The average lifespan of a man or woman in the Middle Ages was much shorter than today, and they started to act as adults when we in the 21st century would still consider them children. That short span gave immediacy to the experiences of life, especially during outbursts of violence like "The Anarchy," Stephen and Maud's brutal and protracted civil war.
Richard, Aliena's brother, begins as a thoughtless, self-centred, indecisive young man, even when this puts him at risk. When escaping from her rape and his mutilation at the hands of William Hamleigh, it's Aliena who takes the lead. Richard must be told what to do. But he becomes a warrior of sufficient reputation to attract attention from King Stephen himself. It helps place his foot on the ladder leading back to the recovery of his dead father's Earldom—but it also earns the less welcome notice of William and Regan Hamleigh and an attack on Aliena and the fleece fair that's financing his success. When Richard's selfish streak resurfaces, it leads to the verbal put-down he's needed for so long. After the destruction of the Kingsbridge fleece fair, his first concern isn't for Aliena's safety, but his next payment to maintain status and supporters. Finally she drives home the reality of their renewed poverty and the end of any further finance for his knightly ambitions. Without silver to buy armour, equipment and men, Richard's value to the King will dwindle, and with it any chance to reclaim the Earldom of Shiring. The audience witnesses the huge transformation this character makes from the beginning of the story until the end, played with conviction by young British actor Sam Claflin.
What Elizabeth of Weymouth teaches Aliena
That leaves Aliena open to advances from Alfred Builder. Many things have worked against him, not least of which is a lack of real talent. He's proficient, as any apprentice of Tom Builder's would be, but he lacks his father's vision and imagination, or his step-brother Jack's inspired brilliance. Now, after Tom's death during the fleece fair attack, Alfred finds himself inheritor of his father's position as Master Builder for Kingsbridge Cathedral, with second-hand status but an assured income. He offers use of that income to Richard—in exchange for Aliena's hand in marriage. Alfred loves her in a twisted way, but his principal intent is revenge against her true love Jack, who in Alfred's eyes has taken away so many things: his mother, his father's affection, and his own reputation.
Alfred tries to combine his father's skill with Jack's imagination, and fails dismally. He uses stone instead of Tom's planned timber vaulting on walls never designed for such weight, and the result is a catastrophic structural failure that buries many people and Alfred's hopes for his career. Alfred is played by Liam Garrigan, another young, up and coming British actor.
The other young characters play smaller, but equally pivotal roles. Elizabeth of Weymouth, the unfortunate girl who becomes William Hamleigh's wife at the age of 13, serves to show Aliena what her fate might have been had she not rejected her brutish suitor. Marriage at such a young age was not uncommon in the medieval period due to short lifespans. But even more important were political and financial alliances: Elizabeth is first a cash investment for the Hamleigh family, and only secondly a bride for William. His stupidity and sadism ensure that she will provide no children. Aided by Aliena, whose experience of William Hamleigh has also involved little but brutality, Elizabeth's near-bloodless takeover of Shiring Castle is an elegant and ironic revenge on a man whose usual answer to everything is violence. Elizabeth is played by British newcomer Skye Lourie. I was on set the day she shot a very poignant scene with Hayley Atwell (Aliena) and found myself moved to tears.
Besides just his sister, who is Martha to Alfred?Martha Builder, Alfred's little sister, is the rock that anchors him. Cruel or kind, drunk or sober, success or failure, he's Martha's brother and she stands by him with a loyalty worthy of someone better. But Martha has also caused some of the deep strife between Alfred and Jack because it was she, not Alfred, who stole the Phoenix ring. It was done not from hatred but through unrequited love. Martha has always seen what Jack feels for Aliena; she knows he's never seen that she feels that way for him, so the ring is the only part of Jack she'll ever own. After Jack and Alfred's destructive confrontation on the cathedral worksite, it's too late for her to put things right. Yet despite the trouble her theft has caused, it's Martha's continued possession of this vital piece of evidence that saves Jack in the end. Martha is played by young Skye Bennett.
Jonathan—or 'Brother Jonathan' as he proudly styles himself even at the age of 8—is, like Jack's Phoenix ring, a connection to someone lost. When Tom's wife Agnes died in childbirth deep in the winter woods, there was no way to feed her newborn son, and Tom abandoned the baby to quick death by exposure rather than slow death by starvation. His act of ruthless kindness brought about redemption for the bandit known as Johnny Eightpence, whose earlier theft of Tom's pig, the only source of food for the family, led in a roundabout way to Agnes's death. Seizing this chance to do something good, Johnny becomes a monk and fosters the child at Kingsbridge Priory. It's Jonathan's presence that makes Tom want to stay, without either work or pay. Brother Jonathan is played wonderfully by young Sydney Johnston.