At the Court of Broken Dreams
We were encamped on the edge of the pretty town of Tewkesbury, with its handsome streets and magnificent abbey, having been reunited with the king, and Anthony and all the forces of York. By forced marches led by Edward with all his magnificent manly energy, we intercepted the — probably bigger — army of Lancaster under the command of Margaret and her favourite, Somerset, before, crucially, they could combine with the Welsh rabble of Jasper Tudor. We were preparing for battle — the battle to end all battles, or so we believed. Having shadowed the — probably larger — Lancastrian army along the line of the River Severn, the king had chosen this meadow in the Marchlands; it was flat and green, with the little River Swilgate on one side and the town on the other. There was no going back and no escape into exile; not this time. We were all here, even my brother had finally turned up, usefully, with an extra four hundred men-at-arms.
It was the Friday evening, the first in May, and now the English spring was in its glorious and fragrant prime. The May blossom was out on the trees and it was harsh to think that, by this time tomorrow evening, one of these great, royal armies would be a mangled midden of mortal remains; and even the victors would not all survive. I was with Anthony in his tent taking some light refreshment — and praying, for he was always a more devout man than I — when we were summoned by a king’s messenger to the royal tent for a council of war.
Clarence was back in his accustomed place on the king’s right, with a mien even more arrogant than hitherto (if that was possible), while Gloucester, now a man and a very war-like one despite his slightly misshapen right shoulder and a much lower stature than either of his more handsome brothers, stood a little behind. Hastings was there — always his master’s shadow — and growing envious of the more beauteous and gifted Anthony who stood just to his left; Sir John Howard was there, a tough captain, and later Duke of Norfolk. And finally, the De-la-Poles; yes, my brother was present due to his rank (and nothing else) — and me.
“My friends,” said the king, “This is our time. We have chosen the site of this battle, and its timing. Margaret and Somerset planned to join up with Jasper Tudor’s men, but they have failed. We have been swifter. Hastings, what is our intelligence of their numbers?”
“They have about a thousand men more than we have, sire.”
“So, they are more numerous but we have guns — big guns — which they lack. And arquebuses while they are still fighting like knights in tourney.”
“And there’s our fine contingent of Flemings with firearms. They will fight well, brother,” added Gloucester.
“And fortunately, they have been well-paid, by Duke Charles.”
We laughed. Edward always knew how to throw in some light relief.
“While they are led by a woman — a woman who has arrived too late to join with the ally she really hated — and a boy.”
“A wild boy,” threw in Clarence, “Who has no battle experience.”
Well, he should know. He was married to his wife’s sister; the younger heiress of Warwick’s vast estates, Anne Neville.
“But he is an important piece on the chessboard,” said the king. “So, as our best chess player, Anthony, what must we do with him?”
“We must remove him from the board, sire.”
“No,” said Gloucester, ”From the earth.”
“I do not intend to see him alive,” said the king.
I shuddered a little, inwardly, but the king was right, if this war was ever to have an end.
“And the triple traitor, Somerset, likewise,” said Clarence; no doubt Somerset had a lot of dirt on him.
“Today,” said the king softly,” The House of York must crush and…” He hesitated a moment. “Eliminate the remnants of Lancaster. Agreed, my lords?”
We murmured our assent. Like all good sovereigns, the king liked to appear collegiate.
“Our dispositions: Gloucester will command the left battle, which will be our vanguard, assisted by Lord Rivers; Hastings will command on the right assisted by Sir John Howard.” I noticed Clarence momentarily knit his brow. “Brother Clarence and Edward De-la-Pole will be my lieutenants in the centre.”
I bowed, deeply honoured; Clarence knew I was there so Edward could keep an eye on him.
“My brother of Suffolk will command the reserve and guard the baggage train.”
My brother bowed and I smirked. Although, in truth, guarding the baggage train is a vital task, but I would have the glory of fighting by the side of the king. And Anthony’s counsel to Gloucester would be crucial as he was far more experienced than the king’s younger brother. Perhaps that was why the king now called Anthony to his side for whispered commands after which, without a word to me, he left the tent. If only I was part of that golden web. I noticed Hastings watching jealously also.
“My lords, my brothers-in-arms, this is the day of reckoning. Time and place are on our side. Today all the wrongs of our House will be avenged and England will be cleansed of the usurpers. God for York and England.”
“A York, a York,” bellowed Hastings and we all responded, and emerged from the tent, confident of success.
We dispersed from the council and withdrew to our tents. It was dark now. What do men think about on the eve of battle? Is fear the main emotion, or aggression? Neither in my case. There was a deal of excitement, I recollect and, yes, some apprehension. But battle is a proof of manhood, the ultimate ordeal; it cannot be avoided by those who seek greatness. And this battle would leave just one bloodline to hold the throne of England. Also, I had vast confidence in the leadership of my king, and the brilliance of my blood brother Anthony. So, I retired for a few hours of sleep and contemplation, with the lithe young Malcolm — now returned to my service — as my bed-mate. Spring nights are cold in England — as far as I remember — and youthful bodies give off warmth and a pleasing scent.
We were roused by trumpets soon after dawn (the enemy were still too far off to hear us, and anyway, they were our quarry) and first, of course, came the celebration of Holy Mass throughout the camp. I joined the king’s party before his tent, where, on an elegant if makeshift altar, one of the king’s chaplains blessed the host and gave us Holy Communion. I had never been deeply pious — unlike Anthony whom I watched entering into a transport of spirituality as the ceremony proceeded — but the sense of spiritual brotherhood between those of us on hand that day was deep and powerful. Then we breakfasted, not too heavily, though some, like Anthony, declined food to keep their spiritual energy high. I ate.
And then the trumpets sounded to take up battle stations. We had, of course, ridden to our present camp in the preceding days — pursuing Margaret’s army to entrap them before they could unite with Tudor’s Welsh levies — but all of us, even the noble knights and men-at-arms, would take up our positions and fight on foot. We all knew what had happened to the proud flower of the French nobility at Agincourt, trapped on their horses, encased in armour and mown down by the finest English archers, and we needed the mobility provided by fighting on foot, exhausting though that turned out to be. And first, leading the vanguard, Richard of Gloucester, with Anthony, Lord Rivers, by his side, arrayed his battle group: a solid, fearsome mixture of finely accoutred knights. Anthony, in particular, wore a splendidly wrought suit of Italian armour he had bought some years before and had by now retrieved from his (our) London mansion, and above them fluttered the banners of York, Wydville and all the other noble Houses represented in those ranks.
A little behind them, the king himself arrayed his own battle group — slightly bigger than Gloucester’s, numbering about two thousand men. In the group of knights around him, clustering beneath the royal arms of Plantagenet like the house-carls of an Anglo-Saxon king or the companions of the Great Alexander, were Clarence and myself, the three De-la-Pole leopards proudly fluttering on my helm, with Malcolm not far behind as my esquire. Once the king received word that Hastings’ wing of the army was ready for action to our rear, I heard him give the command that Gloucester was to lead the vanguard onto the field facing Lancaster’s forward battle who we knew were under the direct command of York’s greatest enemy: Somerset, Margaret’s favourite — some said her lover — and the field commander of their whole army.
We moved, behind Gloucester’s vanguard to take up positions opposing Margaret’s main ward, her central battle group; our information told us this was nominally commanded by young Edward of Lancaster, the lady’s beloved and unbloodied son, but in reality, under the control of old Lord Wenlock. They were, I will confess, a magnificent sight, flying many fine old knightly banners, like those of the Arundels, the Daunts and the Beauforts, and fine French coats of arms representing the splendid blue-clad Angevin bodyguard Margaret had brought with her from France. She had sent them all onto the battlefield — a move she may have regretted later — though she had withdrawn (even Margaret knew a woman’s place was not on the battlefield) to a convent behind her lines from where she anxiously awaited news.
Finally, there, to our right, was arrayed the battalion led by Hastings with old Norfolk in support facing the third Lancastrian ward under the command of the Courtenay Earl of Devon, whose main estates were not very far from the battle ground.
I was proud to be near the king, but with his height and his manly demeanour — with, of course, the royal arms fluttering above him — he was the cynosure of all our Yorkist eyes, as he lifted high his great sword and shouted in his resonant voice, “I commend my righteous cause to God and the Virgin Mary. Gloucester, advance!”
At which Richard of Gloucester, never lacking in courage, led his battle nobly onto the field facing Somerset’s phalanx. There was a great beating of drums and firing of cannon — of which we had the greater part, some of them in fact looted earlier in the campaign from the Lancastrian forces. There was a lot of hard pounding, much to the chagrin of the enemy.
It was a fine, sharp, cold spring morning, but inside my elaborate and heavy armour, I was already sweating profusely due to heat and excitement, I guess. I remember relishing that. It was uncomfortable and damp but strangely reassuring. Encased in metal, you feel invulnerable, but the problem is seeing out through your rather small visor. Lift it, and you’re in serious peril of being blinded by an arrow — or worse.
But, at this stage, there was not much fighting around the king; he was too well guarded for that and the heat of the battle seemed to be raging on the two wings: between Gloucester and Somerset to our left and between Hastings and Courtenay to our left. Later, there was a suspicion that Wenlock, mentoring Edward of Lancaster, had been in our pay, and as he perished in the rout, we can never be sure. But Anthony would certainly have known and he never acknowledged it to me. More likely cautious old Wenlock was doing his best to protect his young prince, knowing how he would be held savagely to account by his mother should he not leave the field alive, as the last hope of his race. We were taking some punishment too, with arrows falling all around and some return of cannon fire. I saw the king receiving messengers and sending back commands but it was difficult to see what was going on ahead as there were so many ditches and hedges on the Gloucestershire land, providing defences to the Lancastrians and obstacles to us. As in the game of chess, we seemed to have reached a kind of stalemate, as indeed our bloodied kingdom had done in this internecine war. On the field of Tewkesbury, as often in warfare, it lasted several long and exhausting hours.
Then, with great suddenness, there was bruit and confusion behind us and it was clear we were being attacked in the rear. We turned and as we did so, Malcolm shouted, whispering would be useless in speaking to a man wearing a closed helmet, “Somerset has outflanked us. They say he only has a small group with him.”
The blood rose inside me; at a moment like that, you feel your manhood stiffen. I would defend the king, even unto death. And I unsheathed my sword to do so, holding it firmly in my jewelled leather gauntlet. But Somerset’s assault — his one great throw of the dice — never came within one hundred yards of the king’s household knights. There was much noise but nothing more.
Anthony later told me what had occurred. When the king had given him his secret orders on the eve of battle — the whispered commands which had made all his other commanders jealous — he had told him to pick out two hundred crack spearmen on horseback to go secretly into the wooded area on the deer park to our left, suspecting that Somerset might cunningly have set a trap for us within the woods. In fact, he had not. But when, in the battle, Anthony had been told by his reconnaissance men that Somerset was attacking the king’s battle from the rear, without waiting for the king’s command — knowing the royal messenger might never get through — he sent word to the hidden spearmen to charge out of the woods. As a result, it was Somerset himself who was taken by surprise in the flank and the rear — a manoeuvre feared by all fighting men — and was almost lost in the melee.
Around the king, we remained on guard, expecting an attack to reach us at any moment. But after another hour of suspense, the king shouted for our benefit.
“My friends, Somerset’s cowardly attack from behind has been beaten. Now let us move forward to clinch the battle. A York!”
At the king’s command, the trumpets sounded the general advance and we moved forward with passion and strength as one body, feeling that now the day would be ours. A rumour passed through the army — God knows how these things are conveyed in the heat of battle, but they are — that Somerset had escaped back to the body of his army, confronted old Lord Wenlock for his sluggishness in giving him no support and clean dashed out his brains with his battle-axe. It was probably not true — though it would have been in character for Somerset — but it certainly put fire in our bellies and blood in our weapons. We moved slowly but powerfully forward in a body, one great scrimmage of men, pushing the enemy back and away, and towards the two small rivers which separated the Gaston Field, which was just behind them, from the city of Tewkesbury.
And, from that moment, we got our second wind: the almost maddened strength that comes with knowing that now the battle is almost yours. As at Towton — how fortune smiled on me, to have fought only on the winning side in battle — what had been an even, hard-fought contest had turned into a rout, a hunt with them; the Lancastrians as our quarry. It was not a pretty or a noble sight; it was carnage.
I heard the king command, bellowing, “Edward of Lancaster must not escape the field.”
But, contrary to popular report, it was not he who killed him. That young man — whose arrogant blood-thirstiness had led him to order the beheading of Yorkist lords when he was a small boy, much to his mother’s delight — charged off in flight like the rest towards the town, and also like the rest, was struck down and killed. His body was later retrieved and laid to rest in the choir of the abbey.
To tell the truth, I was, and am, glad that those of us around the king did not get involved in the bloody chase; unlike some, I have never enjoyed taking part in bloodshed, least of all when the enemy is utterly at your mercy. It is hardly chivalric, even though it may be necessary. Once the king had received word from Gloucester and Anthony on his left, and from Hastings on our right confirming the enemy was in full flight, he began to turn his brilliant strategic mind to the next steps.
The king signalled to his senior nobles in his battle to huddle around for a council of war, or rather of the aftermath of war. Anthony rode up to give us the latest news from his and Gloucester’s side of the battlefield, pushing his way through to join us attending on His Grace. There was blood on his armour, but I was relieved to guess it was not his own. The king removed his helm — even with his matted red hair and beard drenched with sweat, it was the face of an archangel, suffused with victory — and we did the same. But his tone was not that of relief and respite but of continued urgency.
“Have any of their leaders fled? They must be killed or taken.”
“I’m told that Edward of Lancaster has been struck down in the rout, sire,” said Anthony.
Clarence and the rest cheered.
“You bring us good news, my brother.”
Anthony looked sombre. He never crowed over a death.
“What of Somerset?”
“He was seen in flight towards the town, Your Grace,” said Sir Thomas Grey, one of the king’s step-sons.
“Then we must pursue him and the other traitors. And Margaret? Where is she?”
“They say she spent the night in the town, sire, so she will soon be fleeing from it.” This was one of the Neville brothers, cousins of old Warwick, who had stayed true to their allegiance.
“Then you must go in hot pursuit of her, Thomas,” he said to his step-son. “Take a company of men. And when you find her…”
“Beheading would be too good,” said Clarence with his usual curl of the lip.
“We will think on that hereafter,” said the king.
A knight rode up. “Lord Hastings sends his greetings to Your Grace. The enemy is fleeing and Somerset and other leading traitors are believed to be heading for Tewkesbury Abbey.”
“I knew Somerset had an eye for a beautiful building,” said the king; we all laughed.
“They are seeking sanctuary,” I put in.
“Perhaps in the wake of such carnage and treachery, it will not be available.”
The king spurred his horse. I flashed a glance at Anthony and saw him wince at the king’s words. But we could only follow as he, and the whole battalion, galloped on in the direction of Tewkesbury town.
I ignored the dead and dying piled up or staggering around us as we rode for the city and its beauteous abbey. We had business to attend to, scores to settle and the crying need to bring an ending to this bloody war. At some point in this hot and muddy journey, Gloucester joined us — I think Hastings was left on the battlefield to supervise the business of finishing off the wounded and retrieving anything valuable, in gold or information, from the dying and the dead.
It was beginning to get dark as we rode through the streets of this pretty little town and its splendid abbey hove into sight. There were monks standing all around it and at its great doors stood the abbot, a tall and dignified man with a deeply serous expression.
“My Lord King,” he said as we approached, bowing courteously, “I have wounded noblemen within who have escaped from the battlefield and have given up their weapons. They have claimed sanctuary, as is their right, and I have promised them it.”
The king dismounted, as did we all, smiled and spoke most courteously in reply.
“My Lord Abbot, it is our wish to enter the abbey and speak with the traitors within. We command you to step aside. You have done your duty. Now we will do ours.”
The king stretched out his massive right hand as if to shove the abbot to one side. The abbot and his monks stepped aside. What else could they do? They would hardly martyr themselves for a few defeated Lancastrians.
As we entered the abbey, I marvelled at the beauty of its elegant shape and its delicate floating tracery. The colours of its wall painting and glorious windows were breath-taking. I hoped that beauty would not be marred by bloodshed. But it was at least better to be riding amongst the victors than the victims.
The air in the abbey was not fresh; it stank of stale sweat, desperation and defeat. There were six or more muddied and bloodied knights in a huddle just beyond the rood screen, in the choir, the holiest part of the abbey. One of them stepped forward into the body of the church. You could still make out the Beaufort portcullis on his mired and torn surcoat. It was Somerset. He growled out a ferocious challenge.
“Come, pluck me from this sacred place, you foul and traitorous Duke of York, you and your verminous curs.”
There were about ten of us, victorious and heavily armed, and six of them, disarmed and defeated. It was hardly a contest.
The king replied with calm authority. “Surrender, Somerset. Perfectum est. War is over.”
At that moment, as if to evidence his words, the side doors of the abbey were flung open and a body, covered by a bloody standard bearing the royal arms of Lancaster, was borne in by a party of monks, quietly singing the “Te Deum”.
“Your prince is carrion,” said Gloucester, and spat. “Give yourselves up.”
Somerset’s eyes darted towards the open doors and, to forestall his escape, we unsheathed our swords and, on either side of the king, began walking with menace in Somerset’s direction. He stood staring at us with ferocious eyes.
The abbot had entered by the side doors and cried out, “I beg you, my lords, no bloodshed here.”
“No bloodshed,” replied the king, still moving towards our quarry, “Provided the vanquished surrender to an honourable trial.”
Somerset half-turned towards his friends, still behind the screen. “We are trapped and denied sanctuary.”
He turned towards us grimly, almost regally, I thought. “I am your prisoner, Edward.” His voice was harsh, rasping. “And you have broken the laws of sanctuary.”
Gloucester was by him in an instant, telling his henchman, “Tie his hands.”
“No need for that,” said the king. “We will treat our noble prisoners with chivalry.”
The chivalry was short-lived however.
Somerset and his party were taken outside and, as we emerged into the early evening light to a mob of local villeins and our common foot soldiers baying for blood, the king intoned in his powerful voice, “My brother of Gloucester, I command and commission you as High Constable of England to put the traitor Somerset to his trial in this place and all his company and do justice upon them.”
The vanquished were hustled off to the marketplace, the rest of us walking gravely behind. I exchanged a look with Anthony and his even gaze in response said: We know this is not justice, let alone mercy. But this war must have an end. So, it is necessary.
We kept our distance but could see Gloucester, from afar, condemn the Duke of Somerset (now heir-general of the House of Lancaster) to a traitor’s death. At which, a stool was immediately provided for a block, the condemned man made to kneel and, one of Gloucester’s men producing a sword, his head was struck off. There were cheers and jeers from our men massed around, and the cobbles were running with blood. And, for a moment, I had a vision of another duke, aboard a ship and sent into exile by his Lancastrian king, being forced to kneel and beheaded by unknown assailants, twenty years before. That was a De-la-Pole duke and this a Beaufort. And so, the wheel goes round.
Later into the night, the king was brought word that Margaret of Anjou had been taken in flight; she was held in close confinement while he decided what her fate should be. It was after a good evening meal — served with little ceremony, after all we were still on campaign — that we debated what should happen to her. Clarence and Gloucester were both for beheading, although Anthony pointed out that it was contrary to the laws of war for a woman to be executed. I put in that, childless as she now was, she presented no threat. I like to think it was my argument that swung the king’s judgment against beheading. I trust we shall never see an anointed queen beheaded in England.
“So, Edward,” said the king, “As you have counselled that she should live, it is right she should be placed in the custody of another strong but loyal lady and who better than your honourable mother, Duchess Alice. We shall send her to Ewelme for safe keeping while we discover if her cousin the French king can bestir himself to provide a ransom for her release.”
“I am sure my Beloved Mother will be honoured to serve Your Highness in this manner.” I bowed, knowing the B.M. would take no pleasure in this grim task. Howsoever, we are born to serve.
And just a few weeks later — long and tortuous negotiations having commenced with the Valois king — I was sent with the king’s commission to visit the B.M. and report on how the former queen’s incarceration was progressing and whether Duchess Alice had any requests of His Grace.
“I have performed many duties for His Grace. But this is the first time I have become a jailor,” said the B.M. looking saintly, if not martyred.
“Jailor of a queen, Mother. It’s a token of the king’s great trust and faith in you.”
“We Chaucers — and De-la-Poles — will do our duty. How you boys will manage when I am gone is what keeps me awake at night.”
“We shall survive, Mother.”
“But will you flourish?”
She fussed with her needlepoint. She was working a particularly intricate purse whilst reading both a letter I had brought from Queen Elizabeth Wydville and a sapphire-encrusted devotional book which my honoured father had once given her. The B.M. might have invented the term multi-tasking.
“The queen — the queen,” said the B.M., “Asks after Margaret’s welfare and prays that I be not too harsh towards her, remembering that we both served her in former times. Does she think I am a torturer?” She gave me one of her old-fashioned looks and then glanced round to see whether her waiting woman was listening, but that lady was prudently engrossed in her own needlework.
“Are they testing us, the king and queen, Edward? You should know something of the queen’s mind. You are virtually married to her brother.”
“Blood brotherhood is an honourable estate, Mother.”
The B.M. snorted while murmuring a few words of Latin from her missal; warding off the devil probably. I noticed, looking at her properly for the first time that visit, that she was still a fine-boned handsome woman, with the famous Chaucer cheekbones (I have them myself), but there were more lines on her face than I had ever seen before and her luscious brown eyes (which I have also inherited) were a little less lustrous. It struck me suddenly that she was not far off seventy years old. Indestructible, of course, yet becoming a jailor was taking its toll.
“I am sure they are not testing us, Mother. Au contraire, the king respects Your Ladyship more than most of the men at court. No doubt Queen Elizabeth who shares her brother’s sensitive soul — and like yourself was once in waiting to Margaret in earlier times — is urging that compassion be mingled with strict custody.”
The B.M. gave me another of her old-fashioned looks. “Only a fool — and I don’t mean a jester — believes that any queen feels compassion,” she spat out the word, “For the one she has replaced. Rightfully replaced,” she said, more loudly.
She clearly suspected there were spies in the household.
And then, very quietly, she said, “It may be that the opposite is intended.”
“God’s blood, Mother, surely you don’t believe…”
“I will act strictly according to my instructions from His Grace. No more and no less.”
Her eyes looked strained. Yes, she had hardened much since the death of my father nearly twenty years before, when she had been so loyal to Lancaster.
“And what are your instructions, my son? To report on my treatment of Margaret?”
“No, Mother, of course not. It is to glean what information I can from your captive and inform her of what you already know about the negotiations for her ransom. And to discover if you have any requests of His Grace.”
“None that anyone on earth can answer,” she said and turned back to her missal and her mending.
Margaret was looking at me with regal composure.
I had introduced myself making a fairly deep reverence; I was aware that, but a few weeks before, this woman had been readepted as Queen of England, and she remained a titular princess of Sicily and Jerusalem. Whether she recognised me in any sense was impossible to say. She simply looked.
In accordance with the king’s mandate, she was attended by one waiting woman and a page. She too was reading; a book she had borrowed from my mother’s extensive library but not a religious text. It was her father King René’s masterly book on chivalry.
“The late King René was a doyen of chivalry, madam. I had the honour to meet him once.”
She still looked at me. I began to wonder if she had gone deaf or mad.
“I bring a message from the king. From King Edward.”
Still, she looked. She was neither handsome nor ugly I decided, but with a very characterful face, lined, of course — she was middle-aged, certainly over forty — but revealing not one ounce of emotion.
I decided to wait before speaking again. If she had no curiosity, I would simply withdraw.
It was a long wait; seemingly endless. The page brought us both simple refreshments and we each partook.
Finally, she said, “When will the French king provide my ransom? I wish to return home.” She spoke slowly, with remote dignity, in an odd, heavily French accent. The words seemed to come from a different time, a different realm.
I wondered if she knew that her husband had been killed in the Tower straight after Tewkesbury by the Dispatcher – as Anthony and I had begun to call him – Richard Gloucester. Presumably she had been told as she fled that her only son had died in the battle.
“Negotiations are proceeding with the French king, madam. They might be hastened if we knew the whereabouts of Jasper Tudor and his nephew Henry.”
“Vous ne les avez pas? Thank you for that knowledge.” She almost smiled.
Clearly, she was going to give no information and probably had none.
I felt compelled to offer an olive branch. “I condole with you, madam, in your grief.”
She looked at me. Her eyes looked stony as if staring through a mask of ancient Greek tragedy. For a moment, they blazed, seeming to curse me and the whole world for what we had taken from her.
I coughed and looked away.
“Have you any other requests for me to pass on?”
“My hunting dogs were left at Tewkesbury. I need them here.”
“That should not be a problem, madam. I shall take my leave.”
She continued to stare as I withdrew with a slight obeisance. Those eyes remain with me. The eyes of the Gorgon; the eyes of despair.
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