Aethelflaed Illness: How Does Lady Aethelflaed Die?

Eadith was first presented to viewers of The Last Kingdom in the role of a strong man’s sidekick. She was the sister of the evil Eardwulf, who plotted to restore his family’s reputation and steal the Mercian throne, and the daughter of a disgraced Lord; she was also the mistress of Aethelred of Mercia.

By the end of Season 4, Eadith had had enough of being pigeonholed and had begun to do what she wanted regardless of what anybody else thought. She rescued Uhtred and his soldiers from Haesten’s guards and freed Lady Aethelflaed from prison. She refused to keep quiet about her brother’s murder of Aethelred and helped nurse Aelfwynn, Aethelflaed’s ailing daughter, back to health.

Eadith took those baby steps toward autonomy in the years between seasons four and five when she trained to become a healer. “She’s been travelling like a nomad and picking up herbal skills from various individuals,” actor Stefanie Martini explains to Den of Geek via Zoom. Eadith has been “doing all this crazy stuff with all these crazy people” as she travels across Francia (the Frankish Empire, which originally occupied much of what is now modern-day France). As Martini puts it, “she’s been learning and working for ten years, so it’s kind of like a yoga retreat.”

Aethelflaed Illness
Aethelflaed Illness

What is the “canker”?

It’s hardly a coincidence that Season 5 opens with Eadith back in her own country. Lady Aethelflaed and her advisor, Lord Aldhelm, had her come to help with Aethelflaed’s illness in secret. At their prearranged meeting place, Uhtred’s trading post of Rumcofa, Eadith learns that Aethelflaed’s canker is too far along for a successful treatment.

Aethelflaed passes away in Uhtred’s arms after Eadith’s diagnosis is confirmed in the fourth episode. Aethelflaed had overlooked a succession of tumours, believing they had healed on their own, and now she was suffering from a terrible malignant tumour in her breast tissue. Eadith used the Old English word for cancer that persisted in use until the early 1600s, “canker,” to describe Aethelflaed’s illness.

The Greek word “Karkinos,” which depicts the crab-like veins that might surround a tumour, is supposed to have been the inspiration for the Latin word “crab” (as in the astrological star sign). Canker is another term for aphthous ulcers, which are small sores that appear on the gums and mouth lining.

As early as the 9th century, researchers were trying to understand the causes of illness. It’s possible that Eadith made it all the way to Salerno, Italy, where the Schola Medica Salernitana was founded. The medical books written by the Carthaginian monk Constantine Africanus, who settled in Salerno in the 11th century, helped establish the city as a centre for the treatment of many ailments, most notably “the canker.”

How Does Aethelflaed Die in the Books?

Breast cancer is also a possible cause of death for Aethelflaed in Bernard Cornwell’s The Flame Bearer, Book 10 of the Saxon Stories saga (now titled The Last Kingdom saga in honour of the TV version). Uhtred finds her in a state of apparent illness; “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 pays a visit to Aethelflaed in Chapter 6 to encourage her to seek medical attention. She explains that she’s had “so many healers,” which she says with exhaustion. She tells Uhtred, “Pain, here,” indicating a breast, “deep inside.” Uhtred kisses her, and they make plans to meet up again in the North, but the paragraph closes 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. She became ill and passed away at the age of 47 or 48 from an unknown illness. The church she established in Gloucester, named after St. Oswald, is often believed to have her remains.

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 many political and military accomplishments, helps to fill in many of the blanks left by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Aelfwynn was her only surviving daughter.

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