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.
Joan explains that she is just a shepherd's daughter, but one day when she was tending her sheep, a vision of God's mother appeared to her and told her to leave her sheep and help free her country. This figure showed itself in all its glory to Joan, the shine of the divine rays brought her her current beauty. She tells Charles to ask her whatever he wants, or even to challenge her to combat, if he dares; she is endowed with the power to succeed in any undertaking. Charles, astonished at her audacity, agrees to a trial of single combat, saying he fears no woman. Responding that she fears no man, she soundly beats him. He declares she is an Amazon (a member of a mythological race of women warriors) and that she fights with the sword of Deborah, an Old Testament prophet; he suggests she become his lover. But Joan declares she cannot yield to love, for her sacred task requires her to remain a virgin.
The other lords return and ask if they should abandon Orléans to the English or not. Joan replies that they will fight for Orléans, and Charles agrees. Joan announces that she will raise the siege that very day. Glory, she says, is like a circle in the water, expanding infinitely until something stops it. With the death of Henry V, the English circle has ceased to spread; the situation can only improve from here. Charles and his lords urge Joan to do what she can to end the siege.
The play opens with the death of Henry V, considered one of England's most charismatic and successful leaders. During his brief reign, Henry conquered much of France, in a set of events depicted in Shakespeare's Henry V. However, it was prophesized that Henry's son would quickly lose the lands that so many had died to gain under his father's rule; and indeed, Henry V is barely in the ground before word comes from France announcing the first losses, with the French rising up against the English, and with England's great champion, Talbot, in French prison.
Shakespeare plays fast and loose with the actual historical facts throughout this play; it is of the "history play" genre, but it does not remain strictly faithful to real dates and events. For one thing, time is condensed; England's holdings in France didn't fall to the French until some years after Henry V's death. Other details, such as Henry VI's age and the timing of battles, receive similar jiggling by Shakespeare, presumably for the sake of a more compelling narrative.
However old Henry VI may be, he is not yet in command of the kingdom, so a network of noblemen must take control. Yet even in their first scene, they do not work well together. They are ambitious politicians, determined to pursue their own power, even when they claim every action is for the good of the nation. Each in turn is portrayed as inferior to Talbot, the original feudal knight, symbol of a dying breed of honorable and brave men devoted to the good of England. Internal dissention among these politicians poses as dangerous a threat to the kingdom as the assaults of the French soldiers.
These scenes also introduce the remarkable figure of Joan of Arc. When she first appears to challenge Charles to a duel, he calls her an Amazon and compares her to a prophet from the Old Testament; for the moment he seems to genuinely value her. And for now she seems deserving--seems indeed to possess at least some of the powers she claims to have been given: she is able to recognize Charles without ever having met him before, and she later is able effortlessly to reduce Talbot's armies to a disorganized chaos. Yet she is a complex figure; the English refer to her as a witch and a whore, suggesting a reluctance to accept a woman in a position of power, a woman playing a role (and wearing the clothes) of a man.
A battle between the French and English takes place without dialogue, depicted only as a series of actions, as specified by the stage directions. The siege represents the first of many huge struggles portrayed in this way. Presumably these scenes provided an opportunity to display great theatrical spectacle; however, if we are reading the play rather than watching it performed, we must ourselves imagine the atmosphere and drama of these encounters: the written text provides only the most sparse of textual elucidation.