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The Great English Sweating-Sickness

Updated on November 21, 2011

The Outbreaks

Soon after the landing of Henry at Milford Haven on the 7th of August 1485, a remarkable kind of disease, not known in England before that time, broke out in England. When the disease appeared in London a few weeks later, it killed several thousand people then it mysteriously disappeared two months later.

This was the first outbreak.

It was it's extremely rapid and fatal course and also it's peculiar symptoms (massive sweating) that gave it the name "English Sweate".

Nothing was heard about this peculiar disease until 1507 when the second outbreak occurred. This second outbreak was much less fatal than the first outbreak of 1485.

A third outbreak occurred in 1517 which was much more severe than the first and second outbreaks. It spread across much of England and resulted in severe loss of lives, in some places up to half of entire towns were said to have been wiped out by this virulent disease.

And then it disappeared once again.

The Great Outbreak

It reared it's hideous head again in the year 1528 when it recurred for a fourth time, this time with much more severity than the rest of the previous outbreaks combined. Towards the end of May it appeared in London and spread with great speed over the whole of England excluding both Scotland and Ireland. It was so severe in London that the Court was broken up and the King of England Henry VIII had to leave London and then had to frequently change his residence over the next few months.

The disease suddenly appeared in Hamburg, Germany and spread so fast that within days thousands were already dead. It did not stop here. Though France, Italy and much of the Southern European countries were spared, there were serious outbreaks in Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and also in the Eastern European countries of Lithuania, Poland and Russia. Flanders and Holland were not spared.

In each place where there was an outbreak it lasted for a short time only -generally not more than a fortnight, and by the end of the year it had entirely disappeared in most places except for Switzerland where it lingered till the next year.

The disease known as "the English Sweat" never appeared again in Europe, but England suffered another outbreak in 1551.


The accounts detailing the symptoms of this disease are compiled in a book written by an English physician John Caius who was practicing in Shrewsbury when an out break occurred in 1551. According to the book titled, A Boke or Counseill Against the Disease Commonly Called the Sweate, or Sweating Sickness (1552), the symptoms of the English Sweat are as follows:

The illness began with rigors, head aches, severe pains in the neck, shoulders and limbs, followed by cold which might last from half-an-hour to three hours, it is then followed by severe heat and sweating which usually started suddenly and without any obvious cause. After this the pulse becomes rapid and the patient will have an intense urge to drink water. Pain in the heart or chest was a frequent symptom. Then there comes an irresistible desire to sleep, which was thought to be fatal if the patient gives way to it. Sometimes the patient may already be dead within two to three hours of the symptom appearing but usually if it last for a period of between twelve to twenty-four hours the patient was considered safe.

Possible Causes

Most notably, the cause of this disease has not been known and this has been cause for much debate and controversy. Some people claimed that it was caused by dirt because of the general dirt and sewage which were found in London at that time. However, the English physician John Caius noted that the disease was particularly virulent among the rich than the poor.

Some commentators also blame Relapsing Fever as a possible cause. This is a disease spread by ticks and lice. However in cases of Relapsing Fever there is usually a black scab at the site of the tick bite and a subsequent skin rash. This symptom is noticeably absent in cases of the English Sweat.

Some people have also suggested Hantivirus to also be the cause of the outbreak. However certain clinical features of Hantivirus do not seem to match the progression of the English Sweat.

The controversy rages on , the door is still open for more theories about the causes, but one thing is certain: It is difficult to know what the Sweating Sickness really was.


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