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A firework display fit for a Tudor Queen

PUBLISHED: 16:05 07 March 2018 | UPDATED: 16:23 07 March 2018

Lucy Worsley dresses as Elizabeth I at a recreation of the first firework display in England

Lucy Worsley dresses as Elizabeth I at a recreation of the first firework display in England


It was a last-ditch attempt to win the Virgin Queen’s hand, a firework display that costed the modern-day equivalent of £23 million - but at what cost to the nearby town?

Lucy Worsley recreates a firework display designed to woo a queen Lucy Worsley recreates a firework display designed to woo a queen

Stand by with your sand buckets – historian Lucy Worsley is back to explain how romance went with a bang for Queen Elizabeth I.

More than 1,000 years ago the discovery was made that a mixture of sulphur, charcoal and saltpeter (potassium nitrate) burned quickly and with an impressive flash – the mixture was gunpowder and was used by the Chinese for centuries to scare off evil spirits and in military rockets.

In the early 1200s, gunpowder reached Europe and even during the middle ages, early fireworks were used. Sparkle was added to the gunpowder by adding a few iron filings, copper or zinc to add orange, yellow or white colours.

Most European fireworks were made in Florence, in Italy and the first recorded firework display in England was at the wedding of King Henry VII and Elizabeth of York– but it’s the display specially designed for Queen Elizabeth I which preoccupies Lucy Worsley in Lucy Worsley’s Fireworks for a Tudor Queen.

Fireworks, we are told, were once a political and romantic instrument. The Tudors were pyrotechnic nuts – Elizabeth even appointed an official Fire Master of England and it was gunpowder that led to the destruction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in 1613.

The show recreates the firework display laid on by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, for Queen Elizabeth at Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire in 1575 and sees Lucy and materials scientist Zoe Laughlin exploring the science and history of fireworks in the programme.

Dudley hosted lavish entertainments for the Queen in an attempt to win her favour, and possibly her hand in marriage, and his firework display was the pinnacle of the era’s royal pageantry – during what was effectively a three-week marriage proposal, Dudley laid on music, masques, dancing, hunting and bear-baiting.

The firework display he arranged was heard 20 miles away – residents would have been petrified: three years earlier Dudley had staged a mock battle for the Queen’s benefit complete with fireworks shot from cannons into the sky which resulted in fireballs falling on the adjacent town. Several houses were burned to the ground and at least one man was killed – Elizabeth had to compensate the townsfolk with £25 to apologise.

In the BBC4 documentary, Lucy and Zoe are joined by a team of top class pyrotechnicians to replicate the display using clues from the earliest instruction manuals for making fireworks and an eyewitness account from someone who attended the display. Tudor rockets, firework fountains and a fire-breathing dragon are created, along with the secrets of Elizabethan gunpowder.

Lucy examines the elaborate food the Tudor audience would have eaten (no hot dogs and baked potatoes here) and the colours that he set drop to the display would have been painted in.

It would be centuries before chemists were able to create fireworks with a host of different colours: in the 1800s, they began to experiment with chemical compounds that could add different colours to fireworks. Reds, greens, blues and purples were discovered.

There were some problems – during the early days, it was difficult to make fireworks that were safe to use at displays. Occasionally there were deadly explosions that killed people watching displays. Also, firework makers also used to face danger from the chemicals they used to make the fireworks – many ingredients were deadly poisons.

In modern times, firework colours have grown to be even more impressive: a typical firework includes: fuel, an oxidizer, a compound including metallic salts and chlorine compounds which are wetted so they stick together and then cut into chunks which are called stars. These are the colourful dots that burst from a fireworks shell into the sky.

Firework makers today use compounds – which are a mix of chemicals – such as barium bitrate, strontium carbonate, sodium oxalate or copper carbonate to produce colourful fireworks – blue is the most difficult colour to produce in fireworks.

Copper chloride, which gives the blue colour, doesn’t survive very well in very hot flames. A new compound was found recently which is a magnesium and aluminium compound called magnalium. Magnalium can be used to make electric green, red, yellow and – most importantly – blue and purple.

* Lucy Worsley’s Fireworks for a Tudor Queen is on BBC4 on March 7 and then on BBC iPlayer.

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