Guest article by Sylvia Barbara Soberton
The Covid-19 pandemic has changed our lives in a way that has not been seen since the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic. We live our lives knowing that a dangerous virus is out there, killing people every day. We are not used to this. When I was writing my new book, Medical Downfall of the Tudors, it really struck me that in the sixteenth century people lived with dangerous infectious diseases every day because epidemics swept through England on a regular basis, killing children and adults alike.
Although physicians in Tudor England had no knowledge of microorganisms and germs, it was widely understood that virulent diseases spread easily in dirty and cramped London, where people lived in close quarters. The theory that “miasma” or a “bad air” carried illness through the air was very popular, and so the Tudor people made sure to avoid bad smells. The rich carried pomanders—little metal balls filled with herbs—to ward off unpleasant and potentially deadly smells. Rushes mixed with herbs were strewn on the floors of royal palaces, and the wealthy used perfumes. When crossing the Thames in a barge, Elizabeth I used a special pan where herbs and oils burned to ward off the stinky, potentially polluted air.
Sometimes infectious diseases spread at the same time, as was the case in the summer of 1518, when one worried observer wrote to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey that Henry VIII left London “for they do die in these parts in every place, not only of the smallpox and measles, but also of the great sickness [plague]”. Smallpox, measles and the plague were among the most dreaded infectious diseases of the Tudor period.
In this article I would like to debunk the often repeated myth that Henry VIII refused to crown his third wife, Jane Seymour, before the birth of a male heir. The cancellation of Jane’s coronation had more to do with a deadly infectious disease that was spreading in England at the time. Imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys is partly to blame for this myth, for on 1 July 1536 he wrote that:
“The coronation of this Queen has been delayed till after Michaelmas. Suspicious persons think it is to see if she shall be with child; and, if not, and there is danger of her being barren, occasion may be found to take another.”
The accounts of John Nedham, the Clerk and Surveyor General of the King’s works, shows that a team of skilled carpenters was working in the palace of Westminster in preparation for Jane’s upcoming coronation between 27 August and 24 September 1536. Chapuys was clearly wrong when he asserted that Jane’s coronation was delayed in July 1536: the King married her on 30 May, so a coronation before 1 July, the date of Chapuys’s report, seems too hasty. Nedham’s accounts clearly show that work progressed at a swift pace, with the original coronation date set for 29 September 1536, the Feast of Michaelmas.
Various rumours circulated at court, and on 8 July John Husee informed Lady Lisle that “the Coronation will not be till after All Hallow tide [31 October]”. On 6 September, Husee wrote further that it was “expected the Coronation will be on St Edward’s day [13 October], unless the sickness stay [delays] it”. The rumours of the coronation’s postponement stemmed from the fact that the plague was raging in England from at least April 1536. On 1 May, two gentlemen of the Inner Temple had died of it, and on the 15th the Abbot of York asked to be excused from attending Parliament because the plague had reached near his house at St Paul’s. Some people speculated that the coronation was likely to be postponed and others wrote letters to Cromwell asking if the rumours that Jane was to be crowned on 31 October were true.
Yet Henry VIII was still hesitant about what to do. On 27 September 1536, two days before Jane’s expected coronation, the King had an audience with Ralph Sadler and pondered whether the coronation should be deferred, “seeing how the plague reigned in Westminster, even in the Abbey”. The King requested an urgent meeting of the Privy Council to confer on the matter and said, “What then? Michaelmas Day is not so high a day”, giving to understand that the coronation on 29 September would likely be cancelled. Writing on 3 October 1536, Chapuys was able to report that “the Queen’s coronation which was to have taken place at the end of this month is put off till next summer, and some doubt it will not take place at all. There is no appearance that she will have children”. He still believed that the coronation was postponed because Jane was not pregnant yet, completely ignoring the fact that the plague was rife in the country.
The real reason behind the coronation’s postponement was the plague coupled with social unrest. In October 1536, the rebellion known as the Pilgrimage of Grace broke out in the northern part of the country, and the King sent his men to deal with the rebels. On 27 November 1536, Husee reported that people “die daily in the city” of the plague. By 11 December, Husee expressed hope that “all danger of the plague is well nigh past”, but he was wrong.
In June 1537, when Jane was five months pregnant, the weather was “so hot and contagious, and the plague so sore in the city” that she grew very worried. John Husee wrote to Lady Lisle: “Your Ladyship would not believe how much the Queen is afraid of the sickness.” When Jane gave birth to Prince Edward on 12 October 1537, the plague was still raging in London, so the christening ceremony was held privately, and special ordinances were set in motion “on account of the plague” to avoid the outbreak of infection at court. Margaret Grey, Marchioness of Dorset, who was to be the prince’s godmother, was banned from entering the royal household after two persons died in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s palace at Croydon, where she stayed en route to Hampton Court Palace. Jane herself died of postnatal complications on 24 October 1537. Her entire tenure as Queen was marred by the plague, and her coronation, originally planned for 1536, never occurred because of the sickness. The plague eventually died down, and had Jane survived she would certainly have been crowned in reward for giving birth to Henry VIII’s long-awaited male heir.
 Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 2, n. 4320.
 Letters and Papers, Henry VIII, Volume 11, n. 8.
 The Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine, Volume 15, pp. 167-168.
 Letters and Papers, Henry VIII, Volume 11, n. 47.
 Ibid., n. 414.
 Letters and Papers, Henry VIII, Volume 10, n. 739.
 Ibid., Volume 11, n. 454, 465.
 Ibid., Volume 11, n. 501.
 Ibid., n. 528.
 Ibid., n. 1181.
 Ibid., n. 1282.
 Letters and Papers, Henry VIII, Volume 12 Part 2, n. 179.
 Ibid., n. 298.
 Ibid., n. 894.