Biographies & Memoirs

29. Martyr

On learning of the four knights’ deaths, Henry disrupted their children’s rights of inheritance, either by diverting their property elsewhere or by forcing the unfortunate heirs to make generous gifts to religious houses. His conscience could so easily be appeased by the sacrifices of others, for despite his defeat on the central issues contested by Becket, he still did not see himself as in any way morally culpable for Thomas’s bloody end. Nor did he ever fulfil his promise to take the cross and equip 200 knights for a year for the crusaders. A notorious perjurer from early in his reign, a little matter of murder was not about to change the habits of a lifetime. Instead, he struck a deal with the pope allowing him to defer his crusade in exchange for other acts of piety, including re-endowing or enlarging religious houses such as Waltham Abbey in Essex and Amesbury Priory in Wiltshire, making sure his gifts were paid for with lands that had previously formed part of Eleanor’s English estates, taking the opportunity offered by his wife’s disgrace to appease his conscience at minimal cost to himself.

Expiation, for Henry, was a commodity to be bought and sold rather than felt or earned. He did send annual remittances, ostensibly for the crusaders, to the Templars and Hospitallers in Jerusalem at the rate of 2,000 silver marks a year, earning him the sobriquet of ‘chief benefactor of the Holy Land’, and accumulating a cash hoard of 30,000 marks over fifteen years, worth roughly £11 million today. But he refused to allow this money to be spent. Shortly before his death, envoys from the Middle East were still desperately pleading with him to unfreeze it, and only after the catastrophe of the fall of Jerusalem to the victorious Saladin could he be persuaded to unlock it, by which time it was too late to be of much use.

This was typical of Henry, who professed himself to be a ‘tester of character’ but in reality always tried to bribe, bargain or bully to obtain what he wanted. Beginning by exploiting the papal schism to bend Pope Alexander to his will, he ended up trying to create a regional church under royal and therefore his personal control. But hardly ever would he offer a reasoned defence of his actions, even when (as in the case of criminous clerks) he believed that he had one, preferring to dictate his demands, forcing matters quickly to a head and falling back on trumped-up charges of embezzlement and treason against Becket.

Promising future favours was his classic technique. ‘Oh, why is it that you won’t do what I want?’ he had asked Thomas in their conversations after the peace conference at Fréteval. ‘Because for certain, if you would, I’d put everything into your hands.’ Weasel words and promises to obey the pope’s future judgement were other favourite tricks, knowing that Alexander had more than enough of his own problems and that distance alone would force him to send envoys whom Henry could hope to bribe, intimidate or stonewall.

As Thomas had discovered the hard way, only by standing up to such intimidation could a royal minister keep his credibility or get anything useful done. ‘If he senses that he can corrupt you by promises or frighten you by threats so that he can obtain something against your honour and some security for himself in the matter, from that moment your authority with him will utterly vanish, and you will become contemptible, a mockery and a laughing stock to him.’ Or as John of Salisbury warned, ‘The king of England puts forward much on his own behalf, and much against you, so as to influence weak and wavering minds in his customary fashion, first by threats, then by promises, then by all sorts of wheeling and dealing.’ Anything involving a tactical retreat or climb-down on Henry’s part had to appear to come from him alone. Cutting to the pith of his psychology, Arnulf of Lisieux advised, ‘Whatever does not yield to him, he considers unlawful … whatever he does should appear to have proceeded from his will rather than from his weakness.’

Henry’s hatred for Becket sprang logically and psychologically from the affection he had once held for him, but their relationship had always been unequal and even at its most intense moments had required the king to set aside some of his strongest social prejudices. He would routinely reproach Becket for his ingratitude. ‘Are you not the son of one of my villeins?’ he would ask. ‘How comes it that so many benefits, so many proofs of my love for you, well known to all, have so been erased from your mind that you are now not only ungrateful, but obstruct me in everything?’

For his attack on the Church’s claims of immunity from secular jurisdiction, Anglo-American lawyers and constitutional historians in the nineteenth century would put on rose-tinted spectacles and reinvent Henry as a legal reformer avant la lettre, a pioneer of fair trials and equality before the law who paved the way for some of the most important clauses later incorporated into Magna Carta and the US Constitution and Bill of Rights, whereas in reality his actions showed that the rights of the accused could always be overridden by political considerations and the king’s will. Far from remodelling the legal system and the courts in the interests of justice and the common good, Henry sought to strengthen his own power. And far from being a pioneer of ‘equitable’ or ‘impartial’ justice, he happily presided over his own court in the Battle Abbey case and at Becket’s trial for embezzlement and false accounting at Northampton, acting as chief counsel for the prosecution, judge and jury simultaneously. In response, Thomas would prove that a middle-class Londoner could transcend his social origins and challenge a ruler whom he believed was degenerating into a tyrant, but it would cost him his life. Thomas More would take a similar path in Henry VIII’s reign, and it may be no coincidence that More’s working library contained many of the same books as Becket’s.

Henry’s surrogate for remorse was brazenly to associate himself with Becket’s cult, making it a vital prop of his image of himself as a divine-right ruler, replacing his earlier championing of St Edward the Confessor. Nine or ten more times would he take the pilgrim road to Canterbury – twice with Count Philip of Flanders and once with King Louis, who made offerings of a cup of gold and a ruby the size of a hen’s egg called the ‘regal of France’ – routinely visiting the tomb on returning from the Continent, except in early 1188, when the cathedral was closed to visitors. Following his example, Edward I would kneel before Becket’s shrine in 1286 and 1287. Henry IV and his uncle, Edward the Black Prince, would build their own funeral monuments on either side of it. Henry VI would be anointed at his coronation with sacred oil of St Thomas, while Edward IV’s sister, Margaret of York, made at least two pilgrimages to the shrine. Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon came in 1520, when they showed off the cathedral’s treasures to Katherine’s nephew, the Emperor Charles V. And on Henry VIII’s return from Calais two months later, he came again to make a further offering.

Long before then, the tomb had become a highly elaborate and costly affair. Building a new and splendid sepulchral monument at Canterbury had been a condition buried in the small print of Pope Alexander’s canonization decree, but was considerably delayed by a disastrous fire on 5 September 1174 caused by sparks from a house fire in front of the main cathedral gate which barely touched the nave or crypt of the church, but set the roof of the choir ablaze, leaving only the outer walls standing and the rest a pile of smoking rubble. After an international competition to appoint an architect, William of Sens (no relation of the archbishop and papal legate for France with the same name), famous for his work at Sens Cathedral, was given the commission. Work on rebuilding the choir began in September 1175 and plans for a large polygonal rotunda to house the new shrine had been approved before Holy Week 1177, when Henry returned to Canterbury to renew the Christ Church charters. If the design for this rotunda had ever been realized, it would have created a funerary monument of a type unrivalled in the Romanesque or Gothic world, modelled on the circular Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and on a scale that (in England) would be attempted only by the Templars at their new London headquarters.

All was going well until just after the solar eclipse on 13 September 1178, when the scaffolding from which the unlucky architect was supervising the construction of the vault over the crossing of the new choir collapsed, pitching him fifty-five feet to the ground. While he lived to tell the tale, his injuries were so severe that he was obliged to resign his commission and retire to France. ‘William the Englishman’ was appointed to succeed him and with the change of architect came a radical rethink of the plans: the shrine was now to be situated in a magnificent new chapel positioned on an elevated platform behind the high altar in the retrochoir and with a considerably raised roof, allowing the space between the structural pillars around the sides to be filled with glorious stained-glass windows depicting the life and miracles of the saint.

Progress, however, would be slow. Lack of money halted the work in 1183 and, although the central section of the new chapel and its roof were largely finished in the building season of 1184, it was not until three o’clock on the afternoon of Tuesday 7 July 1220 – fifty years after the murder – that the bones of St Thomas would be carried in solemn procession in an iron-covered box secured by padlocks from his tomb in the crypt to their new place of honour. Besides a papal legate, the archbishop of Rheims, bishops and abbots, barons and knights, and a vast throng of priests and people, the young Henry III, grandson of the king who had made Thomas his archbishop, was in the crowd, but at just twelve years old was too short and delicate to help carry the heavy box on his shoulders with the other luminaries.

Consisting of an elevated marble base decorated with openwork quatrefoils on which lay an effigy of the saint on a slab, the new shrine was surmounted by thin columns the height of a man, framing open arches, four bays long and two wide, crowned by a sculpted cornice on which a wooden feretory (or reliquary chest) rested, placed high to deter thieves. A fine mosaic pavement led up towards the structure; to the side was an altar offering a sacred space for pilgrims to pray and make their offerings. Plated all over with the purest gold, the sides of the feretory were studded with golden baubles, pearls and precious jewels; its gabled roof was embossed with golden quatrefoils set in a diaper pattern. As pilgrims offered their votive gifts, they would be attached directly to the surface or on to the crest of the feretory by waiting goldsmiths. According to Erasmus of Rotterdam, who visited the shrine with his friend John Colet, dean of St Paul’s, in or around 1512, ‘every part glistened, shone and sparkled with very rare and very large jewels, some of them bigger than a goose’s egg’.

What was rarely possible was for pilgrims to be allowed to see the lid of the feretory raised so that they could look inside and view the saint’s bones in their iron box. Only by mounting a ladder could anything of that sort be seen, which was seldom if ever allowed. Even the feretory itself could be covered over to protect it. If Erasmus’s information is accurate, it was only when a protective covering, or canopy, was raised on a pulley attached to the roof of the cathedral that it was revealed to pilgrims in all its glory.

Skilfully overseen by the guardians of the shrine, the Becket legend soon came to offer something for everyone. So prodigiously successful, so fabulously wealthy would his cult become that it quickly rivalled, then overtook such well-renowned centres of pilgrimage as Santiago de Compostela, Assisi, Chartres or Rocamadour, inspiring Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and creating a highly lucrative tourist and hospitality trade all along the road from London to Canterbury. The ‘Book of Miracles’ begun by the first guardian of the shrine, Benedict of Peterborough, and faithfully continued by his successors, reports St Thomas showing special favour to fine courtiers, knights, merchants and their families, curing their piles, diarrhoea and stomach ulcers, and restoring their lost falcons, fugitive servants or stolen rings. But since a majority of pilgrims were women, priests and commoners, it also records innumerable cases of safe delivery in childbirth, poor folk cured of blindness, palsy, dropsy and leprosy, and even instances of babies being brought back from the dead.

As the story was retold in the Golden Legend, a thirteenth-century compendium of saints’ lives turned into an instant bestseller by William Caxton after the invention of printing, Becket was a Londoner of humble origins who had achieved fame and fortune partly by working hard at school. When the king had made him his chancellor, he ‘had great rule and the land stood in prosperity, and St Thomas stood so greatly in the king’s favour that he was content with all that he did’. A Damascene conversion followed his appointment as archbishop: ‘he became a holy man suddenly changed into a new man doing great penance as in wearing a hair-shirt with knots.’ But Lucifer stepped in, casting his evil spell and sowing hatred and discord, so that the king’s relationship with his truest and most honest councillor was doomed.

When (according to Caxton’s version of the famous outburst) Henry said in his fury, ‘If only I had men in my land that loved me, they would not suffer such a traitor in my land alive,’ the murder became a foregone conclusion, its most gruesome details spelled out in exactly the way they would be today in a tabloid newspaper. So too were the supposedly miraculous powers of the saint even in his lifetime. Thus, fleeing to the papal curia at Sens from Northampton in 1164, Thomas – arriving late in the afternoon of a fast day after the market was closed – was unable to buy fish for his dinner. He ate roast capon instead, causing a horrified cardinal to pick up a leg of the offending fowl in his handkerchief to show to Pope Alexander, whereupon it instantly changed into carp. Again, immediately after Thomas preached his Christmas Day sermon in the cathedral four days before his murder, Henry reached out to take some bread at dinner, only to discover that the loaf turned mouldy in his hands.

A few years after Becket’s murder, Peter of Celle, who had once brutally snubbed him when shortly after his consecration as archbishop Thomas had asked to be his penfriend, wrote to John of Salisbury, reminding him of jests they had shared over a bottle of wine on some of the long winter nights at his monastery at Rheims while John was in exile. How on earth, he remembered asking, could a big enough tomb monument be found for a man like that? Now, he mused wryly, the joke was on them: ‘God has turned the tables and made it all come true. What we laughed about has actually happened in real life!’

To an old friend like John of Salisbury who had known Thomas from his earliest days in Theobald’s household and still had the bruises to show for it, his journey had been incredible. Believing as a Londoner, born and bred, in the values of meritocracy despite his lowly origins as the son of Norman settlers and in spite of modest academic achievements, Becket had risen to a position where he was able to shake the power of one of the strongest rulers in Christendom and prove to his fellow-Englishmen that the values he believed in could be defended, albeit at the price of his own life. Even a pope to whom Thomas had often seemed an embarrassing nuisance had canonized him with almost indecent haste, swept away on a tide of emotion following his bloody assassination.

Commentators as cosmopolitan and astute as John of Salisbury and Peter of Celle knew from their wide experience of the Church and its politics that Becket had become a saint less for his own merits than on account of the blows of the four knights. Others whose viewpoint was more parochial, coming primarily from within his own household, like Herbert of Bosham, Alexander Llewelyn and William fitz Stephen, despite their occasional sharp differences over the wisdom of the uncompromising nature of their leader’s positions, would have thought differently about it, arguing that by the time of his Christmas Day sermon he had earned a special place in heaven regardless of what was to come.

As prickly as he was smooth and once compared to a man with the habits of a hedgehog, Becket could sometimes act impulsively, as John of Salisbury several times complained. His sudden decision in the autumn of 1162 to resign the chancellorship smacked of a certain intellectual arrogance. He assumed that everyone shared his values and had the same ardour in pursuing them. And yet John’s criticisms should not always be taken at face value: he was himself the source of many of Becket’s ideas and yet was himself unwilling to suffer poverty or physical hardship for his friend’s beliefs, which is why he had all along chosen to take sanctuary at the abbey of St Rémi at Rheims with his friend Peter, and not to join Herbert and the rest of the exiles in the harsher regime of Pontigny or even at Ste-Colombe after the lease on his lodgings in Paris had expired. In John’s opinion, Thomas could, and probably should, have settled with the king at any one of three moments: shortly after he had fled into exile and persuaded the pope to condemn the offending ‘customs’ as ‘obnoxious’; at Montmirail when, instead of accepting the terms he had previously agreed with the papal mediators, the ascetic, rebel’s instinct in him had kicked in and at the last moment he had added the forbidden words ‘saving God’s honour’; and at Montmartre when, after an agreement had been reached, he had appeared to spoil it by demanding the kiss of peace as his security for Henry’s compliance.

In Thomas’s defence, Pope Alexander had given him a counsel of perfection. ‘Humble yourself before the king as far as it can be done,’ was the gist of this advice, ‘but do not agree to anything which leads to the diminution of your office and the Church’s liberty.’ When read in the context of Henry’s weasel words and slippery tactics, this advice gave Thomas the superhuman task of figuring out how to meet the expectations of both these principals to whom he owed allegiance. If Henry broke his oaths so freely, why would he honour a peace treaty? How was the lack of trust between them to be overcome? These were questions with which King Louis and a parade of papal envoys had already wrestled in vain. In fact, the argument about the kiss sprang from the pope’s earlier warning that Becket should not attempt to provoke Henry further by demanding an oath as a guarantee of an agreement, but content himself merely with a kiss of peace.

The vexed, perennial problem of trust in Henry’s promises would come to haunt the final settlement at Fréteval. With a verbal agreement in hand, Thomas – beguiled and elated by the brief illusion of a revival of his old familiarity with the king – became overconfident, forgetting his own rules about how to handle him. His insistence on exacting vengeance on his hated rivals, the delinquent bishops, would be his Achilles’ heel, as Henry – judging by his observations on this very topic at the time – may have predicted. The archbishop’s repeated protestations that he would not return to Canterbury until every single yard of sequestrated ground had been restored to him turned out to be extremely foolish, since he had to eat his words and return anyway. After the murder, Arnulf of Lisieux wrote to the pope criticizing Becket for his spitefulness, saying it had tarnished his martyr’s crown. But the pressure on him – not least from Pope Alexander – should not be underestimated. Becket had never coped well with stress, as his debilitating attack of colitis at the Council of Northampton showed, and he had very few people on his side whom he could really trust.

Peter of Celle thought he had the measure of his man when he criticized Becket’s love of grand gestures and desire to prove himself. Thomas, socially, always had a mountain to climb: it is hardly surprising that he felt himself a newcomer and an outsider trying to become an insider, when the gulf between a middle-class Londoner and Henry was unbridgeable, their relationship always unequal. And Becket had long known it. According to John of Salisbury, for all his apparent ruthlessness he had always been a divided consciousness, aware that a day would come when he could no longer go on vacillating between self-assertion and dishonest compliance. ‘He was every day forced,’ John says, ‘to contend as much against the king himself as against his enemies and to evade innumerable crafts and deceits.’

Despite being frequently castigated by his modern biographers as an ‘actor-saint’ who had to ‘out-bishop’ his fellow-bishops and unnecessarily dramatize situations, Thomas was surely correct to claim that it was impossible for him to assent to ‘customs’ that were in several instances novelties, twice condemned as ‘obnoxious’ by the pope. Such ‘customs’, he knew, would quickly be taken for established norms if he did not take a lead. In particular, Henry’s attempts to prohibit appeals to the pope would have done more than any of his other measures towards creating a self-contained, regional church under royal control. Becket’s darkest hour was at the Council of Clarendon, when he cut the ground from under the feet of his colleagues and promised to ‘keep the customs of the realm in all good faith’, only to rescind his pledge when Henry produced a text of them in writing. Undoubtedly he had been too trusting: it simply had not occurred to him to insist that the ‘customs’ be declared in full before he promised to observe them. But there again he had been cruelly tricked by a duplicitous Henry into believing that a simple verbal assent would suffice, and that once it had been given and the king’s honour satisfied, the matter would never be spoken of again.

Whether Thomas really was a saint and martyr is a question that has been fruitlessly debated for centuries. As the sword-blows rained down on his head in the cathedral, he appealed to the Virgin Mary and to St Denis, the patron saint of France, and to St Alphege, the archbishop murdered by drunken Danes for defending the property of the church of Canterbury. That final entreaty, reliably reported, suggests that it was less doctrinal orthodoxy or the liberties of the Church as a whole for which he believed he was about to be killed, but for defending his own beloved church and its privileges – chiefly the cathedral and monastic chapter’s property rights and the primate’s right to preside at the coronation ceremony.

Both St Augustine and St Cyprian had stressed that it was the validity of the cause for which a victim died, not the violence or sacrifice he or she had suffered along the way, that made a true martyr. ‘Willing’ or ‘eager’ martyrs offering themselves for sacrifice were suspect, even if St Ignatius of Antioch had taken an opposing view, not condemning, indeed encouraging ‘eager’ martyrdom. The Church Fathers discussing the topic all agreed that martyrs should show confidence, fortitude and constancy. The greatest danger is fear or despair, since anyone dying in despair cannot be a martyr. Underlying all of the earliest biographies is the controlling idea that, foreseeing his death, Becket went willingly and knowingly to it. An enduring trait of hagiography as a genre, this muddies the waters, making it impossible to assess realistically where ‘confidence’, ‘fortitude’ and ‘constancy’ end and ‘eagerness’ begins, but the multiple reports of his Christmas Day sermon suggest that, by then at the very latest, he understood and accepted his fate. Whether this made him ‘eager’ to die is a question that will continue to trouble his admirers for as long as his name is known.

More relevant today is the broader criticism that he sought martyrdom out of ‘obstinacy’ or spiritual pride. In Murder in the Cathedral, a so-called ‘pageant play’ written for the Canterbury Festival and first staged there in 1935, T. S. Eliot, well versed in this conundrum, scripts a temptation scene in which Thomas is urged to think of glory after death. By making the ultimate sacrifice, he can rule from the grave as a saint and martyr. One of his tempters even conjures up a vision of a glittering, jewel-encrusted shrine before which lines of pilgrims stand in awe, kneel in prayer or creep in penance, thinking of the miracles he will be able to perform for them from his place in heaven. A delusion of the devil, Thomas seems to see it for what it is: a dream to damnation. And yet, in the cathedral, as the assassins approach the cloister door, shouting and brandishing their swords, he orders the monks who have slammed it behind them and bolted it for safety, to reopen it. Eliot offers his audience an opportunity to go for the jugular, giving the fourth knight, Richard Brito, a concluding speech in which he claims the murdered archbishop’s egotism is proved by his decision to reopen the door and invite his fate, rather than keeping it shut and escaping until the fury of the murderers had abated.

With such facts before them, says Brito, the only possible verdict of the audience can be one of suicide while of unsound mind. That line of argument had its defenders even in the Middle Ages, and at the time of Henry VIII’s break with Rome, another pope, Paul III, wrestling with the threat of schism from a second Henry and poised to excommunicate him, declared to another king of France that John Fisher, bishop of Rochester – whom the king had executed in 1535 for opposing his claim to be the Supreme Head of the Church in England – had been a ‘true’ saint and martyr, giving his life for the truth of the universal Church – unlike Becket, who had thrown his life away in a petty squabble over the assets and privileges of Canterbury.

But when he made this pronouncement, the pope was applying an anachronistic scale of values. When the question of St Alphege’s claim to sanctity had first been put in William Rufus’s reign to Archbishop Anselm, the reply had been, ‘He died for the freedom and the salvation of his fellow-men. Nobody has greater charity than he who gives his life for his friends: for innocence, even when no struggle has taken place, makes a martyr.’ Despite dying solely for the rights and material possessions of the church of Canterbury, Alphege’s martyrdom was considered to have had universal significance; it belonged to the divine plan of salvation, and it is no surprise to discover that the earliest biographers would apply exactly the same rule of thumb to Becket.

Nor did Peter of Celle, for all his earlier scepticism, have any remaining doubts. ‘Our mourning is turned to joy!’ he exclaimed shortly after the murder, this time in a letter to another old friend, Bartholomew of Exeter. ‘Who,’ he asked, ‘will give me wings like a dove that I may fly and visit the tomb of the precious martyr St Thomas?’ And with Peter and his circle of celebrity correspondents joining Becket’s fan club, his cult would flourish as rapidly on the Continent as in England itself, stretching within fifty years from Paris to Cracow, Barcelona to Reykjavik and Hólmr, his story represented in wall paintings and altarpieces all over Europe, his miracles reported not just in Latin and French but in Polish, Catalan and Icelandic.

Ironically it would be the phenomenal success of the new Becket shrine that led to the corruption of the Christ Church monks by their new-found wealth, until the moment when Henry VIII would quarrel with the pope and decide to avenge his royal predecessor and namesake. In September 1538 the shrine would be demolished and its rich treasures despoiled, carried off in two large chests ‘such as six or eight men could but convey out of the church’. The ruby known as the ‘regal of France’ Henry had made into a thumb-ring. Becket was declared a traitor: his bones would be ignominiously burned.* Iconoclasts would obliterate his image with hammers, knives or whitewash in cathedrals and parish churches all over England, smashing many of the stained-glass windows containing the stories of his miracles. Even his very name would be carefully excised from missals, psalters and the calendar of saints. Only with the aid of ultra-violet light is it possible now to read the inscription on the flyleaf of the presentation copy of John of Salisbury’sPolicraticus sent with its verse dedication to Thomas in 1159, saying that the book had once belonged to him.

With ‘St Thomas Becket’ downgraded to plain ‘Bishop Becket sometime archbishop of Canterbury’, the layered story of his relationship with the earlier Henry would be turned into a Punch and Judy show to match the tabloid newspeak of religious sectarianism. For ‘notwithstanding the said canonization,’ thundered Henry VIII, ensuring no mistakes were made by vetting this proclamation personally, ‘there appeareth nothing in his life and exterior conversation whereby he should be called a saint, but rather esteemed to have been a rebel and traitor to his prince’.

Only a monarch not unlike the earlier Henry, set on building a regional church under tight royal control, ring-fenced by the coast, as an integral part of a centralized state controlled by himself, could have spoken that way. Becket was far from saintly or infallible as a human being, and he made many enemies and mistakes along the way. Peter of Celle was right that his major defects were his ambition and fondness for mingling with the great and the good, but his moral unease as royal chancellor combined with his dogged resilience and fortitude as archbishop would win him the dedicated loyalty (and even the affectionate mockery) of many honourable, rational men. As the distinguished Oxford scholar Henry Mayr-Harting wrote in The Times in June 1996, for that he must have been a truly charismatic man, otherwise he could hardly have retained their loyalties for so long, and at such a punitive cost to their careers.

As the young knight with the prize gyrfalcon had instantly guessed when he passed Thomas on the road to St-Omer, ‘Either that’s the archbishop of Canterbury or his double!’

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