The Sweating sickness

The Sweating sickness

Sweating sickness, also known as English sweating sickness or English sweat, was a mysterious and contagious disease that struck England and later continental Europe in a series of epidemics beginning in 1485. The last outbreak occurred in 1551, after which the disease apparently vanished. The onset of symptoms was sudden, with death often occurring within hours. Its cause remains unknown, though it has been suggested that an unknown species of hantavirus was responsible.

Sweating sickness, also known as English sweating sickness or English sweat, was a mysterious and contagious disease that struck England and later continental Europe in a series of epidemics beginning in 1485. The last outbreak occurred in 1551, after which the disease apparently vanished. The onset of symptoms was sudden, with death often occurring within hours. Its cause remains unknown, though it has been suggested that an unknown species of hantavirus was responsible.

John Caius was a practicing physician in Shrewsbury in 1551 when an outbreak occurred, and he described the symptoms and signs of the disease in A Boke or Counseill Against the Disease Commonly Called the Sweate, or Sweatyng Sicknesse (1552), which is the main historical source of knowledge of the disease.

It began very suddenly with a sense of apprehension, followed by cold shivers (sometimes very violent), giddiness, headache, and severe pains in the neck, shoulders, and limbs, with great exhaustion. The cold stage might last from half an hour to three hours, after which the hot and sweating stage began. The characteristic sweat broke out suddenly without any obvious cause. A sense of heat, headache, delirium, rapid pulse, and intense thirst accompanied the sweat. Palpitation and pain in the heart were frequent symptoms, as well. No skin eruptions were noted by observers. In the final stages, there was either general exhaustion and collapse, or an irresistible urge to sleep, which Caius thought to be fatal if the patient was permitted to give way to it. One attack did not produce immunity, and some people suffered several bouts before dying. The disease tended to occur in summer and early autumn. The cause is the most mysterious aspect of the disease. Commentators then and now put much blame on the sewage, generally poor sanitation and contaminated water supplies of the time, which might have harboured the source of infection. The first outbreak was at the end of the Wars of the Roses, which suggests that it may have been brought over from France by French mercenaries whom Henry VII used to gain the English throne. The Croyland Chronicle mentions that Thomas Stanley, 1st Earl of Derby used the sweating sickness as an excuse not to join with Richard III’s army prior to the Battle of Bosworth. Relapsing fever has been proposed as a possible cause. This disease is spread by ticks and lice, and it occurs most often during the summer months, as did the original sweating sickness. However, relapsing fever is marked by a prominent black scab at the site of the tick bite and a subsequent skin rash. Several researchers have noted that symptoms overlap with hantavirus pulmonary syndrome and have proposed an unknown hantavirus as the cause. A critique of this hypothesis argued that sweating sickness was thought to be transmitted from human to human, whereas hantaviruses are rarely spread that way. However, infection via human contact has been suggested in hantavirus outbreaks in Argentina.

In 2004, microbiologist Edward McSweegan suggested that the disease may have been an outbreak of anthrax poisoning. He hypothesized that the victims could have been infected with anthrax spores present in raw wool or infected animal carcasses, and he suggested exhuming the victims for testing. Sweating sickness first came to the attention of physicians at the beginning of the reign of Henry VII in 1485. There is no definitive statement that the sickness was present in troops landing at Milford Haven. Henry arrived in London on 28 August soon after the Battle of Bosworth, and the disease broke out on 19 September 1485 it had killed several thousand people by its conclusion in late October that year. Among those killed were two lords mayor, six aldermen, and three sheriffs.

This alarming malady soon became known as the sweating sickness. It was regarded as being quite distinct from the Black Death, the pestilential fever, or other epidemics previously known because of the sweating which gave it its name and its extremely rapid and fatal course. people recovered if they survived it beyond that 24-hour period. It did not attack infants or little children.

Nothing was recorded of the ailment from 1492 to 1502. It may have been the condition which afflicted Arthur, Prince of Wales (the elder brother of Henry VIII of England) and his wife Catherine of Aragon in March 1502; their illness was described as “a malign vapour which proceeded from the air”. Other suggestions include tuberculosis (“consumption”), the Black Death, and influenza. Researchers opened Arthur’s tomb in 2002 but could not determine the exact cause of death. One possible cause was a genetic ailment which also affected Arthur’s nephew Edward VI. Catherine recovered, but Arthur died on 2 April 1502 in his home at Ludlow Castle, six months short of his sixteenth birthday.

A less widespread outbreak occurred in 1507, followed by a third and much more severe epidemic later that year which also spread to Calais. It was frequently fatal; half the population perished in some areas. It reached epidemic proportions in 1528 during its fourth outbreak. It first broke out in London at the end of May and speedily spread over the whole of England, save the far north. It did not spread to Scotland, though it did reach Ireland where Lord Chancellor Hugh Inge was the most prominent victim. The mortality rate was very high in London. Henry VIII broke up the court and left London, frequently changing his residence. Anne Boleyn went into quarantine at Hever, the Boleyn family home in the Kent countryside. There, Anne became ill with “the sweat” and Henry dispatched his second-best doctor, William Butts to Anne with a love letter from Henry. Anne Boleyn was one of the lucky ones, she survived sweating sickness, but others, including her brother-in-law, Sir William Carey, and Thomas Cromwell’s wife and daughters, lost their lives to the sickness. Mary Tudor, Queen of France died, age 37, at Westhorpe Hall, Suffolk, on 25 June 1533, having never fully recovered from the sweating sickness she caught in 1528.

The disease suddenly appeared in Hamburg, spreading so rapidly that more than a thousand people died in a few weeks. It swept through eastern Europe as an epidemic causing high mortality rates. It arrived in Switzerland in December 1533, then was carried northwards to Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, and eastwards to Lithuania, Poland, and Russia. Cases of the disease were not known to occur in Italy or France, except in Calais which was controlled by England at the time. It also emerged in Flanders and the Netherlands, possibly transmitted directly from England by travelers; it appeared simultaneously in the cities of Antwerp and Amsterdam on the morning of 27 September 1534.

In each place, it prevailed for a short time, generally not more than two weeks. By the end of the year it had entirely disappeared except in eastern Switzerland, where it lingered into the next year. After this, the disease did not recur on mainland Europe. The last major outbreak of the disease occurred in England in 1551. John Caius wrote A Boke or Counseill Against the Disease Commonly Called the Sweate, or Sweatyng Sicknesse as an eyewitness account.

Henry Machin recorded it in his diary…

Henry Brandon, 2nd Duke of Suffolk died of the sweating sickness in 1551 just hours before his brother Charles. Reference is made in 1551 to an outbreak in the Halifax Parish resulting in the deaths of 44 persons. There was an outbreak in Tiverton, Devon in 1644 recorded in Martin Dunsford’s History which led to the deaths of 443 people, 105 of them buried in the month of October.

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