When the Treatment is Worse than the Illness, by Seamus O’Caellaigh

Editor’s Note: Today Queenanneboleyn.com welcomes Seamus O’Caellaigh, author of the exceptionally fascinating newly released history book Pustules, Pestilence and Pain: Tudor Treatments and Ailments of Henry VIII. After reading and digesting Seamus O’Caellaigh’s intriguing research, you will be left wondering just how anyone survived beyond childhood in the Tudor era.


Seamus O’Caellaigh, author of Pustules, Pestilence and Pain: Tudor Treatments and Ailments of Henry VIII


When the Treatment is Worse than the Illness

by Seamus O’Caellaigh 



“I have just this moment heard that the Duke of Richmond died this morning; not a bad thing for the interests of the Princess. She, thank God, is very well, and I think her father’s affection for her increases daily,” wrote Eustace Chapuys, Imperial ambassador to England from 1529 until 1545. This was not the first or the last of Henry VIII’s children to die young. But what sort of treatments could have been used to treat his children?

We do not have medical records from the royal family, so we must look to the medical texts of the time. Thomas Phaer was an English lawyer, pediatrician, and author of the first text on pediatric medicine published in  English. His work, The Boke of Chyldren, was published in 1544 and is a representative example of pediatric medicine during the Tudor period. We will examine 5 of the treatments from his book with a modern eye. Specifically, we will look at treatments for skin ailments, ear pain, and swollen stones. While we today consider these treatments preposterous, I wonder what will the people 500 years from now have to say about our medicine of today? After examining the ingredients used to treat English children, we will be able to see that some Tudor pediatric medicine was outrageous and could have contributed to a higher child mortality rate, as well as impacting the health of Henry VIII’s children.




“An excellent remedye for wartes or knobbes of then head. – Take lytarge and whyte lead, of eche lyke quantitie, brimstone and quychsylver quenched with spittle, of eche a lesse quantitie, twyse as moch oyle of roses, and a sponefull or .ii. of vynegre; mixe them all togyther on a marble til then be an ointment, and laye it on the head; and whan it hath ben drye an houre or .ii. wasshe it off with water wherein was sodden majorym, savery, and minutes; use it thus thwyse a daye, mornynge and evenynge, tylle ye see it whole. This thyng is also good in all the other kind of scalles.” – The Boke of Chyldren, pg. 39.

Lytarge the first ingredient, modernly spelled Litharge, is one of the names for lead monoxide, sometimes called yellow lead. The second ingredient, white lead, is lead carbonate. Two types of lead! Brimstone is an alternative name for sulfur and quicksilver is mercury. Of course, warts are so terrible that apparently, it is better to poison your child with lead and mercury! Some believe that marjoram and savory can be used for different skin conditions… none of which are warts… but at least they are not poison! Skip the lead and move straight to the cooking spices. You may not actually treat warts but smelling like an Italian restaurant is better than lead and mercury poisoning any day of the week.


A civet is a small, lithe-bodied, mostly nocturnal mammal native to tropical Asia and Africa.


“A goddly swete sope for scabbes and ytche. – Take whyte sope halfe a pounde and stepe it in sufficient rosewater tyl it be well soked; then take two drammes of mercury sublimed, dissolve it in a lylte rosewater, labour the sope and the rosewater weltogether, and afterward put in it a lytle muske or cyvetter and kepe it. This sope is excedynge good to cure a greate scabbe or ytche, and that wythoute peryll, but it shall suffice to make it weaker of the mercury.” – The Boke of Chyldren, pg. 48.

Mercury sublimate is a mercury salt used later in the photography collodion process in the 1800s. It is a poison and should never be used on an adult, let alone a child! A Tudor physician suggested mixing this with a little rose water and musk or civet. Musk is a secretion from the musk deer and civet is a secretion from the civet cat. Both of these are used in perfumes from the period as well as rose water. Basically, you have a perfume or sweet water mixed with a poison… but at least they smelled good while they were poisoned.

“An other [remedye for payne in the eares]. – the hame or skynne of an adder or a snake that she casteth, boyled in oyle and dropped into the ears, easeth the payne; and it is also good for an eare that mattereth, myngled with a lytle honye and put it luke warme. It is also good to droppe into the eares the juyce of organye and mylke.” – The Boke of Chyldren, pg. 49.

To treat ear pain, boil the skin of a snake in oil and drop it in the ear. The second option is to mix it with some honey and instill it warm. The third option is to drop orange juice and milk in the ear. This gives a new meaning to the term “snake oil salesman” used in the 19th century to describe a salesperson that sells fake healing, maybe the terms should have been used in the 16th century for pediatric medicine. The positive side of this is it’s not poisonous, which is levels above our previous remedies. The downside? Your doctor might get a viper bite trying to skin the snake.

“An other [A googly playster for swellying of the stones]. – Take cowes donge and seethe it in mylke, then make a playster and laye it metelye hote upon the swellynge.” -The Boke of Chyldren, pg. 71.

Swelling of the stones…You mean testicles? A little boy has swollen testicles, and the treatment is to make a plaster from the dung of a cow and soak it in milk? Gross! There are three common reasons for swelling of the testicles in boys: hernias, caused by an atypical opening that is left behind after the testicles descend during development; hydroceles, or collections of fluid, that pass down into the scrotum (this happens in about 10 percent of baby boys); finally, Varicoceles, or swelling caused by enlarged veins in the scrotum. None of these should be treated with feces… I will be willing to take that a step farther; nothing should be treated with feces!




“A googlye medicine for to kylle lyce” – Take the groundes or dregges of oyle aloes, wormwood, and the galle of a bulle or of an oxe; make an ointment, whyche is singuler good fo the same pourpose.” The Boke of Chyldren, pg. 76.

Nicholas Culpeper writes in his book, English Physician, that when making a compound oil “boil both oil and herbs together, till the juice will be consumed, which you may know by its leaving its bubbling, and the herbs will be crisp; then strain it while it is hot.” This leads me to believe that the grounds or dregs of oil of aloe and wormwood referred to here are the leftovers of that process. Next, you mix these grounds with gall of a bull or ox. But what is gall, exactly? It is bile, the contents of the gallbladder. Better than feces, but not by much. However, I suppose that this is better than mercury and lead!

After analyzing the ingredients used to treat Tudor children, we can see that pediatric medicine was shocking and could have contributed to a higher mortality rate. Moreover, these likely were the same treatments used on Henry VIII’s children. Could these treatments have done more harm than good? I believe so, and they could very well have contributed to other factors that increased the likelihood of death in childhood. Henry’s children, for example, the Duke of Richmond and Edward VI, may have been healthier and survived longer without the therapies Tudor physicians likely used. Needless to say, the next time I take my son to the doctor, I am glad his pediatrician will not be rubbing lead into his skin.



Link to Purchase: Pustules, Pestilence and Pain: Tudor Treatments and Ailments of Henry VIII


Henry VIII lived for 55 years and had many health issues, particularly towards the end of his reign.

In Pustules, Pestilence, and Pain, historian Seamus O’Caellaigh has delved deep into the documents of Henry’s reign to select some authentic treatments that Henry’s physicians compounded and prescribed to one suffering from those ailments.

Packed with glorious full-colour photos of the illnesses and treatments Henry VIII used, alongside primary source documents, this book is a treat for the eyes and is full of information for those with a love of all things Tudor. Each illness and accident has been given its own section in chronological order, including first-hand accounts, descriptions of the treatments and photographic recreations of the treatment and ingredients.

Author Bio

Seamus O’Caellaigh has always been interested in the Tudor dynasty and the many uses of plants. He grew up learning about plants from his grandmother Anne Kelley and mother Diane Prickett. Their love of plants has manifested in Seamus through his love of being out in the wild looking for medicinal plants, through his spending lots of time in the family garden and through spending time in the woods in the Pacific Northwest. He is most often seen with his head down, looking at the plants along the path and not at what lies ahead.

Having joined a pre-1600s recreation group, Seamus found a way to incorporate his love of the Tudors with a study of medicinal plants from that time period, along with the many herbal books written from the 1st century to the turn of the 17th century. Nothing makes Seamus happier than finding an obscure reference, or his son Jerrick bringing him a plant for “Dad’s Plant Projects.”


Beth von Staats

is the owner and administrator of QueenAnneBoleyn.com. Blogger of "The Tudor Thomases", Beth specializes in writing magazine articles, online historical articles, short stories, and flash fiction.

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