There is great book by Claire Ridgway that I recommend if you are new to the Tudor era or just new to some of the diseases that were plaguing the population during that time. The sweating sickness is by far one of the greatest mysteries of the Tudor era because no one knows exactly how it originated, although many scientists and medical historians have a good idea given some of the contemporary records.
“A remarkable form of disease, not known in England before, attracted attention at the very beginning of the reign of Henry VII.” (Encyclopedia Britannica)
“It was referred to by many different names, including the Sweat, the Sudor Anglicus or English Sweat, the Swat, Stup-Gallant, Stoupe Knave and Know thy Master, Sweating Sickness and the New Acquainance.”(Ridgway, Sweating Sickness in a Nutshell)
Claire Ridgway makes the distinction that she is not a doctor but has done a great deal of research on this topic (and she has also made a video on this topic which is a shorter version of the book) and has come to several conclusions, the main one being that this disease could have been the result of several things, including lack of hygiene in universities, homes and other places.
“Erasmus, in a letter to Francis, physician to the Cardinal of York, wrote of how English houses were not constructed to make a through-draft possible and that their rush floors were unhygienic because sometimes they were not renewed for around twenty years and so they allowed “spittle, vomit, dog’s urine and men’s too, dregs of beer and cast-off bits of fish, and other unspeakable kinds of filth” to fester. Oothers blamed the damp, foggy English climate and Caius mentioned flooding: “rot in the groundes after great flouddes, in carions, & in dead men”, but these factors are unlikely to have caused such an epidemic.” (Ridgway, Sweating Sickness in a Nutshell)
She goes on to elaborate on other possible factors such as this being a new strain of influenza or a combination of various factors that made it possible for this to spread so fast and kill so effectively.
One thing she does dispel is that this was NOT brought over by Henry’s soldiers. This is something that is still perpetuated in some novels and while it makes for entertaining read, it is simply false. There are records of the disease before Henry and his army of mercenaries, disaffected Edwardian Yorkists and staunch Lancastrians landed on Milford Haven. In fact, one such account that she gives more details about in her book reads as follows:
“The disease was obviously known in England before the Battle of Bosworth because, according to the Croyland Chronicle, when Richard III called on Thomas Stanley to travel from his home in Lancashire to Nottingham, after news of Henry Tudor’s landing had broken, Stanley “made an excuse that he was suffering from an attack of the sweating sickness, and could not possibly come”. It appears therefore, that Henry Tudor and his forces cannot be blamed for its introduction.”
The Luminarium project website has an article on this subject that is straight from the Encyclopedia Britannica, third edition that dates back to 1910, leaving it clear that the disease hadn’t been brought to England by Henry’s soldiers but that it was already native to England.
“It was known indeed a few days after the landing of Henry at Milford Haven on the 7th of August 1485, as there is clear evidence of its being spoken of before the battle of Bosworth on the 22nd of August. Soon after the arrival of Henry in London on the 28th of August it broke out in the capital, and caused great mortality. This alarming malady soon became known as the sweating-sickness.”
The symptoms according to Thomas Forrestier, a French physician, who lived in London and wrote a treatise on the disease, were the following:
- “A great sweating and stinking.”
- Redness of the face and body.
- Unquenchable thirst
- High fever
English physician John Caius was more detailed in his description of the disease, adding that the muscular pain would be accompanied by redness, abdominal pain, cardiac palpitations and dizziness.
Game of Thrones, being partly based on the wars of the roses and the era after it, has sided with many novelists by having Ser Jorah on the show and Young Griffin’s (fake Aegon –sorry guys but I don’t think he is the real deal) guardian in the books be the ones that bring a horrible disease back to Westeros.
The show and books could surprise us by having these two characters finding some sort of miracle cure that stops it from spreading –sort of like what happened to Shireen- but it is unlikely. And it might be that the Stonemen’s disease or Greyscale, be Martin’s version of the sweating sickness in Westeros.
This would certainly make things difficult for Dany. The sweating sickness certainly did for Henry as it prevented him from going to certain places, or traveling alongside his wife years afterward. The sweating sickness was more deadly on England, killing many people and making no distinction between rich and poor.
Henry VII’s surviving son and heir, Henry VIII, could have come this close never to marrying Anne Boleyn because she happened to be one of the victims of this sickness. Thankfully for her and her family, she recovered. Other members of the nobility and the royal family weren’t so lucky. Take the Brandons for example. Charles Brandon’s last wife, Catherine Willoughby gave him two sons who survived infancy but didn’t live beyond that. During the reign of Edward VI they died, leaving the poor Duchess devastated.
The sweating sickness would go on to hit again with the last recorded incident in 1652 in Leipzig. This new variant of the disease would also be seen in other parts of the globe such as in France, Spain in Holland during the nineteenth century.
There were many attempts to cure it or control it with Henry VIII, who like his paternal grandmother, had a fascination with the natural world, keeping a detailed journal where he came up with several tonics and remedies to combat this disease.
In Game of Thrones we aren’t given a full explanation as to how Shireen’s father managed to stop the disease from spreading. Season five just reveals that Stannis hired every physician and magician from across the known world to come to Dragonstone so they could stop the disease from taking over and transforming her into one of the hideous creatures we saw that reside in Old Valyria. Like lepers in the ancient and medieval world, Stannis was advised to send his daughter away to live the rest of her life among the other people infected but he chose not to because he was convinced that she could be saved. It could have been a combination of his obstinacy (because Stannis is a proud man) and his love for his daughter that prevented him from making a poor decision that would see his only heir being sent to live the rest of her days as an animal. (Unfortunately, he would go on to make a worse mistake when he listened to Melisandre, and sacrificed her, believing that Shireen’s death would bring him victory.)
Daenerys sends Jorah away to find a cure. Some fans believe that Jorah will find himself back to the Quaithe, the mysterious masked figure viewers were introduced to in season 2 and whom book readers have long speculated about since we were introduced to her in ‘A Clash of Kings’. The first trailer for season 7 shows us as a disgusting looking arm with ridges, dried up blood and stone looking skin which leads us to believe it is Jorah and that maybe (like Shireen) he has found a way to stop the disease from spreading or that he hasn’t and like the rumors surrounding Henry’s men bringing the sweating sickness to England, he will bring a deadlier strain of the disease to Westeros, causing more deaths and more additions to the army of the undead.
- Ridgway, Claire. The Sweating Sickness: In a Nushell. Made Global. 2014.
- Lisle, Leanda. Tudor: Passion. Murder. Manipulation: The Story of England’s Most Notorious Royal Family. Public Affairs. 2013.
- “What was sweating sickness?” YouTube, uploaded by The Anne Boleyn Files, 5 May 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qwSjvIixzP8
- “English Sweating Sickness.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 11th, 1910