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What was the English Sweating Sickness?

Life in mediaeval Europe was challenging, to say the least. Peasants were ruled over by tyrannical kings who seized lands and lived lavishly whilst their subjects starved.

Survival for those in the lower classes was brutal, but in the 14th century, the entire landscape of Europe was shaken up. In 1346, murmurs of a new sickness sweeping the continent left the population petrified.

This year marked the beginning of one of the worst outbreaks the world has ever seen. Within a matter of months, the Black Plague had dug its claws into every corner of Europe and Asia. 

A man on his death bed from a 15th century manuscript.

There are three types of plague: Bubonic Plague, characterised by buboes, large lumps on the body; septicemic plague; and Pneumonic Plague, the most deadly type of plague that infects the lungs and respiratory system.

By 1353, between 25 and 50 million people had died as a result of the Black Plague, leaving millions of others maimed and with lifelong conditions.

Just as England was beginning to recover from one of the world’s deadliest outbreaks, another disastrous disease began to rear its ugly head.

In 1485, the War of the Roses came to a dramatic end when King Henry VIII seized the throne. Change was coming for the citizens of Britain, but perhaps not in the way they were expecting.

Shortly after Henry VIII returned to London, people became afflicted with a new and bizarre disease that would later be dubbed ‘The Sweating Sickness’ or ‘The English Sweat’.

The English Sweat 

Those afflicted deteriorated rapidly after being infected, and the first signs of the disease were cold shivers and severe pain in the abdomen, neck and back.

Some patients reported being overtaken by a sense of dread as the hot and cold sweats battled on their bodies. People would begin to vomit and were unable to hold down liquids, leading to accelerated dehydration. 

As the disease progressed, the sweats became more intense as the patient fell into a stupor, wanting nothing more than to sleep the day away.

The sweat produced an offensive odour, thus giving the disease its name. Within days or even hours, at least 50% of those inflicted would die from the disease. 

In 6 weeks, The English Sweat had claimed the lives of at least 15,000 people and left hundreds more in critical condition.

Outbreaks of the disease ebbed and flowed with no apparent cause or reason. Doctors were perplexed by the sweating sickness, not just because of its strange symptoms and lack of cause but because of its victims. 

Traditionally, those who were poorest and living in unsanitary conditions, along with the very young and very old, were the most affected by outbreaks such as The Black Death. But this was different.

The English Sweat seemed to only target the rich and famous. According to one report, the disease killed two sons of the Duke of Suffolk and William Carey, Mary Boleyn’s first husband.

Other Tudor high court officials were affected by the disease but managed to beat the odds and survive. The most high-profile victim was none other than King Henry VIII himself.

Portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger.

In 1528, Henry VIII ordered his staff to prepare an additional bedroom for him. This wasn’t a chamber of fun, in fact, far from it. Henry VIII had this room prepared because his excessive sweating was ruining his marital bed.

Disappearing Into The Ether

Just as mysteriously as it had appeared, the English Sweat suddenly disappeared in 1551. By this point, it had spread to Europe, mainly affecting Germany and France.

This final outbreak claimed the lives of over 1,000 people in the town of Shrewsbury. Out of this disaster came knowledge and expertise that would change the way medicine worked. 

John Kays was a popular physician and scholar during the Tudor period and was considered in high regard by Henry VIII.

After changing his name to Johannus Caius, he published “The Sweating Sickness: A boke or counseill against the disease commonly called the sweate [sic] or sweatyng sicknesse [sic].”

In his text, Johannus laid out the importance of proper sanitation, a proper diet and the need for an all-round healthy lifestyle. 

He also recommended that people stay indoors during outbreaks and isolate themselves if symptoms arose. This information is still presented by doctors to this day and goes a long way in helping the general public combat disease.

Modern scientists and academics have delved into the English Sweat, but even with the aid of modern technology, they have been unable to determine a cause.

Just as the memory of the English Sweat was beginning to fade from the public consciousness, another strange disease took hold of France. The Picardy Sweat was first noticed in the early 1700s, and its symptoms bore an eerie resemblance to the disease that came before it. 

The Picardy Sweat followed the same pattern as the English Sweat, with high fever, pain and heart palpitations, along with severe foul-smelling sweat dripping from every inch of the body.

There was one difference, though, the Picardy Sweat was accompanied by a strange rash that usually disappeared within a week. Thankfully, the mortality rate was much lower than its cousin, the English Sweat. 

Both diseases came and went without reason or rhyme. The last known outbreak of the Picardy Sweat was in 1906.

Numerous research papers and projects have been commissioned to look into both diseases, but nobody has ever been able to come up with an explanation.

Multiple theories exist, from Anthrax poisoning to the disease originating from rodents, but The English Sweat continues to evade modern medicine. 


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