What was sweating sickness?

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Sweating Sickness was a serious illness which appeared at different intervals during Tudor times and which claimed many lives. This illness, known also as the "English Sweate" affected England first, and then spread into Europe, with a series of epidemics between 1485 and 1551. It is not known exactly what caused it or even what it was because it disappeared entirely after 1578.

Symptoms of sweating sickness included "a sense of apprehension", shivers, dizziness, headaches, pain in the arms, legs, shoulders and neck, and fatigue or exhaustion. The illness had different stages - the cold shivery stage followed by the hot sweating stage. It could kill in hours.

Possible causes - There are various theories as to what caused the sweating sickness including poor hygiene, "relaspsing fever" ( a disease spread by lice and ticks) and hantavirus. None of these theories really relate 100% to sweating sickness though.

Interestingly, sweating sickness seemed to be more virulent among the higher classes. Some believe that it may have been sweating sickness which claimed the life of Prince Arthur, Henry VIII's older brother, and others thought to have suffered from it include Anne Boleyn, William Carey (husband of Mary Boleyn), who died from it, and many members of Henry's court.

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63 Responses to “What was sweating sickness?”

  1. Cookie says:

    Does the sweating sickness still exist today?


    Bruno Thor Reply:

    My reading on the subject indicates it does not exist today. As we do not know with certainty what caused it and it not persist after 1578 (that we are aware of), it seems unlikely that it is around today. We have plenty of newer plagues and diseases to worry about today, especially if one is around hospitals frequently.

    I have not read everything about this mysterious illness and I could be completely wrong in my response to the question. I asked my doctor if there was a cause found and he replied “no.”


    Forgiven Reply:

    Didn’t you read? It says in the first paragraph, “it disappeared entirely after 1578.”


  2. HollyDolly says:

    I don’t know if the sweating sickness is still around.It might, but the name has probably changed.
    I really don’t now much on how clean and hygenic upperclass homes were.
    Maybe because the home of the average poor person or maybe middle class wasn’t that clean, the people ,the average man and woman might have had some sort of ammunity to the diease.
    If I remember from science, when the first vaccine for small pox came out, it was noted that dairy maids and those who seemd to work around cattle didn’t get small pox.They got a milder form called cow pox, and it was from this that the small pox vaccine came about,but don’t hold me to it.
    Been a long time since I studied this in school.


    Nicole Reply:

    I remember reading when I was growing up how the North Americans tried to get the English/Europeans to bathe more often because they stunk. So maybe your theory is accurate. Maybe the upper class were more clean/more immune.


    Jen Reply:

    The sweaty sickness was more virulent within the higher classes…not necessarily the poor, which undermines the theory of hygiene in the lower classes…at least in this case. and NO…it is not classified under any other illness. It completely and mysteriously disappeared after 1578, just as it mysteriously appeared in Henry VII’s reign. No one really knows what it was…so no one can really answer if it could reemerge in the present or future. Heaven help us if it does.


    Laura Reply:

    Heaven help us, indeed. We may have to begin slicing open backs to rid us of this foul disease

    Pete Reply:

    That would be the people of the Indian continent made the English wash as they stank and only bathed twice a year. The word shampoo is an Indian word, however it isn’t an American word. Dumb arrogant yank trying to rewrite history again.


    Jeffrey Reply:

    Nice. Such a brilliant correction of the “dumb arrogant Yank” made small minded by the childish remark at the end,

  3. David says:

    Has anyone asked someone in the medical field of today what their take on this would have been?? I think it was a form of Flu….like many of the heavy duty flu’s that have covered the globe today or maybe even Limes diease which can be caught from animals like deer and spread I believe from one person to another. The only thing that really throws me is like Claire mentioned, some and probably most died within hours of acquiring the bug…?
    That is one harsh strong illness and Anne should have thanked her lucky stars that she did not become a victim. Am I correct that Cardinal Wolsey also acquired this sickness??
    Poor Mary Boleyn, she just gets her problems solved and marries William Carey, how perfect for Henry, than a bug kills her husband. Poor woman could not win for loosing!


    Bonnie Reply:

    Lyme disease is not person-to-person transmissible. Your flu theory is as plausible as any. – From a pediatrician


    Momof3 Reply:

    I am a virologist and it is unlikely that it was flu because it never affected infants who are highly susceptible to the flu. I am also highly doubtful it was hantavirus, even though that is a popular theory. Although hantavirus has in some cases spread person to person, it spreads to much less than one person per infected individual. The sweating sickness spread to an estimated 10 people or more. That is much higher than the flu. Another interesting factor was that exercise during and after the period of apprehension helped people to survive. That could work for the flu theory because you recover much faster if you keep active, but that would be the opposite of the case with rapid blood borne diseases.


    Drew Palmer Reply:

    Please reconsider your field of study. Most of your comments are factually inaccurate.

    Omaira Reply:

    yes Cardinal Wolsey fell ill of it the same time as Anne, and almost half, maybe more, of Henry’s court, fell ill, if not died from it. It was also more lethal in London, and Henry thought the countryside to be safer. As for Mary Boleyn though…she was married before she became Henry’s mistress- in January 1520. but yes, she was really unlucky until it turned out how much luckier she was than her siblings


  4. Megan says:

    A new hypothesis (well, 1997ish–if you can call that new) is that the sweating sickness was actually hantavirus pulmonary syndrome that was found in the American southwest in 1993 and is spread by (surprise!) rodents. Reports indicated that if you survived the first 24 hours then you would be fine, but the illness typically killed within a few hours of the first symptoms.
    You can read a brief article on it here: http://discovermagazine.com/1997/jun/thesweatingsickn1161


  5. jenn says:

    no, this was NOT the flu, and it didnt completely resemble any other sicknesses, it hit the healthy the worst, and it appeared and dissapeared so rappidly…

    its not around today, and there are scientists who have thought about digging up a duke who died of this disease, but they say this type of genetic material is unstable and may not have survived..

    this sickness is a mystery…


  6. Jessica Clements says:

    The “sweating sickness” also called the “english sweate” is now believed to be a hanavirus., such as the hanavirus pulmonary syndrome. The symptoms of the two diseases are extremely similar.


  7. bobbi burns says:

    Considering that England had during that time, many moats and ponds of still water, why not from mosquitoes? And what viruses do them bugs carry?
    England got it the worst and first.
    It also has the most in the way of castles and swamps and bogs
    It would affect the nobility because they did basically nothing in physical activity and would affect the farmers the least because they worked continuously not allowing skeeters to land on them and draw blood.
    The disease may have disappeared entirely because farming practices changed over the course of time and swamps got filled in.

    I caught the h1n1 flu and I did not sweat. I just had trouble breathing and coughed up my liver and other guts. But that was a 9 day virus(with no drugs) and it is gone.

    I guess we will always speculate on what it was, since the invention of soap and chlorine that means today is not then.


  8. charlie says:

    it unlikely to be malaria as they would have looked at it as they have compared the sweat to every known illness also the poor would have been affected if it was as mosquito’s like the smell of sweat and the rich used a herb bag that naturally repelled them as I have a mix recipe of it from the 1400, I wonder if it was a type of poisoning as castles were built may have disturbed some natural element and contaminated the castles water supply and the poor only had the river really for water or maybe infected meat or fruit that the rich always had imported in from other countries. it only became apparent when the French arrived in England and didn’t last long after the Tudor dynasty is a bit well odd


    Momof3 Reply:

    Poisoning does not spread from person to person.


  9. irina says:

    The hantavirus epidemic in southwestern US correlated with certain natural factors. If I remember, there was an abundance of pinon pinenuts which caused an upswing in the white footed mouse population. The rodents increasingly encroached on human populations. I beieve the virus is spread through disturbed dust from rodent droppings. (A friend of mine got a less severe form of it sweeping up mouse droppings in a shed in the Pacific northwest.) Also plague epidemics were found to occur in drought years. There was something about the gut of the flea becoming blocked so they spit when they bit. I can’t see how fleas could suffer from drought. Didn’t the sweating sickness happen in spring as well as summer?


  10. raven says:

    Last I knew, the hantavirous made your organs liquify and leak out your body. So I very much doubt it was that!


    Harold Reply:

    I think you’re thinking of ebola.


  11. Travis says:

    Why hasn’t H1N1 been brought up as a possibility? Swine flu is extremely virulent, is mostly fatal to overactive immune systems (ie: those between the ages of 20 and 35) and happens very fast.

    I’m just throwing this out there because someone I worked with died during the epidemic a few years back and I almost died myself. My entire household caught it within 2 days of each other.


    ladylayne Reply:

    Someone did bring up H1N1. It might be good for people to read what others wrote before they blog.


  12. Baroness Von Reis says:

    All I have to say is, I’m sure it ‘s a IIlness that you don’t ever want to get! Baroness x


  13. Father Barry says:

    It seems to me that no one here has considered that the cause for this disease is not a virus but in fact the direct hand of God dealing out his righteous judgement against the sinful and the wicked.


    nicole Reply:

    No it was just a random epidemic that plights mankind same as it does today. James 1:13


    JAE Reply:

    Seriously? Does anyone really believe this nonsense?! If God can deal out “righteous judgement”, why are murderers, rapists, pedophiles and worse not dropping like flies? There is no God. There is only man and his desire for wealth, power and social control that endlessly lead us to war and death – too often in the name of God.

    How can educated intellectually advanced individuals actually believe in such a thing as a judgemental all-knowing and powerful God? God makes no rational sense. In another 2500 years, perhaps mankind will look back at Christianity as we currently view ancient Pagan religions. And hopefully we won’t be fighting and killing in the name of some new “true” God!


  14. Danielle says:

    I refuse to believe that if there is a God, he is the vengeful, vindictive God suggested. As it was prevalent amongst the aristocracy, were only the wealthy wicked? Correct me if I am wrong, but I don’t believe God has had a “tangible” presence since the old testament. Please don’t list miracles and whatnot as evidence as they are based on Man’s assessment and faith. If you want to believe in such a malevolent God, this is your right and your choice. I do not find it very charitable or Christian.


    Shelly Reply:

    Perhaps you should read the old testament and see for yourself how malevolent God was and come up with your own assessment.Like it or not God is a God of Judgement and has not disappeared like the sweating sickness plague. When your finished with the old testament maybe try reading the new testament where you will find his tangible presence. I know I did.


    tatty by by Reply:

    Well the old testament one is the god of the Hebrews – the evil, vindictive and downright nasty one.
    The new testament one is the god of the Christians, Jesus Christ, a god of love and forgiveness.
    They are not the same god at all.


    rachelle Reply:

    I am a devout Christian and can tell you that God is God. Sending his son did bring about forgiveness of ones sins and the prospect of being saved, because God, Old or New, loves us so much. BTW, have you read the last chapter of the New Testament? Revelations?

    Polly Reply:

    What a nasty anti-semitic thing to say. The last time I checked the God of Christians Jesus Christ was a Jew and all of his teachings are based on the old Testament Jesus was a “good Jew”. They are all the same God, Jesus is considered a prophet Under Judaism, he was one of many. Even under Christianity he is not God although there conflation of God, Christ and the Holy Spirit/Ghost and is usually referred to as the son of God. If you think the Hebrew God is a mean and nasty one then I am sure, your “Christ” would share tears at your ignorance.

    J Reply:

    tatty, you lovely genius, Jews and Christians do believe in the same god, so your comment is entirely ignorant and incorrect.

    Furthermore, if Danielle wants to preach about being Christian, why does she disavow the supposed miracles? The reality is if there is a god, it has no interest in you or your beliefs. You aren’t important enough.

  15. Bryan J. says:

    I have done extensive research on diseases of the time periods between the 13th through the 17th centuries and “The Sweat” as they called it has boggled me, and apparently everyone else since it disappeared in the late 1500′s. However I do have a theory and please feel free to give me your feed back.
    First; the disease originated in England which everyone knows is a place of many swamps, bogs etc. and a wet climate. Mosquito’s flourish in these environments and in my opinion would be the carrier of this mysterious disease. I say this because the symptoms, however more severe, are very similar to that of malaria, which has claimed it’s share of lives itself. And the fact that the sickness appeared to be seasonal; cases and deaths seemed to start in late spring and end in late fall or around October, back up my theory. This would also account for people believing that it was being spread from person to person when in fact it may have been from being bitten by the same batch of mosquito’s as it appeared to happen to groups of people in the same areas. This theory makes the most sense to me the question is, if the insects remained there which as we all know mosquito’s come back every year; how could it have just disappeared?
    Very mysterious indeed, we may never know what this illness was and I hope we never do. If we did that most likely would mean it has returned and that, is a very scary thought!


  16. woody says:

    i have been following comments on this subject and wondered when someone would bring god into it.It is clear a huge number of people died of this sickness but nowhere near as many as those killed in the name of one god or another.maleria,cancer,typhoid,smallpox,STICK RELIGION ON THE LIST.


  17. Tony says:

    The symptoms are well recorded and no modern medical examiner has been able to identify the bug. Lack of Hygene and water purity and other common social aspects have all been looked at though nothing seems to fit the bill fully. What seems unique is the speed of killing. literally within a day or sometimes within hours of symptoms first showing. Then of course the mystery of its disappearance. Nothing we have today either natural or human made, acts that fast. Add to that the fact that some survivors caught it several times. I have never heard of a disease that did not leave its victims with a high degree of immunity. Having it once and surviving did not make you safe. I bet modern developers of biological warfair would slay to know what it was and add it to their arsenal.



  18. Bob says:

    Interesting reference — The Epidemics of the Middle Ages
    By Justus Friedrich Carl Hecker-pgs 164-345–available free via google books –
    Most ” Flu’s” start with headache malaise then fever, defense mechanisms, that usually “breaks with a profuse sweating”. But, on occasion internal temperatures reach a point to cause significant damage to internal organs and processes, encephalitis potential brain stem damage, brain herniation…Curious is the outbreaks in London among the more affluent during the summers. What would have this group gathered at that less affluent would not have – religious ceremonies, educational, business, parties, — and what food and drink would they have access to that others may not have???
    Was there a difference with the religious ceremonies practiced between London and Scotland and parts of Europe during this time??

    Thank you for an opportunity to participate


  19. Audrey says:

    I read that this disease died out ( that sounds suspicious to me-not morphed, but died out) in the late 1500′s. Since it was pretty much confined to the nobility, it makes me consider a poison, a bad wine batch-a spice or food not allowed to the common people. Possible accidental or deliberate ingesting of a toxin. I can’t claim to be a doctor or anything like that, but it does seem that poison of some sort has had a long and illustrious place in the nobilities’ lives, or deaths. Just an idea.


  20. susan says:

    it has always sounded to me like flu. Strange that it only appeared during the tudor times. malaria?, but I think they knew what that was. And why mostly the upper classes. They lived much better than the poor


    Christine Reply:

    It sounds like bird flue to me, people were falling dead like flies in the early 20 th century that was Spanish flu but now scientists have discovered that it was in fact Bird flu, the sweating sickness seems to have all the symptons aching limbs exhaustion or yes could have been malaria that’s a killer and in those days, poor sanitation and hygiene was prevalent, how awful their suffering was, thank god we live in these times now with all it’s medical advancements.


  21. Sarah says:

    Thinking along the lines of how the “wealthy” lived ie: cold damp castles with slits for windows and heavy tapestry, probably carpet thickness, to keep out the cold. Heavy clothing which you couldn’t wash and poor sanitation, put together the swamps, wells, bogs and rodents it’s no wonder some diseases were born. If the theory of the poor didn’t get the Sweating Sickness because they were outside in the fresh air and worked hard and ate fresher foods could be one reason why they didn’t succumb to the disease. Around the Tudor times dwellings were changing. No longer the castles to keep out thy enemies but manor houses with air and light – lots of windows being built. It just might be that the nasty little “bug” died of its own accord due to the fact that the environment was changing.


    Christine Reply:

    Your right Sarah the upper classes mostly ate huge quantities of meat and pastry whearas the poor consumed fresh vegetables and fruit as it was cheap and they grew their own, the upper classes suffered from vitamin c deficiency not sure about the fresh air though as they rode their horses a lot, diet does play a role though and of course when you see the awful concoctions they used for their illnesses I think I’d rather put up with the disease. They swallowed spiders and things like that yuk.


  22. Lesley says:

    A thought to those who have suggested a mosquito-born virus like malaria. What little I know is that these are tropical diseases. I don’t think England has ever in the tropics – at least since humans have existed.


    Claire Reply:

    Malaria was actually a big problem in some parts of England in the 16th century and there are many mentions of people suffering bouts of “ague”, which is now known to be malaria. The marshlands of coastal southern and eastern England were particularly known for it. You can read more about it in a medical essay at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7898959 and also in the history of Romney Marsh at http://www.theromneymarsh.net/history/.


  23. Tabdds says:

    One possibility only alluded to is the possibility of a “susceptible population”. The curious charteristic of this disease mainly affecting the nobility and then suddenly dying out may indicate a genetic ” survival of the fittest”. It could have been anything from a toxic mold to vector borne virus that killed off all the susceptible hosts at the time they were susceptible. One more theory!


  24. Sandye says:

    Actually, Native Americans thought Europeans smelled, but I believe that is because euros ate dairy causing the body to have a different odor.


  25. Penny says:

    Loved reading all the blogs. Wondering why no one has thought of:



    Just a theory to cast amongst the mix.


  26. Debie says:



  27. Lorev says:

    Thinking about sweating sickness affecting mainly the better off…Among the differences between lifestyles of rich and poor would be the heavy woollen drapes and carpets, even upholstered furniture, in their homes, and the furs they possessed. Might something similar to anthrax be the cause? The symptoms sound quite similar to inhalation anthrax.


  28. wes says:

    The Spanish Flu killed 50 million people worldwide (give or take) including my aunt in the early part of the twentieth century, and burned itself out. Different flus have different symptoms and mutate constantly. It was a WWI soldiers flu because they were in close contact, even with the enemy, and they travelled everywhere, just like upper class English. The Tudor compatriots caught a flu and spread it amongst themselves because the classes were segregated and it burned out. Seems like the only answer to me.


  29. wes says:

    I guess I’m showing my age, but remember when we thought AIDS was some by-product of homosexuality? Just because a population has a disease doesn’t mean they did anything specific to cause it; it just means it’s isolated, and can be as random in selection as HIV. Stretching the subject, but if that particular bug had gotten spread amongst us heteros first, considering our greater population and opportunity to spread the disease, Earth would be a very lonely place.


  30. wes says:

    If the young and healthy were affected the most, what if the disease caused an overreaction of the immune system? Those people with the best immune systems would be hit the hardest, almost like an allergy, and die of their own body’s response.


  31. kristie says:

    I’m surprised nobody has even thrown out meningitis…duh!


    Claire Reply:

    I don’t think the symptoms fit completely with the type of meningitis which we see in epidemics – a stiff neck, high fever, sensitivity to light, confusion, headaches and vomiting. Swesating sickness had the high fever but its symptoms, according to John Caius, were:

    Pain in the back, shoulder and extremities, accompanied by a “flusshing” – Muscle pain (myalgia) and redness
    “Grief” in the liver and stomach – abdominal pain
    Headache and “madnes” – Headache and delirium
    “Passion of the hart” – Cardiac palpitation
    “A marueilous heauinesse and a desire to sleape”
    “The short abidinge” – Possible death within 12 to 24 hours of the first symptom

    Read more: http://www.theanneboleynfiles.com/sweating-sickness/#ixzz32Wp22b5W


  32. lady jane says:



  33. Carol says:

    I wonder if (since the time span was roughly 75-80 years) it was a poison. Since only the nobility got it and perhaps two people knew how to make the poison (given life spans were shorter at that time) and then perhaps the concoction died with the last person who knew how to make it, which is why it stopped abruptly. (Or perhaps it was something they were importing at the time that was delicious but deadly)


  34. Sharon says:

    Just thinking that it could be like swine flu or bird flu or even another type of flu for a food or maybe even a drink that they had then but no longer eat or drink maybe. There was a wide path between the wealthy and the poor…most of the poor ate very little meat, could it have come with a specific animal or fish maybe that was eaten during that period of time?


  35. John says:

    Maybe it was bad wine.


  36. Joan Gauld says:

    The first recorded epidemic of sweating sickness followed the arrival of the future Henry V!!th with his foreign mercenaries around 1485. England was infected with various diseases during the middle ages, the sweating sickness is just one of them, probably a consequence of early ‘globalisation’! Like most of these diseases at this time the sweat had outbreaks periodically, until it seems to have died out, possibly as a result of a build-up of immunity in the population. Why did the sweat affect the wealthy more? As servants got sick too, perhaps it was not wealth or social position, more the increased likelihood of contact with infected persons, at court or in monastic communities rather than in the more isolated villages populated by the poor. Mediaeval medicine was more likely to have been available to the wealthy, and the ‘remedies’ at that time seemed to have done more harm than good; perhaps this was a factor in the mortality amongst the wealthy? Tudor diet amongst the wealthy lacked vitamins and minerals, who ate less fruit and vegetables than the poor, and this could also have contributed to a worse outcome following infection. The infection had a recognised pattern of symptoms, and killed quickly, suggesting it was viral. The fact that it killed so quickly would have meant outbreaks were shorter in duration and so less easily spread (folk died before they could spread the disease, a bit like Ebola). Glad I didn’t live in the middle ages!


  37. Lynda H. says:

    Megan was correct…I learned in college, medical school, that the pathogen was similar to the illness we had in the a Southwest in 1993. It was actually carried by rodent feces. The pathogen would become more airborne when the floors were swept and the rodents’ feces, which had become dried, turned to dust and swirled around the room. Rodents were prevalent everywhere during the Middle Ages; they had no way of deterring the creatures. Imagine, the wealthy, upper class had more food stuffs and warm from availability of wood for fires, both of which drew the rats inside the households. If I were a rat,mi would choose a warm, food-laden domicile where I had ample places to scurry and hide vs a small, poor, cold, damp home with spares vittles upon which to devour!


    Lynda H. Reply:

    Forgive the typos; am on iPhone without my glasses. Haha.


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