In June, 1528, Anne Boleyn hovered on the brink of death from a mysterious ailment known as “the Sweat” or sudor Anglicus, the “English Sweat.” It’s fascinating to consider how the history of the Reformation might have gone differently if Anne hadn’t survived.
Scholars still aren’t sure what “The Sweat” was. The latest theory is that it was a hantavirus. It was a mainly English ailment, though it appeared sporadically in small areas on the Continent during some of its epidemics. Its first recorded appearance is around 1485, and the last outbreak occurred in 1551. After that, the disease seems to have spontaneously vanished, but while it raged through England, it killed thousands.
Oddly, this disease struck at primarily wealthy persons in the prime of life, though some ordinary citizens were said to have been afflicted:
“They which had this sweat sore with peril of death were either men of wealth, ease or welfare, or of the poorer sort, such as were idle persons, good ale drinkers and tavern haunters.”
The onset was swift and brutal. After a period of aches and chills, the infected patient would fall into a fever that produced copious sweat, for which the illness was named. After the fever broke, the patient would be exhausted, but it was thought that letting them fall asleep would prove fatal. It was usually all over within twenty-four hours, but between 30% and 50% of infected persons died.
John Caius, who was physician to Edward VI, Queen Mary, and Queen Elizabeth, wrote a book about the Sweating Sickness in 1552, advising people how to avoid it and what to do if they caught it. Caius advised a plain diet and abstention from heavy drinking. He was somewhat scathing about the habits of modern Englishmen.
But we are now a days so unwisely fine, and womanly delicate, that we may in no wise touch a fish. The old manly hardness, stout courage, & painfulness of England is utterly driven away, in the stead whereof, men now a days receive womanliness, & become nice, not able to withstand a blast of wind, or resist a poor fish. And children be so brought up, that if they be not all day by the fire with a toast and butter, and in their furs, they be straight sick.
He gave advice about cleanliness, such as keeping the rushes swept up and avoiding dust, but he believed the common ideas about good smells shielding people from disease, and thought that bathing in warm water opened the pores to the air and risked infection.
And for so much as cleanliness is a great help to health, mine advice is, that all your clothes be sweet smelling and clean, and that you wash your hands and face not in warm water, but with rose water and vinegar cold, or else with the fair water and vinegar wherein the pills [seeds] or barks [skins] of oranges and pomegranates are sodden: or the pills of pomecitres & sorell is boiled: for so you shall close the pores against the air, that it readily enter not, and cold and temper those parts so washed, according to the right intent in curing this disease.
If a person did fall ill, he urged that they not be left alone for twenty-four hours. They should be put in bed wearing their clothes, and covered over. Herbal concoctions should bring on the sweating stage, but if not, they should be placed by the fire with clothes piled on until they began to sweat. After which, they should be put back in bed, and given nothing to drink for five hours. (Unless it seemed dangerous to deny them – he left it up to the readers’ and their physicians’ prudence.) They should not be allowed to disrobe or put their feet out from under the covers. They could not be given anything cold to drink or have cold cloths put on their bodies. If they became sweat-sodden, they could be permitted to wash themselves:
Therefore accordingly, if rub you must, give to the sick in to their beds a new and somewhat hard kerchief, well warmed but not hot, and bid them rub all their bodies over therewith under the clothes, neither too much neither too little, nor too hard or too soft, but meanly between, taking you heed which be about them, that by stirring their arms they raise not the clothes to let in the air.
All things considered, his advice was probably much better for patients than the common contemporary prescriptions of bloodletting, enemas, blisters, and emetics which drained the ill person of what strength they had.
At some point during this outbreak, Margaret Roper, the daughter of Sir Thomas More, was infected with the sweating sickness. The story of her recovery is particularly interesting, especially to those trying to determine the agent responsible for the disease.
As was typically the case with the sweating sickness, Margaret became very ill quickly. Thomas More summoned several physicians, all of whom were certain she would die from the disease. Devastated, More retired to his private chapel to pray. While begging God to save his daughter, he suddenly thought that a clyster, or enema, might cure his daughter. He suggested this idea to the physicians, and an enema was administered shortly thereafter. To the surprise of her doctors, Margaret’s health improved and she survived the illness. Historian Paul R. Hunter suggests that the enema treatment was successful because it corrected a “fluid and electrolyte imbalance.“
The patients were to be given warm sugared ale at certain hourly intervals, but no food for the full twenty-four hour duration of the sickness, except for broth if absolutely necessary. At the end of the twenty-four hours, they should be out of danger. They would be exhausted, but mustn’t be allowed to sleep ”until they have no lust to sleep.“ If they fainted or fell into slumber, they should be roused by “beating” them with a sweet-smelling bundle of herbs, waving a rosewater and vinegar-soaked cloth under their nose, pinching their ears, or pulling their hair while calling their name until they roused.
In mid-June, 1528, one of Anne Boleyn’s ladies fell ill with the Sweat. Henry sent Anne home to Hever and took Katharine and Princess Mary with him when he fled for private lodgings twelve miles away. There, he sealed himself away from the court and saw only a small handful of servants while devoting his days to religious observance in the hopes God would have mercy. Henry sent a letter to Anne, perhaps feeling a mite bit guilty for his abrupt abandonment.
The uneasiness my doubts about your health gave me, disturbed and frightened me extremely; and I should not have had any quiet without hearing a certain account. But now, since you have yet felt nothing, I hope it is with you as with us; for, when we were at Waltham, two ushers, two valets de chambre, and your brother, master-treasurer, fell ill, and are now quite well; and since we are returned to your house at Hudson, we have been perfectly well, God be praised, and have not, at present, one sick person in the family; and, I think, if you would retire from the Surrey side, as we did, you would escape all danger.
There is another thing that may comfort you, which is, that in truth, in this distemper few or no women have been taken ill; and besides, no person of our court, and few elsewhere have died of it. For which reasons I beg you, my entirely beloved, not to frighten yourself, nor to be too uneasy at our absence. For, wherever I am, I am yours, and yet we must sometimes submit to our misfortunes; for, whoever will struggle against fate, is generally but so much the farther from gaining his end.
Wherefore, comfort yourself, and take courage, and make this misfortune as easy to you as you can, and I hope shortly to make you sing for joy of your recall. No more at present for lack of time, but that I wish you in my arms, that I might a little dispel your unreasonable thoughts.
Written by the hand of him who is, and always will be yours,
A few days later, he got the news Anne had fallen ill herself. Henry sent a letter to her, along with his second-best physician William Butts.
There came to me in the night the most afflicting news possible. I have to grieve for three causes: first, to hear of my mistress’s sickness, whose health I desire as my own, and would willingly bear the half of yours to cure you; secondly, because I fear to suffer yet longer that absence which has already given me so much pain,—God deliver me from such an importunate rebel!; thirdly, because the physician I trust most is at present absent when he could do me the greatest pleasure. However, in his absence, I send you the second, praying God he may soon make you well, and I shall love him the better. I beseech you to be governed by his advice, and then I hope to see you soon again.
It must have been a very anxious time for the Boleyn family. William Carey, Mary Boleyn’s husband, died on the same day that Anne fell ill, and Thomas Boleyn was stricken as well. The future and fortunes of the Boleyn family hung in the balance as Anne tossed and turned on her sickbed. What would happen if this woman, whom the king so treasured, died in their care?
It makes for interesting speculation how history might have differed if Anne had died. The Reformation itself in England … the fate of Thomas More … Cromwell … Cranmer … Elizabeth.
But Anne survived, though her convalescence seems to have been slow. She didn’t return to court until autumn. During this separation, the bulk of Henry VIII’s love letters to Anne Boleyn were written. He mourned their separation and kept her apprised of the activities of the Papal legate who had arrived to judge the validity of Henry’s marriage to Katharine.
Anne returned to London with her mother in September or October of 1528, and resided at Durham House. It was where the widowed Katharine of Aragon had lived in 1502 after her first husband, Arthur Tudor, died from the Sweat.