Pandemics through history….


Anne Neville, from Rous

For the last few years we’ve been beset by a pandemic. COVID-19 is the new blight on the block, and has set about knocking us down like ninepins in spite of antibiotics and even immunisation. But modern medicine has done a lot to standing up to the silent menace. In times gone by folks weren’t so fortunate, and it didn’t make any difference whether you were prince or pauper—the Black Death/plague got you! And at the beginning of the 20th century there was Spanish flu, which mowed the human population down like a new mower on a lawn.

Plagues of the past “….have changed the course of history, claiming the lives of monarchs and heirs and shifting the royal line of succession….” as you will see in this article.  

Richard III’s queen, Anne Neville, was the victim of tuberculosis (it’s thought) which would still be rife now if it weren’t for antibiotics and immunisation. It was a cruel blow to Richard, who lost his wife, his son and his own life in quick succession. Fate can be unbelievably cruel.

We lost the last male Tudor monarch in 1542 when Edward VI succumbed to tuberculosis, his immune system having been severely impaired by measles and smallpox when he was only 14. We still have good cause to fear measles and smallpox, but the majority of us recover because of antibiotics, immunisation and modern hygiene.

Elizabeth I fell prey to smallpox, but recovered. In the late 19th century Prince Albert Victor, heir to the throne of Britain, contracted Russian flu, which turned to pneumonia, and that was the end of him.

But way back in the 14th century, Richard II’s beloved queen, Anne of Bohemia, was a victim of the plague, and died suddenly. Richard was completely devastated, because from all accounts he and Anne had loved each other deeply. It was a blow from which, in my opinion, he didn’t really recover. He needed her, and suddenly she’d been taken away. There were no antibiotics then, and medieval medicine was often more fatal than the disease!

So there have always been pandemics….and no doubt COVID won’t be the last to grace us with its unwelcome presence.


  1. There’s a strong theory using genetic sequencing that the Russian Flu was, in fact, not flu but Coronavirus OC43 when it emerged as a novel strain. Today OC43 is ‘a cold’ but one of the nastier cold strains that occasionally goes deeper into the lower lungs. Like Covid, it caused loss of taste/smell and hit the older populations hardest.

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  2. Although not a recurring epidemic, especially as it has not been isolated and identified (yet), the English in particular had a nasty history with something called the Sweat, or Sweating sickness, which Ricardians are all familiar with. It had periodic outbreaks (1485, 1508, 1517, 1528, and 1551) which carried off people, all demographics, struck quickly and apparently burned itself out just as quickly. The young teenage heirs of Charles Brandon (H8’s boon companion, serial womanizer etc etc) died within an hour of each other while ‘avoiding’ the Sweat at Buckden in 1551, the last outbreak, Cromwell lost most of his family to it.

    But the first outbreak came with the Norman mercenaries brought over by Henry VII, lovingly described by Commynes as “the most unruly men in Normandy” as they were released from the jails and rounded up from the streets to fight for the savior of the English. Of the some 6000 troops they think Henry had on hand at Bosworth 2000 were these Norman mercenaries, the others were Welsh and Scots, the long embittered exiled Lancastrians and the newly embittered refugees from the Yorkist court who did not feel adequately compensated as to their worth and/or got caught up in Buckingham’s mess of a ‘Rebellion.’

    The Sweat first appeared in London 19 September, where Henry and his swarming troops of Normans hit the crowded streets by 28 August, allegedly delaying Henry’s coronation AND his marriage to Elizabeth of York until January 1486. As to what the Sweat was, in terms of virology, there are a slew of articles about that! Hantavirus comes up most often. As far back as F Ashworth Underwood’s article in June 1952 (Milestones in Medicine, Health Education Journal, p.127) both the Norman mercenaries and hantavirus are discussed. Just don’t tell wikileaks, they say poo-poo to sweet Henry having a darn thing to do with bringing that nasty Sweat to England!

    (side note, as someone who pretty much lives in Sylvia Thrupp’s Merchant Class of London I had long wondered why all these aldermen, mayors, sheriffs, etc, dropped dead in October 1485, now I know why).

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  3. Thrupp is part of what I now realize was a golden age of specialists, scholars who also included a fair number of women (Ruddick, Veale, Carus-Wilson, and I would include Scofield for her acute focus on E4’s foreign policy, to name a few). My only complaint (and I’m being petty here probably) is that her index drives me batty. I love the appendix with many of the Aldermanic Families but that index…

    I should have known to expect all the ‘good stuff’ to be found with the specialist scholars, writers and academics, that is where one finds the most helpful material in my own field (and I know that! good grief) from Thrupp I moved onto the wonderful resources found among the British resources for cultural, social, and physical archaeology (ie. MOLA, Schofield, Egan, Marsden, Milne, et al crew, but also the much earlier work of Marjorie Honeybourne), I think our current scholars Sutton, Visser-Fuchs are making a great bridge between traditional ‘big view’ academics like Barron, Hanham and Laynesmith and what these deep dive specialists can provide. Happy camper here.

    just give me a decent index people!

    I bad, I forgot one of my faves, Bridbury’s England and the Salt Trade! That is a keeper, 1955, mea culpa Messer Bridbury!

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    1. The more thorough and comprehensive the index the happier I am. A skimpy or illogical index is the ruin of an otherwise good book. As for indexes that only record SOME of the references in the book…give me strength! If I’m looking up a certain thing that does appear in the index, I expect every instance to be listed, not just a few. It always makes me feel the author has lost interest by the time he/she reaches that point! That off my chest, I agree with your comments! Entirely. (And don’t even start me on books that have no index at all!!!!! 😠)


  4. Viscountessw, we’re in complete agreement! I salivate at the sight of fulsome footnotes, a bibliography that runs 10+ pages, and a detailed Index – however, from my own experience, in my area, the Index is often handled by a 3rd party -just as an author has satellite helpers: the editor(s), proof reader(s) and research assistants. Whomever is given the task of reading through the manuscript to collect data for the Index may well be a temp (or in cases I know, grad students eager to be part of their professor’s latest book). Quite a few English majors can pick up work doing piecemeal jobs like that, handling just the Index for a book, whether it is on marine biology or world economic ruin or the First Battle of St Albans, and they need not ‘know’ anything about any of the materials they scan through for putting an index together!

    As an art student I didn’t give two figs for any of this, all I needed was the3 visual content, seriously I was a sponge. As an academic grad student that changed and unfortunately coincided with the trend (late 90’s) in scholarship to not bother with footnotes, indexes and lord help me, bibliographies (well, why bother, the author is just citing their three closest friends and associates in the field, all the arguments are circular, and worst of all we inherited from the Modern Language departments (Literary Theory) the odious claptrap ideologies of PostStructuralism, Deconstruction, Reader Response, Semiotics, Marxist Theory, etc etc etc and coming from the studio end of the equation I bristled at Derrida or Kristeva or De Man or Foucault telling me that artists were NOT the privileged partners in the relationship between Viewer and artwork (be it a painting, ceramic bowl, bronze statue, wooden temple or celluloid film) that the Viewer (meaning a Barthes or Lacan et al) is the sole arbiter of what the artist meant, said, expressed or DIDN’T say. It got testy in many of my grad classes. And you haven’t seen an eff’ed up index until you have seen one in a book from these ‘literary theory’ poseurs!

    well, there is my morning rant, and without caffeine!


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