Henry VII’s victory over Richard III in 1485 catapulted the Tudor dynasty to the pinnacle of power. For the next 118 years, they would be the most powerful family in England and make the country one of the most important in Europe. But even this royal family was not immune to the many illnesses of the 16th century. Here are 20 of the Tudor family’s most serious health issues—some of which changed the course of history.
1. English Sweating Sickness // Arthur, Prince of Wales
Henry VII became a father within a year of ascending the throne. His wife, Elizabeth of York, gave birth to a son who the royal couple christened Arthur both in honor of the king’s Welsh heritage and to signify the coming of a new golden age. A second son, Henry, followed in 1491.
As the future of the family, it was important that Arthur married well; in 1502 he wed Katherine, daughter of the King of Aragon. There were high hopes of a child following quickly. But within five months of their wedding, the couple fell ill, most likely with the English sweating sickness.
No one is quite sure what the illness actually was. It might have been a form of influenza, relapsing fever, hantavirus, or even anthrax. It first appeared in 1485 and would reach epidemic status five times before completely disappearing in 1551. Unusually, it particularly affected the rich, young, and healthy, and symptoms included headaches, delirium, and severe sweating; death, if it came, was rapid.
Arthur and Katherine were immediately separated and confined to their beds. Katherine was lucky and recovered, but Arthur quickly deteriorated. On April 2, 1502, a contemporary source reported that “the lyvely spirites of this nobel Prince finally mortified, to oure Realme of Englond and all Cristente dolour [agony], sorrow, and great discompfort.”
Arthur’s death was indeed a calamity. Not only was it a personal tragedy for Henry VII, but his family’s grip on the throne was seriously weakened, as they now had just one potential heir. Worse was to come. Elizabeth soon became pregnant again but died on her 37th birthday, nine days after giving birth to a daughter.
Although the House of Tudor survived, Arthur’s death is one of those events that can truly be said to have changed the course of history. His younger brother Henry would become Henry VIII, and his marriage to Arthur’s widow, Katherine of Aragon, set England on the path to the Reformation and the anti-Catholic feelings that haunted British politics for centuries.
2. Miscarriages and Stillbirths // Katherine of Aragon
Childbirth was a risky endeavor for any person in the Tudor era, and miscarriages and stillbirths were common. But for a wife of Henry VIII, failure to provide a healthy son could have disastrous consequences.
Seven years after surviving the English sweat that killed Arthur, Katherine of Aragon married his younger brother Henry, who soon wrote to her father that “Your daughter, her Serene Highness the Queen, our dearest consort, has conceived in her womb a living child and is right heavy therewith.” Unfortunately, the girl was stillborn on January 31, 1510. Katherine became pregnant again within a few months and seemed to have fulfilled her duty when she gave birth to a healthy boy on January 1, 1511. He was christened Henry after his father, who immediately ordered huge celebrations including a tournament at Westminster. But the young boy died just 52 days later.
A further four known pregnancies followed. In September 1513, Katherine gave birth to a premature son, but he was either stillborn or died very soon after. The following November, the Venetian ambassador reported that “the Queen has been delivered of a stillborn male child of eight months to the very great grief of the whole court,” although other contemporary sources indicate that the child might have been alive at birth. The future Mary I was born in 1516; in 1518, the queen suffered another stillbirth at eight months.
The cause of Katherine’s tragedies remains unknown. Some have suggested the problem may have lain with Henry VIII. Recent theories suggest the king may have carried the rare Kell-positive gene, which allows a man to have a first child with a Kell-negative woman, but no more due to her immune system attacking the fetus. The common outcomes are late-term miscarriage, stillbirth, or neonatal death, just as Katherine suffered. Of Henry VIII’s four children who survived to adulthood, three were first “attempts,” while Mary may have survived because she inherited the Kell gene.
Whatever the reason, the implications of Katherine’s failed pregnancies had a lasting effect. While there was a chance of a son, Henry VIII was loyal, but once her fertility stopped, his all-consuming desire for an heir trumped every other feeling he had. Katherine had to go, whatever the cost.
3. Jousting Accidents // Henry VIII
Henry VIII was an avid sportsman who hunted, practiced archery, and played tennis, but his favorite by far was jousting—despite the danger. His father had banned him from participating in the sport in his youth, but once he became king, Henry VIII jousted almost every day. The injuries soon mounted up, including several concussions, leg wounds and, in 1524, a blow just above his eye after forgetting to lower his visor. But it was an event at a tournament in January 1536 that had the most impact not only on Henry VIII’s health, but also on the country.
The tournament was held at the Greenwich Palace tiltyard, with both Henry VIII and his horse in full armor. His opponent was his good friend Sir Henry Norris, and with his usual lack of caution, the king charged down the field. Unfortunately, Henry hit Norris’s saddle with his lance. The recoil not only knocked the king from his horse, but also caused the animal to stumble and crash down on top of him. Sources differ on the seriousness of Henry VIII’s injuries, but it is likely that he was unconscious for several hours and had both legs crushed.
We can’t be sure how close he was to death, but his life certainly changed. He would never joust again, and the athletic prince became increasingly immobile and obese. A recent theory has also suggested that Henry VIII suffered a traumatic brain injury from the fall, which turned the genial king into a paranoid tyrant.
4. Childbirth // Jane Seymour
As Henry VIII began to tire of Anne Boleyn, ambitious courtiers pushed their female relatives into his line of sight. Among them was Jane Seymour, one of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting, who caught Henry’s eye sometime around 1534. Jane presented herself as the opposite of the tempestuous queen, playing on her mildness and virtue. In 1536, the Imperial ambassador to the court of Henry VIII reported that she had refused Henry VIII’s gifts as “there was no treasure in this world that she valued as much as her honour, and on no account would she lose it, even if she were to die a thousand deaths.”
But Jane knew the game she was playing and is unlikely to have been the victim she is often portrayed as. The imperial ambassador also noted that she made sure to hint that “if the king wished to make her a present of money, she requested him to reserve it for such a time as God would be pleased to send her some advantageous marriage.” By May that year, 11 days after Anne’s execution, she was Henry VIII’s wife.
Jane gave birth to a healthy son, Edward, on October 12, 1537. Despite enduring a long labor, she was well enough to sign letters the day her son was born. She recovered from a bout of diarrhea four days later, but on October 19, she became ill again and her health rapidly went downhill. Jane died in the early hours of October 24, 1537.
Over the centuries, there have been many speculations about the cause of her death. Although puerperal fever has often been considered the most likely, the timings of her illness, recovery, and relapse could suggest she died of an embolism that caused heart failure after a bout of food poisoning.
Jane’s death is one of the great Tudor “what ifs.” Had she lived, it is possible that other healthy sons would have followed, securing the dynasty’s grip on the English throne for centuries to come. On the other hand, of course, there may have been no more pregnancies, Henry VIII’s eyes could have wandered again, and she would have quickly gone the same way as his other wives.
5. Ulcerated Legs // Henry VIII
In 1515, when Henry VIII was almost 25 years old, the Venetian Ambassador described him as “the handsomest potentate [monarch] I ever set eyes on … [with] … an extremely fine calf to his leg.” Henry VIII was particularly proud of his legs, and took to wearing a garter to accentuate their shape. The fashion was captured in the famous portrait of him by Hans Holbein the Younger.
But his finest feature was also killing him.
The first treatment “‘to cure the king of a sorre legge” was recorded in 1527, although this was probably a sporting injury to the thigh that wouldn’t heal. Within a decade he was suffering from the venous ulcers that would dog him for the rest of his life. Historians now speculate that the tight garters caused deep vein thrombosis (DVT), made worse by continuous jousting accidents that reopened the ulcers. Henry VIII now entered a cycle of immobility, weight gain, and venous hypertension.
On top of this, the wounds festered. They would heal on the surface but then reopen, oozing a foul-smelling puss so pungent that it could be smelled three rooms away. Even worse, they infected his veins and bones. In 1538, at age 47, the French ambassador wrote that Henry VIII suffered a severe DVT attack when “he was sometime without speaking, black in the face, and in great danger.” Another illness in 1541 resulted in the French ambassador reporting that “the King’s life was really thought [to be] in danger, not from fever, but from the leg which often troubles him.”
By 1546, Henry weighed around 300 pounds and was unable to walk. The once mighty king was now carried around on wooden chairs, hoisted onto his horse, and became the owner of the world’s first stair lift to get him up the stairs at Whitehall Palace. He lived in constant pain, racked by seizures, and with his legs regularly cauterized. His heart finally gave out on January 28, 1547. The formerly handsome, athletic king died a foul-tempered and despised tyrant.
6. Tuberculosis // Edward VI
As the longed-for male heir, Edward VI was brought up in the cleaner air outside of London where he was described as energetic and robust. His governess said that when “the minstrels played … his Grace danced and played so wantonly that he could not stand still” and Henry VIII encouraged him to fence, ride, and play tennis.
His interest in sports continued after he became king at just 9 years old. He participated in a joust in 1551, when he was 14. But his body began to fail the following year when he caught measles, which undermined his health and weakened his immune system. By 1553, his doctors reported that he was coughing up fluid that was “sometimes coloured a greenish-yellow and black, sometimes pink, like the colour of blood.” He was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and by May there was no denying that he was close to death.
Edward VI moved fast to try and secure the future he wanted for England. He was raised a Protestant, and under the guidance of his radical councillors, most notably his uncle Edward Seymour, he had implemented a more extreme religious reformation than that of his father. In desperation, he defied the Act of Succession and named his Protestant cousin, Lady Jane Grey, as his heir rather than his Catholic sister Mary. When he finally died on July 6, 1553, England was left on the verge of a new civil war.
7. Poor Eyesight // Henry VII, Henry VIII, and Mary I
Poor eyesight was a common issue with the Tudor monarchs. Henry VII had a particular fear of going blind, something he only confided to his mother. The most famous portrait of him dated from 1504 shows him with a dropping eyelid—this could have contributed to his deteriorating eyesight, which, in turn, played a part in his growing paranoia.
Similarly, Henry VIII’s vision also worsened as he grew older. An inventory taken at the time of his death showed that he owned 44 pairs of glasses, many richly decorated with gold and silver gilt. However, none of his portraits show him wearing them, as kings did not display vulnerability to their people.
But it is perhaps Mary I’s poor vision that made the most impact. She had good eyesight as a child, enjoying hobbies including sewing, hunting, and playing music, but her vision began to fail sometime before 1553. However, unlike her father, Mary I didn’t wear glasses. She instead preferred to hold her state papers close to her face or squint menacingly at her courtiers.
8. Phantom Pregnancies // Mary I
The reason for Mary’s shortsightedness is now thought to have been a symptom of a much worse ailment that caused her not only physical pain, but also immense emotional trauma: a prolactinoma pituitary tumor.
Mary I had been reasonably healthy as a child, but began to suffer from menstrual problems after reaching puberty. Violent headaches, missed periods, insomnia, vomiting, and palpitations were just some of the symptoms that intermittently plagued her for the rest of her life. She also developed a deep voice and lost her eyebrows. More significantly, Mary I experienced several “phantom pregnancies,” during which she experienced all of the normal symptoms of being pregnant. In 1555 the Spanish ambassador reported to the queen’s husband, Philip of Spain, that “one cannot doubt that she is with child. A certain sign of this is the state of her breasts and that the child moves. Then there is the increase of the girth, the hardening of the breasts and the fact that they distil [secrete milk].”
Mary I withdrew from court and awaited the birth. But the months passed with no sign of labor. At first the doctors assumed that their calculations were incorrect, but eventually the queen had to admit that there never had been a child. The situation happened again two years later. Mary I faced not only a second personal tragedy, but also another political humiliation.
Research has now shown that a tumor on the pituitary gland can cause the symptoms Mary I exhibited. The tumor sits behind the base of the nose and regulates hormone production; as it grows, it presses onto the gland, releasing the wrong dose into the body. This could have not only caused Mary I’s phantom pregnancies, but also her depression, hair loss, and the changes in her voice. In addition, it would have damaged the optic nerve, causing sight loss and powerful headaches.
The tumor is usually benign, so it’s likely that Mary I died of another illness, possibly influenza. However, her death at the early age of 42 without an heir meant that her sister, Elizabeth I, now ascended to the throne, ending Spain’s influence in England and preventing the reestablishment of the Catholic faith.
9. Smallpox // Elizabeth I
Elizabeth I had been queen for nearly four years when she fell ill on October 10, 1562. Her symptoms included a sore throat, headache, body aches, and a fever, so her doctors treated for a cold—but she was diagnosed with smallpox after small red spots began to appear a few days later.
The spots filled with puss over the following week. Her doctors immediately administered the “Red treatment” (a technique that evolved in Japan and had been used in England since the 12th century) and wrapped the queen in red blankets to prevent scarring.
Smallpox was fatal in 30 percent of cases. So when the queen deteriorated and fell into a coma, panic ensued.
Protestant Elizabeth I had followed her Catholic sister on to the throne amid a period of religious uncertainty and turmoil. Not only was Elizabeth I childless, but there was no apparent heir. The closest contender was her Protestant cousin, Katherine Grey, but Catholic forces in Europe were keen to promote the cause of another cousin, the Catholic Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland. Protestant England was on the verge of disaster.
As so often in her life, Elizabeth I defied the odds and survived. She would go on to rule for another 41 years, ushering in the Golden Era of Gloriana.
10. Lead Poisoning // Elizabeth I
Having a pale face was highly prized at the Tudor court. It was considered a sign of high birth, while those with a tanned face were associated with outdoor manual labor. But it was also a dangerous fashion.
Many of Elizabeth I’s early portraits show her with an unnaturally white face. Her brush with smallpox increased her desire to meet the Renaissance’s idea of beauty; despite the red treatment, Elizabeth I was left scarred by the illness.
One way of making skin looker paler and hiding pockmarks was to use a foundation known as Venetian Ceruse, which was made from the finest white lead from Venice mixed with vinegar. Similarly, bleach, arsenic, sulphur, and mercury were also used to treat freckles and other blemishes.
Some historians refute the idea that Elizabeth I used Venetian Ceruse mainly due to the fact that no mention of it has been found in her household records. However, it is unlikely that she overlooked the go-to cosmetic for European aristocracy, especially as it was the best that money could buy. The silky-smooth finish it provided became even more important as she aged, as the need to look young was a political necessity.
The more a person used Venetian Ceruse, the more they needed to apply, as the effects of the toxic ingredients turned the skin gray and shrunken with purple patches. How much Elizabeth I applied, however, is open to debate. Her later portraits show that she continued to whiten her face, but nothing to the extent portrayed by actors such as Margot Robbie in 2018’s Mary Queen of Scots, whose interpretation is probably a false exaggeration based on later histories.
So did the toxic makeup kill her? Well, Elizabeth I certainly suffered from the symptoms of lead poisoning: hair loss, blackened teeth, weight loss, and confusion. Her deteriorating mental health may also have been a result of the poison in her bloodstream. Even the alternative theory that she died of bronchial pneumonia could have been a result of a weakened immune system caused by the toxins.
Ultimately, we will never know for sure. Elizabeth I gave specific instructions that no postmortem could be carried out.
Whatever the ultimate cause, Elizabeth I’s death in March 1603 brought the Tudor dynasty’s rule to an end. The Greys were now all dead, as was Mary Stuart, and the crown passed peacefully to her Scottish cousin, James VI.