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The funeral for King Henry V is attended by Bedford, Gloucester, Exeter, Warwick, Winchester, and Somerset. The lords mourn the dead king, who had ruled England so well and conquered his enemies so bravely. The new king, Henry VI, is still too young to rule in his father's stead, and Gloucester has been named Protector of the kingdom. Gloucester accuses Winchester, a bishop, of not praying enough for their dead king; perhaps if he had tried harder, he could have saved him. But Bedford urges them to stop their quarreling. As the coffin is carried out, Bedford asks the ghost of Henry V to help England prosper.
A messenger enters with bad news from France; the French have recaptured eight towns that Henry V took for England during his reign. The effect of the news is all the more bitter in that it is spoken over the grave of the man who won the lands now lost. Exeter asks what treachery has led to this event, but the messenger attributes it merely to a lack of men and money. The lords now express concern that at this time when solidarity is most needed, the leaders in England are dividing into factions. The messenger calls to the nobility to wake up and to not rest on their laurels, particularly as regards their French holdings.
Bedford, the Regent of the French lands, declares he will leave for France to right the situation. A second messenger enters, announcing that the French are revolting and have crowned the Dauphin Charles king in one of the towns, where several lords have joined up with him. Bedford is again preparing to depart when a third messenger enters to tell of a terrible battle between Talbot, the English general, and the French forces. Talbot, when retreating from the siege of Orléans, was surrounded by French troops and fought a hard fight. All the French soldiers were directed to take on Talbot, but none could defeat him, until the cowardly Englishman Sir John Fastolf fled, leaving Talbot open to be captured by the French.
Bedford is shocked by this tale and makes plans to pay the ransom to free Talbot. Bedford leaves finally for France, and the other noblemen go about preparing for the imminent war: Gloucester heads to the Tower to check on the weapons stored there, and Exeter goes to attend to the young king's safety. Winchester intends to get close to the king as soon as he can, so that he can emerge as the most powerful man in the war.
In Orléans, the French Dauphin Charles and his nobles Alençon and René express their pleasure at having captured Talbot, while the English troops lie leaderless outside the city walls. The Frenchmen agree that the English look pitifully weak; perhaps they may be able to break their siege and travel outside the city again.
The English nevertheless continue their siege on the French, killing many. Charles and his lords gather again, astonished that the English can hold out. They think the English will never abandon the siege, even as they draw their last breath. Then, the Bastard of Orléans enters with news for Charles. He announces that he may have found the key to their salvation: "A holy maid hither with me I bring / Which, by a vision sent to her from heaven, / Ordainèd is to raise this tedious siege / And drive the English forth the bounds of France" (I.iii.30-4). Charles calls for her to be brought in, but wants to test her ostensible clairvoyance: he changes places with René before Joan enters; if she knows that the king is not the man sitting on the throne, her powers will be proved. She indeed recognizes immediately which man is the king and asks the other lords to leave her to speak to Charles alone for a moment.