Cardinal Wolsey meets with a number of French ambassadors to discuss a peace treaty between England and France that will be sealed by the marriage of King Louis of France to Henry VIII's sister Mary. The cardinal promises the men a swift audience into the king's presence, and the French promise him they will do all they can to advance his prospects of becoming the next Pope. Sir William Compton arrives and informs Wolsey that the king wishes to speak with him before meeting with the French ambassadors. Therefore, Wolsey departs to meet with the king, after asking Bonner if certain articles are ready.
As King Henry and his lords await the French ambassadors, they enjoy the comic relief of Will Summers, the court jester, and the king exchanges kind words with his queen, Jane Seymour, who is heavily pregnant with their child. Jane then begins to feel unwell, indicating that the child is ready to be born, and the king orders her ladies to take her to her bed so she may begin the birthing process. All present wish her well, but Jane herself seems to feel that she will never see any of them again. The ambassadors arrive and are eager to seal a peace treaty between England and France through the marriage of King Louis and Henry's sister Mary. To this the king says he will do his best to convince his sister, and the ambassadors may too, but until a decision is made, Cardinal Wolsey will host them at the court. Several ladies enter and inform the king that the queen is sick, and wine is needed for her. The ladies are followed by Lady Mary and the Countess of Salisbury, who tell the king that he must choose between saving his wife or his child, for only one can survive. Though reluctant, the king chooses his wife to live since more children may be conceived. Unfortunately, Mary returns shortly after with news that Jane cannot live, and therefore, it makes sense to save the child. Henry is heartbroken at this news and is comforted by Lord Seymour, Jane's father. Finally, the ladies return and present the king with a healthy baby boy, but also inform him that Queen Jane has died in the birthing process. Though the king is clearly shaken, he is happy he now has a son to carry on his dynasty and names the child Edward.
Wolsey bids farewell to the French ambassadors and promises them the Lady Mary will set off to France soon enough. After the men depart, Gardiner tells of his worries that, now that the Catholic Queen Jane is dead, the king might marry a Protestant. Wolsey tells him not to worry and promises to make Bonner and Gardiner bishops of London and Winchester, respectively, and hopes that he himself will be elected Pope soon enough.
The entirety of the scene involves the lords attempting to break the king out of his bitter and depressed mood that has been caused by the death of Queen Jane. To make matters worse, there are rebellions going on in London and Ireland, and Martin Luther has published a paper against the king. All the lords do their part to cheer up the king but to no avail. Finally, it is the fool, Will Summers, and his cousin Patch, who finally are able to rid the king of his foul mood, and Henry readies himself to receive the legates from the Pope.
The king and the lords meet with Cardinal Campeius, the papal legate, who declares Henry VIII "defender of the faith," in the Pope's name, and asks the king for military assistance against the Turks, who are causing trouble in Christian nations. Despite the objections of Will the fool, Henry agrees to send troops to fight the Turks. After the papal party leaves, the king inquires as to the status of his sister Mary and is told that she is safely arrived in France and married to the French king. Finally, Henry says he shall walk through the streets of London at night, disguised, so he may see how the night watchmen do their jobs against thieves.
The constable and night watchmen of London talk of the recent rash of murders and robberies within the city and what they shall do to stop them. Most of the watch ends up going to sleep.
The king and Compton walk through the streets of London at night in their disguises, wanting to test how easily they can get past the sleeping night watchmen. Prichall the cobbler accosts the disguised king but is easily persuaded to back down, greatly worrying the king that his watchmen are so lenient on suspicious figures. At this point, the king meets Black Will, a notorious criminal who claims to be valiant, and the two are able to, once again, convince the guards that they are not up to anything bad. However, Henry and Black Will come to blows and begin to fight, drawing the attention of the watchmen, who promptly arrest the men and put them in prison. The king asks if he may pay one of the men to go retrieve Brandon and have him come to the prison. Prichall goes to retrieve the duke but runs into him and Compton on the way and directs them to the prison where the king is being held. The scene then switches to the disguised King Henry in prison, asking the porter if he can have some company amongst his fellow prisoners and offers to have wine brought to them at his own expense. To this the porter agrees, and Henry socializes with his fellow prisoners until Suffolk and Compton arrive to take him back to court. All present are in shock that they were in the presence of the king for all this time and did not realize. Henry offers Black Will, the man he had quarreled with earlier, a job as a soldier when the time comes, and Will gladly accepts. Finally, when all the prisoners have departed, Suffolk informs the king that the King of France has died and that his sister Mary is now a widow. Henry is sad to hear the news and orders Suffolk to retrieve Mary from France, fearing for her safety now that the league is officially broken between the two countries. To end the scene, Henry says that he will marry Katherine Parr and send Anne of Cleves, his previous wife, home again.
Wolsey and Bonner, who is now bishop of London, lament the death of the King of France and the loss of a valuable ally when Will Summers and Patch enter to bring some comic relief. However, the two prelates are struck with fear when Will informs them that the king is set to marry Katherine Parr, a Protestant who follows the views of Martin Luther. Wolsey and Bonner set off to court to do all they can to prevent the Lutherans from gaining any power.
After Henry VIII and Katherine Parr are married, the king takes care of various elements of business, including reprimanding a groomsmen of his for his disreputable activities and criticizing Cranmer for Prince Edward's lack of progress in his studies, while a religious debate occurs between the Catholics (Wolsey and Bonner) and the Protestants (Queen Katherine and her followers). When these conflicts are over, a message arrives informing the king that Suffolk has returned from France with his new wife, who happens to be Henry's sister Mary, who had just lost her previous husband, the King of France. At first, Henry is extremely angry with the secret marriage, but he is ultimately convinced by those present to forgive the two and return them to favor. Suffolk then informs Henry that the alliance between the new French king and the Holy Roman Emperor has been severed, and the king means to go to the continent to meet with the emperor to form a new alliance.
Cranmer, Doctor Tye and Sir Edward Browne talk of the Prince Edward's lack of concentration on his studies and how Browne was actually whipped as a punishment for not being more firm with the prince. At this point, the prince enters with the Marquess of Dorset, with whom he has been playing tennis, and is immediately accosted by his tutors for his lack of interest in his intellectual pursuits. The prince defends himself by saying that he has been doing his work and is sorry that Browne was whipped because of him. As a reward, the prince knights Browne, awaiting his father's approval. When the king arrives, all present tell him that the prince is doing well in his studies and that he has knighted Browne. After hearing of the unauthorized knighting, the king is overwhelmed with joy that his son has shown such a kingly persona and gladly confirms the knighting and provides Browne with a thousand marks a year to support his new rank. However, the king warns Browne and the others not to let the prince make any more knights and to make sure he keeps up with his studies, or else they will take the blame, before he departs.
Prince Edward and his tutors discuss several subjects including philosophy, religion and music, and the tutors (Cranmer and Tye) are impressed with the prince's intelligence and see that he shows a strong Protestant fervor. Once these men exit, Bonner and Gardiner enter and are well aware of the fact that the prince is being brought up as a Protestant and that it will mean disaster for them and any other Catholic in England. They vow to do what they can to get Wolsey elected Pope and to rid themselves of the Protestants, including Queen Katherine, whom they consider to be the biggest threat to their security. Henry VIII and his court then enter and talk of Wolsey's diplomatic mission to the emperor and his chance of becoming Pope, when a religious debate breaks out between the Catholics, Bonner and Gardiner, and the Protestant Queen Katherine. Katherine argues that it is the king who has supreme power over the church of England, and that the Pope has no power whatsoever, while the two bishops attempt to contradict these statements. When the queen departs to retrieve certain documents, Bonner and Gardiner make a case against her and the other Protestants, stating that they are conspiring against the king's own person. After hearing their arguments, the king begins to believe they are true. Compton then enters with a letter from Martin Luther which greatly anger the king.
The prince meets with Browne and receives two letters, each from one of his sisters. After reading part of the first letter from his sister Mary, who praises Catholicism, Edward is disgusted. However, the prince is quite pleased with the letter from his other sister Elizabeth, which speaks well of the Protestant faith. At this point Cranmer enters and informs the prince that Wolsey has arrived back from the continent and that security is much tighter than usual at the court. This news is followed by Compton's news that Cranmer must leave court and not associate with the prince upon pain of death and that the prince himself must visit his father. Cranmer is confident that he will clear his name to the king for whatever offense he is accused of committing and departs. Queen Katherine enters and pleads with the prince to stand up for her against her accusers at court who feel she is guilty of treason for conspiring to eliminate the Catholic faith from England with her fellow Lutherans. Compton then confirms that the queen has indeed been accused of treason and must be sent to the tower. However, Compton suggests that Katherine swiftly visit the king so she may defend herself in person to him because, if she does not get that opportunity, she may not live much longer.
Bishops Bonner and Gardiner talk deviously of how they will help eliminate Queen Katherine and any other Protestants who threaten the Catholic cause.
The king and Prince Edward are under heavy guard and await the arrest of Queen Katherine. All along the prince pleads for his stepmother, but the king will not listen. Compton arrives and informs the king that the queen wishes to speak with him. At first, the king will not see her, but when Edward gives his own word that the queen means him no harm, Henry relents. Katherine enters and is immediately reprimanded by her husband for supposedly conspiring against his person. Despite all the rumors that the clergy had spread, the queen manages to convince the king that she never took part in any conspiracy and is a loyal subject to him. Therefore, when Bonner and Gardiner arrive to have her arrested, the king explodes on them in a fit of anger and orders them to be arrested. It is only by the queen's intervention that the men are saved. Once they depart, Suffolk enters with news that the emperor has arrived in England, and the king prepares to meet his nephew. Wolsey and Will Summers then enter, and the fool begins to joke about the cardinal's immense wealth and greed, after which the king tells the queen that he had already suspected what Will said and means to reprimand the cardinal, before departing to meet the emperor.
Cardinal Wolsey and Prince Edward entertain the Holy Roman Emperor before the king himself arrives to greet his imperial guest. The emperor is pleased to be in England but accuses Henry VIII of conspiring against him with the French. Henry outright denies this, and Cardinal Wolsey admits that it was he who worked out a truce between the French and the emperor. The king, who is furious with this news, dismisses Wolsey from court and relieves him of all his duties to the crown, accusing him of playing the king himself. After Wolsey's dismissal, Will Summers engages the king, queen and emperor with some comic relief, before they all set off to banquet in the emperor's honor to end the play.