The English Sweating Sickness, or the Sweat as we commonly know it today, was an aggressive condition that attacked England numerous times between 1485 and 1551. Once it struck it would quickly become a summer epidemic, often leaving a significant death toll in its wake. The Sweat was not as devastating as the plague which was well known and greatly feared at the time, but it still managed to invoke terror given that a victim could fall ill with it and die within twenty-four hours of exhibiting the first symptoms. To this day the Sweat hasn’t been identified despite the extensive study by modern doctors, and it’s causes and origins as well as it’s sudden disappearance remain a mystery.
The Sweat struck England for the first time in 1485, shortly after Henry Tudor defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. It was hardly a good omen for the recently returned exile-now-king that within weeks of his arrival at London a new and strange illness swept through the city leaving many dead. So swift was its outbreak Henry had yet to be crowned King before the disease took hold. Because of its sudden appearance, it has been thought that perhaps the French mercenaries that made up the bulk of Henry’s army brought it over with them. However, the clue is in the name – English sweating sickness, because it was (at that point) limited to England. If the mercenaries had brought it with them the French must have been immune, as there had been no instances of it on the Continent. Although 1485 was the first known epidemic of the illness, it had been referenced before this by Thomas Stanley who cited the sweating sickness as the reason he couldn’t join up with Richard III’s forces at Bosworth. Of course, as Stanley was Henry Tudor’s stepfather his response may not have been entirely truthful, but his excuse meant that the sweat was at least heard of, even though it had only been heard of in previous few days, with Henry’s landing at Milford Haven.
A doctor who witnessed the 1485 outbreak described victims as having;
a grete swetying and stynkying with redness of the face and of all the body, and a contynual thurst, with a grete hete and hedache because of the fumes and venoms.
The symptoms were distinct from those of the plague with a typical victim feeling as though something terrible was about to happen (not that they were wrong) before coming down with a headache and cold chills. These symptoms could last anywhere from minutes to hours followed by hot flushes, profuse sweating and delirium accompanied by palpitations, racing pulse and severe pain in the limbs. Exhaustion would set in followed by death, with most cases proving fatal within a day. The symptoms varied in their severity and the swiftness with which they appeared. Though the pain was largely described as severe, a French ambassador would later write that some barely felt any discomfort, feeling as though they simply had a mild headache before they broke out in the customary sweat and died. It was also not a guarantee that you would survive twenty-four hours with it, with some witnesses referring to victims who had been dancing at nine only to be dead by eleven.
Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales is commonly thought to have died of the sweat, however, it might have been a different illness. Although Arthur and his wife, Catherine of Aragon, both came down with the sickness it was not identified by contemporaries as the sweat. Further, Arthur died a month after his illness was first reported which did not match the speed with which the sweat usually dispatched its victims. Arthur died in 1502, though if this was due to the sweat then it was a fairly isolated incident as there was no epidemic until later in 1508. The outbreaks in 1485 and 1508 were thought to have killed roughly ten thousand people each.
There was a further outbreak in 1517, but the next spate in 1528 was particularly severe and also the first time that it was noted as having spread abroad, with many cities that form what is now Germany suffering with it. Unlike the plague which was known to spread rapidly among the lower classes, the nobility often suffered greatly from the sweat, and so when one of Anne Boleyn’s maids fell sick with the malady Henry VIII immediately departed for a more remote location, even though he was courting Anne. Many of Henry’s court fell ill with it, including Anne herself and Cardinal Wolsey who apparently recovered only to suffer with it twice more in that same summer. Henry’s fear of illnesses is well recorded and despite his immediate measures to put distance between himself and the sweat it still claimed the lives of a number of his attendants. In a letter to Anne after she had begun recovering Henry lists those who fell sick with it while he was away, only for him to withdraw to another palace when they did so;
For when we were at Walton, two ushers, two valets de chambres and your brother, master-treasurer, fell ill, but are now quite well ; and since we have returned to our house at Hunsdon, we have been perfectly well, and have not, at present, one sick person, God be praised.
The sweat would strike once more in England before fading into legend. The epidemic of 1551 during the reign of Edward VI was again severe, this time with victims fatally succumbing within ten hours of first exhibiting symptoms. Edward himself noted that those who first felt the cold chills would die within a few hours before having made it to the sweating stage. Those who survived to the second stage would become delirious and “should die raving”.
Around 15,000 people died and once again the nobility could not escape. Most notably the sixteen-year-old Duke of Suffolk, Henry Brandon attempted to flee with his brother, only to fall ill and die at their refuge. His brother, Charles became the next Duke of Suffolk, but as he died just an hour later of the same illness he holds the record for the shortest tenure of a peer.
Though 1551 was to be the last time the sweat appeared in England at the time it was attached with deep religious significance that had been absent during it’s previous afflictions. The country was experiencing considerable religious changes and in a letter to the bishops requesting prayers to be said to end the sweat’s spread, Edward blamed the common peoples’ refusal to embrace the changes for its virulence. He further blamed the bishops and the churchmen for not being dynamic enough in their presentation of God’s word, saying;
…ministers of the church have been both so dull and so feeble in discharging of their duties that it is no marvel though their flocks wander, not knowing the voice of their shepherd and much less the voice of their principal & sovereign master.