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In the 13th century, an age of magic and witchcraft,
whispers of a Chinese creation of extraordinary, fiery power
reached an English scientist and monk, Roger Bacon.
Bacon was a visionary.
When he heard of this miraculous Chinese recipe for explosions,
he simply couldn't help himself and he began to experiment.
Early tests with the recipe produced little more than fireworks.
But, in his Oxford laboratory,
Bacon quickly grasped the horrific potential.
And, realising the danger of the ideas in his experiments,
he recorded them all in heavily disguised code.
Others, though, were not so cautious.
The recipe for explosions spread throughout Europe.
The genie was out of the bottle.
It would unlock the genetic secrets to an entirely new breed of weapon,
beyond the wildest imaginings of medieval England.
A potent mixture of charcoal, sulphur and saltpetre - gunpowder.
In this episode, I'll explore the explosive impact
this devastating substance has had on our history.
I'll find out how siege-breaking cannons harnessed the power of gunpowder.
GUN FIRES IN SLOW MOTION
I'll trace the impact of gunpowder weapons on the medieval battlefield.
It's absolutely hammered through that.
I'll tell the little-known story of the first-ever political
assassination by firearm, and the truth behind one of the most
notorious assassination attempts in British history.
I'll examine the gunpowder weapons used to fight the bloody
English Civil War - a conflict which saw the musket take centre stage.
-There wasn't any.
SLOW MOTION FIRING
And I'll tell the tale of one of the largest gunpowder bombs
ever used against civilians.
20,000 lbs of explosives packed on to a ship
by an English naval commander.
SLOW MOTION GUNFIRE
At the root of all of these weapons of assassination,
bloodshed and terror, from the siege cannon to the sniper's bullet,
has been one substance that has changed the course of history.
From the moment of its discovery,
gunpowder's potential on the battlefield was obvious.
It wasn't a huge leap from experimenting with gunpowder
to harnessing its explosive force to fire a projectile.
Once gunpowder was weaponised,
a seven-century-long arms race had begun.
But it started slowly.
Europe's first picture of a cannon doesn't look too impressive -
more likely to raise a smile than raze a city.
Shaped like a vase, this 1326 pot of iron fired huge arrows and
appears to be fixed to a tabletop.
Arrows became rocks. Pots of iron became cannons.
At first, bell-makers were called on to make cannons, but soon
specialist metalworkers took over and cannons grew ever larger.
And the target for these early artillery giants would be the
walls of a besieged castle.
One of the last surviving gunpowder weapons of this era
is preserved in Edinburgh Castle.
This monster of a cannon is known as Mons Meg.
It was built in Flanders in 1449.
It's a type of heavy gunpowder weapon called a bombard,
and it was used to obliterate the walls of a castle
and the morale of its garrison.
This one belonged to King James II of Scotland,
and it must have given him a bit of a swagger in his walk.
Weapons like this meant that sieges which could have taken months
or even years could now be over in a matter of weeks,
or sometimes even days.
They could throw huge 300 lb stone balls as far as two miles,
but in reality these weapons were placed as close to the walls
of an enemy castle as the commander would dare.
You could imagine the terror spreading through a garrison
as just 100 yards away, this monster was lined up against them.
Castle walls were bombarded.
The fierce heat generated by each explosion meant the cannon
could only be fired a handful of times a day.
It became dubbed the Great Iron Murderer.
But there were drawbacks to cannons of this size.
The six-ton beast took over 100 men and teams of oxen to move it,
at a top speed of three miles a day.
Hardly a rapid reaction force.
Moving such cannons was so slow, it was often simpler
to forge them outside the castle being besieged.
And making them was no easy task.
A cannon like this isn't made from a single piece of metal.
Instead, Mons Meg is made out of 25 horizontal strips of iron,
beaten together and then reinforced with 33 hoops over the top.
It's just like making a barrel, hence the name.
You can see here how the giant rings reinforced the barrel against
the huge forces at work, and the reason we can see how
Mons Meg was built is that this entire section blew off
in the 1600s, when the gun was still fired on special occasions,
and that is exactly the problem with weapons like these.
When they went wrong, they went spectacularly wrong.
King James II of Scotland was a seasoned and tough campaigner,
who had to fight to keep hold of his kingdom from enemies on both
sides of the border.
One summer's day in 1460, the King lined up his impressive array of
gunpowder artillery outside Roxburgh Castle, and settled in for a siege.
The King was rather fond of cannons.
He had all of the best and the very latest designs in his collection.
And he'd spent an enormous amount of money to get them.
James intended to fire a salute for his Queen.
He stood close by as his men loaded a similar cannon to Mons Meg,
nicknamed the Lion, and waited for them to fire.
As the orders were given,
the gunners ignited the powder and then disaster struck.
The cannon exploded, sending shards of metal through the air.
The curious King didn't stand a chance.
One of his legs was blown in half, and he died on the spot.
In these highly religious times,
there was more than a whiff of the devil about this new
technology that seemed to spit out fire and brimstone.
Cannons were unpredictable, dangerous and cumbersome to use.
But gradually the wild, magic gunpowder was tamed into
something more practical.
Whilst kings were trying to outgun each other with vast cannons,
their troops were starting to find ways to use gunpowder that
were somewhat more handy and portable.
You might be tempted to think that these new wonder-weapons
instantly turned the swords, spears and arrows of the medieval past
into pointless relics, but in reality, for more
than 200 years, firearms were just another weapon on the battlefield.
A relic of this era washed up on the banks of the Thames in the 1990s.
Its discoverer initially thought it was a ship's whistle.
But when its true purpose was realised, it was sent here to
a more appropriate home - the Armoury at the Tower of London.
Because this is a medieval handgun.
The design of guns would one day determine the course of warfare,
but not this one.
Handguns came in all different shapes and sizes,
and this is a particularly small one, dating from around 1400.
But it's made in exactly the same way as a cannon,
so it's got reinforcing hoops which have been wrapped around
the barrel to protect it from the high pressure
of exploding gunpowder.
This mini-Mons Meg was as unwieldy as its giant sister.
Originally it would have been attached to a long wooden pole
or a metal arm, and then used hand-held or attached
to something solid like a wall or a wagon, ready to fire.
Saltpetre, gunpowder's key ingredient,
can keep something burning once lit.
Medieval gunners used a wick soaked in saltpetre,
called a match, to give fire to their gunpowder charge.
To fire something like this, you would put the wooden pole
under your arm, or even stick it in the ground.
But then, because there is no trigger,
you'd use your other hand
to light a match, and then to ignite the gunpowder.
Then, I guess, you hoped for the best.
It fared poorly against the competition.
A handgunner would be lucky to fire a shot a minute,
even with two people - one to load and one to fire -
during which time, the nearby longbow archer could have fired
eight or nine arrows.
To be honest, I think that using this would strike more fear
into the heart of the user than his enemy.
For now, the infantry gun was more novelty than threat.
A knight could feel relatively safe inside his armour.
But then, in the 16th century, it all changed.
One monarch, Henry VIII,
would oversee a huge shift in English warfare,
from traditional chivalrous knights
to a modern gunpowder army.
The future lay in firearms.
A new weapon had emerged and it was a game-changer.
The handgun had evolved into the first truly effective
battlefield gun - the matchlock arquebus.
The days of holding a mini-cannon propped on a pole were over.
The arquebus was one of the first weapons with a shape
a modern infantryman would recognise.
At a firing range in Doncaster,
I've got the chance to test-fire an arquebus
and find out why knights grew to fear it.
Royal Armouries curator Jonathan Ferguson
shows me how it works.
OK, Sam, this is an arquebus.
-Reproduction, this one, because we want to be able
-to shoot it, of course.
-It's incredibly beautiful,
for such an early firearm, isn't it?
So we know that Henry was trying to get gunpowder into his army.
Oh, yeah. He was what we call an early adopter, these days,
with technology of all sorts, especially guns.
Why was this such a game-changer?
-Well, the first thing that will strike you is the stock.
You have a stock. You can bring it up to your eye,
either against the cheek or the shoulder, stabilise it
and have a much greater chance of hitting what you are aiming at.
And the other piece of magic
is here. The pivoting lever
will allow you to put your ignition source, your match,
-straight into the priming powder...
-And then, operated by the trigger.
Trigger - the other key component.
We are all used to firearms having a trigger. How else do you fire them?
With this, it is, literally, a gentle touch.
This is a very light trigger.
It's almost like a target piece.
It certainly looks and feels very sophisticated.
It is not what I was expecting, for such an early firearm.
We have to think about how technology is created
and how it is adopted and how it, sort of, trickles down.
So, this is for the army of the king and it is really top-end stuff.
It's what the modern army would call "Gucci kit".
How would these have been used on the battlefield?
If you think, proportions-wise, if you have got to host
an army of 22,000-23,000, you are only going to have about 1,200
arquebusiers. So, 5% or something.
That's not a huge proportion of your army.
That is not ranks of guys firing on command.
If you have a smattering of arquebusiers
to, at least, disarray the oncoming cavalry.
In terms of, you know, its influence upon history,
what we really need to understand is whether a ball fired from
an arquebus can penetrate armour.
'My aim is to find out. Our target for the arquebus
'will be a sheet of 2mm steel, acting as armour from Henry's era.
'Will it survive a bullet from the arquebus?
'I prime the weapon.
'Next comes the bullet.
'The ramrod compresses the mixture together.
'Finally, we fix the burning wick, the match. Accounts of early gunners
'say, after attaching the match, they would turn their face away,
'like those waiting for a blood-letter to open a vein.
'Finally, we expose the gunpowder, opening the primitive safety guard.
'One 16th-century account says that, at this point, "Some gunners
"would go pale and shake, like an old house".
'Five centuries on,
'I ready my finger on the trigger.'
'Will the armour withstand this weapon's attack?'
Right, let's see how I've done.
-Mm. Could see the massive hole from back there.
-Look at that!
It's gone... It's absolutely hammered through that, hasn't it?
It has deformed the metal. You can see round the edge.
And it has punched a disc straight out of it, no problem at all.
-You could do that from further back.
-If you had been there in the 1520s,
you can see why your faith would lie in firearms and not in armour.
In Henry's, sort of, heyday, these things are more than capable
of, not so much unhorsing, but blasting straight through,
straight through the metal. Any clothing, obviously, as well,
dragging that into the wound. Or going straight through you, even.
These are tremendously powerful weapons.
Mm. The days of armour were numbered.
Just how numbered would be shown in one key battle.
In early 1525, the young King Henry VIII received news
from northern Italy.
An army of 28,000 French knights was heading south,
winning battle after battle against the Holy Roman Emperor.
But at the Battle of Pavia, that all ended.
The French armoured knights began their charge,
but instead of the Emperor's terrified soldiers,
they met a hail of bullets.
In four hours, the French army was destroyed,
the knights' shining armour was ripped apart
by the arquebusiers' bullets.
The French king was forced to surrender and was taken prisoner.
When Henry heard that the French had taken a pounding,
he told the messenger, "You are like Saint Gabriel,
"who announced the coming of Christ."
Henry now raced to equip his forces with gunpowder weapons,
as did all his European rivals.
Not all soldiers welcomed firearms.
In Miguel de Cervantes' epic, Don Quixote,
the hero calls them "devilish instruments, that allow
"a cowardly, base hand to take away the life of the bravest cavalier".
Nobility, courage, physical strength
were no longer the keys to battlefield success.
Where muscle power had ruled,
chemical power took over.
The enormous transition between medieval and Renaissance thinking
about weaponry is best summed up by one these -
one of Henry VIII's gun shields.
It is a combination of ideas from across the ages,
fused together. On the one hand, it's a medieval shield.
It's made of wood and leather and it is covered in metal.
But on the other, through the centre is a Renaissance matchlock pistol.
And examples of these were found with the Mary Rose,
There was just one snag.
Firing it required putting gunpowder and a lit match very close
to your face. No wonder it didn't catch on.
Henry wanted to be taken seriously by his fellow European monarchs
and he embraced the latest weapons, to show he was their equal.
Thanks to Henry, this new generation of weapons began to play
an increasingly important role in English armies.
There was still resistance to firepower, in favour of
the traditional weapons that had kept the nation safe for centuries.
But the country's addiction to gunpowder had begun,
in the name of national security and the King's ego.
Henry needed the protection that firearms afforded.
He was a man with many enemies.
The King's religious split with the Catholic Church in Rome
meant England had adversaries throughout Europe.
At the same time, the technology of firearms
was becoming less primitive,
with guns shrinking in size, whilst their reliability soared.
Henry's descendants spent much of their lives
in fear of a marksman's bullet.
But where would it strike first?
By the time of Queen Elizabeth I,
England was isolated and paranoid -
surrounded by sworn enemies.
Plots and scheming were the order of the day.
It was a time of secrecy and spies,
as the fate of the country hung in the balance.
For Elizabeth, events in Scotland added to this toxic mix,
with a new and troubling development -
the first political assassination by firearm.
16th-century Scotland was a dangerous place
to be in a position of power.
Scottish politics could be brutal. Rivalries and feuds were often
settled with violence.
In 1570, James Stewart, Earl of Moray, was the Regent of Scotland,
having ejected Mary, Queen of Scots from the throne.
The Earl's rise to the top had brought him into conflict
with another powerful family - the Hamiltons.
After their defeat on the battlefield and their support
for Mary, Queen of Scots, they became the deadly enemies
of the Stewarts, and the humiliated Hamiltons vowed
that the Earl had to go.
The man chosen for the hit was James Hamilton
and he planned an elaborate attack. He stalked the Earl for weeks,
following him all the way from Perth to Stirling
and then, at Linlithgow, he pounced.
Hamilton heard whispers of the Earl's route through the town.
Little did the Earl realise that he would travel right past the house
of one of his deadliest enemies.
Hamilton chose his position carefully,
in a projecting gallery window of a family member's house
that overlooked the Earl's route through the town.
He was well prepared.
The story goes that he hung a black sheet behind him, so his shadow
would not be cast on the street.
Then, he spread feathers on the floor,
to muffle the sound of his movements.
As the Earl rode by,
Hamilton raised up his gun -
a short-barrelled hunting carbine -
he took aim...and fired.
The bullet's impact is captured in stained glass in Edinburgh's
St Giles' Cathedral.
Hamilton's shot hit the Earl in the stomach, causing panic and confusion
amongst his entourage.
But before they had realised what had happened,
the gunman had fled the scene.
His escape was well planned and he was never caught.
The Earl managed to stumble to the house he was staying at,
but he died that night.
His assassination caused chaos in Scotland
and made the English Court deeply uneasy.
The incident highlighted just how vulnerable even the highest-ranking
members of society were to the lone gunman.
Even with their bodyguards all around them, an assassin could
appear out of nowhere, pick his target off at a distance
and then simply...vanish.
What use were sword-wearing bodyguards
against a determined sniper?
The Queen and her ministers were, rightly, paranoid.
Foreign rulers were trying to kill her and,
as if the Earl's murder wasn't bad enough,
a stealthy new invention made firearms an ever bigger threat
to national security - the wheel lock mechanism.
The wheel lock was a mechanical way of igniting gunpowder
and it meant that you could make a practical one of these -
a pistol - for the very first time.
This is a German design
and it dates from 1590.
Like everything else created in the 16th century,
there is an argument for the wheel lock having been the invention
of Leonardo da Vinci.
But the idea may well have come
from German watchmakers.
The mechanism worked a bit like a pocket watch.
Inside here is a disc, with a serrated edge,
which is attached to a spring.
Now, that is wound up, using this
with a key. Then...
..you'd put a small charge
of powder in here,
put some iron pyrites in here...
..and when you pull the trigger, the spring releases,
the wheel spins round incredibly quickly, creating sparks,
which ignites the charge
and, then, the pistol fires.
But unlike anything
that had gone before,
once a weapon like this had been wound up
and primed, it could be pulled out and fired in a single movement.
There was no waiting around for a lit match.
But what made the wheel lock a particular nightmare
for the Queen's homeland security is that, suddenly,
guns could be made smaller than ever before,
including tiny pistols, known as "pocket daggs",
which could be easily hidden in clothing -
the first truly concealable handguns.
In 1584, a concealed wheel lock pocket dagg was used against
the leading light in the Protestant Wars against Catholic Spain.
The attack sent shock waves across Europe.
The Dutch Prince of Orange, William the Silent,
was the most powerful Protestant in Europe.
The Spanish king, his sworn enemy, offered a reward of 25,000 crowns -
about £750,000 today - to anyone who would kill him.
A Catholic double-agent, greedy for the reward,
attacked the Prince of Orange in his own castle.
The assassin had bought the pistol off one of William's own servants
that very day and had loaded it with three balls,
to guarantee that it would finish him off.
And then, stepping forward, as if to give the king a letter,
instead, he drew his pistol
and shot him.
There was nothing his bodyguards could do.
That such a nonentity could kill one of the mightiest men
in the world was beyond the pale.
As the assassin told magistrates,
like David, he had slain Goliath of Gath.
Only a wheel lock could have enabled this to happen.
If William could be murdered so easily - and at the orders
of the Spanish king - then Elizabeth could be next.
Not only was she now vulnerable out in public,
but also in her own palaces.
This was a weapon that embodied the religious mistrust,
of the age.
Religious extremism was at its height and there were hitmen
prepared to attack Elizabeth, with little regard for their own safety.
Elizabeth, herself, would detail her personal worries in a letter
to the French Ambassador.
"There are more than 200 men of all ages who,
"at the instigation of the Jesuits, conspire to kill me."
Throughout her reign,
Elizabeth's court was desperate to shore up domestic security
and tried to clamp down on concealable weapons.
Several assassination attempts were foiled.
Both security measures and luck
kept Elizabeth's potential assassins at bay.
But would her successor be as fortunate when the Crown's enemies
were plotting something far more spectacular?
In 1603, when James I took the throne,
England was a country of four million people.
The Protestant king initially spoke of tolerance
for the 40,000 Catholics, but was soon deporting Catholic priests.
His clamp-down infuriated a group of radical Catholics.
They decided to fight back, using a new form of weapon.
The Houses of Parliament would be the target.
Back then, they called it "The Powder Treason".
We call it The Gunpowder Plot.
The prince of darkness behind the plot wasn't Guy Fawkes,
but a man with a magnetic personality, named Robert Catesby.
Now, the power of his charisma must have been extraordinary,
for him to convince other men, like Guy Fawkes, to join his plot.
He told them that, once James I was dead,
there would be a Catholic uprising.
This, despite the fact that Catholics were a tiny minority -
just 1% of the population.
They planned to blow up the Palace of Westminster
during the Opening of Parliament on 5 November, 1605,
using an enormous gunpowder bomb.
Rather ironically, gunpowder was supposed to be under Crown control,
but a recent, and unexpected, period of peace had to led to
a surplus. And that meant that it was easy to get hold of gunpowder
without it being missed.
So, one by one, the plotters stacked up 36 barrels, big and small,
in the undercroft, containing somewhere between
2,000 and 10,000 lbs of powder.
Experts agree this was more than was needed for a successful blast.
Some say twice as much.
One says 25 times as much.
This may have been intentional and symbolic,
to annihilate not only the king and the government,
but its records, its home
and its history.
An anonymous letter betrayed the plot. It was shown to the king
four days before the attack was due.
A key phrase caught James' eye.
"They shall receive a terrible blow, this Parliament."
The king, rightly, suspected a stratagem of fire and powder.
The plot was unravelling.
Apparently, Guy Fawkes was rumbled, not just once,
but twice. Officials searching the undercroft
came across what they described as "a tall and desperate fellow",
standing next to a pile of firewood.
Now, given the sensitivity of Fawkes' mission,
his cover story left quite a lot to be desired.
Assuming he was a servant,
the officials asked him what he was doing there.
He said that the wood belonged to his master, Thomas Percy -
a known Catholic troublemaker.
The plot was veering into a comedy of errors.
Fawkes slipped away, but then a second shakedown was ordered.
Now, the Keeper of the Palace of Westminster and his assistant,
Edmund Doubleday, began searching.
Fawkes was found again, that same night,
close to midnight, in that same spot.
But this time, carrying a lantern and wearing clothes to escape in.
He said that his name was John Johnson.
When the men tried to search him,
Fawkes violently gripped Mr Doubleday.
Doubleday went for his knife, but thought the better of it
and managed to restrain the traitor.
A search uncovered fuses and a pocket watch.
And, thus, the plot, rather than the Houses of Parliament,
Fawkes was brought before the King and the Privy Council
and, when asked by one Scottish lord what he needed such an amount
of gunpowder for, he replied, "To blow you Scottish beggars back
"to your native mountains."
The plot's mastermind, Robert Catesby, fled north,
to his ancestral home and, then, in a particularly ironic twist,
he was injured when he laid his gunpowder out to dry
in front of his fire and an unlucky spark ignited it.
But then, the sheriff's men came and Catesby's fate was sealed.
There was a shoot-out
and Catesby and many of the plotters were shot.
Perhaps the greatest terrorist plot on English soil had failed.
King and Parliament had a lucky escape,
but soon, the hunt for the ingredients of gunpowder
would help bring them into bitter conflict.
Securing a steady supply of gunpowder was vital
to the military ambitions of the state.
demand for gunpowder dropped,
but if war broke out,
the king's officials were desperate to source it.
Relying on foreign gunpowder meant risking the supply line being cut
by enemies. Far better to source it on home soil.
The king's ruthless approach to tracking down the ingredients
of gunpowder would be a factor in the greatest clash between
an English monarch and his subjects.
The search took the authorities to some rather unusual places.
Now, this isn't a tower or a fort or even a military building at all.
It's a dovecote and, yet places like this were absolutely
crucial to national security in the 17th century,
because the floor, caked in animal dung and urine,
was a vital source of potassium nitrate,
better known as THE key ingredient of gunpowder -
Other countries relied on caves used by bats for their saltpetre,
but the king's problem was that he had no bat cave.
Instead, the English were left scrabbling for chemical riches
in slurry heaps.
Saltpetre was considered an inestimable treasure
and so the Crown commissioned gangs of workers to travel the length
and breadth of the country,
to excavate as much of it as they could find.
They were known as saltpetre men.
First, they would taste the soil.
Soil with a cool, salty taste meant a black day for your property.
Your floor could be dug up and requisitioned for the State.
"The saltpetre men care not in whose houses they dig,
"threatening men that, by their commission,
"they may dig in any man's house,
"in any room and at any time, which will prove
"a great grievance to the country. If any oppose them,
"they break up men's houses and dig by force."
The saltpetre men became synonymous with the abuse of power.
There was a list of unsavoury practices.
They could commandeer wagons and demand carriage,
wherever they wanted.
They would hold landowners to ransom, threatening to churn up
important land, unless they were paid bribes,
and one group dug up the floors of poor tenants' houses
on Christmas Day.
The saltpetre men cast their opponents as "rebels",
claiming their work was vital to the safety of the kingdom.
The new king, Charles I, was famously oblivious
toe the objections of his citizens and the march of the saltpetre men
continued unabated. Nowhere escaped their attention.
Despite this being a fervently religious age,
one notorious saltpetre man, called Nicholas Stephens,
was known for digging up churches.
Well, some sermons were very long
and accounts claim parishioners
were forced to relieve themselves
on the floor.
The protests of the congregation
were met with laughter and lewd jokes.
And when his practices were challenged,
he simply waved his Royal Commission.
"An Englishman's home is his castle",
said a famous 17th-century politician.
Yet, across the country,
corrupt officials were sacking those very castles
and pilfering their soil -
all with the king's blessing.
A fight was brewing of regal proportions.
When Parliament issued its Grand Remonstrance against Charles I
in 1641, on its list of complaints against his rule was the vexation
and oppression that the digging of saltpetre caused.
The actions of the saltpetre men were seen as evidence of a king
abusing his power and trampling over the rights of his citizens.
Rage was building.
The commodity that had caused such grievance
would now be used in anger.
The gunpowder age had truly arrived on home soil.
As the nation convulsed into the bitterness of civil war,
soldiers were called up in greater numbers than England
had ever seen before. This was to be our bloodiest conflict.
In relation to the size of our population, the loss of life
would be even greater than the First World War.
Neither side could call on a standing army,
just the county militias, known as "trained bands",
and a small core of professional soldiers -
veterans from the many wars in Europe.
Conscription soon swelled their ranks, but loyalty was dubious
By 1642, the bitter realities of a war fought with guns and cannon
were apparent, as king was pitted against parliament,
friend against friend
and family against family.
During an attack on Wardour Castle in 1644, one Royalist soldier,
named Hilsdean, was shot and mortally wounded.
And as he lay dying, he realised he knew the man
who had taken his life.
It was his own brother, fighting for the parliamentary garrison.
Britain's fields had seen many battles and wars over the years,
but nothing like this.
Long gone were the bows and arrows. A new technology had arrived
to wreak havoc on the battlefield.
This was combat for the gunpowder age.
The Civil War was the first conflict on home soil where firearms
were the main battlefield weapon and there was one, in particular,
at the very centre of the fighting.
A fearsome gun that took soldiers' firepower to an entirely new level.
A heavyweight firearm, it was so unwieldy that early
musketeers had to be physically strong to use it
and were paid double wages.
But lighter versions eventually became the everyman gun,
less Gucci kit, more high street.
The expensive arquebus
had been for top gunners.
Now, squaddies got
their hands on a firearm.
'I arranged to meet Master Gunsmith Robert Tilney,
'to find out why the musket was so important.'
English, Civil War,
It's not very elaborate, is it? I'm not sure how impressed I am by this.
Well, it certainly doesn't LOOK elaborate,
but a major piece of technology.
It has a trigger
and it lowers the match by pulling it.
The only clever bit,
-this thing has got ergonomics.
-It fits into your shoulder
and when you put your face down on the cove,
it positions our eye right down the barrel,
so we can actually aim...
..at what we want to shoot.
It's very simple.
We will have a quick look...
..at the lock. The great thing about simple
is people can't break it.
-If it's complicated and you give it to a Civil War squaddie,
he will break it.
That's where the trigger comes up.
Like all wonderful technological inventions,
-most of them are not that complicated.
-That's the thing.
-And there is very, very little to go wrong.
What was the range of this?
..if you were lucky.
-There wasn't any.
So, what you need for accuracy is a nice tight fit. Mm.
I could hear that rattling, as it went down.
-And, of course...
-It was like dropping a penny down a well.
Exactly. And if it's rattling going down,
-it's going to be rattling coming out.
In other words, you are not quite sure where it's going to go.
So, loading it.
You would have your match...
..burning at both ends.
In case one goes out, the other will still be burning.
Now, according the manual,
hold your match in three fingers of your left hand.
Use your thumb and forefinger to steady your piece.
Two burning matches.
Use your ripostle, which has your powder charge in it,
-and pour in the powder...
-Near the burning match?!
Near the burning match.
And you have got 12 more of these, or you have 12, in total,
-around your chest?
-Hung about yourself.
Open your pan...
..prime with more loose powder...
..blow your loose powder away.
HE BLOWS Gosh, you blow the loose powder...
-..with a match nearby.
-It's a recipe for disaster.
We now have to refit the match, just the right amount,
so that it will go into the pan.
And then, open your pan....
..and give fire.
-Well, let's give it a go.
Now, the exciting bit.
Empty the ripostle.
-It's a hell of a palaver, isn't it?
-It's a hell of a palaver.
Refit the match.
-There's a lot going on!
-There's a lot going on!
Makes you wonder just how accurate that is, at all.
-Quite long and cumbersome, isn't it?
They are not user-friendly.
Muskets could be churned out by ordinary blacksmiths.
Accuracy, perfection and safety were sacrificed, in favour of volume
And with just a little bit of training, anyone could use one.
To be a cavalryman, you had to learn to ride.
To be a pikeman, you had to have strength and discipline.
But an unskilled musketeer could be trained in just days
and the tactics that were used were similarly basic.
English armies developed a simple, but terrifying, musket tactic.
Musketeers were massed in ranks and rather than fire as soon as
the enemy came into range, the musketeers held off,
even if they were being shot at themselves.
Then, when the enemy was a matter of feet away,
they fired all at once.
The mass volley sent a huge wall of lead at the opposition,
the shock halting the advance.
But then, after just one shot,
the musketeers closed the distance and fought hand-to-hand.
The musket was two weapons in one.
At the barrel end, it was a formidable gun, firing a musket ball
as much as three-quarters of an inch across.
Now, because it was incredibly heavy - it weighed as much
as 15 lbs - the butt end could be an absolutely brutal club.
In fact, musketeers would tend to use their muskets as a club
instead of the swords they'd been issued with.
Matchlocks were soon joined by flintlocks, that could be fired
even faster, more safely and more reliably.
Firearms were now the weapon of choice, whether for infantry
or mounted soldiers.
Battlefields had become a gunpowder hell.
One witness wrote in 1644,
"The thundering roar of our cannons from our batteries,
"the thousands of musket balls flying at each other's faces,
"like the driving hailstones from northern blasts...
"..crying for blood."
As the roar of a battle subsided,
it was the cries for help that could be heard
from the musket's victims across the field.
The effects of the new gunpowder weapons were not just worrying
military leaders, but also doctors.
There were no field hospitals and no medical corps
to come to the aid of the wounded.
An injured soldier's best chance of survival was simply to seek out
one of the few surgeons working on the battlefield.
And then, to hope that he knew what he was doing.
Surgeons were a breed apart from doctors.
They had often started out as barbers -
cutting hair then being associated with cutting limbs.
But given the horrific nature of bullet wounds,
the surgeon's knowledge and experience didn't necessarily even
improve your chances of staying alive.
One Royalist surgeon had great influence.
Richard Wiseman drew on his experiences of battlefield surgery,
sometimes at great risk to himself, to write a landmark medical text.
He recorded both his successes and failures.
Wiseman treated everything from ulcers and fractures
to venereal diseases, but for the soldiers of the Civil War,
what mattered most was his experience of gunshot wounds.
Often surgeons working in the field had no experience of warfare.
The injuries inflicted by muskets and pistols
were complicated and hard to treat.
There was barely any antiseptic and no general anaesthetic.
Gunshot wounds could be more deadly
than those inflicted by edged weapons
and the surgery needed to treat them was more extreme.
Gunshot wounds were something of a mystery for the medical profession.
Wiseman records in his book how some of his fellow surgeons
believed that gunpowder was poisonous and they mistook
the bruising and powder burns around a wound for gangrene.
That, of course, could lead to the wrong type of treatment,
a potentially mistake for the victim.
-Hold his leg down!
Wiseman had learned the dangers of haemorrhaging.
These were tricky injuries.
"If such vessels do bleed upon the receipt of the wounds
"and interrupt you in drawing out the extraneous bodies,
"you must endeavour to suppress the bleeding,
"for thereupon depends the life of your patient."
Wiseman believed that the bullet and any shattered fragment of bone
would have to be removed from the wound
if the patient was to stand any chance,
but often it wasn't the bullet itself which caused trouble,
but it was the soldier's own clothing.
Now, the bullet would take with it a fragment of material into the wound.
And a soldier might have been wearing his clothes
in filthy wartime conditions for months.
Often the real killer was infection.
Wiseman advised his fellow surgeons that
"the bullet pierceth not any part without taking clothing with it,
"which corrupt in the wound.
"While any of the rags remain in the wound, it will never cure."
The brutal trial and error of Civil War gunshot victims' treatment
led to advances in ideas of infection control and hygiene.
Wiseman was a skilful and intelligent medic
and he eventually rose to become
Charles II's personal Sergeant-Surgeon,
but he was still a man forced to work within the limits
of medical knowledge of his age.
One of his recommendations for helping a gunshot wound to heal
was to make the poultice...
out of boiled puppies.
The fires of the English Civil War
forged the nation's armies into hardened fighting forces.
Before the conflict, England's military reputation was poor,
but nearly a decade of total war had changed that.
Now, its army and navy emerged on to the international stage
with the latest weapons, tactics and experience.
The powers of Europe feared England once more.
As England used gunpowder to create its empire,
it now colonised countries
with plentiful natural supplies of saltpetre.
The much-loathed saltpetre men were out of business.
But in the 1690s, England's future role as a global power
was by no means assured.
How far would its forces go to achieve supremacy?
London's National Maritime Museum
holds portraits of this era's heroes.
This is Vice-Admiral John Benbow,
as painted in 1701 by the artist Sir Godfrey Kneller.
He was born around 1650, but his true origins remain lost
in the chaotic fog of the English Civil War.
Some people think that he was the son of a tragic Royalist martyr,
others that he was the son of a simple tanner.
Either way, it soon became clear, after he joined the Royal Navy,
that this man had a special talent for warfare on the high seas.
Benbow carved out a career in the decades of instability
that followed the Civil War.
He worked through five different regimes as an adventurer.
He saw a wealth of combat, both as a trader and in the Navy,
fighting off pirates or attacking England's enemies.
It's clear from this portrait that Benbow was seen as a man of action.
He is holding a hanger. It's an early type of naval sword,
typical of the brutal close-quarters combat of fighting on ships
and there is an air of menace in the way that he is brandishing it.
This is a clear threat to anyone who would dare cross him.
In the history books, he has gone down as a seafaring hero,
a Nelson-type figure, but John Benbow was a man with a dark side.
He was prepared to carry out his mission with utter ruthlessness
and by any means possible.
In the 1690s, England was at war with France.
French privateers were targeting English merchant ships,
once capturing over 90 in a single day.
Demands for revenge arose along the English coast
and the Admiralty knew the man for the job.
They asked Benbow to launch a devastating attack
against the civilian harbour of Saint-Malo,
but how far were the English prepared to go
to crush the will of the French?
With a vast supply of gunpowder at his disposal,
the only limit was Benbow's imagination.
On 29th November, 1693,
Benbow arrived here, off Saint-Malo, with a small fleet,
which included a particularly murderous weapon for the assault,
known as the machine vessel, or Infernal.
It was a nightmarish creation, a 300-ton vessel,
aptly named the Vesuvius,
crammed with 20,000 lbs of gunpowder.
That's double the amount used by Guy Fawkes.
This was covered with pitch, straw, sulphur, mortars, incendiaries,
grenades, bullets, cannonballs, broken glass and chain shot.
It was the 17th-century equivalent of a nail bomb,
but planted by the English state.
It was Sunday evening and the people of Saint-Malo
were oblivious to the impending threat bearing down on them.
Just after 7:00, the Vesuvius was sailed in towards the harbour.
Benbow's plan was simple - he'd sail that devilish ship
up against these walls and blow that town to kingdom come.
It was a high-risk gamble.
The Vesuvius edged closer and closer to its target.
The fuse was lit and Benbow must have felt victory within his grasp.
But then fate intervened.
On its final approach,
the ship is said to have struck one of the rocks behind me...
..and stuck fast, within pistol shot of the town walls.
And then, sooner than anyone expected, it exploded.
At this point,
it was possibly the greatest man-made explosion in history.
It was heard 100 miles away.
One Frenchman claimed that 300 rooms in the town were destroyed,
along with all the glass and earthenware for several miles.
But Benbow's men were among the only casualties.
Saint-Malo had been lucky.
Despite an explosion terrible beyond description,
no-one in the town was killed, though one witness said
that there was no loss of life except a cat in a gutter,
but if Vesuvius had detonated as Benbow had intended,
the effect could have been cataclysmic.
Benbow's weapon had failed, but the very fact that he had
been allowed to carry out such an attack against a civilian harbour
raises the interesting question of just how far the English state
was prepared to go in the name of national security.
By the end of the 17th century,
the rare and cumbersome medieval bombard
had evolved into an efficient and mass-produced cannon
that was taken to sea in vast numbers,
a weapon that would help the British carve out a maritime empire
greater than the world had ever seen.
Soon, ships with over 100 cannons, some able to fire
more than a ton of cannonballs in a single broadside,
extended Britain's superpower status.
The Royal Navy had the best-made cannons
powered by some of the most potent gunpowder in the world.
Now gunpowder did not just influence the outcome of battles,
but the rise and fall of empires.
Next time, I'll see how
the precision of British weapons increases
and morality takes a back seat to military ambition.
Soldiers now face the horror of a new invention -