Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: September 2013

7 - Health and Health Care at Sea


As English ships sailed farther and farther from home waters, Tudor seamen dealt with an increased problem of shipboard morbidity and mortality. These men typically did a risk versus remuneration assessment of their intended voyages, calculating whether a high probability of sickness, injury or death on a voyage which might last years was worthwhile financially. This is true for all seamen except those impressed into the navy; those forced to serve the monarch were denied their customary freedom to assess the hazards inherent in any given voyage. Certainly merchant companies that had to compete for manpower, particularly during wartime, were more conscientious about retaining employees and they usually lacked the ability to compel men to serve.

Thousands of seamen were lost in the Tudor period, primarily to disease rather than shipboard or battle injury. The English commercial companies made the most strides to improve the lot of Elizabethan seamen in order to attract and preserve the labour force. Such efforts were, at best, minimally successful. However, recognizing that the status quo was unacceptable was important and the search for remedies had a favourable impact on employer-employee relations.

Naturally the Crown needed healthy seamen during wartime. Efforts at improvement came from seamen whose careers were characterized by horizontal movement between naval and non-naval employment. The Crown was resistant to change, overwhelmed as it was by the size of the problem, logistics and the desire to wage war on a budget.