What might have been: The Sweating Sickness and the Representation of the County of Cornwall in Henry VII’s first Parliament of 1485-6

In today’s blog, Dr Hannes Kleineke, editor of our Commons 1461-1504 project, looks back to 1485, when a sudden epidemic impacted on the membership of Henry VII’s first parliament…

By the time Henry VII overcame Richard III at the battle of Bosworth and claimed the English throne, changes of dynasty or even ruler followed an established pattern. Having successfully asserted a claim to the throne and secured some form of possession of the crown, frequently by armed might or an exhibition thereof, the new ruler summoned a Parliament to affirm his claim and negate those of any potential rivals. In this, the autumn of 1485 was no exception. On 15 September, less than a month after Bosworth, writs were issued summoning a Parliament to meet at Westminster on 7 November.

King Richard III
National Portrait Gallery
via artuk.org

Clearly, it was imperative that the new King should have friends in this assembly: no previous 15th-century usurper had quite so flimsy a royal lineage as Henry VII, and by inference quite so tenuous a claim to the English throne. Moreover, England had suffered more than a quarter of a century of intermittent dynastic strife, and while some former adherents of Edward IV had been antagonised by Richard III and had thrown in their lot with Henry Tudor, it was far from clear how far he could rely on the full support of the Yorkist clientele, or even of what little remained of die-hard partisans of the defeated, depleted, and fragmented Lancastrian line. The House of Lords could be managed by denying summons to those peers too closely associated with Richard III, but the Commons were a different matter. The loss of the election returns for the Parliament of 1485 makes it impossible to be certain about the composition of more than a fraction of the membership of the Commons, but some inferences may be drawn from what is known. The lengths to which Henry and his advisers went to try and secure a compliant House of Commons are perhaps best demonstrated by the election as Speaker of the chancellor of the Exchequer, the King’s councillor Sir Thomas Lovell, a man who should have been technically disqualified from office by his attainder in the Parliament of 1485. Even so, the proceedings were to be characterised by arguments and disagreement, as the MPs for Colchester reported to their constituents.

Henry VII
National Trust, Nostell Priory
via artuk.org

One part of England where Henry VII enjoyed considerable support was the far south-west. Devon and Cornwall had only grudgingly come to terms with the accession of the house of York. Many of the leading gentry of the two counties had risen in arms for Henry VI during his brief Readeption in 1470-71, and many had also played their part in the duke of Buckingham’s rebellion against Richard III in 1483. Once the earl of Richmond had asserted himself as the focal point of the opposition to Richard III, a number of important south-westerners had joined him in exile on the continent. Among the most eminent of them was Sir Thomas Arundell of Lanherne. In a county which was almost unique in late medieval England in its lack of resident magnates, the Arundells of Lanherne stood out among their neighbours in wealth and status.

After the failure of the main line of the house of Lancaster, the Arundells had grudgingly come to terms with Edward IV’s rule, but even though Sir Thomas was among the men knighted on the eve of Richard III’s coronation, he joined Buckingham’s rising and before the end of the year had gone into exile. He was attainted by Parliament in 1484, and stripped of his lands which were granted to the King’s favourite Sir James Tyrell. Arundell returned with Henry VII two years later, and fought alongside him at Bosworth. As one of two leading Cornishmen in Henry’s inner circle, and a member of one of the great historic families of the county, Arundell would have been an obvious choice to seek election to Parliament in the autumn of 1485 as one of the knights of the shire for Cornwall.

It was not to be. By the second week of October, probably even before parliamentary elections could be held in Cornwall, Arundell was dead. It is possible that he had succumbed to wounds sustained in the fighting at Bosworth, but there may also be another explanation. In the weeks after Bosworth, England experienced the first outbreak of a new and frightening epidemic, the ‘Sweating Sickness’ or ‘English Sweat’ (sudor anglicus). Thought by some to have been a highly contagious viral infection (medical opinion remains divided), the sweating sickness, the symptoms of which included violent cold shivers, joint pains, a fever, accompanied by the characteristic intense sweating that gave the disease its name, and severe exhaustion, could kill a sufferer within a matter of hours.

The epidemic broke out in London in mid-September, and in a matter of weeks caused several thousand fatalities, many of them from the upper echelons of civic society. In October, the outbreak ended as suddenly as it had begun, although there would be repeated epidemics of the disease until the mid-16th century. Before his death, Arundell found time to make a will and asked to be buried initially in the parish church of Waddesdon in Buckinghamshire, before having his body transferred to the Franciscan friary at Dorchester in Dorset at a later date. It is possible that this provision was merely intended to give his executors time to make the requisite preparations for a suitably grand memorial in the friary, but it is equally possible that it owed everything to the need for a rapid burial of his body at a time of epidemic disease sweeping across the land.

Arundell was by no means an old man, and could have expected to play an important part in the politics of Henry VII’s reign, much as, and perhaps even more than, his ancestors and descendants had done and would do under earlier and later kings. As it was, not for the first and certainly not for the last time, a career full of promise was cut prematurely short by an epidemic. Southern England, but not his native Cornwall, was to have one last glimpse of Arundell as, some time after his death, his mother-in-law, the formidable Lady Joan Dynham, arranged for the transfer of his body to Dorchester in a splendid cortège decked out with a hundred shields of arms, and in an overland procession that lasted six days.

H.W.K.

Further reading:

J. R. Carlson and P.W. Hammond, ‘The English Sweating Sickness (1485-c.1551): A New Perspective on Disease Etiology’. Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, liv (1999), 23–54.

H. Kleineke, ‘The Reburial Expenses of Sri Thomas Arundell’, The Ricardian, xi (June 1998), 288-96.

For more on the impact of disease and epidemics on Parliament, head to the ‘Health and Medicine‘ link on our page. Follow the research of our 1461-1504 project at the ‘Commons in the Wars of the Roses‘ section of our blog.

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