So shaken as we are, so wan with care, 
Find we a time for frighted peace to pant 
And breathe short-winded accents of new broils 
To be commenced in strands afar remote. 
No more the thirsty entrance of this soil 
Shall daub her lips with her own children’s blood. 
No more shall trenching war channel her fields, 
Nor bruise her flow’rets with the armèd hoofs 
Of hostile paces. 
(Act 1, scene 1, lines 1–9)

King Henry opens the play with these lines, where he expresses his weariness at the ongoing conflict that has led to many English deaths. The violence to which Henry refers relates to resistance movements along two of England’s borders. To the east, the English have been fighting with the Welsh, whose nation had officially been a principality of England since the thirteenth century. Hence why Prince Harry bears the title “Prince of Wales.” To the north, the English have been engaged in another battle with the Scots, a kingdom that would resist English rule until the early eighteenth century. This unrest sets the stage for the play in two senses. On the one hand, a new outbreak of violence in Wales will soon plunge the kingdom into another round of civil war. On the other hand, the resistance of the Welsh and Scottish armies symbolically reflects the play’s larger concern about the legitimacy of rule. Specifically, the resistance rejects the legitimacy of English rule—a rejection that implicitly bears on the legitimacy of Henry’s claim to the throne.

As his opening lines indicate, Henry’s rule has not been a time of peace, and the stress of his kingly duties has left him prematurely aged and exhausted. He speaks in the royal third person, conflating himself with England itself as he declares that the nation stands breathless between battles. From this vulnerable position, he makes a plea that English soil shall cease to “daub her lips with her own children’s blood.” However noble such a plea may be, his vision of a peaceful England is soon destroyed when, immediately after Henry’s opening speech, the Earl of Westmoreland announces the latest outbreak of violence. Brutality in Wales will plunge the country into yet another round of civil war. The ironic contrast between Henry’s vision and his country’s reality implicitly invites the audience to question the legitimacy of his rule.