During the May Day festival, the May Queen is crowned with "roses white and roses
red ... the flowers of Merrie England". Her two guards are introduced -
Bessie Throckmorton, one of Queen Elizabeth's Ladies in Waiting, and Sir Walter Raleigh
are in love, but they must keep their love a secret as the Queen is also in love
with Raleigh. Bessie tells of how she carelessly lost a love letter from Raleigh
("She lost the letter from her love"). She worries that the letter may have fallen
into Queen Elizabeth's hands and thus reveal their secret love. The Earl of Essex
(Raleigh's rival for the affection of the Queen) is handed the love letter (an acrostic
on the name Bessie) by Jill-
Queen Elizabeth then enters with much ceremony. Long Tom pleads for the Queen's protection
Jill has managed to escape with Bessie using a secret passage out of the tower. The Queen asks an apothecary (her jester in disguise) to concoct a poison which she will administer to Bessie.
Wilkins works at length on a stage version of the story of St. George and the Dragon, and the play is performed for the Queen and Essex. Unfortunately, they dislike the play.
Eventually the Queen is convinced to allow Raleigh and Bessie to love each other, choosing Essex instead for herself after seeing an apparition of Herne the Hunter, who, according to legend, appears only when a sovereign contemplates a crime. Everyone takes part in a reenactment of Robin Hood's wedding to Maid Marian. Everyone takes roles closely related to their part in the opera; for example, Raleigh becomes Robin to Bessie's Marian.