Aimwell and Archer are two fashionable beaux, on the lookout for an heiress to marry so they can repair their fortunes. To help their scheme, Archer poses as Aimwell's servant when they arrive in the city of Lichfield. Aimwell insinuates himself into friendship with the beautiful Dorinda, daughter of Lady Bountiful. Meanwhile, Archer strikes up an extremely worldly friendship with Kate, Dorinda's sister-in-law. She's unhappily married to Sullen, a parody of a country squire, mad for hunting and eating and (especially) drinking.
Obstacles to a happy ending include the fact that Kate's husband despises her; that the innkeeper's saucy daughter, Cherry, has fallen in love with Archer; that Lady Bountiful, who is extremely over-protective of Dorinda's virtue, mistakenly believes herself to be a great healer of the sick, while a band of brigands plans to rob Lady Bountiful that very night.
In London in the early eighteenth century, two rollicking young gentlemen, Aimwell and Archer, their money spent and their only alternatives being to marry money or to sell their swords for the wars, conceal their poverty from their gay London friends, and ride into the country to let fate decide their course for them. They are still in possession of their last two hundred pounds, and they have conceived a shrewd plan: by turns one is to play the fine lord, the other his servant, the better to impress the country folk.
They arrive at Lichfield Inn, and Aimwell, taking the first turn at playing the lord, drinks with the garrulous Will Boniface, the landlord, to learn of the prospects in the vicinity. The countryside's most notable household, he finds, is that of Lady Bountiful, a wealthy widow whose philanthropy and skill as a healer have made her an idolised figure. She has a young, wealthy and lovely daughter called Dorinda, and a sluggard son, Squire Sullen, who has recently married a comely London lady. Also at the inn are some captive French officers, among them Count Bellair and Foigard, their priest.
Aimwell, to strengthen the impression of his high estate, puts his money in the landlord's strongbox, bidding Boniface to keep it in readiness as he may stay at the inn only a half hour. Boniface, himself in league with the highwaymen, Gibbet, Hounslow and Bagshot, suspects that Aimwell and Archer are thieves, and, to betray them and get their money, he tells his pretty daughter, Cherry, to tease what information she can from Archer while he plies Aimwell with drink and subtle questioning. But Boniface is outwitted by Aimwell who reveals nothing, and Cherry only succeeds in falling in love with Archer.