On this day in Tudor history, 31st August 1545, in the reign of King Henry VIII, the ‘Bloody flux’ hit the port of Portsmouth on the south coast of England. It killed many of the men serving on the ships in its port.
But what was the Bloody Flux?
What were its symptoms and why did it kill so many soldiers and sailors?
Find out about the Bloody Flux, its famous victims, and how it is still affecting people today…
On this day in Tudor history, 31st August 1545, a contagious disease known as the ‘Bloody flux’ hit the port of Portsmouth.
The previous year, King Henry VIII had come to terms with Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, over a war with their joint enemy, France. However, he was soon left high and dry when Charles betrayed him and came to an agreement with France. The aging Henry VIII was intent on war though and set about gathering troops and ships at the port of Portsmouth on the south coast of England. France was also intent on invading England.
On 19th July 1545, Henry VIII’s ships, Henry Grace a Dieu and the Mary Rose, sailed out into the Solent off Portsmouth leading the English fleet against the French, who had advanced on them. Sadly, Henry VIII’s favourite flagship, the Mary Rose, sank, taking with her most of her crew.
This wasn’t the only bad news for the English fleet. On 1st August 1545, Lord Lisle wrote to the Duke of Suffolk from on board The Harry, informing him of the bad news, the fact that disease had hit the ships that were making their way to Portsmouth to cross to Boulogne, which was now being threatened by the French. Lisle wrote “there is a great disease fallen amongst the soldiers and mariners almost in every ship”, explaining that the men had “swelling in their heads and faces and in their legs” and that many of them had “the bloody flux”.
On 15th August, Thomas, Lord Poynings, governor of Boulogne, wrote to Henry VIII from Boulogne, saying “am somewhat diseased with the bloody flux, and forced to keep my bed these three days; and, albeit I mistrust not but to recover”, so the disease had obviously taken a hold there too. Poynings died just three days later. By the end of the month, there was an epidemic in Portsmouth and it killed many of the men serving on ships stationed in the port.
But what was bloody flux?
It was what we’d call dysentery today. It was a real killer in the medieval and Tudor periods, and is still killing people in the developing world today. Symptoms include fever, stomach cramps, dehydration and severe diarrhoea. In severe cases, the sufferer would pass bloody stools, hence the name. It is an infection spread through contaminated food or water, for example, water that has been contaminated by faecal matter, or person-to-person due to poor hygiene. There’s little wonder that soldiers and sailors suffered when they were in close contact and didn’t have access to good hygiene and toileting.
Dysentery can be caused by parasite or bacteria, and today, treatment for it depends on which type of dysentery it is. It can include drinking plenty of water or special hydration drinks and medicine to kill parasites. Back in the Tudor period, treatment for the bloody flux would include blood-letting.
As well as the soldiers and sailors of Portsmouth, famous victims of dysentery include Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who died of it at Leicester Abbey in 1530 while travelling to London to face charges of treason; Erasmus, the famous Humanist scholar, who died from dysentery in Basel in1536; Sir Francis Drake, the Elizabethan explorer, who died of it in Panama in 1596, and King James I, who died during a severe attack of dysentery in 1626 after having been weakened by a number of other health issues.
When I looked up dysentery today, I found that fulminant amoebic dysentery has a 55-88% mortality rate and that between 40 000 and 100 000 people die of it each year. It’s still having an impact on our word.