Sweating Sickness

Posted By on August 13, 2010

John Caius, the 16th Century English physician

In June 1528, when Henry VIII was courting Anne Boleyn, one of Anne’s ladies was suddenly taken ill with sweating sickness. Henry, who was paranoid about illness “took off on a flight from safe house to safe house” and Anne went into quarantine at Hever, the Boleyn family home in the Kent countryside. There, Anne became ill with “the sweat” and Henry dispatched his second-best doctor, William Butts to Anne with a love letter from Henry.

Anne Boleyn was one of the lucky ones, she survived sweating sickness, but others, including her brother-in-law, Sir William Carey, and Thomas Cromwell’s wife and daughters, lost their lives to the sickness.

But what was sweating sickness?

You can read more about it in my article Sweating Sickness or the English Sweat.

21 thoughts on “Sweating Sickness”

  1. Fiz says:

    I am very interested in medical history too (anything that contains the word “history” is enough to set me off), and I thought it sounded like a hantavirus, but that is usually spread by “deer mice” in the US, so I wonder what it’s vector was in the UK. I don’t think it’s person to person transmission though, but urine from infected mice. It’s seems more, not less of a mystery now!

  2. Anne Barnhill says:

    Hi Claire,
    You have outdone yourself–this is an awesome article!! Thanks so much. All that filth–yuck!

  3. Claire says:

    Thank you, Anne. It’s funny because it’s been really really hot here today and I was working up quite a sweat working on this article so I definitely had a few of the symptoms!

    Fiz, they just mentoned a “rodent vector” and weren’t specific in the article that I read so I’m not sure what they actually thought spread it, rats perhaps?

  4. lisaannejane says:

    Fiz, I also think it sounds like a type of hantavirus. I wonder if anyone who already had a lung condition or an allergy to the animal involved may have died more quickly. It definitely is a medical mystery.

  5. Matterhorn says:

    Sounds pretty scary, whatever it was.

  6. SarahD says:

    An interesting article. Anne was very lucky to have survived this disease. And what a handsome chap Sir William Carey was 🙂 Where did you find his picture, Claire?

    1. Erica says:

      Only to get her head cut off! Poor girl

  7. Claire says:

    Hi Sarah,
    The portrait is from the wikipedia page on Sir William Carey and is by Lucas Horenbout. Carey was said to have been Horenbout’s patron and was responsible for introducing him to the English Court. He is handsome, isn’t he?

  8. Eliza says:

    What I love about this site (among other things!! 😉 )are articles like this one!! We learn a lot about many sides of Tudor life and “the sweat” was one of these.

    I agree, William Carey was definately good-looking!! :-p

  9. Cat says:

    Very interesting! I wonder if we’ll ever really know what the illness was? I think it will probably just remain a mystery. Frankly – I am glad that whatever it was, it seems to be gone now. What a horrible way to die!

  10. Mary Ann Cade says:

    I have often wondered if Edward VI might have suffered from a bout of the sweat in 1551 and recovered, only to bring out the tuberculosis that seems to have been something inherent in most of the Tudor males (with the exception of Henry VIII).

    I think it is plausible that he could have had a mild version of this disease, which was mistaken for something else, and it weakened him, causing him to be unable to shake off the other maladies like tuberculosis and measles leading to his death a couple of years later.

    Does anyone else know if this malady has ever been attributed to the demise of Edward VI?

  11. Fiz says:

    Mary Ann, I ‘ve read he had a severe case of measles. TB is an opportunistic disease disease, like HIV is, and will sneak in if anyone has a depressed immune system, especially when It’s widespread, as TB was then.

  12. Jessica says:

    Interesting stuff. I’ve heard about this ancient disease for a while since I am Tudor obssessed, but when I told my teacher about Sweating Sickness he’d never heard about it. I’ve only heard of the theory that it was caused by improper hygiene and waste all in the streets, I didn’t know of the possibility of it being a virus.

    As to Edward VI’s demise: I heard that he had the measles when he was young which weakened his immune system so he contracted tuberculosis (or consumption as they called it). Truth be told, there is no definite answer to how he died. There were rumors of poisoning after his death, but no evidence to support it.

  13. Pauline says:

    I wonder if the death of the Brandon sons, Wiliam and Henry, caused their proud and ambitious parents to become the ruthless and cruel people which they appeared to have been. If William or Henry had survived would Jane have been spared?

    ps This is a fascinating site and I am so glad that I discovered it. I am off to borrow ‘The Lady in the Tower’ by Alison Weir today which has beem reserved for me at my local library.

    1. Banditqueen says:

      Whom are you referring to? Charles Brandon and Katherine Willoughby were not cruel or overtly ambitious. Everyone at the Tudor Court had a degree of ambition. The parents of Jane Grey were Frances Brandon, eldest daughter of Charles Brandon and his first wife, Mary, sister of Henry Viii, who were the grandparents of Jane.

      The myths around Frances Brandon, later Grey and Duchess of Suffolk and her husband, Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk are based on one meeting between the scholar and educational expert Roger Ascham with the 14 year old Jane at her parents estates during which she complained of her parents mildly disciplining her, perfectly normal for strict Tudor parents. He made the account some 40 plus years later in his treatise The School Master. It’s about as reliable as Nicholas Sanders writing that Anne Boleyn had a sixth finger, to be taken with a huge pinch of salt. We have to be careful with sources written much later and see an agenda within them. There are no contemporary sources to support allegations of ruthlessness by Jane Grey’s parents.

      Who is William? The sons of Charles Brandon were called Henry and Charles. They died sadly of the Sweat within three hours of each other. Their mother, Katherine was at their bedside and it probably did affect her very deeply.

      However, the loss of these children had nothing to do with the decision of King Edward to look for a legitimate Protestant heir, disinheriting his two half sisters. Nor did either child have a claim unlike their half royal sister. Jane was young and Protestant and the best candidate Edward could make to carry on his work. It was the joint ambition of Henry Grey and John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland which persuaded Edward to look to his cousin as his heir. The conspiracy which put Jane on the throne was made between them. Jane reluctantly accepted the crown but took on the mantel willingly once Queen, her proclamations prove she was no puppet. Again, the death of these two young boys had nothing to do with her parents or their desire.

      Mary at first actually spared Jane and her family and it looked as if they would all be pardoned and freed but for her father and his foolish decision to support another conspiracy against Mary. Mary actually pardoned Henry Grey and Frances but six months later he joined the Wyatt Rebellion against her. It was with great reluctance that Mary actually signed her death warrant, unable to save her, because she would always be a target for Protestant plots. It is unlikely that her step cousins living would have changed anything.

  14. alison morton says:

    I wonder if ‘sweating sickness’ was in fact meningoccol disease?

    Signs and symptoms include:
    Diaphoresis (sweating),fever, vomiting, rash, abnormal skin colour (mottling), altered mental state, bulging fontanelle, head ache, myalgia. Leg pain, pulmonary oedema and heart failure. Death within hours.

    Source: UpToDate. on line 18.2

    Regards Alison Morton.

  15. Shoshana says:

    This is one of the best articles you have written, Clarie! Most interesting. I wonder if the disease really disappeared or if it just morphed into something else? As the flu changes each year, maybe this did too. Remember how strong a flu Swine Flu was a few years ago and now it is not so deadly even to hose who do not get flu shots.

    Having gone through a terribly frightening episode with my husband last March when he almost died from an e-coli infection, I know first hand how quickly death can come from disease. He was about an hour away from death when he reached the ER. We had taken him to the doctor that morning thinking he might have a urinary tract infection that he had insisted was not too bad all weekend. That Monday morning when the nurse took his blood pressure, she turned white, ran out of the room and pulled the doctor away fron another patient. When the doctor took his BP, it was even lower and he insisted on calling paramedics to transport him to the hospital although it was only across the parking lot! Strangely, my husband was aledrt and said while he felt like he was sick, he did not feel like he was dying or that it was all that serious. His BP was 88/55 at the ER; normal is about 120/80. He should not have been even awake much less able to speak logically. If untreated, he would have died when his BP collapsed all his viens from lack of pressure. I imagine a lot of people with the sweating sickness did not feel “all that sick” at first and then suddenly, it was too late. Scary stuff!

    I offen my husband experience as an example of how qickly and easily one can be a deaths door and not even realize it. I imagine many in Tudor times experienced this type of quick decline into death but did not have our medical s=sxpertise to call on to save them.

  16. Cyd says:

    Tudor? check. Medical? check. Me happy as a clam? Check, check, check!!! I LOVE this stuff!

    and re: the origins of The Sweat, I tend to agree with Alison Morton (above) to it being meningicoccal. Surely something like a bacterial or viral meningitis would cause such rapid death and such high mortality.

  17. Bandit Queen says:

    A great article and very detailed. I have been looking for something more detailed and with references for some time.


    P.S Pauline: Charles Brandon and Katherine Willoughby’s two sons were called Henry and Charles, not William and Henry, and Katherine and Charles Brandon were not ruthless people. In fact Charles died in 1545 and Katherine was a widow living with her two sons in Cambridge when they died in 1551, within 3 hours of each other. She was devastated. I think you are getting confused here with Frances Brandon, the daughter of the elder Charles Brandon, by Mary Tudor, and her husband Henry Grey, later Marquis of Dorset and Duke of Suffolk after his step nephew’s deaths. They were the parents of Lady Jane Grey, not Charles Duke of Suffolk and his fourth wife Katherine. Although with all sorts of different wives and cousins and grand kids running around I can see were the confusion came from.

    Had the two boys lived it is entirely possible that there would have been no need for Jane to be pushed to the forefront, but that is another story. Jane was pushed forward as heir to King Edward VI although she knew full well that she legally followed several other candidates, the Princess Mary and Princess Elizabeth for one and her mother for another. It is obvious that she would not have become involved had Lady Frances and her husband not been so ambitious and may-be ruthless, but well again that is another story and really nothing to do with the subject at hand.

  18. tansyuduri says:

    Anyone else find it interesting it seemed to kill English people almost exclusively?

  19. Alex Greer says:

    Very relevant information with the current coronavirus pandemic. How history can repeat itself.

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