The Sweating Sickness: Self Isolation in Tudor Times

Anne Boleyn Portrait
April 15 2020 | Castle

Self Isolation in Tudor Times

The Sweating Sickness: What It Can Teach Us

In the summer of 1485, the first outbreak of a strange new illness swept through England in what was the be the first of several ‘waves’ over the next seventy years.

It was known as the ‘Sweating Sickness’ or more simply, the ‘Sweat’ due to a variety of symptoms that culminated in a long feverish phase, although it was also characterised by aches and pains, chills, vomiting, shortness of breath and chest pains. More frighteningly still, death often occurred within 24 hours and according to reports, sometimes within just 2.

The 1485 outbreak killed 15,000 Londoners within 6 weeks out of an estimated population of 50,000 and caused Henry Tudor – who had recently been crowned Henry VII on the battlefield at Bosworth – to postpone his coronation for fear of catching the dreaded disease himself.
This first wave lasted until October of the same year, then disappeared as quickly as it had arrived before reappearing in 1507, 1517 and then – much more seriously – in 1528.

By this time, King Henry VIII was on the throne. He was still married to his first wife Catherine of Aragon, whom he had wed in 1509, but with no son and heir to his name he had started to cast his affections wider. Whereupon they had infamously landed on Anne Boleyn, sometime in around 1526.
Much like his father before him, the Sweating Sickness sent Henry VIII into a spin, so much so that he promptly quit London and took off for the sweeter, safer air of the country in the hopes of lessening his exposure to the disease.

Which worked.

Anne Boleyn however, was not so lucky and began displaying symptoms of the illness while in similar ‘self-isolation’ at Hever Castle. Henry at once dispatched William Butts – his second best physician – to attend to her and fortunately for Anne and history as we know it, she managed to pull through.

Others were not lucky, including William Carey, husband to her sister Mary Boleyn. Nor were people immune after one bout of it. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey for example survived several encounters with The Sweat, which makes him very fortunate indeed, since in some areas, the mortality rate was as high as 50%.

Following the 1528 outbreak, the Sweating Sickness returned one last time in 1551, before disappearing for good. Which leaves historians and scientists alike with one very important question.

What exactly was the Sweat?

The short answer to this question is that even today, we do not know and indeed nor may we ever know, although the symptoms recorded at the time point to several possibilities; namely anthrax poisoning as a result of contaminated wool, or some type of hantavirus spread by rodent faeces, even though neither of these account for the seeming person-to-person spread that seems to have happened.

History therefore cannot tell us everything. But it can give us clues of what to expect, or perhaps, even hope for in light of the current situation. Primarily that coronavirus may disappear just as quickly as it started and that in spite of the Sweat, the vast majority of the Tudor population lived, loved, thrived and survived even without any type of protective measure, or without the hope for a cure. Which puts us lucky folks in the 21st century – with our medical advances, social distancing policies, internet and hygiene regimens – in a pretty good place to successfully weather the coming months.