The play opens in a room at the court of King Henry VIII, in London. The Duke of Norfolk meets the Duke of Buckingham and Lord Abergavenny. Buckingham asks Norfolk how he has been since they last met in France. Norfolk replies that he is well, and still admires what he saw there. They had accompanied the king to a great display of wealth and military prowess by England and France, which took place in a field in France. Norfolk describes the impressive scene to Buckingham, who had missed everything through illness.
Buckingham asks who organized the event, and Norfolk says it was Cardinal Wolsey, the king's chief advisor. Buckingham voices his contempt and dislike for Wolsey as an ambitious, meddling self-seeker, and condemns the event in France as "vanities." Norfolk is more conciliatory, pointing out that Wolsey lacks the example lent by noble ancestors and experienced assistants; he is a self-made man and has only his own resources to rely on.
Abergavenny joins in with Buckingham's condemnation of Wolsey, criticising his pride, which he says is "from hell." Buckingham adds that Wolsey did not seek the king's permission when deciding who should go to France. Wolsey made the nobles pay for the event, yet he gave least honor to those who paid most. Abergavenny confirms that several of his relatives funded the event by selling part of their estates, which would never recover. Buckingham says the event resulted only in a massive waste of money and empty talk. Norfolk agrees that the peace between England and France does not justify such a cost. In any case, France has broken the agreement by seizing British merchants' goods at Bordeaux. But he warns Buckingham to be careful, since Wolsey is a powerful and vengeful man.
They are interrupted by the arrival of Wolsey with his guards and secretaries. Wolsey and Buckingham glare at each other. Wolsey asks a secretary if Buckingham's former Surveyor (estate overseer), who has come to give evidence against him, has arrived. The secretary says he has, and Wolsey leaves with his party.
Buckingham fears that Wolsey is plotting against him. He thinks he is on his way to the king to stir up trouble for him, and decides to follow him. But Norfolk warns Buckingham against this, advising him to calm down and show restraint. Buckingham takes his advice, though he says he has proof that Wolsey is corrupt and treasonous. Norfolk is shocked by the accusation of treason, but Buckingham insists that he will say as much to the king, and provide proof. Buckingham enumerates Wolsey's faults: he is greedy, cunning, and given to mischief; he organized the French event simply to show off his high status in France as well as England; and he drew up the France-England treaty that was agreed there to suit his own ends. He also deals with Queen Katherine's nephew, Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and king of Spain, behind King Henry's back. Charles had been worried at the prospect of England forming an alliance with France, as it would threaten Spain's interests. Wolsey, says Buckingham, buys and sells the king's honor for his own advantage.
At that moment, Brandon, the sergeant-at-arms, comes in with the Guard, and arrests Buckingham in the name of the king, on the charge of high treason. Buckingham is certain that Wolsey has arranged this. He says goodbye to Abergavenny, but Brandon says he has come to arrest him too, along with others among their friends. Buckingham says that Wolsey must have bribed the Surveyor to incriminate him. As the prisoners are taken to be locked up in the Tower of London, Buckingham believes his life is over.
The Prologue sets the scene for the play, making clear that its purpose is to present historical truth and arouse pity for those powerful people who have fallen. The play covers some years of the reign of King Henry VIII up to the birth of his daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth I, by his second wife, Anne Boleyn.
The first scene establishes the character of Wolsey as seen from the point of view of his enemy, Buckingham. We do not yet know how objectively true Buckingham's opinion is. Certain aspects of his tirade against Wolsey betray the prejudice of the noble (Buckingham) for the self-made humbly born man (Wolsey). Wolsey was reported to be the son of a butcher, so Buckingham calls him a "butcher's cur" (line 120) and invokes the traditional distinction of rank to "cry down" "This Ipswich fellow's insolence" (lines 137-8). His attitude reflects the widespread alarm among the nobility in Tudor times at the rise of a wealthy merchant middle-class and a more flexible class and education system that allowed low-class men like Wolsey to attain high office.
However, Buckingham's accusations of ruthlessness and cunning are backed up by Wolsey's hostile attitude to him during his brief appearance, along with the arrrest of Buckingham at the end of the scene. It is significant too that at his arrest, Buckingham is accused of exactly the same crime of which he had previously accused Wolsey. The impression given is that Wolsey has both spied upon and plotted against Buckingham. Also striking is the fact that Buckingham claims he has proof of Wolsey's treason, yet Wolsey has as yet presented no evidence of Buckingham's treason - but Wolsey is nevertheless able to have Buckingham arrested for treason. This shows that the power lies with Wolsey, not with the likes of Buckingham and those nobly born friends of his who are also arrested.
The Prologue had warned that the play would show us "How soon this mightiness meets misery," or the fall of powerful people. Buckingham is the first to fall, through the intervention of Wolsey.
The display of military achievement by the royal courts of France and England referred to in this scene is known to historians as the Field of the Cloth of Gold, after the rich materials of the tents set up to accommodate the royals and nobles who attended. The event took place in 1520 against the background of a triangular power struggle in Europe between the great powers of the time - France (ruled by King Francis I), Spain (ruled by Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, also the nephew of King Henry VIII's wife Katherine), and the newcomer, England. France and Spain vied with each other for an alliance with England to swing the balance of power in their favor. Wolsey favored an allliance with France, but Katherine favored an alliance with her home country of Spain. The Field of the Cloth of Gold, where King Henry VIII of England and King Francis I of France agreed in principle to an alliance, appeared to be a victory for Wolsey, but it was somewhat tainted and short-lived. The event severely strained the finances of both countries and the results were negligible. Shortly after, Henry met Charles V in England and signed a treaty with the Empire. Over the next few years, treaties between the three countries were signed and broken with wearisome regularity, with the result that no one power gained ascendancy.