Sweating Sickness in Tudor England 1485-1551


What Was Sweating Sickness?

Sweating sickness, also known as the Sweate was a highly contagious disease that had notable outbreaks in England during the 15th and 16th centuries. It first emerged in 1485, around the time of the Battle of Bosworth Field. To this day, the exact cause of sweating sickness remains uncertain.

Some historians theorize that it may have been brought to England by mercenaries fighting at the battle while others point to the possibility that it was already in the country citing an outbreak in York in June 1485, two months before the battle. Some theories suggest that it may have been a new strain of a known infectious disease, possibly a type of hantavirus or an unknown type of bacteria, while others propose that it could have been a viral illness.

There were several serious outbreaks of the disease, with the most notable outbreaks occurring in 1507, 1517, and 1528. The disease disappeared as suddenly as it appeared, with the last outbreak occurring in 1551.


Sweating Sickness – Signs and Symptoms

Sweating sickness was characterized by its rapid onset, severity, and the profuse sweating that accompanied its symptoms. 

Tudor Physician, John Caius, practicing in Shrewsbury in the sixteenth century, noted the signs and symptoms of the disease:

  • Outbreaks typically occurred in the Summer and Autumn.
  • It began suddenly, often with a feeling of apprehension.
  • A cold stage (lasting up to 3 hours) with chills, shivering, headache and pain.
  • A hot stage with high temperature, sweating, intense thirst, rapid pulse, heart palpitations.
  • Delirium, extreme exhaustion and collapse.
  • Death or recovery within 24 hours.

It was also noted that fatalities were much higher among the wealthy, the young and inhabitants of monasteries. Professor Paul R Hunter, Professor of Health at East Anglia University, believes this may be because the poor had greater immunity due to being more generally exposed to illnesses than the rich.


Sweating Sickness during the reign of King Henry VII

Sweating Sickness in Tudor England began during the reign of Henry VII
Henry Tudor, King Henry VII


Henry Tudor became King Henry VII on 22nd August 1485, after defeating and killing Richard III during the Battle of Bosworth Field.

The first outbreak of sweating sickness during the reign of King Henry VII occurred in London on 19th September 1485, around a month after the battle. This outbreak lasted about a month and was relatively mild compared to later outbreaks, although deaths still ran into the thousands.

The appearance of this new ‘plague’ coming so soon after Henry VII’s accession led many to believe that it was a punishment from God for Henry Tudor’s killing of Richard III and seizing of the throne.


There was an outbreak of sweating sickness in the West country in March 1502. Around the same time Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon were taken ill with a mysterious disease. Prince Arthur died on 2nd of April 1502, while Catherine survived. The cause and identity of their sickness has never been found but some historians believe it may have been sweating sickness.



The disease re-appeared in 1507 but this outbreak was not widespread.


Sweating Sickness during the reign of King Henry VIII

King Henry VIII
King Henry VIII was terrified of Sweating Sickness

Henry VIII became King following the death of his father on 21st April 1509. After the death of his brother, Arthur in 1502, Henry, now the sole heir to the throne, had been over-protected by his father and shielded from illness. This action led to Henry developing an extreme fear of illness. Throughout his reign, any sign of illness, particularly plague or sweating sickness, would see Henry VIII fleeing the city and secluding himself in the country.

The most notable outbreaks of sweating sickness occurred during the reign of Henry VIII:


Sweating sickness returned with a vengeance in July 1517 and lasted until late Autumn of that year. This outbreak was widespread and is believed to have killed up to a third of the population. It is recorded that in Oxford over 400 people died from the disease in a single week. Cases were also recorded in Calais, which was an English province at the time.

King Henry VIII and the royal court left London for Windsor Castle where they remained until the outbreak passed. Thomas Wolsey, who remained in London to oversee court business, succumbed to the disease but survived. 



Sweating sickness returned to England in late May 1528. This fourth outbreak was the more widespread and deadlier than the previous outbreaks, with some cities reporting 50% mortality. Henry VIII immediately left London and moved the court to Hunsdon in Hertfordshire. The Judge’s Circuit was also abandoned.

In mid June, one of Anne Boleyn’s ladies in waiting was taken ill with sweating sickness. King Henry VIII immediately ordered Anne Boleyn to return to Hever Castle in case she had caught the disease and moved the court to Wolsey’s home at Tittenhanger while Wolsey was sent to Hampton Court to deal with government business.

Anne Boleyn had caught the disease but survived.  Her brother-in-law, William Carey died from sweating sickness on 22nd June 1528.

Thomas More’s daughter, Margaret also survived the disease, however Thomas Cromwell’s wife, Elizabeth and his daughters, Grace and Anne all died from the disease. 

There were no further outbreaks of sweating sickness during the reign of Henry VIII.


Sweating Sickness during the reign of King Edward VI

Prince Edward Tudor
Sweating sickness returned for the last time in 1551

Henry VIII died on 28th January 1547 and his son Edward became King Edward VI.

Sweating sickness returned to England in April 1551 in Shrewsbury. It quickly spread reaching London in early July. On 10th July 1551, King Edward VI and the court left London for Hampton Court. Many people died during this outbreak including the young duke of Suffolk, Henry Brandon and his brother Charles. Thomas Cromwell’s son, Gregory died of the disease on 4th July 1551.

This was the last outbreak of sweating sickness in England.