What was the Sweating Sickness? And how did Henry VIII ‘self-isolate’?

During the Tudor period, a disease known as Sweating Sickness killed tens of thousands of people in Britain. Historian Tracy Borman reveals the gruesome effects of the sickness and how Henry VIII was sent into a “wild panic”…

Henry VIII

“This disease… is the easiest in the world to die of”, reported the French ambassador, Cardinal du Bellay, from London in June 1528. “You have a slight pain in the head and at the heart; all at once you begin to sweat. There is no need for a physician… you are taken off without languishing.”

The terrifying epidemic to which he referred was the Sweating Sickness, also known as ‘the English sweat’ because it originated there before spreading to continental Europe. The sickness hit in a series of epidemics. Between the first outbreak in 1485 (the year the Tudors came to power) and the year 1551, when it suddenly declined, it wreaked chaos among the population, killing tens of thousands with each occurrence. But the Sweating Sickness was not always fatal.

“This disease… is the easiest in the world to die of”, reported the French ambassador, Cardinal du Bellay, from London in June 1528. “You have a slight pain in the head and at the heart; all at once you begin to sweat. There is no need for a physician… you are taken off without languishing.”

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The terrifying epidemic to which he referred was the Sweating Sickness, also known as ‘the English sweat’ because it originated there before spreading to continental Europe. The sickness hit in a series of epidemics. Between the first outbreak in 1485 (the year the Tudors came to power) and the year 1551, when it suddenly declined, it wreaked chaos among the population, killing tens of thousands with each occurrence. But the Sweating Sickness was not always fatal.

 

What were the symptoms of ‘Sweating Sickness’?

Symptoms were shockingly swift and dramatic, with death often occurring within a matter of hours. The first symptoms were cold shivers and severe pains in the head and neck, followed by hot sweats and finally an overwhelming urge to sleep. Nobody knew how to prevent or to treat it, which meant there was widespread panic with the arrival of each onslaught. The cause of the disease remains unknown to this day.

In the summer of 1528, the number of deaths quickly escalated. “About two thousand only have been attacked by it in London”, reported du Bellay. “Twelve years ago, when the same thing happened, ten thousand persons died in ten or twelve days, it is said: but it was not so sharp as it is now beginning to be… Everybody is terribly alarmed.”

Who died from the Sweating Sickness?

Far from being a disease that raged through the lower classes, many well-known individuals of the Tudor court contracted the illness, including Anne Boleyn’s brother and father, George and Thomas, along with Cardinal Wolsey.

The sweating sickness killed numerous nobles and courtiers, including two of the Duke of Suffolk’s sons, Henry and Charles, and Mary Boleyn’s first husband, William Carey.

Henry VIII: how the king ‘self-isolated’

One man was more alarmed than most. Although he is often viewed as stridently self-confident, Henry VIII was one of the greatest hypochondriacs ever to sit on the English throne. He ordered the royal physicians to examine him thoroughly on an almost daily basis and kept a medicine cabinet filled with potions to cure any ailment. Any sign of illness at court would send him into a wild panic.

The dance of death
The sickness wreaked chaos among the population, killing tens of thousands with each occurrence. This 1493 engraving depicts the “dance of death”. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Little wonder that as soon as the king heard about the latest outbreak of the dreaded Sweat in the summer of 1528 he ordered that the court be immediately broken up and “took off on a flight from safe house to safe house” in different parts of the country. Meanwhile, his mistress Anne Boleyn went into quarantine at Hever Castle, her family home in the Kent countryside. Many of Henry’s courtiers followed suit, but the poorer classes had no such option and were forced to remain in the crowded, disease-ridden city of London.

To the king’s horror, as he was holed up in what we would today call ‘self-isolation’, he learned that his beloved Anne had contracted the disease. For all his declarations of undying love, Henry stayed well away and instead dispatched his second-best physician, William Butts, with a love letter.

Anne Boleyn survived, but the mortality rate was as high as 50 per cent in some areas. Only now, in the midst of a global pandemic, can we begin to appreciate the full terror that the Sweating Sickness must have wreaked.

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Tracy Borman is the author of several books on the Tudor period, including Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him (Hodder & Stoughton, 2018).