The death of Henry V put new heart into the dauphin and his supporters. Ambroise de Loré and Jean, sire de Coulances, launched a raid into lower Normandy, attacking and pillaging the town of Bernay, which was abandoned by its garrison on their approach, and inflicting a heavy defeat on those sent to pursue them.1 On 30 October 1422, just six days after the death of his father, the dauphin had himself proclaimed king Charles VII at Mehun-sur-Yèvre, and began negotiations with the Scots and Castilians for a new army, eight thousand strong, to be brought from Scotland to expel the English from France in the new year.2

In Paris a plot to betray the city to the dauphin was discovered. A priest walking in his garden outside the city walls early one morning observed the wife of the royal armourer in secret conversation with some men-at-arms. He reported his suspicions to the guards at the gate, she was arrested, found to be carrying letters from the dauphin to his supporters in Paris and, together with her fellow conspirators, was put to death by drowning. Not long afterwards Meulan was betrayed to the Armagnacs, who placed a strong garrison in the fortress at the bridge which disrupted supply lines to Paris and raided far and wide.3

Throughout all these trials Bedford kept his nerve. He ordered all soldiers to return to their captains immediately and Norman subjects to assemble in arms at Domfront. Pilgrimages to Mont-Saint-Michel – often a cover for illicit dealings with the enemy garrison there – were prohibited. Suspected Armagnacs in Paris were rounded up and imprisoned and everyone in the city, ‘citizens, householders, carters, shepherds, cowmen, abbey pig-keepers, chambermaids, and the very monks’, was required to take the oath of allegiance to Bedford as regent. Meulan was besieged and, after holding out for two months, capitulated on 1 March 1423.4

Bedford now decided to take the war to the enemy. The Norman estates-general and clergy, responding to an impassioned plea from Robert Jolivet, had each granted taxes worth 50,000l.t. (£2.92m) for the defence of the duchy and the recovery of Mont-Saint-Michel, Ivry and other places. In May, John Mowbray, the earl marshal, brought over the first contingent of an English army, totalling 380 men-at-arms and 1140 archers, which had been recruited for six months’ service in the field. With these additional resources at his disposal Bedford was able to wage war on several fronts.5

The earl of Salisbury, appointed governor of Champagne and Brie, began the systematic reduction of the remaining Armagnac strongholds between Paris and Chartres. In Picardy the earl of Suffolk, admiral of Normandy, and Sir Ralph Bouteiller, bailli of Caux, jointly began a blockade by sea and land of Le Crotoy. This great fortress, guarding the north bank of the entrance to the bay of the Somme, was a haven for Breton pirates and its garrison, commanded by Jacques d’Harcourt, made regular sorties into Normandy and the Burgundian-controlled Low Countries to rob, pillage and take prisoners for ransom. An attack had long been expected, so Le Crotoy was well stocked with artillery and supplies, but its capture was a priority. Bedford had ordered three large new guns to be forged at Rouen and withdrawn fifteen hundred men from garrisons throughout Normandy to serve at the siege.

Harcourt held out for nearly four months, agreeing in October to surrender Le Crotoy on 3 March 1424, but only on condition that Bedford would come there on each of the first three days of March prepared to meet him in personal combat. Whoever ended in possession of the field, either through victory or by the other’s failure to attend, would also win Le Crotoy. Challenges of this kind were not uncommon in chivalric circles, and the more valuable the prize the greater the honour bestowed on the participants, but it was very unusual for the fate of a major fortress to depend on one. Perhaps this was just a chivalric flourish, for Harcourt left Le Crotoy long before the encounter was due to take place and did not return, so no further combat was necessary.6

The third front opened up by Bedford in 1423 was in southwest Normandy, where Mont-Saint-Michel stood alone in its defiance. In February the English began to fortify Tombelaine, a priory set on a rocky islet 459 feet high out in the bay halfway between Mont-Saint-Michel and the Norman coast. The previous summer the prior had sent more than 3000 pounds of lead to Mont-Saint-Michel for safe-keeping ‘because of the uncertainty caused by the wars’; ironically the monks there had purloined it for their own defences. With a permanent garrison of thirty men-at-arms and ninety mounted archers, Tombelaine would now become one of the most important English fortresses holding the frontier against Mont-Saint-Michel and keeping the raiding activities of its garrison in check.7

On 30 July 1423 Bedford charged Sir John de la Pole, captain of neighbouring Avranches, with the task of recovering Mont-Saint-Michel ‘by all ways and means possible . . . by force of arms, by amicable means or otherwise’. Pole was given power to call up the feudal levies and draw on the garrisons of Caen and Cotentin but, before he began his siege in earnest, his attention was fatally distracted by the prospect of easier pickings elsewhere. The dauphin’s army, under the command of the earl of Buchan, constable of France, had laid siege to the Burgundian town of Cravant, 115 miles south-east of Paris. A combined Anglo-Burgundian force, some four thousand strong, had been sent to relieve it and on 31 July won a decisive victory. The Scots, who were in the forefront of the fighting, suffered heavy casualties and among the many prisoners was Buchan himself, who was blinded in one eye, and John Stewart, constable of the Scottish army in France. (The dauphin was callously dismissive of the defeat: ‘almost none of the nobles of our kingdom [were] there,’ he wrote, ‘but only Scots, Spaniards and other foreign soldiers, accustomed to live off the country, so that the harm is not so great.’)8

Perhaps hoping to take advantage of the situation, while the enemy was regrouping far away on the other side of France, Sir John de la Pole decided to lead the forces he had gathered for the siege of Mont-Saint-Michel on a strike into Anjou. Like Clarence before him, he got as far as Angers and, like Clarence, he was caught in an ambush on returning with his plunder. On 26 September 1423 Ambroise de Loré, Jean, sire de Coulances, and Louis de Tromagon intercepted him near Laval with a small band of mounted men-at-arms and lured him to La Brossinière, where Jean d’Harcourt, count of Aumâle, was waiting with the main body of the army on foot.

Caught between the two French forces, with no artillery and impeded by the thousands of cattle they were driving back to Normandy, the English were slaughtered. Only a handful escaped, among them Pole himself, who was taken prisoner. His folly exposed the weakness of the English military administration, for many of the Norman garrisons which had contributed to his army were now themselves under-strength and vulnerable. Aumâle pressed home his victory, laying siege to Avranches and, boldly striking through the heart of Normandy, spent several days plundering the suburbs of Saint-Lô. He withdrew from Avranches only on learning of the approach of an English relieving force.9

As early as 4 June Bedford had complained to Jolivet that the campaigns had bled his treasury dry and he had nothing left to pay the wages of the Norman garrisons. The estates-general met at Vernon in July and granted another levy of 60,000l.t. (£3.5m) but it needed a further meeting – the third of the year – to raise sufficient funds to meet his needs. This last meeting, in December at Caen, was significant for several reasons. It granted 200,000l.t. (£11.67m), plus a tax of a tenth on the clergy, but, in an implicit reproof to Pole’s diversion of money and men away from their intended purpose, the proceeds were specifically designated for the payment of Norman garrison wages, the sieges of Mont-Saint-Michel Ivry, Dreux, Gaillon, Nogent-le-Rotrou, Senonches and Beaumont-le-Vicomte, and the extirpation of brigandage.10

The subject of brigandage is a fascinating one but it is fraught with difficulties. Did its inclusion on the agenda for the first time since the English invasion mean that the problem had recently grown worse? Or had it only become a priority because the war of conquest was over and there was a greater degree of security across the duchy? Were the brigands simply criminals, taking advantage of the instability of the times to rob, steal and kidnap for their own ends? Or were they, as some French historians11 believe, a medieval French Resistance, committing acts of sabotage to undermine and eventually expel the English regime?

This confusion was apparent even to contemporaries. The Caen meeting of the estates-general addressed the question of how to deal with captured brigands, ruling that they must all be examined by the judiciary to determine whether they were malefactors who should be punished within the judicial system or prisoners of war who should be returned to their captors for ransom.12

It was not always easy to make such nice distinctions. The Norman records rarely note the execution of a mere ‘brigand’, preferring to use sweeping catch-all phrases, most commonly ‘traitor, brigand, enemy and adversary of the king’ but sometimes adding ‘thief’, ‘highwayman’ or ‘murderer’. ‘Enemy and adversary of the king’ was the administration’s description of all those who bore arms against Henry V or Henry VI, including Armagnac supporters and prisoners of war, but also outlaws in the literal sense of those who had, like brigands, put themselves outside the king’s law by committing capital offences. The term ‘traitor’, however, was only used in the specific legal context of someone who had sworn the English oath of allegiance and then broken it.

Convicted brigands who had not taken the oath were normally executed by hanging like common thieves. A much harsher fate awaited those who had taken the oath: as traitors they were drawn on hurdles to the place of execution, beheaded and quartered, their dismembered bodies then being put on public display.13 An even more unpleasant fate awaited women who aided and abetted brigands: since it was considered indecent to expose their nakedness by dismembering them, the customary punishment was to bury them alive at the foot of the gibbet. At least three instances are recorded during the English occupation: Thomasse Raoul at Caen in 1424, Jehanne la Hardie at Falaise in 1435 and Thassine de Foullon at Coutances in 1447. The Falaise executioner was paid 28s. 4d.t.(£82.64) for la Hardie’s execution: 5s.t. for bringing her to the gibbet, 10s.t. for digging the ditch, 10s.t. for burying her and 3s. 4d.t. for two pairs of gloves.14

After the fall of Rouen, Henry V had made restoring order to Normandy a priority. To encourage the arrest of brigands, on 10 May 1419 he introduced a bounty system. Anyone bringing to justice a brigand who was subsequently tried, convicted and executed was awarded 6l.t. (£350) the equivalent of thirteen days’ pay for an English man-at-arms or twenty-seven for an archer. (No bounty was payable if the brigand was pardoned or imprisoned, even if convicted.) The captor was also allowed to keep all the goods of the convicted man, except for his clothes, which traditionally went to the executioner. Bounty-hunting could therefore be a very profitable business: in 1424 the captain of Carentan and one of his soldiers captured a single brigand carrying 113l. 12s. 6d.t. (£6628) in cash and seven silver cups which they shared between them.

This was an unusual case, but soldiers out on patrol could usefully add to their ordinary wages by bringing in brigands: the marshal and some his men from the Saint-Lô garrison shared 72l.t. (£4200) for capturing twelve brigands, eleven of whom were beheaded as traitors and the twelfth, a Breton who had never taken the oath of allegiance, hanged.15

Many of those arrested for brigandage were, or had been, members of enemy garrisons. Henriet Pellevillain, for instance, left the Armagnac garrison at Nogent-le-Rotrou in February 1423 and, with four other men, took up residence in the forest of Brotonne, which lies in a loop of the Seine halfway between Pont-Audemer and Caudebec. The forest had long been a notorious haunt of brigands: as early as January 1408 mounted troops had been sent there to root out gangs operating in the area. Pellevillain’s men preyed on merchants travelling by road and river to Rouen, kidnapping them and holding them to ransom. Their downfall came when, in their most daring exploit, they went to Caudebec with a trumpeter, seized a number of people in broad daylight and escaped back to the forest with their hostages.16

Was this real-life Robin Hood a partisan or a robber? There is no evidence to suggest that his activities benefited anyone other than himself and his group and they were operating far from their base at Nogent-le-Rotrou. The involvement of the trumpeter, however, suggests an operation with legitimate military overtones, as do the facts that Pellevillain had never taken the English oath of obedience and, from the age of twenty, had been actively in the dauphin’s service. These were extenuating circumstances which explain why he was allowed to sue for pardon and not simply hanged as a highwayman.

After Nogent-le-Rotrou was captured by the earl of Salisbury in October 1424, another notorious gang from the same garrison also operated out of the forest of Brotonne. Their leader, Guillaume de Hallé, had served in the garrison for three years. During that time he had been taken prisoner on a raid near the English stronghold of La-Ferté-Frênel, some forty miles away. His father, who still lived near Pont-Audemer, had paid his ransom and pledged that his son would not rejoin the enemy if released. Hallé took the oath of allegiance and was set free but then became captain of a large band of brigands, whose profile and activities are recorded in the pardons some of them received in the spring of 1426.17

The gang consisted almost entirely of young men in their late teens and twenties, many of whom came from around Pont-Audemer and were involved in the leather-working industry. Huet de Quesnoy, a shoemaker, was known locally as the captain’s recruiting agent, intermediary and enforcer: he threatened to kill and burn down the houses of anyone who failed to respond to Hallé’s demands for weapons, food, drink and shelter.18 Guillaume Bouchier claimed that such threats had compelled him not only to take the gang supplies but also to join them in their kidnapping expeditions.19 Eighteen-year-old Jeannin Beaudouyn’s excuse was that he was in love with Yolette, widow of Jean de Hallé, Guillaume’s brigand brother: she had taken him to meet the captain and he had forced him to marry her and join his company. Seventeen-year-old Colin du Quemin had become a member only for his own protection, he said, because Beaudouyn had discovered that Yolette was also sleeping with him and wanted to kill him.20 A more convincing reason for joining was given by Laurens Hue, an impoverished apprentice shoemaker with an epileptic wife, who confessed he was persuaded by the prospect of earning more than half as much again as a brigand.21

Hallé’s band were responsible for the usual brigand catalogue of kidnappings, extortions, murders and arson, even raiding as far afield as Harfleur in their quest for victims. No one was safe from their violence. One woman, who refused to reveal where her absent husband was, suffered what seems to be the earliest recorded example of waterboarding: Hallé personally ‘tortured her on a bench, forcing her to drink a vast amount of water, causing her serious injury and pain’.22

On another occasion seven of the group were sent on a secret night mission to Préaulx Abbey. They were led by Hallé’s Friar Tuck, one brother Jehan de Guilleville, a renegade monk from the abbey who was already a veteran kidnapper and robber. With the aid of a ladder stolen from a nearby cottage he scaled the abbey walls and then broke down the door to enable his men to enter. Guilleville informed the seven terrified monks they found inside that they would be held hostage until they obtained the release of one of their brethren, his friend, who was being held prisoner at Pont-Audemer. This time, however, the brigands had overreached themselves. They carried off their hostages into hiding in nearby woods but the alarm was raised and within a few hours they were rounded up and all but two, who escaped, were thrown into prison.23

It would be easy to dismiss Hallé’s band as nothing more than a particularly vicious criminal gang. The only thing that gives one pause for thought is the formal initiation that each applicant was made to undergo before he was admitted. As Laurens Hue explained it, he was obliged to swear that he would serve Hallé loyally and well ‘and that he would do everything in his power to damage and injure the English and all [their] subjects’. Having promised to do this, he was then given a complete new suit of clothing, including a hat and shoes (possibly a uniform?), together with a sword, bow and quiverful of arrows. The initiates were allowed to keep half of everything they won.24

Though there remains room for doubt, the telling argument would seem to be that Hallé’s activities, like those of most brigands then operating, did nothing to undermine English rule: despite the initiates’ oath, there were no attacks on English natives, on English officials or on the infrastructure which made their administration possible. His victims were all Norman civilians, of the same humble class as himself (Hallé was the son of a poor labourer), and many of them were his neighbours, whom he attacked in their own homes. When he was captured again Hallé could not ransom himself a second time because he was now in breach of his oath: he was therefore executed as a traitor, not because he was a guerrilla warrior.25

There are occasional references to Englishmen being murdered by brigands in the records of the Norman chancery but for the most part it was ordinary villagers who, especially in the first two years after the invasion, attacked and killed English soldiers who ventured out alone or in twos or threes. Naturally, since they were seeking to justify the offence to obtain a pardon, the killers claimed that they were acting in self-defence or were provoked by violence against themselves or their neighbours.26 These excuses might not always have been true but there were many examples of English soldiers who did abuse their position to rob, steal and rape, despite the best efforts of the English authorities to prevent and punish such behaviour because it antagonised the local population.27

What is perhaps most striking about the evidence of the chancery records is that most of the crimes were not concerned with national identity or political difference. Racially abusive terminology abounds: the English are usually referred to as the ‘Goddons’, or God-damns, an allusion to their habitual cursing. The stock character invariably swears ‘by Saint George’ and drinks ale: a riot broke out at Le Crotoy in 1432 when Breton mariners insulted some men from Dieppe by calling them ‘treacherous English dogs, Goddons full of ale’. Nevertheless, race was seldom the sole cause of crime. An English merchant living in Rouen was stabbed to death in a quarrel over payment for goods he had received; an over-zealous tax-collector was killed (and his receipts thrown into the sea) by an angry man who thought he had already paid enough; the Norman lieutenant of the bailli of Tancarville was killed in a public-house fracas when drinking with a man he had previously arrested for assault.28 These were not the actions of politically motivated freedom fighters but the unintended consequences of petty squabbles in daily life which are still the staple diet of courts today.

The true resistance was to be found elsewhere, among those prepared to risk their lives to regain territory for the dauphin, either as a civilian fifth column plotting to seize English-held towns and castles or in military service at a frontier garrison such as Mont-Saint-Michel or under a die-hard loyalist commander such as the Harcourts, Ambroise de Loré or Poton de Xaintrailles.

One could be forgiven for thinking that there was sometimes little to distinguish the activities of these Armagnac captains from simple brigandage. The raids of Jean d’Harcourt, count of Aumâle, on Saint-Lô in 1423 and Ambroise de Loré on Caen fair in 1431, for instance, caused terror and consternation because they struck unexpectedly and deep into the heart of Normandy, but in essence they were opportunist attacks whose principal objective was plunder and prisoners.29 (The same was also true, of course, of English raids into enemy territory.) To a peasant working in the fields perhaps the only observable difference between the smaller marauding groups of armed soldiers and brigand bands was that the former would ride with the banners of their captains displayed and wear the French badge rather than the red cross which Normans were required to bear. It was an important difference, however, as these identified the combatants as the legitimate enemy who were subject to, and protected by, the laws of war.30

The French system of levying appâtis in times of war was also little more than legalised banditry. Appâtis were a form of protection money, paid every quarter in money and in kind, by the parishes of the surrounding countryside to their local garrison. The payments subsidised or even replaced the wages of the soldiers, who in return would refrain from seizing goods and persons without compensation. A parish paying appâtis might expect military protection from raids by other garrisons but, since the payments were theoretically voluntary, it laid itself open to the charge of being subject to that garrison and therefore a legitimate object of plunder by the enemy. For ordinary villagers trying to scrape a living by plying their trade or cultivating the fields and vineyards in frontier regions, it was simply a question of choosing the lesser of two evils: to be despoiled by the resident soldiers who would take an agreed sum or by marauding ones who might seize or destroy everything they had.31

The plight of the inhabitants of L’Aigle was a case in point. They had been loyal English subjects since their submission on 13 October 1417, but the town had no walls and was regularly terrorised by the three Armagnac garrisons of Nogent-le-Rotrou, Ivry and Senonches, all less than forty miles away. Faced with the prospect of having to abandon their homes and farms, they decided to offer appâtis to the captain of the nearest, Senonches, but for just three months’ freedom from attack he would accept nothing less than 80 écus (£5833) and thirty-six war lances. The money was bad enough but to provide the enemy with arms was a capital offence. The parish priest who negotiated the deal was denounced to the English authorities and obliged to sue for a costly pardon. And his parishioners did not, for the moment, get the security they needed.32

For those who were unable to buy their way out of trouble, the only option was to help the enemy or even join them. The story of one Norman gentleman from this same frontier area demonstrates how hazardous this could be. Gilet de Lointren had served as a man-at-arms in Armagnac garrisons from the very beginning of the English invasion. In 1422 he was captured by the Damville garrison and held prisoner for seven months until he raised a ransom of 81 écus (£5906). On his release he went to Senonches, serving six months there before joining five comrades who ‘went to seek adventures in the land of Normandy, as men-at-arms are accustomed to do’.

When he was captured by the English at Verneuil Lointren’s ransom was again set at 81 écus but the men at Damville had already taken everything he had. After six months’ captivity, when it became clear he could not raise the money and would otherwise die in prison, he agreed to change allegiance and serve one of the four men who had shared the rights to his ransom. Eight days later Lointren was captured by the Armagnacs at Nogent-le-Rotrou and, since his masters at Verneuil would not contribute to his ransom, he reverted to his former allegiance and returned to Senonches. Captured again, this time by the English at Beaumesnil, he was given a safe-conduct allowing him to raise a ransom of 40 écus (£2917) at Senonches, only to be taken prisoner for a fifth time as he made his way back with the money. His captors were from Verneuil, recognised him and brought him before the bailli, who condemned him to death. Before the sentence could be carried out there was an extraordinary turn of events. A fifteen-year-old girl from Verneuil, ‘a virgin and of good reputation’, sought an audience with the captain of the garrison, Thomas, lord Scales, and, with her family’s approval, offered to marry Lointren. Scales granted her request, returning Lointren to prison only until his pardon could be obtained. The idea that marriage was a suitable alternative to execution seems to have been peculiarly French: in 1430 a ‘very handsome’ twenty-four-year-old brigand was actually on the scaffold in Paris when another young girl ‘boldly came forward and asked for him’; she got him too, and married him, thus saving his life.33

Lointren’s story was remarkable for the number of times he was taken prisoner and the fairy-tale ending, but otherwise it was by no means unusual. For those living within striking distance of Armagnac strongholds or on the frontiers, where the fortunes of war meant that castles frequently changed hands, some sort of accommodation with the enemy was a necessity. For most of them, fear, poverty and the simple desire for a quiet life were far more potent than political conviction in deciding an allegiance that was as pragmatic as it was ephemeral.

Bedford was aware that his best chance of preserving his brother’s legacy and making the English occupation permanent was to provide security and justice for all. In December 1423 the estates-general, which was then in session at Caen, complained that civilians in Normandy could not ‘safely live, trade, work or keep that which is their own’ because of the ‘excesses, abuses, crimes and wrong-doings’ daily perpetrated by the military. Bedford responded immediately by issuing a series of reforming ordinances which, by addressing specific issues, provide a damning indictment of the behaviour of English soldiers.

The ordinances drew together into a single document nearly all the measures which had been issued over the years to control the worst excesses of the soldiery. The most important innovation was that captains were prohibited from interfering directly or indirectly in matters of justice: their sphere of jurisdiction was limited to the purely military, distributing gains of war and dealing with discipline within the garrison. They, and all other soldiers, were strictly enjoined to obey the civilian officers of justice, especially the baill-is, ‘the principal chiefs of justice’ under Bedford himself.

In response to many complaints that captains, ‘French as well as English’, were levying appâtis, Bedford reiterated what had been standard English practice since the beginning of the invasion: nothing whatever was to be taken without due payment and tolls levied on travellers entering towns or castles or crossing bridges, or on boats, carts and horses carrying merchandise, were declared illegal. Anyone who seized civilians for ransom on the pretext that they were ‘Armagnacs or brigands’ was to be punished according to the criminal law. And because some soldiers were pillaging and robbing outside their garrisons, all were ordered to report to their captains within fifteen days and prohibited from living anywhere except within the garrison. All knights and esquires were to be suitably armed and mounted, in readiness for campaigns against brigands, traitors and the enemy.

One clause stands out because it was not strictly concerned with military matters, though it reflects a genuine concern. We understand, Bedford declared, that some of our subjects, ‘English as well as Normans and others’, when speaking of ‘our enemies, rebels, traitors and adversaries who are known as Armagnacs’ or of ‘he who calls himself the dauphin’, refer to them as ‘French’ and ‘the king’. This was now forbidden and anyone who continued to do so, in speech or writing, was to be severely punished, a first offence meriting a fine of 10l.t. (£583) for noblemen or 100 sous (£292) for non-nobles, rising to ten times those amounts or, if the offender was unable to pay, ‘the tongue pierced or the forehead branded’ for a second offence, and criminal prosecution and confiscation of all goods for a third.

The ordinances were to be published ‘at the sound of the trumpet’ in the usual way of proclamations, and all captains, baill-is and their lieutenants were to swear to uphold them. Finally, in a gesture of his determination to deal with the problems caused by indiscipline among his own men, Bedford publicly set his seal to the ordinances in the presence of the estates-general.34

These measures were not to be a dead letter but to be enforced by some judicious new appointments. Thomas, lord Scales, was made lieutenant of the regent and captain-general of the Seine towns and Alençon: with twenty men-at-arms and sixty archers he would patrol the Seine between Rouen and Paris to prevent incursions by Armagnacs and brigands. John Fastolf was appointed governor of the triangle south of the Seine between Pont-de-l’Arche, Caen and Alençon, with authority to receive all manner of complaints, punish crimes, execute royal orders, resist the enemy and suppress brigandage. And in April 1424 ‘prudent and powerful knights’ were sent to certain bailliages ‘to ride in arms . . . in order to expel and extirpate the enemies, brigands, and pillagers therein, and to maintain the king’s subjects in peace and tranquillity’.35 Having reimposed internal discipline and order, Bedford was now in a position to concentrate on his strategy for the defence of his nephew’s realm.

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