CaseStudy 2: Anne’s Sweating Sickness

Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn, possibly derived from a lost original of 1533-1536

On the 22nd of June 1528, Anne Boleyn future queen of England fell gravely ill with the sweating sickness, on the same day William Carey, Mary Boleyn’s husband succumbed to the disease.

It was on the 16th June 1528 one of Anne’s ladies in waiting fell ill. Henry VIII fled court in London seeking refuge against the epidemic and along with queen Catherine and Anne Boleyn fled to her family home at Hever. Upon hearing of her sudden illness Henry wrote to his beloved saying he ‘would gladly bear half of your illness to make you well’ and also wrote to reassure her that ‘few women or none have this malady’. At Hever her father Thomas Boleyn also contracted the sweating sickness during the epidemic. The king responded by sending Thomas Butts his second best doctor to treat her, with him Butts carried a letter offering ‘sympathy and support’. In this letter Henry pleaded that Anne ‘be guided by his (Dr Butts) in your illness’ so that she might recover and that would be to the king a ‘greater comfort than all the precious jewels in the world’.

A report from the French ambassador to the English court Du Bellai in 1528 states:

…One of the filles de chambre of Mlle Boleyn was attacked on Tuesday by the sweating sickness. The King left in great haste, and went a dozen miles off…This disease is the easiest in the world to die of. You have a slight pain in the head and at the heart; all at once you begin to sweat. There is no need for a physician: for if you uncover yourself the least in the world, or cover yourself a little too much, you are taken off without languishing. It is true that if you merely put your hand out of bed during the first 24 hours…you become stiff as a poker

Butts succeeded in his treatment of Anne Boleyn and for his effort by December 1528 he had been appointed Royal Physician and received a salary of 100 pounds a year. Henry’s concern for Anne’s life was not misplaced, many towns recorded the deaths of half their population as down to the sweating sickness, the afflicted were not expected to survive and death often came within 24 hours.

The sweating sickness over wise referred to as ‘the sweat’ or the ‘English sweat’ reached epidemic status in England in the years 1485, 1508, 1517, 1528 and 1551. The outbreaks happened again and again but on only a single occasion did the sweating sickness strike outside England. People were seemingly afflicted at random and after the 1500’s the sickness seemed to simply disappear.

Symptoms included shivers, dizziness, headaches, pain in the arms, legs, shoulders and neck, fatigue, exhaustion and ‘a sense of apprehension’. And this last symptom is perhaps the one that scared people most, it effected their emotions and their were cases of people foreseeing  their own deaths. There were stages to the disease the first being shivering, cold stage closely followed by the hot stage including a raging fever. As to the cause of this terrible illness there are various theories such as Hantavirus, poor hygiene and relapsing fever.

Thomas Forestier recorded his observations of the 1485 epidemic in two accounts the first ‘Treatise on the venyms fever of pestilens’ summarizing the virulent disease (in English) and the second account ‘Tractatus contra pestilentiam thenasmonen et dissinteriam’ written to aid his fellow physicians (in Latin). The second of these includes a description of the disease.

… The exterior is calm in this fever, the interior excited… the heat in the pestilent fever many times does not appear excessive to the doctor, nor the heat of the sweat itself particularly high… But it is on account of the ill-natured, fetid, corrupt, putrid, and loathsome vapors close to the regions of the heart and of the lungs whereby the panting of the breath magnifies and increases and restricts of itself…

Henry VIII busied himself with a study of the disease and its possible cures herbs laced with molasses and bleeding from the arm, between the thumb and forefinger or between the shoulders to balance the humours. In the Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland the variety of people most inclined to contract the disease was recorded

It is to be noted, that this mortalitie fell chieflie or rather upon men, and those of the best age as between thirtie and fortie years. Few women, nor children, nor old men died thereof

The disease as evidenced above mainly effected men between the ages of thirty and forty.

Although Anne Boleyn survived this most feared disease she tragically was executed by the man who professed to love her. But she left her mark upon history in a story most children around the world will have heard, she was the woman who changed a countries religion and acted as the catalyst for the reformation. She gave England our greatest queen in the form of her daughter Elizabeth Tudor.

So we conclude that certainly the sweating sickness was terrible, but what WAS the sweating sickness? My hopes rest that within time science or indeed history will provide an answer. In the meantime we don’t know the untold numbers of people who lost there lives to the sickness, but we do know that Anne Boleyn survived the sickness and that her survival wrote English history.


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