Blog Posts

History of Fireworks:

Published: 05 November 2014
Posted by: Sam Kinchin-Smith
Category: History In-depth

Fireworks can be fun, but it’s important to stay safe on Bonfire Night. From Medieval monks experimenting with gunpowder to a disastrous pyrotechnic display designed to impress Elizabeth I, here are four cautionary tales from people who played with fire…

1. Medieval memo: don’t trust Benedictines with your bonfire

Many of the greatest scientists of the medieval age were monks, and most of the best pyrotechnicians among these experimenting brothers were Franciscans. The earliest recorded use of gunpowder in England comes from an account by one such friar, Roger Bacon, who apparently messed about with saltpetre in 1242 and accidentally created ‘the roar of strong thunder, and a flash brighter than the most brilliant lightning’.

Meanwhile, the Franciscans’ great rivals, the Benedictines, were having rather less luck with fire. Throughout the medieval period, parts of St Edmund’s Abbey in Bury were destroyed by fire at least three times, including in 1151, which saw the fiery incineration of almost all of the abbey’s buildings, and in 1464, when the conventual church was gutted thanks to the carelessness of some plumbers employed to repair the roof.

The extent to which the other monastic orders of the period – the Augustinians, Cistercians, Carthusians, Gilbertines, Dominicans, Premonstratensians and the Cluniacs – enjoyed or endured fire is a little less clear-cut.


Bury St Edmund's Abbey

2. Tudor tip: don’t point pyrotechnics at your neighbours

The Tudors loved fireworks. You could even say that the Tudor period began with the bang of a firework display- England's first, at the wedding of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. This craze reached its peak during the reign of Elizabeth I, which saw the queen appointing an official ‘Fire Master of England’, and Shakespeare’s Lord Chamberlain’s Men experimenting with the kind of pyrotechnic special effects that would eventually burn down the first Globe theatre in 1613. Thankfully nobody was hurt in the blaze - although one chap’s breeches caught fire, a situation which was resolved, happily, with some quick thinking and a bottle of beer.

A much more cautionary tale comes from Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire. Elizabeth I’s visit to see her favourite Robert Dudley in 1572 went catastrophically wrong when a mock battle staged for the Queen’s benefit - complete with pyrotechnic dragon effects and fireworks shot from cannons into the sky - resulted in a volley of misdirected fireballs falling on the adjacent town. Several houses were burned to the ground, and tragically at least one man was killed in the blaze. Elizabeth was forced to compensate the townsfolk to the tune of £25. The moral of the tale: don’t take your eye off the (fire)ball, even if you’re entertaining royalty.


Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire, scene of a disastrous fireworks display in 1572

3. Stuart suggestion: don’t try to blow up Parliament

Pretty straightforward, this one. The failed attempt by Guido Fawkes and 12 fellow conspirators to assassinate King James I, and blow up the House of Lords, with the help of 36 barrels of gunpowder hidden in an undercroft, is the reason we continue to light bonfires on the 5th November. Try to avoid organising a firework display underneath Parliament and you should be fine.

Less obvious, though, are the connections between the Gunpowder Plot and some of the beautiful buildings in English Heritage’s national collection. Rushton Triangular Lodge is an intricate folly in Northamptonshire designed by Sir Thomas Tresham, father of one of the Plotters. Indeed, the fierce Catholicism built into Rushton’s brickwork, in the form of mysterious codes, also inspired his son Francis Tresham’s desire to raze Parliament. However, historians suspect that the anonymous letter sent to his brother-in-law, Baron Monteagle, which gave the game away, was written by this most conflicted of men.

Meanwhile Warkworth Castle’s 9th Earl of Northumberland, Henry Percy, was imprisoned in the Tower of London because of his own associations with the Gunpowder Plotters. He became famous for the alchemical experiments – no doubt themselves occasionally explosive – he engaged in there, earning him the nickname ‘The Wizard Earl’.

Note that Rushton Triangular Lodge is now closed for winter.


Warkworth Castle, home of the 'Wizard Earl', imprisoned for his part in the Gunpowder Plot

4. Georgian gem: set your fireworks to music

The idea of rockets firing off in time with music has never been more popular, but it’s really the Georgians we have to thank for the concept. It was George II who commissioned the era’s greatest composer, George Frideric Handel, to create a piece to accompany the fireworks celebrating the end of the War of the Austrian Succession in 1749. It’s tempting to imagine the King, no longer accompanied by either his wife (who had died in 1737) or Henrietta Howard (who had left her position as royal mistress, and retired to Marble Hill House by 1746) listening to the triumphant brass of Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, and watching the shimmering jets of red and gold rise over Green Park, and reflecting upon first two decades of his reign.

So we’ll have Handel to play us out: have a happy - and safe - Bonfire Night all!