Social isolation as a means of protecting oneself from a deadly epidemic is nothing new.
The rich and powerful have long been desperate to abandon London when death was stalking the streets of the capital, though they seldom went as far away as the 264 miles travelled by Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s chief advisor who has been accused of breaking the UK’s lockdown rules.
Country properties in the Home Counties were more than just rural retreats within a day’s ride of the court, ideal for the aristocracy to relax and hunt. They were also havens of fresh air and peaceful isolation: a welcome escape from the foetid air, dirt and crowds of the capital. Lacking our medical knowledge, the Tudors and Stuarts had fanciful ideas about what caused illness but they were well aware of the dangers of confined urban spaces, especially in the warmer summer months. And the well-off took their cue from the behaviour of their monarchs, who would not have dreamed of remaining among their dying subjects.
King Henry VIII lived in constant fear of falling ill, decamping with all possible speed at the mere hint of contagion. – Linda Porter
King Henry VIII is a perfect example of this regal preoccupation with social isolation. He lived in constant fear of falling ill, decamping with all possible speed at the mere hint of contagion. Behind the aggressively male swagger of Holbein’s famous 1537 portrait was a man worried not just about his own life, but the survival of his dynasty and the health of the body politic. If Henry was unhealthy, then so was his realm. He was determined to safeguard both.
This was especially evident in 1528, when a severe bout of the sweating sickness hit London. This mysterious disease, which had first arrived in England in 1485, was greatly feared because of the speed with which it overwhelmed sufferers. Death often following the first symptoms in a few hours. At the height of her love affair with the king, Anne Boleyn caught the sweat and retired to her family home at Hever. She was extremely unwell and there was no question of the king going to visit her. He wrote to say that he desired her health ‘as much as mine own’ and that he would willingly bear half of her malady. It was as generous an outlook as he could muster in the circumstances. In that summer, as many others, Henry moved frequently around southern England. None of his residences could safely support a large household for long, given the poor sanitation and the need for thorough cleaning in the aftermath of a royal visit.
At a time when childbirth was so dangerous and disease so rampant, Barbara was an unstoppable force. But even she did not want to hang around in London. – Linda Porter
Public health had not improved over 100 years later, though the sweating sickness did not return after 1551. Smallpox began to rise as a disease that afflicted the upper classes, killing two of Charles II’s siblings in 1660, which cast a pall over his restoration that year. Each summer, he would remove to Hampton Court. He began his married life with his Portuguese wife, Catherine of Braganza, there in the summer of 1662.
Back in London his mistress, Barbara Palmer, countess of Castlemaine, was about to give birth to their second child. Never one to respect proprieties, she had hoped to be able to give birth at Hampton Court, despite the presence of the new queen. She came down river to flaunt her relationship as soon as she had recovered from the birth, which like all her other pregnancies, she seems to have done very quickly.
At a time when childbirth was so dangerous and disease so rampant, Barbara was an unstoppable force. But even she did not want to hang around in London. The massive outbreak of bubonic plague just three years later would demonstrate that this was sound judgement.
Social isolation against illness would have been considered highly desirable for those who could manage it hundreds of years ago, even if it has come as a profound change to our modern way of life.