Three Diseases in One Body: Frances, Duchess of Suffolk, Gets Sick

In August 1552, Frances Grey, Duchess of Suffolk, fell seriously ill, forcing her husband, Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk, to make a mad dash from court to her bedside. On August 26,  Suffolk wrote a hasty letter to William Cecil to explain his abrupt departure. As printed in part by Agnes Strickland (I have a photograph of the letter, but can’t make out the duke’s handwriting well enough to transcribe it myself), the letter reads, “This shall be to advertise you that my sudden departing from the court was for that I had received letters of the state my wife was in, who, I assure you, is mo liker to die than to live. I never saw a more sicker creature in my life than she is. She hath three diseases. The first is a hot burning ague, that doth hold her twenty-four hours, the other is the stopping of the spleen, the third is hypochondriac passion. These three being enclosed in one body, it is to be feared that death must needs follow. . . . From Richmond, the 26 of August, by your most assured and loving cousin, who, I assure you, is not a little troubled.”

What was ailing  Frances in August?

“Hot burning ague” is self-explanatory. As for “stopping of the spleen,” a 1656 book of remedies entitled The Skilful Physician,  edited in a modern edition by Carey Balaban et al., explains:  “And sometimes [the spleen] is greater, fuller, or grosser than it ought to be, by overmuch melancholy that is not natural, caused of the dregs of the blood engendered in the liver, & doth hinder generation of good blood, wherethrough the members become dry, for default of good nourishing. And therefore the patient is called splenetic, which ye may know by that, that after meat they have pain in their left side and are always heavy, and hath their faces sometimes inclining unto blackness.”

In his 1615 manual The English Housewife (edited in a modern edition by Michael Best), Gervase Markham gave the following remedy for “stopping of the spleen”: “Take fennel seeds and the roots, boil them in water, and after it is cleansed put to it honey and give it the party to drink, then seethe the herb in oil and wine together, and plasterwise apply it to the side.”

“Hypochondriac passion” gave Suffolk some trouble; he apparently changed his mind about the spelling of the first word, crossing it out and then rewriting it. As for what it was, its meaning appears to have changed over the years; what Frances had was not what we would describe as hypochondria.  While I couldn’t find much about the disease as it was known in Frances’s day,  later sources abound with descriptions of it. In the eighteenth century, at least, it was much confused with something called the hysteric passion, which, as Richard Brookes noted in 1765 in The General Practice of Physic, was a different malady altogether:

The hysteric differs from the hypochondriac Passion, inasmuch as that the latter is a tedious Disease, and requires a tedious Cure. The Hysteric Passion attacks Women who are pregnant, in Childbed; Widows who are full of Blood, after some grievous Passion of the Mind, or Maids after a sudden Suppression of the menstrual Flux ; and yet it may be so certainly cured as never to return. It likewise oftentimes comes on so suddenly, violently, and at unawares, that, being deprived of all Sense and Motion, they immediately fall down, which the Hypochondriac are not subject to. The Hysteric likewise have this peculiar, that they may soon be brought to their Senses, only by burning Feathers under their Nose. In hysteric Cases, the Belly and Navel are drawn inward; in the Hypochondriac they stand out. . . . .nor have [those suffering from hypochondriac passion] such frequent tainting Fits, nor an Apprehension of Suffocation, nor Strangling, as the Hysteric; nor, last of all, are any of these in Danger of being laid out for dead.

Brookes went on to explain:

The Hypochondriac Passion is a spasmatico-flatulent Affection of the Stomach and Intestines, arising from an Inversion or Perversion of their peristaltic Motion, and, by Consent of Parts, throwing the whole nervous System into irregular Motions, and disturbing the whole animal Economy.

This Disease is attended with such a Train of Symptoms, that it is a difficult Task to enumerate them all; for there is no Function, or Part of the Body, that is not soon or late a Sufferer by it’s Tyranny. It begins with Tensions, and windy Inflations of the Stomach and Intestines, especially under the spurious Ribs of the left Hypochondrium, in which a pretty hard Tumour may sometimes be perceived.

With regard to the Stomach, there is a nausea, a Loathing of Food, an uncertain Appetite, sometimes quite decayed, and sometimes strong; the Aliments are ill digested, breeding acid and viscid Crudities ; there is a pressing heavy Pain in the Stomach, chiefly after Meals; a spasmodic Constriction of the Gullet, a frequent Spitting of limpid Phlegm, an Impediment in Swallowing, a violent Heart-burn, a Heat at the Stomach, very acid Belchings, a Reaching to vomit, Vomiting, bringing up such acid Stuff, that the Teeth are not only set on an Edge thereby, but the very Linen or Sheets are sometimes corroded.

As if these weren’t enough, Brookes goes on industriously to list a host of other unpleasant symptoms, which include bloody stools, difficulty urinating, difficulty breathing, headaches, double vision, sweating, a burning tongue, and a “plentiful Excretion of Spittle.” Not surprisingly:

At length the animal Functions are impaired; the Mind is disturbed on the most trivial Occasions, and is hurried into the most perverse Commotions, Inquietudes, Anxieties, Terror, Sadness, Anger, Fear, or Diffidence. The Patient is prone to entertain wild Imaginations, and extravagant Fancies; the Memory grows weak, and the Reason fails.

Brookes went on to say that the condition affected those who were “soft, lax, and flabby”  or who were “naturally languid.” He added that the disease also affected “those who lead sedentary lives, and study too hard; insomuch that this is the peculiar disease of the learned.” (But wasn’t Frances supposed to have spent all of her time on a horse when she wasn’t beating her studious daughter?)

There was hope, however, for the eighteenth-century sufferer. To treat the condition, Brookes recommended (among other remedies) laxatives made of various herbs, but warned, “If there is a great deal of acid Filth in the Stomach, Crabs’ Eyes alone will purge.”

The paroxysms associated with the disease were to be treated by “tepid Pediluvia, made of Wheat Bran, Water, and Camomile-Flowers. The Feet must be put pretty deep within.”

The foot bath sounds rather pleasant, but alas, Brooks had another treatment as well: “If there is a disposition to an hemorrhoidal Flux, Leeches should be applied every month to the Anus.”

With the leeches having made their appearance in a place where most people would prefer not to have leeches, we shall say good-bye to our friend Brookes and make a happy return to the twenty-first century.  As  for Frances, her husband’s fears were for naught: if she tried her own era’s version of these or Brookes’ other suggested remedies, they must have worked, for she was well enough the following February to greet the Lady Mary when she came to visit Edward VI’s court. She was to live another seven years. History does not record whether she had another attack of hypochondriac passion, but for her sake, I hope not.

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10 Responses to Three Diseases in One Body: Frances, Duchess of Suffolk, Gets Sick

  1. Sonetka says:

    Interesting! And nasty, but that goes without saying 🙂 I wonder if she had a chronic problem with her gallbladder; that can produce some pretty nasty symptoms, and as a well-off woman who could presumably afford a rich diet and didn’t have to work from sunup to sundown, she’d be a bit more at risk. (This is all guesswork based on memories of many conversations with friends who are doctors, so take it for what it’s worth).

    I wonder if anyone ever actually tried the leeches, though I’m not sure I’d like to know the answer. Poor Frances, she doesn’t seem to have too great a time either in reality or in her posthumous career as a novel chacter.

    • boswellbaxter says:

      The gallbladder would make sense. Poor Frances!

      • Susan A says:

        Didn’t her sister Eleanor complain of blood in the urine and die young? I wonder if this was a similar ailment.

        • boswellbaxter says:

          Good point! Eleanor wrote, “I have byn very seke & att thys present my watter ys very redd, wherby I suppos I have the jaundes and the aygew both, for I have none abyde to meate & I have suche payns in my syde & towardes my bak . . .”

  2. Mary R says:

    Okay, speculation time! Does anyone have any ideas about what actually ailed poor Frances, besides the lack of a penis?

    • boswellbaxter says:

      Well, that’s a pretty big ailment! It would be interesting to know what a modern medical practitioner thought of her symptoms.

  3. Anne Barnhill says:

    Great article! Hmm, speculation…I’m thinking gall bladder or liver malfunction. All those symptoms–who knows? But at least her hubby came to her side when she needed him–and even left court! Says a great deal about their relationship. Thanks!

  4. Esther says:

    Great article. Could she have taken in some kind of environmental toxin?

  5. bluffkinghal says:

    I thought it could be some kind of a hormonal disturbance …