Medicine and physicians – Tudor Tuesdays

Castle, History

Medicine and physicians is the theme for this week’s #TudorTuesdays with Historic Houses.

In these last two years of global pandemic, the strides that have been made in modern medicine have come into focus more sharply than ever before.

But what about pandemics in Tudor times? How did the leadership respond in such times of crisis, and how did it differ from the response today?

In order to answer those questions however, we first need to look at Tudor medicine and physicians as a whole, starting with their understanding of how the human body worked.

Which is where we hit our first stumbling block…

The Dark Ages

Prior to the Romans withdrawing from Europe in the 4th century CE (common era), technological advances were at an all-time high.

Hundreds of miles of roads had been built complete with gutters to prevent any flooding, and pavements for pedestrians to use. An early form of newspaper had been invented. Plumbing and sanitation had been installed in towns and cities. Underfloor heating kept homes warm. Aqueducts brought clean, fresh water down from the hills and mountains, and surgical tools which are still being used in modern medicine were being invented for the very first time. Tools like speculums, forceps, and syringes, which they sterilised in boiling water before treatment, and used in conjunction with powerful pain relief and natural antiseptics, like vinegar.

The only problem? These advancements were made by Romans, and written down in Latin, which the majority of conquered peoples in Europe never even learned to speak, let alone read.

In short therefore, when the Romans retreated, they took their technological and medical knowledge with them too, thus triggering a period of scientific stagnation that was to last for the next 900 years. A period better known as The Dark Ages.

Now, onto the Tudors…

Tudor Healthcare

By the time Europe finally stumbled out of the Dark Ages somewhere around the 14th century, basic understanding of medicine and the human body had actually gone backwards in many regards.

Sterilisation and the use of antiseptics as standard in surgical medicine were out, and the belief that illness was spread by miasma (bad air and smells) was firmly in. Although here at least we see some modern parallels, because the best way to protect oneself from bad air was to hold a sweet-smelling handkerchief to your nose, or in the case of medieval plague doctors, to wear a beaked mask filled with flowers and herbs. Nowadays of course, we know that wearing face coverings helps to protect against respiratory particles, which would also have been the effect of mask wearing in Tudor England, even if the science behind it was misunderstood.

In the event of a Tudor pandemic however, the best option was to head away from the cities to ‘self-isolate’ at your country estate. Provided of course that you actually had a country estate, and even if you did it wouldn’t necessarily protect you, as Anne Boleyn and her father Thomas found out in 1528 when they both fell ill while staying at Hever Castle. The illness in question? The dreaded sweating sickness, a mysterious Tudor ailment resembling the flu that struck five times in a seventy year period and carried with it a 50% mortality rate. In 1485 during the very first outbreak 15,000 people died in six weeks alone, and later resurgences took the lives of many others, including that of William Carey, the first husband of Anne’s sister, Mary Boleyn.


So what were the options for those who did catch the sweating sickness, or typhoid fever, or tuberculosis, or malaria, or the pox? Well, unlike today where we would head to hospital, wealthy Tudors would instead call their private physicians to tend to them at their bedsides, or an apothecary to administer herbs and poultices.

People with less money could employ a barber surgeon, so called because they performed a variety of services, including teeth pulling and amputation, work that the physicians considered to be beneath them.

But what if you couldn’t afford a physician, barber surgeon or an apothecary? If you lived in a village, then you might rely on a local wise woman, but for the homeless and the desperately poor, then a hospital was the only choice left.

Nowadays of course, hospitals are full of trained doctors, specialists, equipment and medicine, but in Tudor times, hospitals had far less scope. Instead of being purpose-built structures, they were usually attached to a pre-existing monastery, and instead of being filled with doctors, patients were tended to by monks who provided care, food, warmth and comfort, but who had limited medical skills.

In times of pandemic however, it was these hospitals that were hardest hit, with the monks and nuns of monastic institutions being disproportionately affected as a direct result of having to care for an influx of infected poor.

In summary therefore, the methods used by the Tudors to guard themselves against pandemics were actually much the same as those we use today, even if they didn’t fully realise the scientific reasons as to why those methods worked.

But the crucial difference between Tudor pandemics and those that we are faced with today, is the increased knowledge we have not just about the human body, but illnesses, how they work and how best to treat them. Modern travel has also brought the wider world closer, meaning that a pandemic which affects one country, is likely to affect many others as well. It is in the best interests of scientists, doctors and governments to work together to help to halt pandemics in their tracks, and so as a result, unlike in Tudor England, everyone can have access to vaccines and care.

If you enjoyed this article on Tudor medicine and physicians why not discover more about Tudor Tuesdays.

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