Sweating Bullets: A Story of Anne Boleyn 1/4

I am so honored to have JoAnn Spears back at Redwood’s Medical Edge. Her posts about the ailments of long lost monarchs are hugely popular and entertaining as well.

This four part Monday series focuses on Ann Boleyn and the mysterious sweating sickness that had a 70% mortality rate!

Welcome back, JoAnn!

Part I:  Working up a sweat, bugs indeterminate, and a man named Butts.

The courtship of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII is the stuff of legend.  Tudor history buffs and Anne Boleyn fans alike will already know that Anne Boleyn was the first and foremost proponent of ‘if you like it… put a ring around it’.  By 1528, after about two years of courtship, Henry had yet to do so.  Anne parried with a retreat from Henry’s court to her family’s country home at Hever.  Romantically enough, she was suffering from, or at risk of contracting, a catching ailment.  There was a real chance she could die from it.  More romantically still, she hastened away to protect Henry from the contagion. 
Dr. William Butts

On a less romantic note, Henry himself did not follow Anne to Hever.  His devotion only stretched to his sending, in his stead, his second-best physician.  Less romantically still, that physician was called Butts, and the disease he was to treat Anne Boleyn for was known as ‘The Sweat’.

Life-threatening plagues and infectious diseases were a feature of life in Europe during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.  Some of these illnesses are fairly well understood retrospectively.  For example, a good deal is known today about the causation, mode of transmission, treatment, and natural course of Yersinia pestis, or Plague.  The Sweat, however, remains, like its star sufferer, something of an enigma.


The Sweat debuted in England around the same time that the Tudor dynasty did, in 1485.  It recurred in 1508, 1517, 1528 and 1551; as far as we know, it did not recur thereafter. Each of these outbreaks began in England, and four of them had little or no spread outside of the British Isles.  The fourth, the outbreak of 1528, made its way across much of northern and eastern Europe. 

Two Tudor physicians, Thomas Forestier and John Caius, are the sources of much of the extant medical information about The Sweat.  The accounts these two physicians give of the condition are like bookends to its history.  Forestier speaks from the perspective of the first outbreak of The Sweat, in 1485.  He isolates The Sweat from other pestilences and poxes of the time by identifying the primary way in which it was unlike them; the absence of rash, pustule, buboe, or other manifestation on the skin.   “The exterior is calm in this fever”, Forestier explained, “and the interior excited.” 

John Caius authored “A boke or counseill against the disease commonly called the sweate or sweatyng sicknesse” in 1552, after the last outbreak of The Sweat.  He felt confident enough in his experience and findings to subtitle the work “uery (very) necessary for everye personne and much requisite to be had in the hands of al (all) sortes, for their better instruction, preparation and defence, against the soubdein (sudden) comyng, and fearful assaultyng of the same disease”.

Prominent as Forestier and Caius were as practitioners, they do not have the same Tudor cache as the man who was on the job when Anne Boleyn commenced The Sweat:  Dr. William Butts.  Other than his Sweating-Sickness association with Boleyn, little is known about the man.  Just what would the second-best Butts encounter when he arrived at Hever to tend his King’s lady love?  It’s difficult to tell the exact point in Anne Boleyn’s Sweat trajectory at which Butts came into the picture.

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JoAnn Spears is a registered nurse with Master’s Degrees in Nursing and Public Administration. Her first novel, Six of One, JoAnn brings a nurse’s gallows sense of humor to an unlikely place: the story of the six wives of Henry VIII. Six of One was begun in JoAnn’s native New Jersey. It was wrapped up in the Smoky Mountains of Northeast Tennessee, where she is pursuing a second career as a writer. She has, however, obtained a Tennessee nursing license because a) you never stop being a nurse and b) her son Bill says “don’t quit your day job”.

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