Posted in Tudor Medicine

Tudor cure for Smallpox Demons…

It is thought that only about 10% of all Tudors lived to be beyond their 40th birthdays and one of the reasons was the poor standard of Tudor medicine and medical knowledge.

Smallpox was a highly contagious, potentially disfiguring and deadly disease. There was no cure and no effective treatment.

Henry VIII contracted smallpox, as did his forth wife Anne of Cleaves but his daughter Elizabeth I was the family member to become seriously ill with the disease. In 1562 her doctors thought that she would die. Fear gripped her people because Elizabeth was unmarried and had no heirs. The queen was lucky and  she survived with only a few pockmark scars. The ‘cure’ was thought to be caused by ‘the red treatment’ which was administered to the queen  by being wrapped in a red blanket and placed by a fire.


The illness was thought to be caused by smallpox demons who were said to be frightened of dogs and the colour red. This lead to the development of the red treatment which was developed in Japan and spread to Europe from the 12 century onward. Red light was also thought to reduce scarring and this belief continued until the 1930’s.

Lady Mary Sidney contracted smallpox. She was the sister of Robert Dudley who was the queen’s great favourite. Mary loyally nursed her mistress through her sickness despite the risk to herself. Unfortunately, she caught the airborne sickness and was left horribly disfigured.

Mary’s husband, Sir Henry Sidney wrote:

 “When I went to New haven I left her a full fair Lady in my eyes at least the she was the fairest. When I returned I found her as fowl a lady as the small pox could make her, which she did take by continual attendance of her majesties most precious person (sick of the same disease) the scars of which (to her resolute discomfort) ever since have  remained on her face.”

Smallpox no longer exists anywhere in the world today thanks to the work of  the English physician Edward Jenner. The doctor wondered why milk maids had clear complexions and rarely contracted smallpox. During his studies Jenner developed the idea that it was contact with cowpox blisters and the pus inside them had somehow had protected milk maids.

Jenner performed the world’s first vaccination on James Phipps on 14 May 1796. Jenner was eight year old boy and was the son of his gardener.
Terrika A. Bryant, assigned to Fleet Surgical Team Eight (FST-8), administers the Smallpox vaccination aboard USS Wasp
Jenner  first scraped the pus from cowpox blisters from the hands of Sarah Nelms, a milkmaid who had caught cowpox which is a mild disease from a cow called Blossom. 

Jenner inoculated James in both arms that day.  The patient developed a fever from the Cowpox and naturally felt some uneasiness. Scabs were then collected from a person with Smallpox and James was inoculated with them too. James never contracted smallpox.

This was the vaccine  that eventually eradicated the disease world wide. The very last cases of smallpox in the world occurred in two people (one of which was fatal) in Birmingham, UK in 1978.


 HRP: Henry VIII

David Starkey: Elizabeth: Apprenticeship

Featured image: Lady Mary Dudley/Sidney before contracting smallpox


I love Tudor history and my bookshelves seem to groan a bit more every year...

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