The English Sweate
“In this same yere a newe kynde of sicknes came sodenly through the whole region euen after the first entryng of the kyng into this Isle, which was so sore, so peynfull, & sharp that the lyke was neuer harde of, to any manes remembrance before that tyme”
—Hall’s Chronicle, Edward Hall, 1542
It feels like new diseases are a modern scourge, what with HIV successfully crossing over to humans from chimps in the early 20th century, Ebola from bats in the 1970s, and SARS from civets in the early 21st. If you want more of them then there’s also less well-known newcomers like Nipah virus and once-famous but now nearly forgotten ones like Legionnaires’ Disease. But while it might be true that new diseases are getting more common, they’re not a new phenomenon. The Roman Empire suffered the Antonine Plague, which was likely the first major appearance of smallpox, while a few hundred years later the Byzantine Empire barely withstood the Plague of Justinian: the first pandemic of bubonic plague, one that was only ever matched by the famous Black Death of the 14th century.
What made the difference in many of these cases was a decrease in travel times. AIDS, for example, only got going once there was quick and common travel between central Africa and the rest of the world. There were multiple cases of the disease back into the 1950s, but the necessary integration between the source and destination for a true outbreak didn’t really happen until the late 1970s—and fortunately so, as the genetic science and technology necessary to understand, fight, and eventually control a retroviral disease was only developed at that time. It doesn’t bear thinking what would have happened if AIDS had taken flight in 1959.
The older “new plagues” got themselves going for similar reasons. Modern outbreaks are depending more and more on fast, technological travel like airplanes, but easy travel in the past could sometimes come for political reasons. The Antonine Plague likely came from the far upstream regions of the Nile, and could do so because the Roman Empire had pacified Egypt and made it part of a large peaceful state with good roads. The Plague of Justinian may have happened when it did, in the sixth century, because the Yersinia pestis bacteria had a permanent hold in Hunan Province and the sixth century was not long after the chaotic Sixteen Kingdoms period ended. China was finally integrated into Asia as a whole, driven by new state support of India’s exported Buddhism and subsequent contacts between the two regions. The bubonic plague just came along for the ride.
It also helps if there’s some unrest in the context of the larger peace. To continue with the Plague of Justinian, China may have become part of the larger world but it was also subdivided between the Northern and Southern Dynasties until 589 AD, and they warred more or less constantly. Poor harvests and population displacement make societies less able to withstand disease, which ultimately might help to explain one of the more mysterious outbreaks of new disease in history.
In 1485, England was at the tail end of a vicious series of civil wars, the Wars of the Roses. There had been more than a decade of peace under Edward IV, but the notorious Richard III had come to power and Henry Tudor was on the verge of overthrowing him at the Battle of Bosworth. Henry had landed with his army at Milford Haven in Wales, and at the same place and same time a new disease broke out and started following him. The new king had literally just arrived in London and established himself firmly when the English Sweate did the same. By the end of October, several thousand Londoners were dead, and the disease had spread to the countryside.
The Sweating Sickness became a source of particular dread, at least among the upper class, because unlike many other diseases it affected the well-fed and relatively clean nobility just as badly as the yeomanry. The fratricidal conflict of York and Lancaster had left the English nobility thin on the ground already, but the new plague took more still over the next few decades. Even worse, it came on and killed extremely quickly, to the point that its victims are often described as “merry about diner and dedde at supper”. When it struck, the patient would at first feel a sense of apprehension and chills which would quickly turn into a very high fever, heart palpitations, and the eponymous sweating. As the fever continued he would be struck with lethargy and a desire to sleep, and the consensus at the time was that if he gave in he wouldn’t wake up.
The first bout of the sickness disappeared that winter, and Henry Tudor settled in as Henry VII of England. But despite the traditional end of the Wars of the Roses, England continued to be quite tumultuous during and after Henry’s reign—there was the attempt to put Lambert Simnel on the throne in 1487, then Perkin Warbeck‘s rebellion in 1491. Henry VIII’s time brought a Scottish invasion in 1513 and the Pilgrimage of Grace uprising in 1536.
During it all, the English Sweate kept burning through England (it hopped to the continent only once, in 1528), returning in 1507, 1517, 1528, and 1551, always in the summer. In between these recurrences there would be sporadic cases, and one of these may have carried off the disease’s most politically important victim: Arthur, the eldest son of Henry VII and so heir to the throne of England. In his absence Arthur’s younger brother became Henry VIII, who married Arthur’s widow Catherine of Aragon with all the consequences that would eventually have for English and European history.
Then after 1551 the Sweating Sickness vanished, with only a few isolated cases between then and 1578, and none at all after that. The final outbreak gave us our best description of the disease, as physician John Kay (AKA Dr. Caius, the inspiration for the character of the same name in The Merry Wives of Windsor) wrote down his own analysis of the plague in A Boke or Counseill Against the Disease Commonly Called the Sweate, or Sweatyng Sicknesse. Another contemporary description of note, Edward Hall’s Chronicle, is quoted in part at the top of this article. These and other similar descriptions are virtually the only clues we have as to what caused the sickness.
Even so, the identity of the English Sweate has been a topic of considerable speculation. Some start from a similar disease, usually called the Picardy Sweat, which showed up across the English Channel in the 18th and 19th centuries. The appearance of northern France in the equation is suggestive, as Henry VII had invaded from there and there’s a close connection between his army and the establishment of the disease in England. On the other hand the Picardy Sweat’s alternative name, the now-obsolete miliary fever, suggests otherwise: “miliary” is just a Latinate description of the tiny pimples which would break out on the skin of victims. Caius’ rather complete description of the English Sweate makes no mention of eruptions.
The current best guess is that the Sweating Sickness might have been caused by a hantavirus which lurked unnoticed in the rodent population of England, and which made an appearance in the 16th century because of the unsettled political and military situation, or unusual weather, or simple evolution of a new strain. If so, it’s extinct: as of 2009 there are no known hantaviruses in the UK. The theory that the English Sweate was caused by one stems instead from the similarity between John Caius’ description of it and another new “mystery disease”, the outbreak of Hantavirus Cardiopulmonary Syndrome in the Four Corners region of the United States in 1993.