Fireworks – part 1: Here be Dragons!

In honour of the fact that November 5th is looming on the calendar I thought I’d be topical and  investigate the history of fireworks in our parks and gardens.

I soon discovered that  fireworks have very little to do with the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 where you might have thought our Bonfire Night traditions began.

Instead their use has a longer and more interesting history, and to start with it includes a lot of dragons

No-one is completely sure where fireworks originated but it’s thought  the first natural “firecrackers” were probably bamboo stalks which explode when thrown in a fire, because of the overheating of the hollow air pockets in the “wood”. The sound was thought  to ward off evil spirits so they were used to celebrate major events such as weddings and births. Then somewhere around A.D. 800, in the search for eternal life,  Chinese alchemists mixed together saltpetre, sulphur and charcoal but  instead of creating immortality made a crude form of gunpowder which also produced a loud bang when fired.

It wasn’t long before the gunpowder was being used for military purposes. Arrows with tubes of gunpowder attached led to the first basic rockets – or fire lances – and by about 1200 China had built the first rocket cannons.  By 1240  the Arabs had acquired knowledge of gunpowder referring to rockets, fireworks, and other incendiaries as “Chinese flowers.”  The same  knowledge reached reached further west via the Crusades and  through the return of merchants, diplomats, missionaries and travellers like Marco Polo who bought firework technology back to Italy around 1295.

In the early days in the west fireworks were closely connected to the military and obviously in particular to gunners. There are accounts detailing military use from 1340  but  it’s not until 1487 that we have our first account of fireworks for entertainment alone.

When Henry VII’s wife Elizabeth of York was crowned in 1487 she was rowed down the river on a barge which also carried   “a dragon spouting flames of fire into the Thames”.   The Welsh dragon was of course a symbol closely connected to the new Tudor dynasty, but while a fire-breathing version  might seem hard to credit, as I’ll show shortly,  there is enough evidence  that such things were not only possible but not uncommon.  Moreover the fiery red dragon was to make regular appearances throughout the rest of the Tudor period as well.

detail of Firework display at Nuremberg castle in 1570 to celebrate the entry of Emperor Maximilian II in the city;. On the right the two small temporary castles filled with fireworks. This is [I think] the first  image in the west of a firework display

Celebrations for royal events, political alliances, or military victories were seem as a good way of promoting a dynasty, a nation or the city where the event took place. Of course such events are ephemeral, and only seen by a relatively small number of people   so a tradition grew up from the late 15thc onwards of recording them in what are usually known generically as Festival Books.  These were intended to offer an accurate and detailed account of the event, rather like a souvenir programme.  So generally they list all the important people there, and what happened step-by-step so that the reader could imagine themselves actually following the event.   But their prime purpose was almost certainly to be  useful propaganda and so sometimes they were written and printed before the festival took place!

Some were lavishly hand-painted presentation volumes but with the invention of printing more and more were produced  in much plainer, cheaper formats. Several thousand of these survive from all over Europe, including the largest collection of over 2,000 in The British Library.  [The BL have digitised 253 of them which can be word searched and 45 have have specific references to fireworks.] Unfortunately there are only a few English examples with most coming from  from the territories of the Holy Roman Empire where printing and engraving reached a high level of expertise at an early date and led to the production of many beautifully illustrated volumes.

Like his parents Henry VIII obviously enjoyed fireworks too and another flame-breathing  dragon was seen at the Field of the Cloth of Gold  in 1520— the site of the summit near Calais in 1520 between Henry  and Francois I of France. Later after he had divorced Katherine of Aragon and married Anne Boleyn, her coronation in 1533 was also marked by a barge-trip on the Thames and by “ a great red dragon continually moving and casting wild fire and round about… stode  terrible monstrous wild men casting fire and making a hideous noise.”  Henry is later reported to have bought over two Dutch artificers to help gunners make fireworks for both military use and entertainment.

Unfortunately I can’t find much about the origins of the “Wild men” or “green men” casting fire, but it’s clear they became part of the ritual that went with such firework ceremonies and processions.  They acted as a type of whiffler, someone  who walked in front of important processions banquets and pageants to clear the way or to clear space for plays to be performed.  They were often quite raucous and became a major attraction themselves, dressing  in elaborate costumes and carrying swords, clubs and even fireworks.

They’re mentioned in George Whetstone’s play History of Promos and Cassandra 1578 and there’s there’s a description in 1610 of them “in green ivy..,. with black hair and black beards, very ugly to behold, and garlands upon their heads, with great clubs in their hands, with fireworks to scatter abroad to maintain the way for the rest of the show. And even better there’s a woodcut of one in the first English book on fireworks John Bate’s The Mysteryes of Nature, and Art of 1635, as well as a series of drawings in German festivals books.

There were more fireworks at Elizabeth I’s coronation in 1559 and she too clearly enjoyed pyrotechnics, as there are several accounts of firework displays of various kinds during her royal progresses. In 1572, for example,  the Earl of Warwick, Ambrose Dudley,  laid on a display for the queen’s visit to Warwick Castle.


Unfortunately it didn’t go quite according to plan.   Two mock forts made of timber and canvas were set up  for a mock battle with “fire-woorks, as squibbes and balles of fyre.” There were several hundred people involved and  lots of noise which scared most of the assembled company. The battle ended when when ” a dragon, flieing, casting out huge flames and squibes, lighted upon the fort, and so set fyere” not only to one of the forts but ” did fly quite over the castle and into the midst of the town to the great peril and fear of the inhabitants”. Indeed “foure houses in the Towne and Suburbes were on fyre at once, wherof one had a ball came thorough both sides, and made a hole as big as a man’s head.” [John Nicholas, The Progresses of Queen Elizabeth]

So how did the dragon fly?

John Babington explains in his short book Pyrotechnia of 1635 that the dragon was hollow with a frame made  of withies or the thin  branches  used by basketmakers, with a thick paper or pasteboard “skin”.  Holes need to be pushed through to take rockets and   a roll of paper attached to the back to take a rope or wire that runs between two pulleys…”which being done your Dragon is finished for firing.”  He then gives detailed instructions about how to “first fire it at the eyes, and mouth, (alwayes noting, that this receipt must be some slow mixture, such as your starres) then fire that rocket which is placed with his mouth toward the tayle of the Dragon, which will make it seem to cast fire from thence, till he come to the end of his motion – and then on a sudden, as a creature wounded with some accident, shall return with fire coming forth of his belly, which being well ordered, will give great content.”

from Babington’s Pyrotechnia, 1635







A couple of years later Elizabeth visited Ambrose’s younger brother Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester,  at Kenilworth in 1575.  It’s well known that Robert created the  splendid garden, now reimagined by English Heritage, specially for this visit and there are long descriptions of it   by Robert Langham. However what it is not so well known is that the garden was just one small part of the entertainments laid on over the course of her stay of more than two weeks.

Sunday was usually a quiet day with, according to one observer, “nothing done until the evening, at which time there were fire-works shewed upon the water”.  As can be seen in this artist’s impression of the site, at that time Kenilworth was almost entirely surrounded by water including an  enormous lake up against its southern side.

from English Heritage’s book The Elizabethan Garden at Kenilworth Castle

The fireworks, presumably launched from boats or perhaps from the far side side where there Henry V’s old summer house stood, “were both strange and well executted ; as sometimes passing under the water a long space, when all men had thought they had been quenched, they would rise and mount out of the water again, and burn very furiously until they were utterly consumed.” [from George Gascoigne, Princely Pleasures]. Another observer added there were  “very straunge and sundry kindez of Fier-works *, compeld by cunning to fly too and fro, and too mount very hye intoo the ayr upward, and also too burn unquenshable in the water beneath.” [from John Nichols, The Progresses of Queen Elizabeth]

It must have been an impressive sight and lasted about two hours but like you, I’m sure, I wondered how you could have fireworks that coped on or even under water. After hunting about for next week’s piece I found this image of some kind of floating  grenade. These were packed with different charges and probably fired into the air before dropping into the water where they may well have been able to survive for  a short time underneath the surface  before  bobbing back up and carrying on burning or exploding.

By now fireworks were an established part of elite entertainments rather than just for warfare.  When the first book on gunnery, Inventions or Devises by William Bourne, appeared isn England in 1578  it included a note that fireworks were rather  “meet to be used in the time of [pleasure in the night other than for any [military] service”.

By the time of Robert Norton’s The Gunner in 1635 he writes  not just about “the whole practice of artillerie” but the making of extra-ordinary artificiall fireworkes, as well for pleasure and triumphes, as for warre and service.”  and includes engravings of how some simple displays were constructed,  the flying dragon  amongst them.

from The Gunner


Much later in Elizabeth’s reign was the famous visit to Elvetham in 1591. A festival book was written to  commemorate the four days of lavish entertainment put on for her there by the Earl of Hertford, Edward Seymour .   Sadly there is only a  single woodcut  illustration but its clear that the park at Elvetham was transformed for the occasion.


Elizabeth can be seen sitting on her throne at the side of a lake, although there was a splendid pavilion set up for her [top centre].  The lake was specially dug out and   “cut to the perfect figure of a half moon,” and  contained three islands. These were the “Ship Ile… bearing three trees orderly set for 3 masts…  the Fort overgrown with willows” and a snail mount “rising to four circles of greene privie hedges, the whole in height twentieth foot.”  There were two large boats, one at least carrying armed warriors, and several much smaller craft, together with a group of trumpet blowing mermen!

On the second day of the visit  the lake   was to be the scene of  a very symbolic pageant : A naumachia or mock naval battle.

This wasn’t just for fun but had a very serious propaganda purpose.  It  recalled the recent defeat of the Armada in 1588 and Elizabeth’s subsequent moves to strengthen her navy and alliances with other European powers.

The queen was entertained   by poetry, speeches music and dance by other performers in  wildly extravagant, often symbolic costume. Amongst them were a group of green or  wild men covered with ivy who despite their grotesque appearance swear allegiance to the queen. Another was  “the prophet of the sea” who swam across the lake and declaimed that amongst other things.  “Yon ugly monster creeping from the South to spoil these blessed fields of Albiuon” – ie symbolically Spain – “is changed into a Snail…” which “now resembleth a monster having hornes full of wild-fire continually burning.” Later there were  demonstrations of sporting prowess, a garden banquet lit by a hundred torch-bearers, and “all manner of fire-workes.”

On the third day of the entertainment   there was a further firework display with an exchange of  ceremonial ordnance, volleys and rocketry between the three islands, Of course this time the fireworks were merely sound and fury and signified nothing, although as with the Armada many were terrified.

[For more on the symbolism see Elizabeth’s Entertainment at Elvetham: War Policy in Pageantry, Harry Boyle, Studies in Philology Vol. 68, No. 2 (Apr., 1971), pp. 146-166]

I had originally intended to cover much more ground in this post but the dragons and green men were too beguiling to cut short so I’ll continue the story next week!






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