The king, leaning on Wolsey's shoulder, thanks him for foiling Buckingham's treasonous plot. He asks for Buckingham's Surveyor, who had testified against his master, to be brought before him so that he can hear his evidence.
Queen Katherine enters, with the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk, and kneels before the king. The king greets her and bids her rise, but she insists on remaining on her knees, since she is going to make a request of him. She explains that she has been asked to intercede with the king by his subjects, who are upset at the levying of new taxes. The people especially blame Wolsey, who originated the taxes, but their anger is also directed at the king, who is ultimately responsible. She fears that rebellion will break out. Norfolk backs up her argument, saying that employers have had to lay off their employees in order to pay the taxes, creating a desperate class of unemployed and starving people.
The king says he is unaware of the new tax. Katherine explains that each subject is being asked to pay one sixth of his worth to pay for the king's wars in France, and that this is turning formerly loyal subjects hostile. The king says he is unhappy about the tax. Wolsey protests that the tax was levied unanimously by the entire king's Council and approved by the judges; his was only "a single voice" in the decision. He says that we should not refrain from doing necessary actions out of fear of malicious critics. He adds that our best actions are often the most criticised, and our worst, the most praised. The king replies that things that are carefully thought out do not create fear in the people. Believing that the tax is far too harsh, he tells Wolsey to revoke it and send letters to each county issuing a free pardon for any man who has refused to pay. Wolsey passes this order on to his secretary, but tells him to start a rumor that it is at Wolsey's request that the king revoked the tax.
Buckingham's former Surveyor comes in. Katherine tells the king that she regrets that he is displeased with Buckingham. The king praises Buckingham's noble qualities, but says that he has become corrupted. He asks the Surveyor to repeat his evidence so that Katherine can hear it. The Surveyor says that Buckingham told his son-in-law, Lord Abergavenny, that if the king died without a male heir, he himself would claim the throne. A friar, Nicholas Henton, had encouraged Buckingham to believe that he could be king.
Katherine points out that Buckingham had fired the Surveyor when his tenants complained about him. She warns that the Surveyor could be giving false evidence to gain revenge on his former master. But the king asks the Surveyor to continue. The Surveyor vows that he is telling the truth. He goes on to say that Buckingham had said that if the king died, he (Buckingham) would have Wolsey and Sir Thomas Lovell executed in order to clear his path to the throne. The Surveyor also claims that Buckingham had told a story about his father, who had planned to kill Richard III to prevent him from usurping the throne, but had been foiled when he could not gain admittance to Richard. Buckingham, the Surveyor says, had vowed to outdo his father and kill King Henry VIII. The king is convinced that Buckingham is a traitor and orders that he be brought to trial immediately.
By far the wisest character in this scene (arguably, in the whole play) is Queen Katherine. She has the ability to look beyond the surface of things and see their root causes. She warns the king of imminent rebellion if he does not repeal Wolsey's new tax. She also warns the king of the unreliability of the Surveyor's evidence against Buckingham, on the grounds that he might be motivated by a grudge against his former master, who had fired him.
The king, while motivated by integrity and generosity, lacks his wife's insight. Though he takes Katherine's advice regarding the tax and repeals it, by his inattention, he allows Wolsey, who originated the tax, to continue to operate in pursuit of his own ends. This confirms Buckingham's charge in the previous scene that Wolsey has taken on some of the king's authority. The king also shows poor judgement in failing to listen to Katherine when she warns that the Surveyor may not be an impartial witness. Naively, he is more ready to trust Wolsey in his view of Buckingham as a traitor.
The Surveyor's reference to Richard III refers to Shakespeare's play of that name. The play tells how Buckingham's father, also called the Duke of Buckingham, supported Richard in his struggle to be crowned king. He helped Richard get rid of those family members who stood between him and the throne. Eventually, Buckingham Senior had begun to doubt Richard and refused to carry out his order to murder two young princes who preceded Richard in line to the throne. When Richard became king, Buckingham Senior asked for the reward of land that Richard had promised him. Richard, however, suspected that he could no longer rely on Buckingham Senior's loyalty, and had him executed. In Henry VIII, the Surveyor says that Buckingham Junior was planning to go further than his father, and to kill King Henry.