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.


The Time Traveller’s Guide To Medieval England: A Handbook For Visitors To The 14th Century

The Time Travellers Guide To Medieval England By Ian Mortimer

The Time Travellers Guide To Medieval England By Ian Mortimer

Author: Ian Mortimer

This book is a true masterpiece that allows people to experience the past as living history in all its vivid glory. Mortimer takes us through an industry free landscape furnished with heraldic knights, pitiful peasants and melancholic monks. The author puts across complex processes such as the feudal system with simplistic language allowing readers of all abilities to comprehend such processes. There is a thread of humour running throughout the pages of this book, that makes it truly a joy to read. Perhaps the part that made me giggle most was the twisted meaning quite apart from chivalry, of the phrase ”women and children first’ used in such a way as to describe the quickest way to lighten a sinking ship. Mortimers approach allows people to see the facts not merely as cold statistics but personified, clothed is flesh and bone, as real people! We can only assume at the hours upon hours the author has spent in dusty archives searching for the personal experiences of medieval people, so that we are no longer distanced from the past. Most people have heard of the terrible disease that is leprosy and how it putrefies and deforms a person, but when we hear that in Medieval England people with the disease were forcibly excluded from society and treated with open hostility wherever they wandered, we as readers feel we know them and feel such pity for their plight. But Mortimer goes one step further actually naming a sufferer of the ‘living death’ London baker, John Mayn who refused to leave the city when ordered to do so by the mayor in 1372, and its no surprise he refused asked to leave his home, possessions and livelihood.

‘Amazing’ – Alison Weir

It is indeed a marvel that Mortimer has managed to scavenge such imagery from the eddies of time, particularly when you consider the lack of official documents to provide backbone to his gripping narratives. Though it is perhaps unsurprising when you take into account the rich resource of literature from the period. Namely William Langland and Geoffrey Chaucer, both their masterpieces adding rich texture and perspective of Medieval England with their richly detailed characters portraying a diverse range of echelons. Throughout the text second person and present tense is used making the reader truly a part of living history so that you are the one fearing for your life when the black death spreads rampantly through the country and you are the one seated in the place of honour in the main hall of a noble household. Everyday life is described with great zeal from peasants pottage to the meat-rich diets of nobles and kings. However beware this jovial journey is seldom peaceful, your life is not your own if you are below the rank of tradesman and especially not if you are a woman. As you walk down the muddied streets of Medieval England, know that you are constantly watched, because although sparsely populated there is no shortage of travelers keeping pace with you, whether they be on pilgrimage or simply journeying to trade.

‘After The Canterbury Tales this has to be the most entertaining book ever written about the Middle Ages’ – Sue Arnold Guardian

There is many an insightful gem of advice making this a valuable travel guide, of particular interest to me was the ‘Ten places to see in London’ from the marvel that is London Bridge to the solemnity of the permanent gallows at Tyburn. Each chapter within this archive of a book has a specific purpose, the chapter on Medieval Character allows you to know those you travel with better and understand both the injustice and the beauty of medieval society. In the Medieval world ‘a streak of violence runs through the whole population’, so beware!

Though we are then assailed by sentimentality with ‘The Warrior’s Love Of Flowers’, so you see there is more to the medieval people than violent humour and brutality, they were as multi faceted as we are today and we have them entirely misunderstood. A hero’s tale told alongside that of a thief’s, a knight’s alongside that of a fair maiden’s and a medieval world we adore, it could almost be fiction… but its not, its HISTORY!

In short, read the book!

CaseStudy 1: Elizabeth’s Smallpox

Elizabeth 1

Queen Elizabeth 1 in her coronation robes. Painted by an unknown artist, c. 1600.

On the 10th of October in the year 1562 the queen of England Elizabeth 1 fell gravely ill. At the age of 29 the queen had contracted the smallpox in one of the worst outbreaks in England in her reign, this sent her counsellors into a flurry and the queen was practically begged to name a successor. To us in the modern world where smallpox has been eradicated this reaction may seem extreme, but with a 30% mortality rate Elizabeth’s counsellors had ample reason to worry. The queen was taken ill at Hampton Court Palace with what was originally thought to be a bad cold, however this early symptom quickly developed into a severe fever and the verdict was clear, smallpox.

The only known prevention that was used against smallpox during this period was prayer and pious living, no surprise then that many died and those that survived were often blinded. The disease was particularly dangerous for infants. Infant mortality rates ranging as high as 90% this is one reason why infants were baptised early. Smallpox displays a number of symptoms including aches, nausea, a high fever and most notable of all a blistering rash containing puss, the rash first appears on the face, hands and feet then quickly spreads throughout the rest of the body. If the patient survived for twelve days they generally lived, though more often than not suffered horrific scarring.

Variola Virus

The Variola (Smallpox) Virus

For many ordinary people there was no cure for smallpox. However Elizabeth 1 was subjected to the most up to date treatment by her physicians, the red treatment. Elizabeth was wrapped in a red blanket the theory being that the red light cast by the material was able to weaken the symptoms or even completely cure the smallpox. This rather outlandish cure was first suggested in Europe by Gilbertus Anglicus in his medical text Compedium Medicinae. Fortunately Elizabeth recovered with what was reported to be only minor scarring, though it is thought that this caused her to wear a thick layer of lead paint to hide the scars for the rest of her life.

A more usual outcome of smallpox is evidenced in the case of Lady Mary Sidney a lady-in-waiting to the queen, who helped attend the queen during her illness and consequently contracted the disease herself. Although Mary too survived she was badly scarred, Sir Henry her husband described the outcome of her illness in a manuscript describing his service to the crown (Memoir of Services), written in 1583.

“When I went to Newhaven [Le Havre] I lefte her a full faire Ladye in myne eye at least the fayerest, and when I retorned I found her as fowle a ladie as the smale pox could make her, which she did take by contynuall attendance of her majesties most precious person (sicke of the same disease) the skarres of which (to her resolute discomforte) ever syns hath don and doth remayne in her face, so as she lyveth solitairilie sicut Nicticorax in domicilio suo [like a night-raven in the house] more to my charge then if we had boorded together as we did before that evill accident happened.”

So bad was the scarring that Mary remained a recluse separating herself from her family and did not attend court as frequently, it is perhaps because of this seclusion that a myth developed stating that she wore a mask for the rest of her life. As to the queens reaction to the disease we have little knowledge except to say she wore a wig and painted her face with lead paint. There is record of one incident in 1599 when the queen was 66, where the queen’s ‘favourite’ Robert Devereux (2nd earl of Essex) entered her chamber at Nonsuch Palace before she had hidden her scars beneath a thick layer of lead paint. Understandably, she was most upset with him and had him confined to his chamber with the comment ‘an unruly beast must be stopped of his provender’ (his confinement was also due to the fact that the queen had expressly forbidden his return to court). Her displeasure at him may have partly caused his rebellion in 1601.

Lady Sidney

Lady Mary Sidney, lady-in-waiting to Elizabeth 1. Attributed to Hans Eworth, c. 1550-1555

Thankfully the queen survived to reign over what is even now known as the ‘Golden Age’ of English history.

The whole populace rejoiced at Elizabeth’s recovery from the smallpox and coins were struck to celebrate her survival.

Commemorative Coin

A commemorative coin celebrating the queens recovery from the dreaded smallpox.

But what if she hadn’t survived? What if there was no ‘Golden Age’?

When the queen died on the 28th of April 1603, she was laid to rest at Westminster Abbey, a life-like effigy adorning her tomb. John Stow a historian who was in attendance recorded that:

“Westminster was surcharged with multitudes of all sorts of people in their streets, houses, windows, leads and gutters, that came to see the obsequy, and when they beheld her statue lying upon the coffin, there was such a general sighing, groaning and weeping as the like hath not been seen or known in the memory of man, neither doth any history mention any people, time or state to make like lamentation for the death of their sovereign”

Elizabeth was a remarkable queen and her reign will forever be remembered as a ‘Golden Age’ of English history.