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Tudor Conflict and Disease: the Reformation and Plague

The uniting of the House of York [technically Elizabeth of York was, after the death of her brothers, heiress to the throne of England, but she was a female] and the House of Lancaster [Henry Tudor who became King Henry VII of England].

The Tudor period was a time of change. The War of the Roses between the two Royal houses of Lancaster and York had just ended [1485]. The newly crowned King was Henry Tudor [VII], a direct descendant of John of Gaunt Plantagenet (3rd surviving son of Edward III; father to the Lancastrian Kings) and his mistress (later wife) Katherine Roet through his mother Lady Margaret Beaufort. Although there were plenty of nobility who could claim the throne based on a more legitimate line; Henry Tudor was crowned King of England in 1485 on the battle field directly after the Battle of Bosworth [in which he defeated Richard III of the House of York]. Henry VII, who had fought his way to the throne of England, was crowned on 20 October 1485. In an attempt to keep the Nation from going to War again, he married Princess Elizabeth of York [Plantagenet of the House of York]; daughter of King Edward IV and his queen consort Elizabeth Woodville. Through this union Henry’s hope was to unify the two houses. Henry’s children, when born, would have a stronger claim to the throne because the blood of both the houses of York and Lancaster would be inherited. Having married Elizabeth, who some saw as the sole heiress of Edward IV, the children of the two would leave no question as to who should rule England. 

Although Henry VII’s intentions were good, over the next two generations the House of Tudor would go through some very unsettling times. Due to the fact that England had become bankrupt during the reign of his predecessor, there would be economic difficulties that Henry VII would have to resolve. His oldest son, Arthur, Prince of Wales, would die young leaving his only other living son, Henry, the throne.[1] Henry VIII had a long and grueling reign. His reign saw the demise of the Catholic Church due to his “great matter” which will be discussed further in this paper. The plague of “sweating sickness” began around 1485, when Henry VIII’s father came to power and lasted until 1551. With Henry VIII’s rule and the ascension of his daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, a whole new lifestyle was created. There was a constant fight over religion and disease played a huge part in everyday life.

In this paper there will be two main topics discussed; conflict and disease. The conflict for this paper deals with Henry VIII’s conflict with the Catholic Church over his “great matter” and how he transformed England into a Protestant nation even though he died as a Catholic in the end. I then chose to write about the history of the plague of “Sweating Sickness” which hit London during the reign of the Tudor dynasty. Both issues had an impact on England. The change to Protestantism over the King’s “great matter” sent the whole country into an uproar. There were major disputes between the clergy and King Henry. Even the people had issues with the change. Then in between all of this came the plague to make things worse. It swept through London killing anyone it came into contact with. 

The original Tudor heir, Prince Arthur, was Henry’s older sibling.

Henry VII and Elizabeth of York gave birth to a son in September of 1486. They named him Arthur, Prince of Wales. As the oldest son Arthur was to be the heir to the English throne. Arthur grew up being taught the ways of the Kingdom. He was sure to be King of England one day. Arthur was betrothed to a Spanish princess named Katherine of Aragon at an early age. The match was one of allegiance for Katherine was the daughter of the two great Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile. The two were to be married as soon as they turned of age. They married in 1501. The couple was not together long before the two of them became sick. Katherine eventually recovered, but only to find herself a widow. At the age of 15, Arthur died after suffering from a mysterious sickness at Ludlow Castle. Sweating sickness was thought to be one of the causes.[2]
The sweating sickness was an epidemic that started originally in the late 1400s. It was an epidemic that would have sudden outbreaks. The worst outbreak recorded in the book “The Epidemics of the Middle Ages” by Justus Friedrich Carl Hecker was recorded during 1517. In July of that year many people were infected and within the span of two or three hours they were dead. The epidemic was extremely contagious and if you came into contact with it your chances of living were slim to none. The poor were affected the most, but even the rich who thought they were beyond getting the epidemic got caught by surprise. Christmas celebrations of that year were cancelled in the Palaces. King Henry VIII retreated from London to the countryside to stay away from the epidemic. He would constantly move around in fear and would shut himself up alone in castles until the epidemic passed through. The sickness began to spread though into other parts of England like Oxford and Cambridge. Soon it had reached the English occupied part of France, Calais. [3]
The causes of the epidemic are unknown, but one can certainly imagine personal hygiene had something to do with it. Also, English people were not known for eating healthy. There would be excess overeating of salted meats, over indulging in wine, etc. The living habits were not very healthy basically. People did not know how to take care of themselves. People did not take baths, there was no soap, and the poor were not taken care of. They were left to rot on the streets.

The towns people and nobility try to flee from London.

If you were to escape the sickness you would have to leave the city. There were also mystic pills and herbs that people took, but only the rich could afford them. Basically, unless you were of high status and had a lot of money you would have to stay in town and try to wait it out, but as stated before, your chances of surviving were slim to none.[4]

King Henry VIII shortly after his coronation in 1509.

Henry, who had been titled Duke of York, became the next heir apparent after Arthur died and took on the title of Prince of Wales. Henry had grown up in a carefree environment. He was educated, but not as Arthur had been. After the death of his brother Arthur, Henry VII was left with Infanta Katherine who had become the dowager Princess of Wales. Since Katherine had been married once already she was seen as less of an attractive match. She did not return to Spain. As a solution to accommodate Katherine of Aragon [more likely to better suit Henry VII and to be able to keep her dowry], Henry VII discussed the possible proposal of marriage to Katherine himself with her parents Ferdinand and Isabella. Henry VII’s son Henry VIII was only eleven and his chances of surviving to adulthood were at stake. Henry VII thought that if he married Katherine of Aragon himself, he would be able to have another son as a safeguard. Of course the match was not approved. Henry VII was about 30 years older than Katherine and he had more experience and knowledge in politics. Eventually the idea of marrying Katherine to Henry VII’s son, Henry, Prince of Wales, was put forth.

Katherine of Aragon and Henry VIII were betrothed and later married on 11 June 1509. Katherine of Aragon and Henry VIII’s marriage was a good match. At the time, it provided an alliance with Spain through Katherine’s nephew The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.[5] Katherine’s English ancestry was also a plus. Katherine descended from Edward III of England, twice, by his son Prince John of Gaunt. 1st Duke of Lancaster [father of Henry IV]. Katherine descended from John’s first two wives, Lady Blanche of Lancaster, the heiress to the Lancaster inheritance and Infanta Caterina of Castile who was Titular Queen of Castile in her own right. Technically, Katherine had a stronger claim to the throne of England than Henry if Henry was to use his paternal ancestry as the basis of his rise to the throne. So any future children by Prince Henry and Katherine would have a stronger claim to the throne.

King Henry with his first wife, Katherine of Aragon.

Shortly after being married, Katherine gave birth to a son. Henry and Katherine named him Prince Henry. He was given the title Duke of Cornwall. Henry was ecstatic. There were lavish gatherings and jousting matches held in the new baby’s honor. But only a few months later the baby Henry would die. Katherine became pregnant again soon after the death of her child. This time around she lost the baby which was in fact a boy. Katherine would have many more of these unfortunate events happen before she gave birth to a healthy baby girl on 18 February 1516. The couple named her Mary. Shortly after her birth Katherine became pregnant again, but lost the child. Princess Mary would be the only surviving child between the union of Henry and Katherine; which became a problem.

Princess Mary was for a time the heiress to the English throne.

At this point in time King Henry was starting to question Katherine’s ability to conceive a male heir. Katherine was getting old and her chances of having a healthy boy were diminishing. It was during these times that Henry started to stray from his marriage and as a result, his mistress Elizabeth Blount, had a son by Henry named Henry Fitzroy. Of course the child was not legitimate, so the baby could not become his heir. This didn’t stop Henry from celebrating his birth and bestowing the title of Duke of Richmond and Somerset upon him. Henry was in fact quite proud of his new born son.[6]

When King Henry saw that it was possible for him to conceive a son with another woman he then saw the issue of producing a male heir as Katherine of Aragon’s fault. King Henry continued to dispute whether his marriage to Katherine was valid. In the Bible he had read a passage from Leviticus 18:16: “Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy brother’s wife: it is thy brother’s nakedness” and Leviticus 20:21: “If a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing…they shall be childless.” Therefore Henry convinced himself that God was punishing him for marrying his brother’s widow.[7][8]

Henry Fitzroy was the only illegitimate child the King acknowledged; he was created Duke of Richmond and Somerset which infuriated the Queen.

At the death of Arthur, there was a question of whether or not the marriage had been consummated. This proof would be needed if Katherine was to marry Henry VIII for Arthur and Henry were brothers. Papal Dispensation was needed before the two could even marry. Katherine of Aragon had to vow that her marriage to Arthur Tudor had never been consummated. So twenty-four years later King Henry tried to use this plea as a way of getting a divorce so he could marry his new love, a lady-in-waiting to Queen Katherine, named Anne Boleyn.[9]

When Henry met Anne, he became infatuated with her. He suddenly declared that he wanted a divorce and was willing to do anything to get it. Henry eventually got his way, but not without turning the whole country upside down. Cardinal Wolsey, Henry’s confident, was to get this divorce by partitioning the Pope in Rome starting in 1526.
Anne Boleyn came from a family that was known to support the “new” religion. At the time, the people of Europe were being swept over by the Catholic Church or so they were led to believe. The money that the congregation spent was to be for the poor and the needy, but instead it was used for personal gain. The people were also led to believe that if you paid a handsome sum, you could save your loved ones soul from purgatory and God would grant them forgiveness. The Catholic Churches were not all like this. The few that were gave the whole religion a bad name. So when a man named Martin Luther started to talk about the misfortunes of the Catholic Church and how they should be overturned, people started to listen. They were tired of the old faith and wanted a religion that did not corrupt and steal money. They also wanted personal access to a Bible that was written in English. For the only way the people could learn about scripture in the Catholic Church was through listening to a Priest read from the Bible in Latin. Many people were not educated enough to understand Latin and therefore were led to believe what they heard was the word of God.

Anne Boleyn, a lady-in-waiting to the queen, caused quite a stir at court. The Queen’s ladies would start to take sides over the queen or the new mistress; or “the whore” which Anne was known as by the Catholics and those in favour of the queen.

In the middle of all this a war broke out between France, Spain, and the Catholic Church. The French King, Francois I, was captured and taken to Rome, but later released on the authority of King Henry. This war would interrupt and delay the Pope’s decision on Henry’s matter. On 17 May 1527, the King called a meeting. In this meeting he brought up the matter declaring that his marriage was not legal, but the Cardinals begged to differ. At this point in time, Katherine who had been kept in the dark about the whole matter for over two years was now just being informed of the whole situation. Katherine immediately knew that she needed the support of her nephew the Emperor Charles V if she was to stay married to the King. Katherine claimed that the marriage to Arthur had never been consummated and she had come to King Henry a virgin. In an altercation that would follow, the King was quoted as saying that they had been living in immortal sin and that Katherine was not his legal wife.
Wolsey, who was Catholic, was not popular at Court. Katherine of Aragon did not like him because he was pleading for Henry’s divorce and the Boleyn’s did not like him because they were opposed to the Catholic faith. The Boleyn’s were Protestant, true believers of the movement Martin Luther had started. Anne, her family, and a rising courtier named Cromwell, were in favor of this “new” religion. Not only did they believe it would end the “corruption” of the Catholic Church, but thought it might be the way for Henry to finally get an annulment from Katherine.
The King was granted the title “Supreme Head of the Church of England.” Even with this title, he could not declare his marriage as null and void. He still needed a decision from the Pope. The Pope did not see the marriage as being null so he declared that Katherine was the rightful wife of Henry VIII and they were still legally married. After receiving this final letter, Henry decided that he would deny the Pope’s authority. Henry then decided to sever himself from Rome. Cromwell was appointed Chancellor after Thomas More retired due to conflicting views with his faith. More did not see Henry as the Head of the Church, he was Catholic, therefore he agreed with Rome when it came to their decision. He did agree to the decree that made Anne Boleyn Henry’s legal wife, but that was not enough for Henry. Therefore, Thomas was executed at the Tower.
The King was granted the title “Supreme Head of the Church of England.” Even with this title, he could not declare his marriage as null and void. He still needed a decision from the Pope. The Pope did not see the marriage as being null so he declared that Katherine was the rightful wife of Henry VIII and they were still legally married. After receiving this final letter, Henry decided that he would deny the Pope’s authority. Henry then decided to sever himself from Rome. Cromwell was appointed Chancellor after Thomas More retired due to conflicting views with his faith. More did not see Henry as the Head of the Church, he was Catholic, therefore he agreed with Rome when it came to their decision. He did agree to the decree that made Anne Boleyn Henry’s legal wife, but that was not enough for Henry. Therefore, Thomas was executed at the Tower.

The English Bible approved by King Henry VIII; The Bible in Englyshe, London: Richard Grafton and Edward Whitechurch, 1540. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress.

The Reformation of England was a political issue, not a doctrinal. The first action to be taken was to put an end to the tyrannical power that the clergy had over the people. Then the superstition that you should not question your faith, that it was a sin to, had to be broken. The King began to hand out the English Bible to his servants.[10]  Although Henry was adamant about giving his people a Bible which could be read in English, through out his reign he became concerned about the consequences of letting the lower classes reading the bible for themselves. Restrictions and certain versions were restricted.

Queen Katherine by unknown artist, NPG

Henry’s last wife, Katherine Parr, a supporter of the Reformation and a believer in allowing the people to read the Gospels and the Bible in English, would come to know the restrictions and would almost be condemned herself for her genuine attempt to spread the word of God. Katherine Parr would go on to publish the first book by an English woman and queen in her own name called “Prayers or Meditations“. After the death of Henry and during the reign of the Protestant king, Edward VI, son of Henry and his third wife Jane Seymour, Katherine would go on to write and publish another book called “Lamentations of a Sinner” which became a huge success among the English people.

Henry imposed Royal Supremacy. This meant that Henry would have supremacy over the laws of the Church in England. The Act of Supremacy passed by Parliament and Henry stated that the King was “the only supreme head on earth of the Church in England’ and that the English crown shall enjoy “all honours, dignities, preeminence’s, jurisdictions, privileges, authorities, immunities, profits, and commodities to the said dignity.”[11]

Queen Katherine’s “Lamentations” on display at the Vivat Rex Exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library © Meg McGath

The Reformation of the Church in England changed religion in the Nation forever. Instead of answering to Rome, England answered to only the Sovereign in power. King Henry saw himself as the Supreme Head of the Church in England. He felt that he should have say over the laws of religion and he passed an act that would only allow him to be answerable to God himself. In the end, I think the whole break from Rome was a mix of wanting to break away from the religious dogma of the Catholic Church and Henry’s desire for an annulment so he could marry Anne Boleyn and have a son. Henry VIII was obsessed with having an heir. After his father, Henry VII had won the War of a Hundred years you can understand why he wanted the Tudor dynasty to continue on. Henry VIII’s father worked tirelessly to build up England again. As for the topic of sweating sickness, it was a lot like today’s Swine Flu disease only worse.  It spread faster and killed 99% of its victims. There was no hygiene in London. Most of London’s population at the time was poor. They were packed into small houses. Their diet was not good and they had no medicines or vaccines to prevent the spread of the epidemic. No one knew what to do. This was during the time when doctors thought bleeding a patient would get rid of the sickness. Today we know better. The Tudor period was a harsh period. Not just because of the disease, but the fact that each day you woke up you had no idea whether or not you would live or die.[12]
Bibliography
Alexander, Michael Van Cleave. “The First of the Tudors: Study of Henry VII and His Reign.” Croom Helm. February 1981.
Bucholz, Robert and Key, Newton. “Early Modern England, 1485-1714: A Narrative History.” Wiley, John & Sons, Incorporated. January 2008.
Carlton, Charles. “Royal Childhoods.” Routledge & Kegan Paul Books Ltd. January 1986.
Carroll, Robert. “Bible: King James Version (KJV).” Oxford University Press, USA. August 1998.
Fraser, Antonia. “The Wives of Henry VIII.” Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. November 1993.
Froude, James Anthony. “The Divorce of Catherine of Aragon: The Story as Told by the Imperial Ambassadors Resident at the Court of Henry VIII. In Usum Laicorum.”
Adamant Media Corporation. 30 Nov 2005
Hecker, J.F.C. “The epidemics of the middle ages.” Translated by B. G. Babington.
G. Woodfall and Son for The Sydenham Society. London. 1844.
Ross, David. “Henry VIII ‘s Act of Supremacy (1534) – Original Text.” Britain Express.
< “http://www.britainexpress.com/History/tudor/supremacy-henry-text.htm”>
Thurston, Herbert. “Henry VIII.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 16 Jul 2009. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07222a.htm&gt;.

[1] Robert Bucholz and Newton Key’s Early Modern England, 1485-1714: A Narrative History, Wiley, Johnson and Sons, 2008.
[2] Robert Bucholz, Newton Key, Early Modern England, 1485-1714: A Narrative History, Wiley, John and Sons, Incorporated, 2008.
[3] J. F. C. Hecker, The epidemics of the middle ages. Translated by B. G. Babington, G. Woodfall and Son for The Sydenham Society, London, 1844.
[4] J. F. C. Hecker, The epidemics of the middle ages. Translated by B. G. Babington, G. Woodfall and Son for The Sydenham Society, London, 1844.
[5] Robert Bucholz, Newton Key, Early Modern England, 1485-1714: A Narrative History, Wiley, John and Sons Incorporated, 2008.
[6] James Anthony Froude, The Divorce of Catherine of Aragon: The Story as Told by the Imperial Ambassadors Resident at the Court of Henry VIII. In Usum Laicorum, Adamant Media Corporation, 30 Nov 2005.
[7] Antonia Fraser, The Wives of Henry VIII, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, November 1993.
[8] Carroll, Robert. “Bible: King James Version (KJV).” Oxford University Press, USA. August 1998.
[9] Antonia Fraser, The Wives of Henry VIII, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, November 1993.
[10] Robert Bucholz, Newton Key, Early Modern England, 1485-1714: A Narrative History, Wiley, John and Sons Incorporated, 2008.
[11] Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy (1534) – original text, English History. David Ross and Britain Express
[12] J. F. C. Hecker, The epidemics of the middle ages. Translated by B. G. Babington, G. Woodfall and Son for The Sydenham Society, London, 1844.
© Meg McGath 16 July 2009, London, UK
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About tudorqueen6 (140 Articles)
Meg McGath is the author behind the articles on tudorqueen6; she has been studying the history and genealogy of the Parr family since 2007. Now, a decade later, she is still writing about her favorite Tudor queen, Kateryn Parr. Meg studied Women's Studies with an emphasis on English Women's History at the University of Maryland. One of her goals is to end the myth that Kateryn Parr was nothing more than a nursemaid to the aging King Henry VIII. "It simply isn't true, she did so much more for the Royal Family and her country," says Meg. And, of course, to educate Tudor enthusiasts on the prestigious lineage and connections of the Parr family. "Kateryn was related to everyone at court by blood or marriage. She was a descendant of the Beaufort line of John of Gaunt, son of Edward III, and Katherine Swynford. She shared this line with two of her husbands, Lord Latimer and the King," Meg states. A book is always her end game with Parr, but Meg has yet to put all the information together and send it to a publisher. "I've been told by many, including Professors, that I am a good writer..." says Meg. "The book, would focus on the generations before the Queen and how the Parr family became courtiers and relatives of The Crown."

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