Posted in Tudor Medicine

The mysterious Tudor epidemic that killed thousands…

In August 1485, Henry Tudor had just won his crown from Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth field. By October of the same year several thousand of his subjects would be dead of a mysterious new epidemic. It was called, ‘The English sweating sickness.’

Model of the Battle of Bosworth: Photograph  by John Taylor

It was a disease that could kill:

“Within two hours, some merry at dinner were dead at supper.” (Fraser 1992)

The epidemic particularly affected the affluent and men between 15 and 45 seemed to be especially vulnerable. Among those killed in London were two lord mayors, six aldermen, and three sheriffs. It was soon found that the disease offered its victims no immunity many of them had many bouts of the illness before it finally killed them.

The sweat arose mainly during the months of summer and early autumn. Later there would be out breaks on the continent.

The last major English outbreak was in Halifax 1551 during in the reign of the Tudor boy King Edward VI. The young King wrote in his diary on 10 July 1551:

‘At this time cam the sweat into London, which was more vehement then the old sweat. For if one took cold he died within three hours, and if he escaped it held him but 9 hours, or 10 at the most. Also if he slept the first 6 hours, as he should be very desirous to do, then he raved, and should die raving.’

The symptoms would began with an intense sense of doom and apprehension followed by a great thirst and feeling cold. The symptoms that followed were: violent shivering, headaches, giddiness and severe pain in the shoulders, neck and limbs. Once the patient was totally exhausted the hot sweating stage would begin. This part included: Headaches, a rapid pulse, heart pain and delirium. The sufferer would then either collapse from exhaustion or have an overwhelming urge to sleep. It was considered to be fatal if they were allowed to do so. Death could occur within 5 hours.

Today it has been suggested that an unknown species of Hantavirus may have been to blame. The sweat was different from the plague and other epidemic diseases of the time having no buboes like the plague or swollen glands.

Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Euricius Cordus (1486-1535);

The German text above recommended that people should protect themselves against the Sweating Sickness by paying particular attention to their diet. The pamphlet stated that milk, cheese and all other milk products should be avoided.

In England the cause was said to be excessive meat eating, a lack of fresh vegetables and a lack of personal hygiene.

Arthur Tudor, England’s first Prince of Wales, who died of the sweat and Henry and Charles Brandon who both died within hours of each other.

There were five outbreaks in England, in the summer months of 1485, 1508, 1517, 1528 and 1551. The 1517 epidemic struck King Henry VIII’s household, and the one of 1528 affected the entourage of Cardinal Wolsey. Anne Boleyn and Catherine of Aragon both caught the disease at different times and both survived. Henry VIII’s older brother Arthur died of the disease as did the first husband of Mary Boleyn William Carey. The heirs of the Duke of Suffolk were killed by the sweat as were the family of Thomas Cromwell.

The last major outbreak of the disease occurred in England in 1551. After that it seems to have vanished forever.

Places to visit:

 Bosworth Medieval Festival (19th & 20th August): 20% off Early Bird tickets available here

The science museum London: The medical museum: South Kensington Opening Hours: Open daily 10:00 – 18:00 Closed 24 – 26 December: Free admission

The Wellcome Collection is the free visitor destination for the incurably curious. Located at 183 Euston Road, it explores the connections between medicine, life and art in the past, present and future


Featured image by: Jay T47

Dr Elma Brenner at the Wellcome Library Blog: Accessed: 23/05/2017 23:13

Antonia Fraser: ‘The six wives of henry VIII’ (1992 Pg: 32) Medical Historian Dr Jim Leavesley from Margaret River, Western Australia, radio transcript accessed 14/5/2017 00:03



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

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