Viewers of The Last Kingdom were first introduced to Eadith in this context, as a supporting character to male protagonists. She was the sister of the treacherous Eardwulf, who plotted to restore his family’s honor and steal the kingdom of Mercia, and the daughter of a disgraced Lord.
In the fourth season, Eadith acted independently of any of those descriptions. Besides saving Uhtred and his men from Haesten’s soldiers, she also liberated Lady Aethelflaed from captivity. She refused to keep quiet about her brother’s murder of Aethelred and helped nurse Aethelflaed’s ill daughter Aelfwynn back to health.
What is the “canker”?
At the start of Season 5, Eadith goes back to her own country. Lady Aethelflaed and her advisor, Lord Aldhelm, had her come to help with Aethelflaed’s secret illness, so they might take use of her healing expertise. When Uhtred and Aethelflaed finally meet up at his trading post in Rumcofa, as planned, Eadith learns that Aethelflaed’s canker is too far along for treatment.
In the fourth episode, Aethelflaed’s death in Uhtred’s arms confirms Eadith’s prognosis. She was in excruciating pain from a malignant tumor in her breast, the latest in a series of tumors that Aethelflaed had overlooked, mistakenly believing they had healed on their own.
The word “canker” is what Eadith uses to describe Aethelflaed’s illness, and it was the Old English word for cancer up until the early 1600s. The Greek word “Karkinos,” which depicts the crab-like veins that might surround a tumor, is supposed to have been the inspiration for the Latin word “crab” (as in the astrological star sign). Canker is another name for aphthous ulcers, which are small sores that form on the gums and mouth lining in modern medicine.
The 9th century saw the beginning of disease research. Eadith may have gone as far as Salerno, Italy, where the Schola Medica Salernitana originated after the Studium. In the eleventh century, the writings of the Carthaginian monk Constantine Africanus gave Salerno a name in the field of medicine, and they served as models for future centers of research and treatment for ailments like “the canker.”
How Does Aethelflaed die in The books?
Aethelflaed’s death of breast cancer is also hinted at in The Flame Bearer, Book 10 of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories saga (now called The Last Kingdom saga in honor of the TV adaptation). When Uhtred visits her, he finds that she is gravely ill: “Her once beautiful face was drawn, her skin pale as parchment, and her lips were clamped as if she tried to subdue the pain.” Her brother, King Edward, informs Uhtred that he must take Aethelstan under his protection because Aethelflaed, who had been caring for the boy, is dying.
Uhtred goes to see Aethelflaed in Chapter 6 and strongly recommends that she seek medical attention for her ailment. She tells him, “I’ve had so many healers,” sounding exhausted. Pain, here,” she said, touching her breast, “deep inside,” as an answer to Uhtred’s question about her condition. Uhtred gives her a passionate kiss and they make plans to reunite in the North, but the story ends with “I never saw her again.”
How Did The real Aethelflaed Die?
On June 12, 918, the actual Aethelflaed, Lady of Mercia, passed away at Tamworth. Around the time she turned 47 or 48, she became ill and passed away from a disease that was never determined. St. Oswald’s priory in Gloucester, which she also founded, is where her body is often believed to rest.
The 1100th anniversary of Aethelflaed’s death was commemorated in 2018 with a huge festival through the streets of Gloucester, complete with a recreation of the procession of her funeral led by an actress being carried through the city. The Mercian Register, which details her numerous military and political victories, helps to fill in many of the blanks left by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. There was only Aelfwynn, her daughter, left behind.
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