Ways to Die During the Tudor Period

What comes to mind when you think of the Tudor period and death? Most often the first answer is beheading. We can thank Henry VIII for that! However, there were plenty of other ways to lose your life between 1485 and 1603.

In this article we’ll cover a variety of ways that one could die or be killed during the Tudor period. Of course we didn’t list them all because there were thousands of ways one could die during this time period…


Disease was rampant during the Tudor period. Antibiotics did not exist yet, so when a person got sick they would use methods like bleeding the humors to cure them or make them feel better. As we know today, this was not a cure.

The list we have compile here are some of the most common diseases during the Tudor period – you’ve most likely heard of them but we’re hoping to teach you something you didn’t already know. 🙂

Danse Macabre (Wolgemut) - Public Domain
Danse Macabre (Wolgemut) – Public Domain

Consumption: This is the same as Tuberculosis – it was called Consumption because the disease seemed to consume the individual. Their weight would drastically drop as the disease progressed.

Symptoms of consumption include: Coughing (sometimes with mucus or blood), chills, fatigue, fever, loss of weight, loss of appetite, night sweats.

Dysentery: King John, Edward I and Henry V of England – oh, and Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, all died from dysentery. Dysentery is an infection that spread through contaminated food or water. It could also be caused by a parasitic worm infestation.

From Medical News Today: “The amoeba group together and form a cyst, the cysts come out of the body in human feces. In areas of poor sanitation, these cysts (which can survive for a long time), can contaminate food and water, and infect other humans. The cysts can also linger in infected people’s hands after going to the toilet. Good hygiene practice reduces the risk of infecting other people.”

Common symptoms of dysentery include: abdominal pain, fever and chills, nausea and vomiting, watery diarrhea, which can contain blood, mucus or pus, painful passing of stools, fatigue, intermittent constipation.

Typhoid (Fever): Similar to Dysentery, Typhoid could be contracted from food and water supplies contaminated with the bacteria or fecal matter.

A bacterial infection which causes headaches, diarrhea, weakness and abdominal pain. It can also lead to pneumonia, coma and intestinal hemorrhaging. Typhoid starts with a week of fever, cough and generally feeling off. By the third week of illness the diarrhea would begin. The diarrhea, so bad that victim would become dehydrated. Extremely dehydrated their heart would be weakened by the infection and their bowels would burst. Peritonitis would develop followed by septicemia as the infection spreads to the blood. The person would be physically exhausted. Then the major organs would shut down they would die slowly.

Small PoxQueen Elizabeth I of England contracted Small Pox in 1562, this was a very serious matter because if she died there was no heir to take the throne and she had not yet named an heir. She of course survived.

Symptoms of small pox: fever, malaise, head and body aches, and sometimes vomiting. Usually a high fever that ranges from 101 to 104°F. With the high fever the victim was usually too sick to carry on their normal daily activities.

Then a rash emerges. First as small red spots on the tongue and in the mouth and then they develop into sores. The fever drops. The spots develop into sores and break open – they spread large amounts of the virus into the mouth and throat. This is when the person is most contagious. The rash usually spreads to all parts of the body within 24 hours.

By the third day the rash becomes raised bumps. On the fourth day the bumps fill with fluid and the fever returns until scabs form over the bumps.

Sweating Sickness: Learn more about the sweating sickness from two of our previous guest post by JoAnn Spears called, Anne Boleyn: The Sweating Sickness and an article by Susan Abernethy called, The English Sweating Sickness

Plague: Learn about the plaque from our previous article called, “The Black Death or The Great Pestilence


Public Domain: Lady Jane Grey
Public Domain: Lady Jane Grey

During Henry VIII’s reign execution was a real possibility as a way to die – look at Henry the wrong way and he might send you to the block. Okay, not really, but there were A LOT of people executed during the reign of Henry VIII.

There were multiple ways to be executed, some more humane than others – if you had to choose your inevitable execution, which would you choose?

Beheading: Usually reserved for those more important people like members of court, religious figures and monarchs. These were general done by axe which could take several blows. If lucky, like Anne Boleyn, they would use a sword instead.

Hanging: Hanging was generally considered a “lesser” mans execution method – beheading was a quicker, more humane way to be executed. In their minds anyhow – I’m not sure there is a more humane way to be EXECUTED.

Hanged, Drawn and Quartered: If this was the method used for your execution you must have done something pretty bad. This was a way to set an example to your subjects. “Commit this crime and this is what will happen to you.”  I’m not sure there is a worse death than this. In most instances they would hang you until near death and then while still alive tied up your hands and feet, cut you open and remove your intestines and sex organs. The organs were then thrown in a fire somewhere near the victim. After that was done they chopped of your head and cut your body into four sections. Typically the five parts would be put on display, again as a reminder to the king’s subjects.

Burning at the Stake: ‘Heretics were sentenced to death by burning at the stake, a punishment meant to symbolize the flames that awaited the sinner in hell.” Women who were accused of witchcraft were also sentenced to this death.

Boiled to Death: I’m not sure what you’d have to do to be boiled to death, but that doesn’t sound like much fun either. To be honest, it sounds like this was the sentence for those who attempted to poison someone.

Being Pressed to Death: Well, this would suck.


 Credit: Wellcome Library, London

Childbirth during the Tudor era wasn’t much better than the medieval era. Many women lost their lives while giving birth, or shortly thereafter. Jane Seymour, third wife of Henry VIII was one of them. She gave birth to Henry’s long-awaited son and days later died from what is suspected to be child bed fever, or an infection. Elizabeth of York, Henry VIII’s mother, also died after giving birth. This was a very common occurrence.

Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII nearly died giving birth to her son. She was only 13 years old and had a small frame. Her body was not ready for giving birth.


Screen capture of Suzannah Lipscomb in Hidden Killers of the Tudor Home - BBC - Full Documentary
Screen capture: Hidden Killers of the Tudor Home – BBC – Full Documentary

This one may seem a little strange to be included on the list, but it was also very common for women to drown while washing their clothes by a water source (river, stream, etc). Sometimes they would accidentally fall into the water and their clothes, often times made of wool, would absorb the river water and make the woman much heavier than usual and causing her to drown.

Roughly 40% of accidental deaths in Tudor England came from drowning. 40% is a lot!


Fire was a very serious issue in the Tudor home. Chimneys were the culprit.

A stylised view of Tenby in the 16th century National Trust Images / Chris Lacey
A stylised view of Tenby in the 16th century National Trust Images / Chris Lacey

Someone who had a narrow escape at the river might have enjoyed the warmth of a new hearth – because of a wonderful new innovation called a chimney which kept smoke to a minimum. But there were dangers here too. Chimneys could easily catch fire because they were badly constructed or not regularly cleaned – a serious threat in a thatched house. The one grace was that timber houses took time to burn, which allowed time to escape; so rather than dying by fire, most chimney-related deaths were the result of chimneys collapsing on the house’s inhabitants. - By Suzannah Lipscomb via The Telegraph


Screen capture: Hidden Killers of the Tudor Home - BBC - Full Documentary
Screen capture: Hidden Killers of the Tudor Home – BBC – Full Documentary

Teeth you say? Indeed! Sugar played a big part in Tudor England and was used in nearly everything. Dental hygiene was not what it is today. During the Tudor period they didn’t have a tooth-brush or toothpaste to clean their teeth – instead they used toothpicks and tooth cloths to wipe their teeth. They would use a variety of powders, pastes, solutions and rose-water which all tended to have sugar in them. This might “clean” their teeth but definitely added to the problem of tooth decay.

Tooth decay if left untreated could affect the bone and then that could form an abscess.  The abscess could then drain internally into the blood stream and essentially poison a person from their own teeth. This would cause all sorts of health problems.


Henry VIII was known to be a very athletic man. There were a couple of times that I know of when he nearly died from participating in sport. Here are two examples.

Catalina de Aragon watching Henry VIII of England joust, College of Arms, early 16th century. Catherine of Aragon was the first wife of King Henry VIII. of England.
Catalina de Aragon watching Henry VIII of England joust, College of Arms, early 16th century. Catherine of Aragon was the first wife of King Henry VIII. of England. (Public Domain)

Pole-Vaulting: “When he was ‘following his hawk’ near Hitchin, he tried to pole vault over a ditch, but the pole snapped and he landed headfirst in the muddy water. Stuck fast in the clay, he would have drowned had it not been for a footman, Edmund Mody, who leapt into the stream and hauled him out. This accident (or the one in the tiltyard a year before) might have accounted for the headaches he suffered later on, but its immediate effect was to bring home to the King, more forcibly than ever, the fact that the problem of the succession must be solved as a matter of urgency.” (The King and His Court by Alison Weir page 247) – shared from thetudorswiki.com

Joust– Jousting was a very common sport at court, especially for Henry VIII. On 24 January 1536 Henry VIII had a very serious jousting accident which left him unconscious for hours. Many thought he would die. However, he did live and some speculate that this accident is the one that turned him into a tyrant because of his brain injury.

King Henry II of France died from a jousting accident in 1559. A splinter from the lance pierced the King’s eye and penetrated his brain. The splinter was removed, including those that also pierced his throat and head but it the damage was done. The King of France died not long after and his son Francis II became King. Francis was married to Mary, Queen of Scots.


We don’t need to go into detail on this one – I think we can all imagine the many ways one could die during battle. Of course they could also contract disease during a campaign.

Battle of Bosworth


Online Sources:


Henry VIII History House of Tudor Jane Seymour Royal Houses

14 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I’d imagine another leading cause of death for women in any pre-modern era was death by cooking fires. A spark would catch their skirts on fire or they would turn carelessly and catch a piece of clothing on fire. The resulting burn would often lead to infection and death. This was true on the colonial American frontier – I’m a volunteer docent at a historical site in western PA.

  2. I have to disagree very strongly with one of your points. You write under the modern assumption that Tudor medical diagnoses can be associated with specific diseases, but that’s not at all true. It isn’t remotely true. They diagnosed clusters of symptoms, and they certainly got most diagnoses wrong.

    Tudor physicians didn’t call TB “consumption”; they called any disease that caused wasting “consumption”. They didn’t call infectious diarrhea “dysentery”; they called any disease that involved severe diarrhea “dysentery”. It wasn’t until two hundred years after Henry VIII died that doctors had the knowledge to separate what we call dysentery from colon cancer, peritonitis, food poisoning, celiac disease, and all the other conditions that cause diarrhea. It’s likewise certain that many of the Tudor deaths ruled as having been from “consumption” were actually caused by cancer, leukaemia, congestive heart disease, aneurysm, esophageal varices, and even anorexia. These were common diseases but as unknown to the Tudors as heart attack or bone cancer – and every one of them could have similar symptoms to TB in a world without stethoscopes and X-rays.

  3. Couple of errors: women were hanged, not burned, for witchcraft in England. It was on the Continent that the penalty for witchcraft was burning, and even then victims tended to be strangled beforehand.

  4. Thank you for this post… You solved a mystery for me… A few weeks back I was reading a list of the many strange things the Tudors died from. One of them mentioned was ‘the teeth’ and I thought to myself how on earth can anyone die of teeth? Vampires? Very well written too… Well done…

    • You must be very young, indeed. People died in the early 20th century, from poor dentition, leading to septicemia, as mentioned, there were no antibiotics until the mid 1900’s. Thus there were millions of young-middle aged people who were without teeth. Pulling was the only option, even around 1900. Imagine the pain.

  5. Very interesting. Enjoyed reading about the dreadful ways to die in Tudor England. Made me realise how lucky we are today.

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