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Sword, Musket & Machine Gun: Britain's Armed History

Episode 2: The Big Bang

Duration: 1 hour

First broadcast: on BBC FourLatest broadcast: on BBC Four HD

Available for 10 months

Dr Sam Willis charts the impact of gunpowder on the battlefield, from cannons to the first handheld weapons.

His journey starts in the 13th century with Oxford scientist and monk Roger Bacon, believed to be the first Englishman to write down a recipe for gunpowder. Sam sees one of the largest surviving medieval cannons still in existence - Mons Meg in Edinburgh Castle. He examines a primitive 1400s 'handgonne' in the Tower of London Armouries that seems more like a mini cannon, with no trigger.

Sam tells the story of the Earl of Moray James Stewart who was regent of Scotland having ejected Mary Queen of Scots from the throne in 1570.

Sam next tells the story of the gunpowder plot. He includes lesser-known details of the 1605 attempted attack. For example, Guy Fawkes was discovered not just once but twice. Also the amount of gunpowder is thought to have been far more than was required. Another strange side to gunpowder's story is revealed - the saltpetre men. Gunpowder requires three ingredients - charcoal, sulphur and saltpetre. In the 17th century chemistry was primitive. Saltpetre or potassium nitrate forms from animal urine and the saltpetre men would collect soil where animals had urinated. This meant they dug up dovecots, stables and even people's homes. They had sweeping powers to come onto people's property and take their soil. They abused these heavily and one of the grievances against King Charles I was the heavy handedness of the saltpetre men.

Eventually, the conflict with the king would turn into the English Civil War. A key weapon is this war was the musket. It was so basic blacksmiths could churn it out by the dozen. Sam fires one with the help of expert gunsmith Robert Tilney. He shows both the musket's power and the lack of accuracy. Muskets were inaccurate but the tactic used was to wait until opponents were very close and then fire one huge volley. Sam shows that the musket would then be used as a heavy club.

Gunpowder weapons gave different injuries to swords and arrows. This led to changes in battlefield surgery, and one who was a key influence was surgeon Richard Wiseman. Sam shows that Wiseman had learnt that any cloth or fragment left from a bullet wound could cause infection and kill the patient.

Finally, Sam travels to Saint Malo in France to tell the story of a frightening attack by the British. In 1693, France and Britain were at war and French pirates had been attacking English ships. Captain John Benbow was asked to launch an attack using a ship crammed with gunpowder. Benbow put 20,000 pounds of gunpowder into the ship as well as many other inflammable ingredients - pitch, straw, sulphur, mortars and grenades. He planned to put this 'Infernal', as it was known, right next to the harbour walls of Saint Malo. But as the ship came near it struck a rock and held fast, within a pistol shot of the town. Then the ship exploded. The sound was heard 100 miles away yet a witness claimed 'no life was lost except a cat in a gutter.' The explosion was 'terrible beyond description' and it shows how far the English were prepared to go in the name of national security. Show less

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