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Sweating sickness

sweating sickness, sweating sickness epidemic
Sweating sickness, also known as "English sweating sickness" or "English sweate" Latin: sudor anglicus, was a mysterious and highly 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 dramatic and sudden, with death often occurring within hours Though its cause remains unknown, it has been suggested that an unknown species of hantavirus was responsible for the outbreak1


  • 1 Characteristics
  • 2 Cause
  • 3 Epidemiology
    • 31 15th century
    • 32 16th century
    • 33 Final outbreak
  • 4 Picardy sweat
  • 5 Popular culture
  • 6 Notes
  • 7 References
  • 8 Further reading
  • 9 External links


The disease tended to occur in summer and early autumn The symptoms and signs as described by physician John Caius and others were as follows: The disease 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 After the cold stage, which might last from half an hour to three hours, the hot and sweating stage followed The characteristic sweat broke out suddenly without any obvious cause Accompanying the sweat, or after was a sense of heat, headache, delirium, rapid pulse, and intense thirst Palpitation and pain in the heart were frequent symptoms No skin eruptions were noted by observers including Caius 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 offer immunity, and some people suffered several bouts before dying1


The cause is the most mysterious aspect of the disease Commentators then and now put much blame on the generally poor sanitation, sewage and contaminated water supplies of the time, which might have harboured the source of infection The first outbreak at the end of the Wars of the Roses means that it may have been brought over from France by the French mercenaries whom Henry VII used to gain the English throne However, 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 Bosworth1

Relapsing fever has been proposed as a possible cause This disease, which is spread by ticks and lice, 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

Noting symptom overlap with hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, several scientists proposed an unknown hantavirus as the cause123 A critique of this hypothesis included the argument that, whereas sweating sickness was thought to be transmitted from human to human, hantaviruses are not known to spread in this way4 However, infection via human-to-human contact has been proven in hantavirus outbreaks in Argentina5


Arthur, Prince of Wales, who may have died of the sweating sickness in 1502 Henry Brandon, 2nd Duke of Suffolk who in 1551 died of the sweating sickness hours before his brother Charles Brandon, 3rd Duke of Suffolk Charles Brandon, 3rd Duke of Suffolk died due to the sweating sickness

15th centuryedit

Sweating sickness first came to the attention of physicians at the beginning of the reign of Henry VII There is no known definitive statement that the sickness was present in troops landing at Milford Haven Soon after the Battle of Bosworth, Henry arrived in London on 28 August, where the disease first broke out on 19 September 14856 There, it killed several thousand people by its conclusion in late October that year7 Among those killed were two lord mayors, six aldermen, and three sheriffs8

This alarming malady soon became known as the sweating sickness It was regarded as being quite distinct from the plague, the pestilential fever or other epidemics previously known, not only by the special symptom that gave it its name, but also by its extremely rapid and fatal course

The sweating sickness reached Ireland in 1492, when the Annals of Ulster record the death of James Fleming, Baron of Slane from the pláigh allais, newly come to Ireland9 The Annals of Connacht also record this obituary,10 and the Annals of the Four Masters record "an unusual plague in Meath…" of 24 hours' duration;11 and any one who survived it beyond that period recovered It did not attack infants or little children However, Freeman in his footnote to the Annals of Connacht denies that this "plague" was the sweating sickness, despite the similarity of the names He thought it to be "Relapsing or Famine Fever"—possibly typhus

16th centuryedit

Title of a publication in Marburg, 1529, about the English Sweating sickness

From 1492 to 1502, nothing was recorded of the ailment It may have been the condition that afflicted the young 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"1213 Other possibilities that have been suggested include tuberculosis "consumption",14 plague,15 and influenza16

In 2002, Arthur's tomb was opened, but experts could not determine the exact cause of death; a genetic ailment which also affected Arthur's nephew, Edward VI, was mentioned as a possible cause being investigated17 While Catherine recovered, Arthur died on 2 April 1502 in his home at Ludlow Castle, six months short of his sixteenth birthday18

In 1507, a second, less widespread outbreak occurred, followed in 1517 by a third and much more severe epidemic, when it also spread to Calais6 In Oxford and Cambridge it was frequently fatal, as well as in other towns, where in some cases half the population are said to have perished

In 1528, the disease reached epidemic proportions for the fourth time and with great severity It first broke out in London at the end of May and speedily spread over the whole of England, save for the far north It did not spread to Scotland, though it did reach Ireland, where the Lord Chancellor, Hugh Inge, was the most prominent victim19 In London the mortality was very great; the court was broken up, and Henry VIII left London, frequently changing his residence

It suddenly appeared in Hamburg, spreading so rapidly that in a few weeks, more than a thousand people died The sickness swept through eastern Europe as an epidemic causing high mortality rates It arrived in Switzerland in December, 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 what is now France except in the Pale of Calais, which was controlled by England at the time or Italy It also emerged in Flanders and the Netherlands,6 probably transmitted directly from England by travellers, as it appeared simultaneously in the cities of Antwerp and Amsterdam on the morning of 27 September In each place it infected, it prevailed for a short time, generally not more than a fortnight

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

Final outbreakedit

The last major outbreak of the disease occurred in England in 155120 An eminent physician, John Caius, wrote an eyewitness account of the disease at this time called A Boke or Counseill Against the Disease Commonly Called the Sweate, or Sweatyng Sicknesse

Reference is made in 1551 to an outbreak in the Halifax Parish resulting in the deaths of 44 persons21

There was an outbreak in Tiverton, Devon in 1644 recorded in Martin Dunsford's History as leading to the deaths of 443 people, 105 of them being buried in the month of October22

Picardy sweatedit

A similar illness, known as the Picardy sweat, occurred in France between 1718 and 191823 Llywelyn Roberts noted "a great similarity between the two diseases"6 It was accompanied by a rash, which was not described as a feature of the earlier outbreaks However, Henry Tidy argued that John Caius' report applies to fulminant cases fatal within a few hours, in which type no eruption may develop A 1906 outbreak of Picardy sweat that struck 6,000 people was studied by a commission led by bacteriologist André Chantemesse and attributed infection to the fleas of field mice Henry Tidy found "no substantial reason to doubt the identity of sudor anglicus and Picardy sweat"124

Popular cultureedit

The 1528 outbreak is depicted in the 2007 episode of The Tudors titled "Message to the Emperor" William Compton is killed by the disease and both Anne Boleyn and Cardinal Wolsey are stricken In Season 1, Episode 5, Henry FitzRoy, 1st Duke of Richmond and Somerset, the king's officially recognized, illegitimate son dies of "The Sweat" at about 3–5 years old The real Henry FitzRoy died about one month after his seventeenth birthday, probably of tuberculosis In Season 1, Episode 7, a physician tries to treat a mortally afflicted Compton by puncturing his back and bleeding him, on the rumor that it has worked for some by releasing "the toxin" The real William Compton indeed died of sweating sickness, at age 46

A small outbreak in 1527 kills Liz, the wife of Thomas Cromwell, Cardinal Wolsey's advisor, in Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall In 1529, the disease also claims the lives of Cromwell's daughters Grace and Anne In the first episode of the 2015 television adaptation of the novel, Wolf Hall, which was originally broadcast on BBC Two, all three die on the same day25

Sweating sickness is also featured in the British television series Merlin The illness historically did not appear until many centuries after any of the supposed dates for King Arthur's reign, and none of the legends surrounding him discuss plague outbreaks

Philippa Gregory's 2005 historical fiction novel The Constant Princess features the sweating sickness; although her depiction seems to indicate that Catherine of Aragon was kept away from Prince Arthur so she would not catch it


  1. ^ a b c d e Heyman P, Simons L, Cochez C Were the English Sweating Sickness and the Picardy Sweat Caused by Hantaviruses Viruses 2014;61:151–171 doi:103390/v6010151
  2. ^ Thwaites, G; Taviner, M; Gant, V 1997 "The English sweating sickness, 1485 to 1551" The New England Journal of Medicine 336 8: 580–2 doi:101056/NEJM199702203360812 PMID 9023099 
  3. ^ Taviner, M; Thwaites, G; Gant, V 1998 "The English sweating sickness, 1485-1551: A viral pulmonary disease" Medical History 42 1: 96–98 doi:101017/S0025727300063365 PMC 1043971 PMID 9536626 
  4. ^ Bridson, Eric 2001 "English 'sweate' Sudor Anglicus and Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, The" British Journal of Biomedical Science 
  5. ^ Padula, P; Edelstein, A; Miguel, SD; López, NM; Rossi, CM; Rabinovich, RD February 15, 1998 "Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome outbreak in Argentina: molecular evidence for person-to-person transmission of Andes virus" Virology London: Elsevier 241 2: 323–330 doi:101006/viro19978976 PMID 9499807 
  6. ^ a b c d Roberts, L 1945 "Sweating Sickness and Picardy Sweat" British Medical Journal 2 4414: 196 doi:101136/bmj24414196 PMC 2059547 
  7. ^ Entick, John 1766 A new and accurate history and survey of London, Westminster, Southwark, and places adjacent London pp 434, vol 1 
  8. ^ Harrison, Walter 1775 A new and universal history, description and survey of the cities of London and Westminster, the borough of Southwark London p 127 
  9. ^ Annals of Ulster voliii, ed B MacCarthy, Dublin, 1895, pp 358f
  10. ^ Annals of Connacht ed A M Freeman, Dublin, 1944, pp 594f
  11. ^ Annals of the Four Masters voliii, ed J O'Donovan, Dublin, 1856, pp 1194f
  12. ^ Weir, Alison 2007 The Six Wives of Henry VIII New York: Grove Press p 37 ISBN 0-8021-3683-4 
  13. ^ Hibbert, Christopher 2010 The Virgin Queen: A Personal History of Elizabeth I New York: Viking Press p 4 ISBN 978-1-84885-555-7 
  14. ^ Whitelock, Anna 2010 Mary Tudor: England's First Queen London: Bloomsbury Publishing p 14 ISBN 978-1-4088-0078-2 
  15. ^ Tatton-Brown, TWT; Mortimer, Richard 2003 Westminster Abbey: The Lady Chapel of Henry VII Woodbridge: Boydell Press p 286 ISBN 1-84383-037-X 
  16. ^ Barber, Chris; Pykitt, David 1997 Journey to Avalon: The Final Discovery of King Arthur York Beach, ME: Weiser Books p 269 ISBN 1-57863-024-X 
  17. ^ Derbyshire, David 20 May 2002 "Discovery of grave may solve mystery death of Henry VIII's brother at 15" The Telegraph telegraphcouk Retrieved 31 December 2015 
  18. ^ Ives, Eric 2007 Henry VIII Oxford: Oxford University Press p 1 ISBN 978-0-19-921759-5 
  19. ^ Ball, F Elrington September 2005 First published 1926 The Judges in Ireland, 1221–1921 The Lawbook Exchange pp 117– ISBN 978-1-58477-428-0 Retrieved 5 May 2011 
  20. ^ Hunter, Paul R, "The English Sweating Sickness, with Particular Reference to the 1551 Outbreak in Chester", Reviews of Infectious Diseases Vol 13, No 2 Mar - Apr, 1991, pp 303-306
  21. ^ Taylor, D 28 March 1972 "Annals of the Parish of Halifax" Halifax Antiquarian Society: 109 1551 44 persons died of the "sweating Sickness" in the Halifax Parish 
  22. ^ Dunsford, Martin 1836 "Historical memoirs of the town and parish of Tiverton": 36 
  23. ^ Foster, Michael G 1919 "Sweating Sickness in Modern Times" Contributions to Medical & Biological Research 1 New York: Paul B Hoeber pp 52–3 – via Internet Archive 
  24. ^ Tidy, Henry, "Sweating Sickness and Picardy Sweat", British Medical Journal, Vol24110, pp63-64, July 14, 1945
  25. ^ "Tudor Tales" The New Yorker Retrieved 26 April 2015 


  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed 1911 "article name needed" Encyclopædia Britannica 11th ed Cambridge University Press 
  • Bridgett, Thomas Edward 1904 Life and Writings of Blessed Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England and Martyr Under Henry VIII Original from the University of Wisconsin – Madison p 74 

Further readingedit

  • John L Flood, ‘Englischer Schweiß und deutscher Fleiß Ein Beitrag zur Buchhandelsgeschichte des 16 Jahrhunderts,’ in The German book in Wolfenbüttel and abroad Studies presented to Ulrich Kopp in his retirement, ed William A Kelly & Jürgen Beyer Studies in reading and book culture 1 Tartu: University of Tartu Press, 2014, pp 119–178 German

External linksedit

  • E Bridson – "The English 'sweate' Sudor Anglicus and Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome" in Br J Biomed Sci 2001;581:1–6
  • Sweating Fever Jim Leavesley commemorates the 500th anniversary of the first outbreak – transcript of talk on Ockham's Razor ABC Radio National
  • The Curious Case of the English Sweating Sickness, contains a map of the disease dispersion created and mapped by Kirstyn Pittman from California State University, Chico requires Adobe Flash
  • "The Sweating Sickness Returns", Discover Magazine, 1 June 1997

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