The first scene of Richard II is set in Windsor Castle, in London. King Richard is to hear the charge of treason that Henry Bolingbroke, the Duke of Hereford, has brought against Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk. Bolingbroke and Mowbray enter, and Bolingbroke accuses Mowbray to his face of treason. Mowbray replies by accusing Bolingbroke of slander. Bolingbroke challenges him to trial by combat, and Mowbray accepts. Richard asks Bolingbroke to give details of his accusations against Mowbray. Bolingbroke replies that Mowbray has dishonestly used money intended for Richard's soldiers. But more than that, Bolingbroke claims that Mowbray is to blame for every plot against the crown conceived over the previous eighteen years. Finally, Bolingbroke accuses Mowbray of being the cause of the death of the Duke of Gloucester a couple of years previously. Mowbray responds by calling Bolingbroke a liar. Richard emphasizing that he is impartial in this dispute, encourages Mowbray to respond in detail. Mowbray explains that three-quarters of the money Bolingbroke accuses him of misusing, he in fact paid to the soldiers. The remaining quarter he kept for himself, by agreement with the king, because the king owed him this amount of money. He then answers the second allegation, claiming that he did not kill Gloucester. He then admits that once he did plot against the life of the Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt, Bolingbroke's father. He says he felt remorse for this, confessed his guilt, and begged for pardon, which he hopes he received. All other charges he denies, and says he accepts Bolingbroke's challenge of trial by combat.
Richard tries to settle the matter by asking each man to forgive the other and withdraw their challenges. Mowbray complies only because he has no choice. He still claims to be the victim of slander. Bolingbroke is equally reluctant to withdraw from the quarrel. Seeing their unwillingness to be reconciled, Richard II agrees to allow the trial by combat to go forward.
There is a lot going on under the surface in this opening scene. Historians agree that Richard II was likely responsible for ordering the death of his uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, who was smothered with towels in a castle prison in Calais. Gloucester had been a long-time opponent of the king. Historians also agree that Mowbray, who was warden of the castle, was Richard's agent in the killing, although he did not kill Gloucester himself.
Given this situation, it is clearly not in Richard's interests to allow the truth to come out. He would prefer, to put it in modern terms, a "cover-up" of what really happened. The actor playing Richard has the option of conveying Richard's uneasiness in this scene, even while he plays the role of the impartial monarch. Richard has his secrets to hide.
Richard II: Novel Summary: Act 1 Scene 1