation and regicide, who appears here—one who hopes to atone for his sins by going to the Holy Land. From a doctrinal point of view, never to be ignored in Shakespeare's chronicle-history plays, Henry is already enduring divine punishment, although, under God's authority, he rules England and merits the obedience of all subjects. This was the orthodox Tudor, sixteenth-century view which informs this play.
Understandably, then, King Henry appears "shaken [and] wan with care" (1), as he tells us in his speech, dwelling with vivid detail on the "furious close of civil butchery" (13). The rising of the Welsh led by Glendower points to the fact that Henry will not yet be given the opportunity to do penance for his sins. And with these internal troubles, there remains the threat from Scotland, still an independent kingdom. The seriousness of this threat is apparent: Sir Walter Blunt has ridden hard to bring the news of Hotspur's victory.
As he did in the last act of Richard II, Shakespeare now introduces the contrast between "young Harry," the king's eldest son and heir, and the dedicated, courageous Hotspur. The former's brow is stained with "riot and dishonour" (85); the latter is "the theme of Honour's tongue, / Amongst a grove the very straightest plant" (8182). Little wonder that the distraught Henry would like to exchange sons with the Earl of Northumberland, especially since Hotspur has been winning glory not in civil strife but in fighting a foreign enemy.
In view of the second reference to the postponement of the king's "holy purpose," that of leading a crusade to Jerusalem, it follows that the reported failure of the Prince of Wales is part of Henry's punishment for his sins. So Shakespeare's generation would conclude.
The titular hero has been introduced in this first scene, and we have gained an insight into one aspect of his character; the connection between this chronicle-history play and the preceding one has been indicated tacitly; and the dominant theme of rebellion has been established. Although neither Hotspur nor the Prince of Wales has made an appearance, the two have been set in opposition, and as a result the secondary but important theme of honor has been set forth.