Two Gentlemen meet in the street. The Second Gentleman is on his way to see the trial of the Duke of Buckingham. The First Gentleman says that he is too late: it is over. Buckingham pleaded not guilty and spoke eloquently in his defense, but he was found guilty of treason. Those who testified against him included his Surveyor; Sir Gilbert Perk, his chancellor (secretary); John Car, his confessor; and the friar, Nicholas Hopkins (earlier in the play called Henton), who encouraged Buckingham to believe he should be king.
The Second Gentleman says that Wolsey is responsible for all this. Wolsey has also been sending nobles favored by the king to distant parts. The Second Gentleman says that the people's representatives in Parliament ("the commons") hate Wolsey, and "wish him ten faddom deep," that is, at the bottom of the sea. On the other hand, they adore Buckingham.
They are interrupted by the entrance of Buckingham, surrounded by an armed guard and accompanied by Lovell, Vaux, Sands, and common people. Buckingham makes a speech, in which he swears his loyalty to the king and says he does not criticise the law, but "those that sought it I could wish more Christians" - a reference to Wolsey. He forgives them, but warns them not to indulge in mischief or use the deaths of more noblemen for their own ends. Lovell asks Buckingham to forgive him, which he does. Buckingham invokes blessings on the king and says he will pray for his long life.
Vaux wants to make the barge that is to carry Buckingham to his execution fit for a Duke, but Buckingham refuses, saying that his high status is now meaningless. He criticises his "base accusers," who "never knew what truth meant." He speaks of his father, who had loyally served Richard III but was betrayed by him. Richard had been succeeded by King Henry VII, who had restored the Buckingham family honors. But now Henry VII's son, Henry VIII, had taken everything from him once again. Buckingham counsels those present to be careful with their friendship and asks them to pray for him. Then he is led away.
The two Gentlemen comment that if Buckingham is innocent, his accusers will suffer "curses on their heads." The Second Gentleman says that evil greater than this is already on the horizon. He has heard a rumor that the king plans to separate from Katherine. He says that Wolsey, out of malice to Katherine, has introduced doubts into the king's mind that threaten to ruin her. Cardinal Campeius, an envoy from the Pope, has arrived to discuss the matter.
The First Gentleman says that Wolsey is doing this to avenge himself on the Holy Roman Emperor and Katherine's nephew, Charles V, for refusing to make him archbishop of Toledo. The two Gentlemen express sympathy for Katherine and leave to talk in private.
It is not clear whether Buckingham is genuinely guilty of treason, but the trumped-up nature of his trial is evident from the dubious integrity of most of the witnesses against him. The Surveyor is his former employee, whom he fired and who therefore holds a grudge against him; Car, his confessor, is breaking the sacred trust of the confessional in testifying; and the friar, Hopkins/Henton, fed Buckingham with prophecies that he would be king and must therefore share in his guilt. Because Hopkins/Henton is guilty of inciting treason, he will probably have bought his freedom in exchange for testifying against Buckingham, or perhaps he was tortured into giving evidence. Either way, Hopkins/Henton's testimony is suspect.
While Buckingham refuses to name names, his comment that he "could wish more Christians" those who sought his downfall is a severe indictment of Wolsey, who occupies the position of highest spiritual authority in the land. Buckingham also says that his accusers "never knew what truth meant" - again, if true, this is a terrible sin in a senior churchman. Buckingham's accusations of Wolsey carry particular weight because now that he is about to die, he has nothing to gain from lying and to do so would put his soul in peril of damnation. As if to drive home the guilt of Wolsey and his accomplices, after Buckingham exits, the two Gentlemen remark that if he is innocent, then his accusers will suffer "curses on their heads."
Buckingham's invocation of the story of his father, who died for his loyalty to King Richard III, as a direct parallel to his own story, suggests that like his father, he is indeed loyal. This is backed up by the judgment of the common people and the nobility of his final speeches, which emphasize forgiveness of others and a spiritual readiness to die: "Commend me to his grace, / And if he speaks of Buckingham, pray tell him / You met him half in heaven." (lines 86-8).