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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45 thoughts on “Tudor Diseases and Ailments”
  1. I’m glad I live now and not then!! We always moan about our NHS service lol. I would just like to say that the kids tv program Horrible Histories is absolutely brilliant and the coverage they do over the Tudor period is hilarious and well worth a watch! I wish I grew up watching it! Although Blackadder series 2 is pretty funny too. 🙂

  2. I’m very much interested in Tudor diseases and medicine. The Sweating Sickness has always had me curious as to how it could be so devastating and yet mysteriously disappear.

  3. The definition of apoplexy you give is a bit off for pre-modern times. Nowadays the word does indeed mean a rushing of blood into or out of an organ, but the Tudors didn’t autopsy: they wouldn’t have been able to recognize a circulation disorder of that nature.

    In Tudor times “apoplexy” meant a sudden loss of consciousness quickly followed by death. This could encompass all kinds of things – everything from heart attack or stroke to a ruptured aneurysm – even a severe allergic reaction! Later on, as autopsies began to allow doctors to match external symptoms with internal disease, the meaning of “apoplexy” was restricted to simply “severe stroke”.

    As for other diseases – strep and staph were ubiquitous. Giardia was behind many cases of “dysentery”. Syphilis was the HIV of its day – possibly the best-understood disease of the time due to the great interest physicians had in any new disease. Typhus and typhoid (not differentiated yet) were also well-known. Measles was often confused with mild smallpox.

  4. I’ve always wondered if there are any recorded cases for Diabetes in Tudor time. I’ve always felt pretty positive in saying that Henry VIII suffered from type 2 diabetes due to his obesity, poor health and healing issues but are there any recorded cases of diabetes?

      1. I have read that he did have diabetes, but I cannot think for one minute that this diagnosis was made in his lifetime as doctors abilities were extremely limited. This diagnosis must have been made in more recent times from historical documents referring to his health, and lack thereof; and I doubt that such historical evidence as there may be, would be sufficient to prove whether Henry VIII had type 1 or 2 diabetes.

  5. I believe that Henry VIII’s mother, Elizabeth of York, also died of childbed/puerperal fever (in 1503) giving birth to her last child, a girl named Catherine, who also died after a few hours.

    Sometimes the remedies for the ailments were almost as bad, if not worse, than the ailment itself. I remember reading a book stating that a common cure for whooping cough used at this time was a fried mouse. If the disease doesn’t kill you, the cure will almost assuredly finish you off.

  6. It also makes me wonder if a lot of deaths could be contributed to cancers, as well. There are so many types of cancers. And of course heart conditions. Probably a trove of diseases, as in this time the living conditions, even if you were wealthy or royalty, were far below the standards of later years. It would indeed have been risky every day of ones life, back then, I would think.

    1. They said Katherine of Aragon had a “black growth on her heart”. To me, that sounds like cancer for sure and not the poisoning that they suspected.

        1. I think they used to call what we think to be cancers as ‘cankers’, Amy Robsart Dudley’s wife was thought to have ‘a canker of the breast’ before she ‘fell’ to her death… or ‘Malady of the breast’ as I have seen it written also.
          I think they used the word malady a lot, but seemed to be used when referring to serious illnesses, i.e. ones you wouldn’t survive such as a cancer, not 100% sure though.
          Canker is a work usually reserved for horticulture now-a-days, its a fungal disease of woody plants/trees, fatal to these as well if left untreated.

    1. But the ale they drank was very weak, not at all like our ales/beers today. In a recent episode of Tudor Monastery Farm, Ruth was making ale and the general ale for household drinking was very well ‘watered down’ during the ale-making process. The first batch of ale was the strongest and that was kept for special occasions.

    2. To be frank, fermented beverages, albeit weak ones, are to be considered far superior to water in the Tudor era. When you ferment anything as a beverage the process of catching a natural yeast, which was often the case, soon killed any bad bacteria and replaced it with good bacteria. That’s why things like yogurt, kimchi etc. are so good for you, and why a sourdough starter stays fresh as long as you treat it well!

  7. My historical novel group is reading ‘Wolf Hall.’ According to Hilary Mantel, Cromwell’s wife and daughters died of the sweating sickness. Well at sunrise, dead by sundown. Elizabeth I had smallpox and recovered. Robert Dudley’s sister, Mary Sidney, nursed her and caught it herself. She survived but was horribly scarred. Elizabeth Jenkins, who wrote about Elizabeth and Robert Dudley, advanced the theory that Amy Robsart Dudley had breast cancer and it had gotten into her bones, so when she tripped on the stairs, her neck snapped. I don’t know if many historians accept this idea. We wish we had the NHS. Hoping that if Obamacare succeeds, we can go to single payer.

  8. As a student in the not so distant past several of the studies I had to do where to do with the epidemeology and the history of disease within the context of health and sociology, and some of the topics included some of the horrors of Medieval, Tudor and Stuart disease through to the public health acts of the 19th century. The reading material included several detailed studies of disease and plagues from these eras and the less than helpful treatments available at the time. Mercury being used as a cure up until 1948 for the pox or what we call syphillis over a period of six weeks isolation; fevers being revieved either by cold ice baths or bleeding; etc; Lyches were a regular use to relieve many ailments, to cause the blood to collagulate and swelling to go down, and this may have actually have had some benefit as it was revealled on a programme recently that it has been used in modern hospitals to help with some wounds that are infected and to relieve swelling and draw out infection.

    I have a macarbe but interesting collection of books on the history of plagues and disease as a result of this long term interest and find the entire thing fascinating, even though I most certainly would not have liked to have lived in those times; at least not without a healthy knowledge of herbs and healing. Most of the above could kill and would either do so quickly or if not would cause a life time of suffering, later followed by a terrible and premature death. Even if you survived most of them; like smallpox, you carried the scares for life, and leprasy of course is so terrible and contageous that you are social outcasts, even today in areas where it still exists. It is frightening to think that most of these can also be manufactured in a modern lab and let loose as a bio agent or weapon onto the general public, with no known cure. Even though we have a cure and an innocuation against smallpox: the last known strain is in a la in Geneva; and if it was stolen and manipulated, or engineered; it could be let out into the air and a new strain borne; one for which there would be no natural cure. We may have modern medicines, but there is plenty of stuff still out there, and plenty of new plagues and bio agents that are being genetically engineered and exist in labs that we do not have any cure for. We may have officially gotten rid of some plagues years ago; but if one did appear in a modern city today; it would spread like wildfire and we would have a pandemic on our hands within days. We may have the means to fight most things; but no-one can fight the unknown; nore do we really know how to fight things that we lost knowldge about years ago; and which our bodies do not have active anti-bodies to destroy.

    We still need to look at natural cures to find ways to combat things that we have forgotten about and to rebuild natural immune systems; and it is an amazing fact that natural immunity may have saved at least 30% of our ancestors from the plagues that could have killed everyone otherwise. The programme on A Time Travellers Guide to Elizabethan England made the terrifying point that if we went back to the Tudor time we would not survive many of the ailments like influenza, and that we have seen nothing as horrible as that disease in modern times. The people of that time obviously built up some resistence to allow many of the population to live in a time that medication was useless; just as we have to build our own antibodies or find a way to produce them with the serum from survivors of plagues today. Modern or ancient; we all have our own variations of deadly disease and not even our modern hospitals can protect us from everything.

    1. I was watching a documentary a couple of weeks ago about illness in the middle ages, and leprosy doesn’t seem to have been such a cause of isolation as historians previously thought.

      There were specialist leper hospitals in medieval England, and the lepers who lived there were treated pretty well by contemporary standards – they had a warm place to stay, with food and clothes provided, and they were often allowed to go out. But there were also lepers who lived in the community: a skeleton of a middle-aged woman found in York was examined and found to show symptoms of leprosy but she was buried in the ordinary graveyard and there was some documentary evidence to show that she had lived a relatively normal life. People seemed to understand that leprosy isn’t that contagious, nor is it fatal, although sufferers are more vulnerable to other diseases.

      This comparatively enlightened attitude seems to have continued well through Tudor times, and it was only in early nineteenth century that lepers began to be totally isolated and sent to remote places where they were often treated harshly.

      1. Am I right in thinking, Jillian, that there are 2 types of leprosy, one type not being contagious? If that’s true may be they knew the difference and that’s why they were allowed to live in the community and be buried in the ordinary graveyard…just an idea.

        1. In the Bible, there are apparently descriptions of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ leprosy, the former being what is now called vitiligo.

          Some of those classed as lepers in Tudor times may have been suffering from other types of skin disease, such as psoriasis or fungal infections. However, the skeleton buried in York showed lesions caused by actual leprosy.

          One of the reasons that lepers were treated more harshly in the nineteenth century is that the incidence of the disease increased in Europe: it is thought that it was caused by more people visiting western India, where leprosy was quite common.

        2. Thanks for that Jillian.
          Yes I can understand how they would think other skin related infections/diseases could have been thought to have been leprosy. I have contact dermatitis really bad on my hands and practically have to wear gloves for everything I do, latex free as I’m allergic to that too, can’t use anything with additives to wash/shower all has to come from the Doc’s, no biological wash powers,and have to be very careful if I wear make up. Luckily I hardly get it else were else if I stick to these things.
          When my hands do flare up they look horrendous especially if they become infected and start to split open and weep.
          Think I defiantly would have been classed as ‘unclean’ in those days.

  9. I wonder how much Tudor nutrition contributed to the death rate from these diseases; people with better nutrition can resist disease better. Also, glad that you are on the mend, Claire.

  10. I recent read somewhere that Henry The VIII was so frightened of catching something that he would have a stone mason brick him into his lodgings for the night.Of course it’s probably false but I am aware of his obsession with germs so who could really blame him if he really did it?

  11. It’s a fascinating subject this. And how times have changed in the knowledge from then to now, but even with the advance of medical science I doubt we will ever conquer all. Nature dictates at the end of the day, we find a cure for one thing, and up comes something else. We are vaccinated for flu, but if it mutates into another strain we are still at risk of getting the infection. We are put into a supposedly clean/sterile environment of a hospital, but they breed ‘super bugs’ and deaths occur.

    I personally think perhaps in some cases, we have become too clean and sterile in our own homes/enviroments, to the degree we become less immune, opening us up to all sorts of illnesses that shouldn’t really affect us anymore, don’t get me wrong I love a clean house, but all those house-hold cleaning products that kill 99% of germs, being told our washing isn’t clean when it comes out the machine, and to add this ‘new’ liquid that kills bacteria that’s still hanging on there, goodness me we might as well live in a plastic bubble if we ‘need’ to be that clean, my granny used to say ‘a bit of muck won’t do you no harm’, I think she’s right.
    The ‘over use’ of anti-biotic has had a counter productive effect on us as humans, to a level where they aren’t working any more and we are becoming allergic to them, there are 2 in my family of 4…and my liver ended up being ‘poorly’ this year from taking a high dose of them for a chest infection.

    But after all that rant.. 🙂 I would still would prefer being ill now than then, we are very lucky, those of us who benefit from modern medicine.
    Humans will always have medical battles to fight no matter how advanced we become, and I honestly think these will become more prevalent with the growth in population.

    1. I was just thinking this today. I am sick today and managed to crawl to the doctor this afternoon. Diagnosis virus. I asked what medicine and doctor said if bacterial antibiotics would cure but as viral nothing could be done..just ride it out. In 500+ years absolutely no advancement in treatment of viruses is pretty scary.

    2. I was just thinking this today. I am sick today and managed to crawl to the doctor this afternoon. Diagnosis virus. I asked what medicine and doctor said if bacterial antibiotics would cure but as viral nothing could be done..just ride it out. In 500+ years absolutely no advancement in treatment of viruses is pretty scary.

      I always say that (before I took biologics ) if I lived during the leprosy times of Molokai or Tudor times I would have been shipped off to the leprosy island in Hawaii or treated as a leper outcast. A bad breakout of psoriasis can resemble leprosy!

  12. I just want to add typhus to the list.I think though I have only heard of one outbreak in Tudor times but there might have been more.Typhus is not typhoid fever which was a different type of bacteria.

        1. Cholera was known as the bloody flux in the Tudor era. Wolsey is said to have died from it in one report.

        2. There was an erratum in my previous post. What I meant to say was that dysentery was called the bloody flux, but the symptoms of cholera are not dissimilar and it’s doubtful that the Tudor doctors would have discerned the difference.

    1. I think typhus used to be called “prison fever” as that was where it was most often found. It would spread outside, of course, but they apparently blamed the prisons as the source of it. Not surprising.

  13. I cannot imagine the horror of living in a house where your family is dying one by one of an illness such as the sweating sickness. I remember being very sick at age 3; I was at my Grandfathers farm which at the time (1953) was several hours from adequate medical care. The nearest doctor took an hour to get to me. He immediately diagnosed me as having polio and told my Dad to take me to the hospital 4 hours away as fast as he could drive. The doctor called the state patrol and they found us on the highway and gave us an escort to the hospital; Dad said he went almost 100 mph the entire way. It’s a miracle I not only lived but had few lasting problems; no paralyses and no withering of limbs. It took almost 4 years to completely recover. Ironically just 6 weeks after I contracted the disease, the first vaccine was distributed to hospitals and doctors to begin immunization that eventually eradicated polio in most of the world. I tell this story because we now have a problem with polio returning because some parents are not having their children vaccinated claiming it’s too dangerous. Problems occur one in millions from any vaccinations and the odds are so great this cannot be used as an excuse. The more children who are not vaccinated, the more who will contract polio, whooping cough, diphtheria, measles, chicken pox and many other diseases whose death rates are much higher than death by immunization. If any parents are considering not vaccinating I urge them to do the research themselves and find out why it is so dangerous to ignore vaccinations. Don’t buy into a fad because a friend has; do the research and find the truth for yourselves. Let’s not go back to Tudor times where childhood mortality was so high every parent expected to lose children. As you can tell, I am very passionate about this; I step on my soap box about it every chance I get!

    1. I whole-heartedly agree with you on that one Shoshanna, no medical treatment is without risk even in this age of medical and scientific knowhow, this includes immunisation. There has been a lot of scare mongering done by the media in the past, that is in my opinion more to do with sensationalising, monetary gain and viewing ratings, than actual concern.
      As you say the danger of the disease is far higher than an adverse effect of an immunisation programme. The population of our world is many, many times greater than it has ever been, plus our ability to travel to any part of the world in hours, common sense shows that if these illness became prevalent again they would spread quicker and claim vast amounts, many more than in times past of casualties. They could be extremely lucky as you were Shoshanna and make a full recover, but many could be left with permanent damage, and at the very worst die.
      We haven’t progressed in this area for us to start reverting back to the dark ages.
      So is there room for me on your soap box Shoshanna? 🙂

      1. Sorry there Shoshanna, it sounded like I under mined your recovery there by not taking into consideration it took you 4 years, I assure you that wasn’t my intension at all, it was bad phasing. I do apologise again, though that does underline what you were saying, even though you did recover, the time it took was so long, and it must have taken a great toll on you and your family.

  14. I have often wondered at the “dropsy” illness which denied Elizabeth I her whole life. It is noted that it was fluid retention and severe swelling of the soft tissue. I have a rare blood disorder known as Hereditary Angioedema” wherein the C1 and C4 blood complements either do not exist or, if they do, they do not function properly. The symptoms of this blood disorder exactly match those described as what Queen Elizabeth I suffered. Just a thought.

    1. That should not say “denied”. I think I was trying to say “suffered by”. Don’t know how spell check got “denied” out of that! Lol

  15. Its very scary that right now we are in the same boat as our Tudor ancestors. We are having a frontline battle against a new mutation of a virus and its a nasty little horror which is killing people. The NHS have a real battle on their hands and all that can be done is isolation and helping people to breathe. Otherwise its battle it out at home. We are all under lockdown and many similar restrictions would have been attempted back then as well. Henry Viii himself had to self isolate and lost friends and servants. Mary Boleyn was widowed by the Sweat of 1528 and Anne was very ill. For all of our technology we are not so much more advanced when something new comes along.

    1. I was just thinking the same thing. And we are as unprepared to deal with a pandemic as those in the Tudor era were.

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