Dance of DeathAs you know, I was ill in bed for a few days last week and it got me thinking about disease in Tudor times. I’m not going to go into detail on Tudor medicine, the four humours etc., I just want to touch on diseases that were common in that era. Today, many of these diseases can be treated with modern medicine, but in Tudor times they could be deadly.

  • Dysentery, also known as “the Bloody Flux” – This was the disease which killed Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and which is still killing people in the developing world today. Symptoms include fever, stomach cramps, dehydration and severe diarrhoea. In severe case the sufferer would pass bloody stools. 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.
  • Influenza – A viral infection which attacks the respiratory system. There were three widespread influenza epidemics in Europe in the 16th century, in 1510, 1557 and 1580. The two-year epidemic of 1557 has been described as “the worst mortality crisis in early modern England”.
  • Leprosy – A bacterial infection which mainly affects the skin, causing it to erupt into “red, raised, firm nodules”. It eventually leads to weakness and paralysis of afflicted areas.
  • Malaria, “the ague” – This disease was spread by mosquitoes and its symptoms included fever, headaches and sweating. It could also result in anaemia, jaundice and death. It was thought to be caused by bad air, hence the name.

  • Smallpox, “the red plague” – A highly infectious disease caused by Variola virus whose symptoms included headaches, fever, chills, backache, rashes of blisters filled with pus. In severe cases, it could lead to haemorrhages on the lungs and other internal organs. Elizabeth I contracted smallpox in October 1562 and became so seriously ill with the disease that it was thought she would die. Fortunately, Elizabeth survived and was not too badly scarred, although Lady Mary Sidney, who had nursed her back to health, contracted the disease and was badly disfigured. Smallpox was declared eradicated in 1979.
  • Typhoid fever – A bacterial infection which causes headaches, diarrhoea, weakness and abdominal pain, and which can also lead to pneumonia, coma and intestinal haemorrhaging.
  • Tuberculosis, also known as Consumption – A bacterial disease which attacks the lungs and which can easily be spread from person to person through coughing and sneezing. Symptoms include coughing, fever, night sweats, weight loss and chest pain. It is thought that Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond and illegitimate son of Henry VIII, died of Tuberculosis.
  • Ergotism, or St Anthony’s Fire – This illness is actually poisoning caused by consuming grain contaminated with a fungus (ergot). Chemicals from the ergot attack the nervous system causing anxiety, convulsions, vertigo, hallucinations and the sensation of being bitten or burned. It can also cause gangrene by constricting blood supply to the extremities.
  • Plague – A bacterial infection contracted from being bitten by infected fleas. Symptoms included necrosis of the bite, swelling of lymph nodes in the neck and armpits, headache, fever and delirium. Its deadliest form, pneumonic plague, affected the lungs and was highly infectious.
  • Sweating Sickness, “the Sweat” or “English Sweat” – England was affected by epidemics of this disease in 1485, 1508, 1517, 1528 and 1551, and it decimated towns. You can read more about it in my article “Sweating Sickness”. Anne Boleyn, her brother and father, all contracted sweating sickness in 1528 but all three survived.
  • Gout – You may remember Chapuys hobbling around in “The Tudors” series complaining about his gout. Gout is a form of arthritis which can cause sudden attacks of pain, swelling, redness and tenderness in the joints, particularly the joint at the base of the big toe. It is caused by urate crystals building up in the joint due to high levels of uric acid in the blood.
  • Sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhea and syphilis.
  • Childbed fever, or Puerperal fever – A disease which affected women who had just given birth and which was caused by an infection of the endometrium. Symptoms included fever, headache, abdominal pain and weakness. Jane Seymour and Catherine Parr died of puerperal fever.

Other illnesses or conditions I have seen as causes of death include “apoplexy”, which is either the loss of blood flow to an organ or bleeding into an organ; “dooble febre quartanz” which was given as the cause of death for Henry VIII’s physician, Dr William Butts, and which was actually malaria; “ague” which referred to fever and chills usually caused by malaria; and “dropsy”, which was the swelling of soft tissues due to the build-up of water.

Measles was also a common illness. Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, suffered from it in 1565 and Edward VI contracted measles and smallpox in 1552.

The above list is by no means exhaustive so please do share diseases and ailments you’ve come across in your research and reading.

Of course, diseases were not the only killer in Tudor England, you could be executed for a crime, killed by a falling tree while you were beating it for acorns for your pig – see For whom the bell tolls: accidental deaths in Tudor England – or killed while practising archery.

Notes and Sources

  • US National Library of Medicine
  • Influenza: historical aspects of epidemics and pandemics, Burke A. Cunha, MD
  • World Health Organization
  • Worlds Within Worlds: Structures of Life in Sixteenth-Century London, Steve Rappaport
  • For whom the bell tolls: accidental deaths in Tudor England, S Gunn and T Gromelski
  • Image: Dance of Death by Michael Wolgemut (1493)

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