Why Henry Vlll Was So Concerned About Sweating Sickness – Juliana Cummings [Write Up]

The post today comes from the lovely Juliana Cummings from The Savage Revolt! Shes provided us here at ATWC a write up about the sweating sickness! Definitely an interesting topic, that was a major part of Henrys life! If you’re interested in checking out Julianas site (which I highly recommend you do), CLICK HERE. Also, give her Facebook page a like!

Why Henry Vlll Was So Concerned About Sweating Sickness


When people think of the 1500s and illness, often the first thing that comes to mind would be the plague. And while the plague was indeed disastrous and wiped out much of the population of Europe at one time, sweating sickness was another type of disease that is sometimes overlooked.  The sweating sickness, also known as the English sweat, because it began primarily in England, was a highly contagious disease that began in 1485 and kept the English Monarch on its feet.

When Henry Vlll inherited the English throne in 1509, he was young and robust at just eighteen years of age.  This was not the overweight, angry king depicted in so many of the portraits we see today. At eighteen, Henry was good looking, tall,  muscular, and the picture of perfect health. While Henry’s brother Arthur had been a sick child and died at a young age, Henry’s childhood was spent relatively healthy. After his brother’s death, Henry was assumed  heir to the throne at ten years of age. His father kept a closefull watch on him and Henry was often kept from engaging in the activities that would prepare him to be a strong king. He spent much of his time away from the public eye as a child. After all, his father had lost his original heir, Arthur. Now Henry Tudor’s “spare” was to ascend  the throne.

So can we assume that perhaps Henry Vlll got his irrational fear of illness from his father?  A king’s job was to protect his throne and ensure that it was passed on to a strong, healthy son who would produce more strong, healthy sons. The Tudor Dynasty was brand new and Henry Vll had to be sure his son was not in any danger before becoming King. But was keeping him more or less safe only building a paranoid successor?

Henry Vlll was not unfamiliar with disease. Although there isn’t much in the way of written documents related to the sweating sickness from 1492 to 1502, experts can not say with certainty that it wasn’t the  sweating sickness that didn’t kill Henry’s brother Arthur. Several theories have been explored, such as tuberculosis or influenza. But it has been described as “something in the air” that killed Arthur and at the time made his wife, Katherine of Aragon,  sick as well. But while Katherine survived, Arthur didn’t. Something took Henry’s brother and perhaps seeing his brother die at such a young age fed into Henry’s fear of disease.

When Henry married his brother’s widow in June of 1509, her first duty was to provide Henry with an heir.  Much to their devastation, her first pregnancy ended in a stillbirth. In December of 1510, little more than nine months later, Katherine delivered a son. Named after his father, Prince Henry was celebrated across the kingdom. But the happiness of the King and Queen was short lived. The baby died at eight weeks of age. By summer of 1514, Katherine suffered two more miscarriages. Henry and Katherine had been married five years and he still had no heir.  He was growing desperate. He was also growing paranoid.

Henry knew that if he were to fall ill and die without an heir, the English throne would face being possibly captured by the rivaling country of France. And by 1517, the sweating sickness had made its third appearance in England and it was getting worse.  This “new” type of sickness was becoming an epidemic and it was fatal.

Sweating sickness was described as a sickness that came at random but seemed to affect the very poor…or the very rich.  It was thought to have possibly been brought to England by mercenaries hired by Henry’s own father during the War of the Roses.  In a time long before modern medicine, physicians had no grasp on how contagious this new illness was. Physician John Caius described it as a disease that began with severe apprehension. Henry was already terrified of getting sick so this “first symptom” must have contributed to his fear.  Other symptoms were described as cold, violent shivering, followed by headache and pain in the limbs. In only a few short hours, sometimes less, the sweating stage began. This was characterized by a dripping sweat, delirium, raised pulse and increased thirst. Victims fell paralyzed by exhaustion and were often dead within twenty four hours.

Queen Katherine finally did deliver a healthy child in February of 1516. But it was a girl. Henry was growing increasingly frustrated with Katherine.  Faced with war and disease and no male heir to the English throne, Henry become obsessed with making sure the Tudor Dynasty lived on. So obsessed that if Queen Katherine couldn’t provide him with a son, he would find someone who would.

When Henry fell in love with Anne Boleyn, the young and beautiful lady in waiting to the Queen, he fell hard. HIs obsession not only with having a male heir grew, but his obsession with Anne grew as well. Anne promised him a son…but only if she became Queen.  By 1526, Henry and Katherine had been married for seventeen years without a son. The following summer Henry told Katherine the marriage was over.

Henry’s courtship with Anne Boleyn was long and drawn out and faced not only the wrath of Queen Katherine, but the wrath of the sweating sickness.  Henry wanted a divorce from Katherine but convincing the Catholic Pope to grant him one wasn’t as easy as he expected. And with Queen Katherine’s nephew Emperor Charles V on her side, The King was fighting an uphill battle.

The King not only had the best physicians in the country but he also had his own prescription book filled with homemade remedies and apothecary. He was always prepared to face any ailment that threatened his reign. In 1522, John Caius published his book on the sweating sickness, which included many observations on preventing the disease. John Caius stressed the importance of vigorous activity, working yourself into a sweat and  drinking homemade concoctions. But was this book only feeding Henry’s fear?

In 1528, the sweating sickness hit England a fourth time and with epic proportions. It broke out in London in May and quickly spread to most of Eastern Europe. Henry quickly sent Queen Katherine away to the country and The King went into hiding, sleeping in a different bed almost every night.  Henry had reason to be fearful. Several members of his court had been stricken but when Henry got word that his sweetheart Anne had fallen ill, it all became too real. Anne was in quarantine at her home, Hever Castle, along with her father and brother who had also caught the disease. Henry had been fighting to make Anne his new Queen, and more importantly the mother of his son, for over two years. If something happened to her, his hopes for an heir would be crushed. Luckily though, Anne was young and strong and survived the sweat. Anne’s brother in law, William Carey, wasn’t so lucky and became another casualty.

It wasn’t until five years later, after banishing Queen Katherine to the country, that Henry finally married his beloved Anne. The already pregnant Anne and Henry were married in a small service. Henry eagerly awaited the birth of his prince. But his longed for son was another girl.

Anne Boleyn never did deliver Henry a son and lost her head as a result. So by 1536,  The Tudor Court had managed to escape any more breakouts of the sweat, but Henry still didn’t have his son. And he wasn’t wasting anymore time in his fight to get one.

On May 30th, 1536, Henry married his third Queen, Jane Seymour, at Whitehall Palace, less than two weeks after the execution of Queen Anne.  When Queen Jane finally delivered Henry his son, Prince Edward, we can imagine that Henry’s obsession for an heir had finally come to rest. But when Queen Jane died several days after childbirth from what was believed to be an infection, Henry was reminded that illness was still very real.

Prince Edward grew up much the same way his father did; out of the public eye and hidden from disease.  Henry’s two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, were not given the same level of importance when it came to their health. Edward was given his own household and Henry took no chances in making sure it was free from disease. The King ordered the walls of Edward’s household cleaned three times a day. Everything handled by the Prince had to be cleaned first and only people of high rank and exceptional cleanliness could come in contact with him.  

So although Henry had his heir, he was still terrified of something ailing him. The Prince did catch a fever of unknown origin around four years of age but  survived. We can assume that the level of cleanliness at the Prince’s household may have helped fend off disease and at the time of Henry’s death in January of 1547, he was left with a healthy ten year old heir to the throne. Henry had died knowing that he had fulfilled his life’s mission;  to carry on the Tudor Dynasty.

Sadly the young King’s reign would be short lived. In July of 1553, Edward died. He had suffered greatly for months from breathing problems and fever and was said to have coughed up yellow and green matter from his lungs. The King grew thin and slowly wasted away, losing his battle with what was probably tuberculosis.  Although it wasn’t the sweating sickness that claimed young Edward’s life, he was still taken by the very thing his father had feared most; sickness.

Looking back on Henry’s struggles to secure the English throne, we can understand why he feared illness and the sweating sickness  the way he did. The sweat was the silent enemy, the one that comes without warning, and with such fierceness that The King was left helpless. The sweat was the enemy that left this warrior King, absolutely powerless. And perhaps his obsession for a male heir was all in vain because it was his daughter, Elizabeth, who would ultimately become the great ruler to carry on Henry’s beloved Tudor Dynasty.

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I'm a lover of all things Tudor, and historical - fiction or fact. My aim is to bring together writers of all calibers to share their work with like minded people!

3 thoughts on “Why Henry Vlll Was So Concerned About Sweating Sickness – Juliana Cummings [Write Up]

  1. The sweating sickness which was so feared by Henry VIII has been so well researched for this article, resulting in very interesting reading. Certainly, the limited medical resources of the day could not have prevented the onset of an epidemic, as vaccination could do today. It is obvious that Henry had become obsessed with avoiding this illness, and others which would have circulated at the time, and he must have been bordering on OCD with his insistence on the three-times-a-day cleaning of his son’s walls. Did this excessive cleaning stave off germs or did it in fact reduce Edward’s immunity, which is why he succumbed to what is believed to been tuberculosis? After all, his daughters were not protected in this way and both lived into adulthood, Elizabeth surviving to become quite an old lady.

    I have learned much from this article and found the pictures added to the verbal descriptions and even though I have a deep interest in history, and the Tudor years in particular, I wouldn’t swap 21st century life for its 16th century counterpart, even on a trial basis – such is the impact of your article, Juliana. Thank you for all the details and for adding to my knowledge. I hope to read more articles by you here on A Tudor Writing Circle.

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