Post-classical history

Queen’s Men, King’s Men, and the Villain of the Piece

HENRY was now determined to rule the country without a responsible government. His new council of twelve was subservient to him, and he began to give all administrative posts of importance to men who had been serving him, for the most part, in minor capacities. He had always wanted to do things this way, and his own inclination was, therefore, the main contributing factor in the decision. It was plain to see, nevertheless, that he had been urged to it by the greedy newcomers. They wanted to have to themselves the goose which laid the golden eggs.

But Henry had not been cut to the measure of a dictator. Born with a belief in the absolute power of kings, he lacked the capacity and the personal discipline to make proper use of the power he was now wrongfully assuming. He was too indolent for the role. He must have men to do the work, and it was characteristic of him to lean on his wife’s relatives. They suited him perfectly: they were courtly, sophisticated, believers in the kind of government he wanted. He liked to have them around him and, in order to cut a good figure in their eyes, he was prepared to squander the wealth of the realm on them.

As soon as he selected the council of twelve with William of Valence at the head of it, however, it became only a matter of time until the barons would rise against him. But the murder of Richard the Marshal had removed the one man capable of leading the forces of discontent, and the breaking of the storm must wait the appearance of another leader.

The bitterness of his subjects was made abundantly clear when Henry decided to go to war with France. Of all the wide Angevin possessions, only a small province in the southwest remained to the English King, made up largely of Gascony. Henry dreamed of winning back the empire of his grandfather and he kept an eager eye on developments south of the Channel. It was largely through the influence of his mother that he decided to make the effort at this juncture.

It has already been told that Isabella could not reconcile herself to the loss in rank which resulted from her marriage to the Count of La Marche. She had been Queen of England and of the Angevin possessions beyond the seas, and three times each year she had worn in public a crown on her lustrous hair. Whenever she found herself now in the company of women who outranked her and took advantage of it, she would return in a great rage, her fine eyes blazing, her color high. She was the widow of a king and the mother of a king, she would declare, and she could not live under such rebuffs.

In 1241 Louis decided that his brother Alphonse was to rule over Poitou and took him to Poictiers to receive the submissions of the nobility. Hugh of La Marche obeyed the summons with the greatest reluctance. Isabella accompanied him with even greater unwillingness, and it did not improve her state of mind that she was ignored for three days. Finally she was summoned to the royal presence.

Blanche of Castile was seated beside the King when the former Queen of England made her entrance. It does not need stating that the two women had hated each other from the time when Blanche’s husband had tried to take John’s throne. The presence of the dowager Queen of France did nothing to soothe the ruffled feelings of Isabella.

There was silence in the room while she walked to the far end where Louis and his mother were seated on raised chairs. Neither rose to greet her, nor did they speak. Isabella compelled herself to voice a brief expression of her loyalty, although each word must have cost her an effort. Louis nodded in response but said nothing. His mother, her eyes fixed triumphantly on this once admired Queen who had been her bitter rival, remained silent also. Isabella accepted their attitude as a dismissal and swept out of the state room in a towering passion.

Louis was a man of rare magnanimity, and it may safely be assumed that this slight to the ex-Queen of England was the work of Blanche of Castile. Blanche had suffered a great deal at the hands of beautiful women. As a girl she had been eclipsed by the attractions of her lovely sister Uracca. The court of Philip Augustus, to which she had come as the wife of Prince Louis, was a brilliant one, the center of beauty and chivalry and fashion. The bride from Spain could not have failed to resent the women of the court, who, she knew quite well, considered her plain and dowdy. She had sought release by interesting herself in affairs of state and she had been almost fiercely in favor of the invasion of England on the invitation of the barons. Her rivalry with Isabella had been long-range, but it had been deep-seated.

The humiliation of the ex-Queen who had tossed her cap over the windmill (and her royal prerogatives with it) had a result which Blanche could not have expected. The Count of La Marche was still in love with his wife and he resented the coolness of her reception as much as she did. She accompanied him when he arrived at the palace sometime later, ostensibly for the purpose of taking the oath of fealty. It was during the Christmas festivities, which may account for the way things fell out Hugh stomped into the presence of the new ruler of Poitou and in a loud voice disputed Alphonse’s right to the control of the Poitevin realm. He then turned and left the palace. Before the ale-drowsy officials could order his detention, he and Isabella had mounted their horses and galloped out through the courtyard.

Having thus committed themselves to rebellion, the daring pair put their heads together and planned the first steps in a conspiracy to unite the provinces of the South and West against the French King. Raimund of Toulouse, who shared their desire to prevent the whole of France from being snared into the Capetian net, fell willingly into line. The barons of Gasoony met secretly at Pons and

agreed to join the conspiracy, while some of the nobility of Poitou met at the same time in Parthenay and swore to throw off the yoke. All that was needed was the active support of England, and this Henry was eager to give, so eager that he committed himself to the confederacy without consulting any of the great barons of England. The first intimation they had of what was in the wind was when they were summoned to a general council in January of the following year and asked to provide financial support for the war.

The barons were furious at having been ignored. They realized also that the quarrel with France had been provoked by the King’s mother and, falling back on the fact that the truce between the two nations had some time to run, they refused aid to the King as long as it remained unbroken. Henry disregarded them and went ahead with his preparations. He equipped a small army consisting of three hundred knights and some companies of Welsh mercenaries and made a landing in Saintonge. As Eleanor accompanied him, Walter de Gray was made regent with instructions to raise whatever reinforcements and funds would be needed.

The campaign proved a disastrous failure. On his previous invasion the French armies had paid Henry the doubtful compliment of leaving him alone, but this time it was different. Poitou had been overrun before he arrived. When he managed to make contact near Taillebourg with the troops that Hugh of La Marche had raised, he found himself confronted by a superior French army which, clearly, was filled with the determination to exterminate the invaders. With hostile troops ringing his position on three sides it was an uncomfortable time for the King to discover that other men could be as ready as he to break promises and repudiate obligations. Word was brought to him that Hugh, convinced it was a lost cause, was negotiating with the French.

When the two men met and Henry charged his mother’s husband with treachery, the count was evasive at first He studied a hill in the near distance above which French plumes were showing and a cloud of dust raised by the approach of cavalry at a bend of the road. Turning then to the angry and spluttering King of England, he denied that there were treaty obligations between them to prevent him from taking whatever steps he deemed advisable in these circumstances. There had been no promise between them that one would not make peace except with the consent of the other.

Henry declared he would produce documents to prove the promises on the strength of which he had come to Poitou.

The count gave his shoulders a shrug and said he had signed no documents. If any promise had been exchanged, it had been the work of his wife and he had not been a party to it.

There was only one course open to the English, to withdraw before the French could cut off their retreat. This they succeeded in doing, although in his hurry to get away Henry had to leave behind his war chest and all the rich equipment of his chapel royal. The Count of La Marche promptly gave in to the French King on a promise of favorable terms. Henry, spluttering and raging, made a hasty retreat behind the Gironde and from there watched his victorious brother-in-law sweep across the country north of the river.

A conspiracy is never any stronger than its least reliable member, but Isabella’s husband cannot be charged with the full blame for the swift and ignominious failure of the confederacy he had been chiefly instrumental in forming. A thing of shreds and patches to begin with, it now fell completely to pieces. He brought a degree of opprobrium on his name in which no one else shared, however, by turning his coat and assuming command of a French army in a drive southward against his former allies. Raimund of Toulouse, never a resolute partner, was brought to his knees. This left Henry with nothing to do but conclude a truce with the victorious Louis which reduced his possessions in France still further. The venture had cost him forty thousand pounds and whatever respect his subjects had entertained for him.

Whether in an effort to cover up his failure or because he did not realize the almost comic role he had played, Henry sent orders ahead of him that he was to be met on his return by all the nobility and that, moreover, he was to be welcomed home in great state. The nobles gathered at Portsmouth, fully accoutered and surrounded by their attendants in livery. They waited a long time while reports trickled in of the adverse winds which were making it impossible for the King to return. Finally the word came that dissension had broken out in Gascony and that Henry had gone there to act as peacemaker. The nobles returned to their homes, their resentment over the poor result of the campaign heightened by the inconveniences to which they had been subjected.

Henry and Eleanor spent a pleasant winter in Bordeaux. There was much entertaining and feasting and staging of brilliant pageants at which the guisers of Provence sang their love lyrics and twanged on their lutes. The royal couple were chiefly concerned in arranging a marriage between Henry’s brother Richard of Cornwall, whose wife Isabella had died recently, and Eleanor’s sister Sanchia. The latter was affianced to Raimund of Toulouse, but the weak part played by the latter in the recent fighting was a good enough excuse for breaking the bond. A new marriage contract was drawn up and signed, Sanchia occupying a stool, no doubt, during the ceremony of signature, for Richard, although the wealthiest man in England and perhaps in Europe, was still only a prince.

Henry returned to England in the spring and was received at Winchester in a fair imitation of the great state he had demanded. The streets were lined with flags and the banners of the nobility while trumpeters blasted out a royal welcome. Henry, smiling and full of excuses for the lack of results in the war to which (he said blandly) he had been sent by his barons, settled down to the somewhat farcical routine he called governing the country.

The first business to claim his serious attention was getting Richard and Sanchia married. As usual, he burbled with enthusiasm over the arrangements, declaring it must be made an occasion to remember. Beatrice of Provence, mother of the bride, came to England to see her third daughter wedded, but Raimund Berenger was detained by state difficulties which his wife solved by getting a loan from Henry of four thousand marks. The cost of the wedding was chiefly defrayed by a levy imposed on the Jews of the country. It was an arbitrary proceeding, each of them receiving notice of the size of the donation required. Aaron of York, the richest of them, was assessed four hundred gold marks and four thousand silver. An idea of the extravagance of the festivities may be gleaned from the fact that thirty thousand dishes were prepared for the wedding dinner alone.

2

Ex-Queen Isabella seems to have taken things into her own hands after the disastrous failure of the confederacy. No records exist by which her course of action from that point on can be charted, but there is no doubt that from the first she was not reconciled to French domination. She must have realized that nothing more could be expected from her son. Henry had demonstrated that he was neither a military leader nor an organizer of causes. Her own husband was almost as unstable. Hugh’s easy submission to Louis must have galled his implacable wife. Inasmuch as his treacherous change of sides was the price he paid for retaining the lands and honors of Lusignan, it may have been that Isabella, who was completely realistic where property was concerned, did not blame him for that move.

If that were true, she soon ceased to allow such considerations to control her actions, She had five sons by her second marriage, and it must have been clear to her that anything which widened the breach between the French Crown and the family of Lusignan would make it still more difficult to provide for all of them. She had always been vain, capricious, and troublesome, and at this state she seems to have permitted the worst fides of her nature to take possession of her mind to the exclusion of everything else.

Two years later the court of Louis was thrown into great excitement by a story that two of the royal cooks had attempted to poison their master, Whether or not they were guilty, it was certain they would confess when put to the torture, which had become almost an art in France. They babbled abjectly, declaring among other things that they had been in the pay of the ex-Queen of England. Louis had been long-suffering in respect to the troublesome Lusignans, overlooking their arrogance and defiance of him, even forgiving them the recent hostilities. This final offense, in which he seems to have believed, had to be dealt with, however, in the manner prescribed for such crimes. An attempt to take Isabella into custody failed because she had been warned in time and had fled. Her husband was arrested, however, and thrown into prison with his eldest son, charged with complicity in the poisoning plot.

There was no evidence against the mother of England’s King save the confession of the two cooks. It may have been no more than a sense of panic which caused her to fly to the monastery at Fontevraud, the burying place of many Norman and Plantagenet kings and queens. Here she was received by the abbess and promised sanctuary. Because of the nature of the charge against her, she was placed in the secret room.

The abbey of Fontevraud was a most unusual institution, consisting of a nunnery with three hundred members and a monastery with two hundred monks, rigidly segregated and under the rule of the abbess. It had been established to help the lowly and downtrodden and contained a hospital for lepers and a home for fallen women.

Isabella said a prayer at the row of stately tombs where Eleanor of Aquitaine lay between her husband, Henry II, and her son, Richard the Lionheart, and was then escorted to the dark apartment where she would be free from molestation. No description is available of the secret room at Fontevraud, but it undoubtedly was a small hole in the thick masonry surrounding the hearth in the refectory of the nuns, approached by narrow steps from an exit somewhere in the vaults, this being the method commonly followed in castles and religious institutions. This much may be taken for granted: it was an airless hole without any natural light, lacking in all comforts and just large enough for a narrow couch and a few domestic utensils.

Here the one-time lady of England existed in safety but great discomfort and unhappiness while her husband and son were charged with a share in the plot to kill the French King. Whether or not Isabella was guilty, it is certain that neither of the men had been involved. There does not seem to have been a shred of evidence against them, and the two cooks had already been executed and could not be tortured into more confessions. The proceedings took the form, therefore, of a challenge to trial by battle. None of the champions of France, however, were ready to meet on the field of honor anyone as tainted with treason as Hugh of Lusignan, and so nothing came of that. Finally the prisoners were allowed their freedom, although they emerged discredited and dishonored.

No further effort seems to have been made to secure the person of Isabella. To try a former queen of England on a charge of attempted murder with no evidence but confessions under torture would create a difficult situation and lead to more war. It is certain that she could have been found and brought to book if there had been any desire to place her on trial. She continued to exist in the secret room, and there she died in the following year. When her body was carried out from the dark enclosure in the stout walls there was nothing to remind those who tended her of the great beauty which had once caused her to be known as the Helen of Europe. Her face was wasted with privation, and her once beautifully proportioned body was reduced to skin and bones.

She was buried in the common cemetery of the abbey, but some years later, on the insistence of Henry, she was given a final resting place in a stone coffin with the other kings and queens.

3

The disgrace of the family of Lusignan had the effect which Isabella should have foreseen earlier. Her husband lost most of his possessions. There would be enough for Hugh, the first son, but what of the four younger sons and three daughters? There was only one way to provide for them, and that was to send them to England and let Henry assume the burden.

In 1247, a year after their mother’s death, four of them arrived at Dover—William, Guy, Aymer, and Alice—the rest being too young to venture from home. They were in charge of the cardinal bishop of Sabina, who was going to England as papal legate; a healthy group of young people whose natural good looks were somewhat marred by the way they wrinkled their noses in disgust at the English climate, the people, and everything they could see of England itself.

Instead of being annoyed by the responsibility thus heaped upon him, Henry was delighted with his young relatives and made it his concern (but not at his own expense) to provide for them handsomely. He married Alice to John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey. William was given one of the great heiresses of England, Joan de Munchensi, a granddaughter of William the Marshal. This was a most important match, because on the death of Joan’s father she came into a fifth interest in the huge Marshal holdings. The division gave the penniless William and his bride the family castle of Pembroke and the liberty of Wexford in Ireland. As though enough had not been done, Henry bestowed a yearly pension of five hundred pounds on William and at various times other rich plums, including the castle of Goderich.

Because he owned Pembroke Castle, the acquisitive William concluded that he should have the earldom as well. It was an absurd claim, because his wife’s mother had been the fifth daughter of the Good Knight and the other daughters had brought sons into the world. With characteristic disregard of the rights of others, however, William assumed the title and swaggered through life in the belief that he was now the representative of the great marshal. He seems to have combined in himself all the worst qualities, being effeminate, proud, cruel, boastful, and covetous. In order to justify his pretensions, he organized tournaments (nearly all of which Henry stopped, having no faith in the prowess of the young man) and went to enormous expense in importing the best blooded horses and the finest armor.

Guy does not seem to have stayed long, but Henry filled his saddlebags on his departure with so much gold that more horses had to be secured. It would have been a wonderfully fine thing for England if Aymer had returned at the same time, because the youngest of the trio of brothers was to prove himself more troublesome and obnoxious even than William. He had been intended for the Church and could have ranked even with Boniface in point of unsuitability, being violent, overbearing, grasping, and brash. Henry, with his usual lack of judgment about people, seems to have taken a particular fancy to Aymer. He went to infinite pains, and aroused a corresponding amount of indignation among his subjects, in finding benefices for him. Aymer received the rich church of St. Helen in Abingdon, the rectory of Wearmouth, and many other profitable livings. His appointments were so numerous, in fact, that the young man had to appoint a steward to collect his income. This was no more than a beginning. The chapter of Durham stoutly refused to elect him as their bishop on the ground that he was too young and ignorant, and not all the threats Henry made could lead them to a change of mind. Then in 1250 the Bishop of Winchester died and Henry insisted that Aymer be selected to succeed him. The Winchester chapter refused, using the same arguments employed at Durham and adding for good measure that the King’s candidate was not yet in holy orders, being no more than an acolyte.

What his representatives, John Mansel and Peter Chacepork, had failed to do, Henry now decided to take on himself. He went to Winchester and, assuming the seat in the chapter house reserved for the bishop, proceeded to exhort the monks in the most extraordinary way. “I was born in this city,” he declared, “and baptized in this church: wherefore you are bound to me by the ties of great affection and ought not to oppose my will in any way.… My brother Aymer, if elected, will for a long time enlighten this church, like the sun, with the rays of his noble and royal extraction, and of his most willing kindness and youth in which he is pleasing both to God and man.” At the end of a long discourse he came to the one point which mattered, that if the monks opposed him he would find means to punish them most severely.

The poor monks, realizing that an appeal to Home would do them no good, gave in most reluctantly and chose the youth of noble and royal extraction as their spiritual leader. A year later the appointment was confirmed by the Pope at Lyons, and the new bishop, now one of the most richly endowed men in England, began to live in high and mighty state. The monks of Winchester soon had good reason to repent of their weakness in electing Aymer. He oppressed them and on one occasion kept them shut up in their chapter house for three days without food. Some of them ran away and took sanctuary in the monasteries.

A curious situation developed out of the arrival of Henry’s relatives. Eleanor remained loyal to her own uncles and cousins, the Provençals and Savoyards, and wanted all the plums for them. Henry’s preference had been transferred to his half brothers, and he was determined to make them wealthy and influential. The two parties, as was to be expected, began to clash, openly and bitterly. The public, wryly amused at the struggle between the rival bands of harpies, called them the Queen’s Men and the King’s Men. They had no reason to find any satisfaction, however, in the situation. Between them the warring relatives were gobbling up all the offices in the kingdom and filling their pockets with the national wealth.

The two parties clashed with particular bitterness on one occasion. Aymer, taking advantage of the absence of Boniface, placed an appointee of his own as prior of the hospital of St. Thomas the Martyr at Southwark, which was within the province of Canterbury. Eustace of Lyons, a high official at Canterbury, ordered the man to vacate and, when this had no effect, seized him and put him in one of the episcopal prisons, Aymer got together an armed force and set the archbishop’s manor at Maidstone on fire. He then attacked the palace at Lambeth, tearing the doors off their hinges and getting possession of the person of Eustace of Lyons, who had just been ready to sit down to his dinner, and put him in prison. The clash was so sudden and violent that the nation gasped with surprise, Bans of excommunication (which were hurled about these days as freely as maledictions) flew back and forth, and it looked as though something in the nature of civil war in the world of copes and miters would be the result. Boniface came back and did some excommunicating of his own, including everyone who might have been concerned in the episode with the sole exception of the royal family. Henry, taking on himself the role of peacemaker, summoned both Boniface and Aymer to attend him when he went to Winchester for the Christmas festivities. After a bountiful breakfast, supplied most generously by the townspeople (Henry did not forgo his intention, however, of demanding two hundred marks from them as a gift), he called the two prelates together and forced them to exchange the kiss of peace, after Aymer had declared that he had not directed the violent measures of his people. This brought the incident to a close.

The need to provide for all the Queen’s Men as well as the King’s Men kept Henry in a poorer state than ever. Acting on the advice of his Council, he was prepared to sell his plate but did not believe anyone could be found to purchase it. His councilors, after saying to him, “As all rivers flow back to the sea, so everything you now sell will return to you in remunerative gifts,” expressed the opinion that the citizens of London were in a position to act as purchasers. The King became almost apoplectic with rage at this information.

“These clowns!” he cried. “If the treasures of Octavian were for sale, the city of London would purchase and suck it all up. If they are rich enough to buy my possessions, they can afford to give me the money I need.”

On many occasions after that he compelled them to make pay tallages or even forced loans. The Queen’s Men and King’s Men, as a result, were able to continue eating off gold plate.

4

Enter the villain!

Parliament had been meeting regularly, generally around Hilarytide, and had been countering Henry’s petulant demands for money, money, and more money with specific counterdemands. He must adhere to the provisions of the Charter, he must stop going into debt for foreign relatives, he must appoint responsible men to the posts of justiciar, treasurer, and chancellor. The King’s answer to this, was to help himself to money illegally and to put more and more power into the hands of one man, a man who suited him perfectly but did not suit the rest of the nation at all.

John Mansel bad been for many years a minor official in the King’s household. In some records he is first noticed as the King’s chaplain, in others as his secretary. He was of obscure parentage, the accepted belief being that he was the son of a country priest and, therefore, illegitimate. Some say he was raised as a servant or as a member of the song school at Westminster. His rise in the service of the King was rapid, and in the period following the disastrous second campaign in Poitou (in which he fought bravely) he was appointed to reside at the Exchequer and to handle the rolls of receipt, although it is uncertain if he was allowed at any time the title of Chancellor of the Exchequer. Becoming one of the King’s advisers, he displayed such an uncanny sureness in sensing the kind of advice the King wanted to hear that, lo and behold, he was soon chief adviser.

In addition to his duties at the Exchequer, he was deep in the affairs of the embattled royal household; and here he seems to have moved with amazingly sure feet, avoiding the daggers of Poitou on one hand and the poniards of Savoy on the other. He became the departmental jack-of-all-trades, and the King seems to have depended on him whenever a knotty problem required unsnarling either at home or abroad. No more tactful man ever lived. When Henry’s daughter Margaret, who had been married in magnificent state to the youthful King of Scotland, was reported held in solitary confinement by the regents in charge of the kingdom, it was Mansel who was sent to straighten things out; and what happened is a story which will be told in its proper place. He was sent on European missions having to do with peace treaties and the marriage of the royal children. He even interposed once in a London civic dispute, deposing several aldermen without bringing down on his head the wrath of the great city.

He was, in fact, the perfect servant for a ruler who wanted to keep all power in his own hands but was incapable of exercising it. Mansel, remaining a priest of not too exalted rank and having no definite title in state organization, did most of the work and was rewarded with a full share of the enmity of the public.

He became the most hated man in the kingdom, after the uncles and sisters and cousins and aunts. The nobles could not reconcile themselves to a priest of minor standing (he was even charged with being secretly married) wielding so much power. He had made himself, as it happened, most peculiarly vulnerable by his greediness in the matter of benefices. Honest, it may be assumed, in his handling of royal revenues, he depended on church appointments for his personal gain. No ecclesiastical post was safe from him. He was the pluralist of pluralists. It is probable that he held at one time as many as three hundred livings, and in some records the number is given as seven hundred. The estimates of his yearly income vary from four thousand to eighteen thousand marks. That he died in poverty may be accepted as an indication that he was acting as depositary for this steady flow of income and that much of it was finding a final resting place in a more exalted pocket than that of plain John Mansel, Certainly he would not have been allowed so to corrupt the machinery of appointments for his own sole gain. He was retaining, this handy man of the King, a considerable share of the revenue, nevertheless. During the first visit that the King and Queen of Scotland made to the English court after the trouble which Mansel had helped in straightening out, he gave a stately dinner for them at his home in Tothill Fields. Seven hundred dishes were prepared for the first course alone. He was reported to have said, on acquiring a benefice which paid only twenty pounds a year, “This will provide for my dogs.” He was called bitterly “the richest clerk in the world.”

There can be no doubt that Mansel, although a skilled administrator, was a bad influence in the Council of the King. The advice he whispered in the King’s ear confirmed the latter in his stubborn shortsightedness. “Don’t agree under compulsion,” or “Remember that you are the King,” was always the gist of it. Lacking completely in perspective, this ubiquitous clerk continued, as the situation became more strained and the wrath of the baronage mounted, to preach non-compliance. Indifferent to the temper of the people, he never changed his mind and was in part, at least, responsible for the King’s refusal to make concessions. It is not surprising that the barons, aware of how matters stood, included in their terms a demand that John Mansel be dismissed.

The years rolled on. More children were born to Henry and Eleanor. The King became involved in absurd international adventures and fell more into debt all the time. He rebuilt Westminster Abbey and added more walls and more towers to the Tower of London. He continued to disregard the Charter and to rule as he saw fit, a slack kind of rule, raising revenue by illegal tallages and the bludgeoning of Jews into forced loans. The tide of national discontent rose higher each year until it threatened to swamp the weakening walls of royal privilege, behind which Queen’s Men and King’s Men still battened on the indulgent zany and most of the work of administration had fallen into the bands of a stubborn-minded and acquisitive clerk.

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