Warning: contains major spoilers for The Last Kingdom season five, episodes 1 -4.
The Last Kingdom fans were introduced to Eadith as an adjunct to powerful men. She was the daughter of a disgraced Lord, the mistress of Aethelred of Mercia, and the sister of the dastardly Eardwulf, who schemed to restore his family’s reputation and usurp the Mercian throne.
In season four, Eadith rebelled against each of those labels and began to act for herself. She freed Lady Aethelflaed from captivity and rescued Uhtred and his men from Haesten’s guards. She refused to conceal her brother’s murder of Aethelred, and nursed Aethelflaed’s daughter Aelfwynn back to health after the child contracted the sickness.
Those were the first steps in Eadith’s journey to independence, which led to her spending the years between seasons four and five learning the role of a healer. “She’s been travelling around like a nomad and picking up herbal skills from various people,” actor Stefanie Martini tells Den of Geek over Zoom. Eadith has been trekking around Francia (the Frankish Empire that once occupied much of what is now modern-day France), “doing all this crazy stuff with all these crazy people.” You could think of it as a ten-year yoga retreat, Martini jokes, “she’s been learning and working.”
What is the “canker”?
Eadith’s return to her homeland at the beginning of season five is no accident. She was summoned there by Lady Aethelflaed and her advisor Lord Aldhelm, to use her healing experience to treat Aethelflaed’s concealed illness. When the pair meet as arranged at Uhtred’s trading post of Rumcofa, Eadith discovers that Aethelflaed’s disease – the canker – is too advanced to cure.
In episode four, Eadith’s diagnosis is proven right, and Aethelflaed dies in Uhtred’s arms. She was suffering from a painful cancerous tumour in her breast tissue, one in a series of tumours that Aethelflaed had previously ignored, thinking they had cured themselves. Eadith calls Aethelflaed’s condition “canker”, which was an Old English term for cancer, used until the 1600s. The word is derived from the Latin for ‘crab’ (as in the astrological star sign), and thought to come from the Greek word ‘Karkinos’ which describes the crab limb-like veins that can surround a tumour. In modern medicine, canker is an alternative name for aphthous ulcers, shallow lesions that develop on the inside of the mouth and gums.
The study of disease was underway even in the 9th century. Eadith’s travels may have taken her as far as the town of Salerno, Italy, the birthplace of the Studium, which became the Schola Medica Salernitana. In the 11th century, that site benefitted from the scholarship of Constantine Africanus, a monk from Carthage whose medical texts endowed Salerno with a reputation for medicine, and inspired other establishments for the study and practice of medicine and diseases including “the canker”.
How does Aethelflaed die in the books?
In The Flame Bearer, Book 10 of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories saga (now renamed The Last Kingdom saga in honour of the TV adaptation), it’s also suggested that Aethelflaed dies of breast cancer. Uhtred finds her looking gravely ill. “Her once beautiful face was drawn, her skin pale as parchment, and her lips were clamped together as if she tried to subdue pain.” Her brother King Edward tells Uhtred that he must take Aethelstan under his protection, as Aethelflaed – who previously looked after the boy – is dying.
In Chapter Six, Uhtred visits Aethelflaed and urges her to get help with her illness. She tells him tiredly that she has had “so many healers”. When Uhtred asks what ails her, she answers “Pain, here,’ she touched a breast, ‘deep inside’. Uhtred kisses her and they promise to meet again in the North but the passage ends with the words “I never saw her again.”
How did the real Aethelflaed die?
We know that the real Aethelflaed, Lady of Mercia died in Tamworth on the 12th of June 918. She fell unwell and died of an unspecified illness at around the age of 47 or 48. Her remains are thought to be buried at St Oswald’s priory in Gloucester, a church she founded. In 2018, on the 1100th anniversary of Aethelflaed’s death, a grand celebration was held through the streets of Gloucester in her honour, recreating her funeral procession with an actress carried through the city. Her many military and political achievements were recorded in a text known as the Mercian Register, which fills in many gaps left by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. She left behind one daughter, Aelfwynn.
The Last Kingdom Season 5 is available to stream now on Netflix.