Early Modern Fireworks

John Babington, Pyrotechnia, or, A Discourse of Artificiall Fire-works (London: Printed by Thomas Harper for Ralph Mab, 1635)   Delta.3.29

Oxford, St John’s College, Delta.3.29, p. 38. Detail of illustrations for ‘[…] musick playing, (by the help of fire) with anticks dancing’ (top) and ‘[…] a Dragon, or any other creature [running] on the Line, by the help of fire’ (bottom)

As a form of entertainment firework displays became popular under the Tudors, reaching an early peak during the Elizabethan era (Kinchin-Smith). Things did not always go to plan, however. In 1572, the Earl of Leicester, Robert Dudley, arranged a firework display for Elizabeth I at Kenilworth Castle when an error sent fireballs into the nearby town, burning down several houses and killing at least one person (Kinchin-Smith). In 1613, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre famously burned down after a pyrotechnic effect had gone wrong.

Firework enthusiasts must have been eager to read Babington’s Pyrotechnia when it was published in 1635, as it was the first English book on how to produce fireworks for military use and entertainment. It offers surprisingly comprehensive instructions accompanied by equally detailed illustrations. These include firework displays still familiar to us, such as Roman candles, wheels, and raining stars/colours. In addition, he described how to create fancier and more complex fireworks, such as representations of coats of arms, a Jack in the Box, and, last but not least, a mermaid on water. My personal favourite are the dragons in various formats, including fire-breathing dragons emerging from caves, representations of St George fighting a fire-breathing dragon, and even a ‘dragon issuing out of a Castle, which shall swimme thorow the water and be incountered by a horseman from shoare’.

Interestingly, St John’s copy was donated to the library by none other than Archbishop William Laud (1573-1645). As there is no other ownership statement in the volume, it is tempting to amuse ourselves with the thought that he may have purchased this book in connection with his own duties to entertain royalty. The official opening of his ‘building’ as the calls Canterbury Quad with the Inner Library (today’s Laudian Library) in an entry of his diary, took place on 25 August 1636. On the occasion, Laud threw a banquet in the Inner Library for King Charles I and Queen Henrietta. We know the night’s entertainment included a play, but what else did Laud offer? Alas, there is no evidence of a fire-breathing dragon in the College garden, a mermaid on water, or even just raining silver and gold. Well, perhaps that is for the better – a repeat of the Globe Theatre pyrotechnic mishap at St John’s College does not bear thinking about.


Anderson, R. E., “Babington, John”, revised by Anita Mc Connell, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/975 [accessed 12 October 2022]

Kinchin-Smith, “History of Fireworks”, English Heritage Blog Posts 5 November 2014, at https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/inspire-me/blog/blog-posts/history-of-fireworks/ [accessed 12 October 2022]

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