The Sweating Sickness in Tudor London (Edward VI, 1551)

On this day in 1551, the boy-King, Edward VI wrote:

“At this time came the sweat into London, which was more vehement than the old sweat.  For if one took cold he died within 3 hours, and if he escaped it held him but 9 hours, or 10 at the most.  Also if he slept … , as he should be very desirous to do, then he raved, and should die raving”.

The 1551 outbreak  of the sweat, also known as the sweating sickness, “carried off many people both noble and commoners”, as Henry Machyn put it (see also July 6th, 2013 posting).  On July 14th of that year, the disease caused the death of Henry Brandon, the Second Duke  of Suffolk, aged fifteen, and only an hour later that of his younger brother Charles, the  Third Duke, aged thirteen or fourteen, at the Bishop of Lincoln’s Palace near Huntingdon, where they had fled in an unsuccessful attempt to escape the epidemic.

There were notable outbreaks in England in 1485, 1507, 1517 and 1528-9 as well as 1551, after which last date the disease disappeared as suddenly and mysteriously as it had appeared, never to return.  Even at the time, it was recognised as distinct from the other deadly diseases of the time, such as the ague or tertian or quartan fever (malaria) and the plague.  Contemporary descriptions by Edward Hall and the physician Thomas Forestier in 1485, and  by the physician John Kaye or Caius in 1552, chart the symptoms as progressing from a sense of apprehension, through  sometimes violent shivering accompanied by severe aches and pains, to   “a … burnyng sweate … : by the tormentyng and vexacion of which … men were so sore handled … that if they were layed in their bed, being not hable to suffre the importunate heat, they cast away the sheets & all the clothes” and “an insaciable thirst”,  delirium, and eventually, after a matter of hours, either death (“all … after yelded up their ghost”),  or in some cases (“not one emongest an hundreth”) a  gradual but complete recovery.  It is possible that the disease killed Arthur Tudor at Ludlow Castle in 1502, while sparing  his wife, Catherine of Aragon, who went on to marry his brother, by then King Henry VIII, in 1509.

Modern epidemiologists have suggested that the sweating sickness may  have been either Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS) or Pulmonary Anthrax (the latter caused by inhaling spores of the bacterium Bacillus anthracis, perhaps contained in contaminated wool).

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