Edward the Elder, king of the Anglo-Saxons (899 [cons. 8 June 900] - 17 July 924)

Contents (about 5000 words in all):

Edward the Elder, king of the Anglo-Saxons (899-924), was probably born in the 870s (he was the second child of a marriage of 868, and led troops in battle in 893). He was the son of Alfred, king of the Anglo-Saxons, and Ealhswith, a Mercian noblewoman. He had a younger brother, Æthelweard, and three sisters: Æthelflæd, "Lady of the Mercians", who married Ealdorman Æthelred of Mercia, Ælfthryth, who married Count Baldwin of Flanders, and Æthelgifu, who became abbess of Shaftesbury. Edward's byname "the Elder" first appears at the end of the tenth century (in Wulfstan's Life of St Æthelwold), probably to distinguish him from the later King Edward the Martyr (975-78). Edward the Elder is best known for his reconquest of all of England south of the Humber after the Viking invasions of the previous century.


Edward was married three times and had fourteen children. Four of his sons were king after him, and five of his daughters married into continental noble or royal houses. He was first married in the 890s, and his wife Ecgwynn was the mother of King Æthelstan (924/5-39), and a daughter, Edith, who married Sihtric, the Norse king of York, in 926. Almost nothing is known about Ecgwynn: even her name is recorded only in post-Conquest sources, and it has been argued that she was a concubine rather than a wife. The near-contemporary Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim notes that Ecgwynn's status was lower than that of one of Edward's later wives, but as she is praising the child of one of these later wives this is inconclusive. Whether justified or not, stories do seem to have circulated about the legitimacy of the union: by the twelfth century Ecgwynn could be seen both as a noble woman (John of Worcester, s.a. 901; William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum, ii.126) and as a beautiful shepherd's daughter who bore Edward an illegitimate child (Gesta Regum, ii.139).

Whatever Ecgwynn's precise status, by 901 Edward had married again, this time to Ælfflæd, daughter of Æthelhelm, ealdorman of Wiltshire. If the second English coronation ordo, accompanied by an ordo for the anointing of a queen, is correctly attributed to Edward the Elder, it may be that Edward was married to Ælfflæd by the time of his coronation on 8 June 900. Ælfflæd was the mother of Ælfweard, who succeeded as king on Edward's death 17 July 924 but died himself under a month later, and of Eadwine, who was drowned at sea in 933. Ælfflæd also bore six daughters, two religious, a nun Eadflæd and a lay recluse Æthelhild, and four who married into great continental houses: Eadgifu married Charles the Simple, king of the Franks, in 916x919, Eadhild married Hugh the Great, duke of the Franks, in 926, Edith married the future German Emperor Otto I in 929/30, and Ælfgifu, who accompanied Edith to Germany so that Otto would have a choice of brides, married another continental prince there.

By 920, Edward had married a third time, to Eadgifu, daughter of Sigehelm, ealdorman of Kent. The date is fixed by the fact that their son Edmund, later king of England (939-46), was born in 921. Eadgifu was also the mother of Eadred, who became king of England on his brother's death (946-55), of Eadburh, a nun at Winchester, and of Eadgifu, who married Louis of Aquitaine. Edward's wife Eadgifu outlived both her husband and her sons, witnessing the charters of her grandson King Edgar (957/9-975).

A post-Conquest text, William of Malmesbury's De antiquitate Glastonie ecclesiae, raises the possibility that Ælfflæd as well as Eadgifu was still alive after Edward's death. If this could be confirmed from other sources, it would mean that Edward divorced Ælfflæd some time before his marriage to Eadgifu. Unfortunately the De antiquitate is the only source for this information, and as the work contains many historical errors, being more concerned with Glastonbury estates than wider events, it cannot be relied upon.

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Edward in Alfred's Reign

Sources from Alfred's reign say little about his eldest son Edward. The surviving Anglo-Saxon Chronicle does not mention Edward until after his father's death in 899. Asser's Life of King Alfred mentions Edward amongst Alfred's other children, and calls him an obedient son to Alfred, one who treats others with humility, friendliness and gentleness, and one who has a good liberal education, having learned the Psalms, books in English, and especially English poems. Another side of Edward's activities, not found in Asser or the Chronicle, is found in Æthelweard's Latin translation of a lost version of the Chronicle: here Edward appears in 893 conducting a campaign throughout southern England, and leading a successful attack against the Danes at Farnham. The fact that the battle at Farnham is mentioned in surviving English versions of the Chronicle without reference to Edward may suggest that in the 890s there were separate pro-Alfred and pro-Edward versions of the Chronicle, just as in the eleventh century there were pro- and anti-Godwine versions.

Edward first appears in Alfred's charters in two forged documents, whose witness-lists if genuine date from 871x877, but these cannot be relied upon. His first certain appearance is in 892 (S 348), where he witnesses as filius regis (king's son). He witnesses three more undated charters the same way, but in 898 he witnesses one of Alfred's charters (S 350) as rex. Unfortunately both the surviving English Chronicle and Æthelweard's Latin version are blank for the last two years of Alfred's reign, so the narrative sources offer no explanation of what had happened. It may be, as the charter dealt with land in Kent and as Alfred's will bequeathed to Edward all his bookland in Kent, that Alfred had established his eldest son as sub-king of Kent, as his father Æthelwulf and grandfather Ecgberht had done. Of course, Ecgberht and Æthelwulf established their sons in Kent from the beginning of their reigns (or, in Ecgberht's case, from his conquest of Kent); the fact that Alfred only appoints Edward towards the end of his reign may suggest that the move is more a recognition of Edward's popularity, seen clearly in Æthelweard's description of the 893 battle, than a part of Alfred's intended policy. The preamble to Alfred's will, in which he belabours the point that all his father's inheritance is his by right, and none could justly claim that he had cheated his nephews, shows that Alfred understood the importance of not dividing an inheritance; it may further suggest that Alfred would not have named his son sub-king of Kent unless there were pressing reasons to do so. It has even been suggested that Alfred's title in the charter, "King of the Saxons", instead of his more usual "King of the Anglo-Saxons", shows Alfred claiming a more limited authority than he did in the 880s and earlier 890s, perhaps under threat from Edward. This is probably going too far: based on its formulation the charter is a local Rochester product rather than one emanating from the king's circle, so the style more likely reflects a Kentish indifference to Alfred's wider authority than a diminishing of that authority.

The evidence of Æthelweard's description of Edward's victory in 893 and of Edward's attestation as king in 898 between them show that Edward had some independent authority in the last decade of Alfred's reign. The possibilities that Edward's part in the victory of 893 was deliberately left out of the main Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and that Alfred's appointment of Edward as sub-king of Kent was perhaps a required but unwilling response to Edward's popularity suggest there may have been much more intriguing behind the scenes, but do not leave enough clear evidence for plots to be brought to light.

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Alfred's Death and Æthelwold's Revolt

Alfred died on 26 October 899, and Edward succeeded. Edward's first problem was the revolt of Æthelwold, one of Alfred's nephews (son of Alfred's older brother Æthelred I). On Edward's accession, Æthelwold seized Wimborne in Dorset where his father was buried and Christchurch in Hampshire, and prepared to hold them against all comers. Edward brought an army to Badbury near Wimborne, but Æthelwold stayed within Wimborne with his men and a nun he had kidnapped, saying that he would live there or die there. The stage seemed set for Edward and Æthelwold to recreate the tale of Cynewulf and Cyneheard, that eighth-century set-piece of battle to the death between royal kinsmen and their loyal retainers immortalized in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but Æthelwold chose the less heroic if more pragmatic course of riding away in the night. Æthelwold went to the Danes in Northumbria, who swore allegiance to him and took him as their king: some Northumbrian coins with the name Alvaldus (Æthelwold) survive from this period. In the fall of 901 Æthelwold came with a fleet into Essex. In the fall of 902 he induced the East Anglian Danes to break the peace, and with an army harried Mercia as far as Cricklade in Wiltshire. When Æthelwold crossed the Thames into Wessex to raid Braydon (also in Wiltshire), King Edward gathered his army and harried Essex and East Anglia. Edward then tried to stage an orderly withdrawal, but the men of Kent lingered, the Danish army overtook them, and on 13 December 902 the battle of the Holme (unidentified) was fought, resulting in the death among others of Æthelwold the pretender and of his allies Eohric, the Danish king of East Anglia, and an ætheling Brihtsige (probably Mercian, as his name alliterates with those of the Mercian kings).

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Reconquest of the Southern Danelaw

Nothing is reported of English / Danish hostilities between the battle of the Holme in late 902 and 906. That there were hostilities is suggested by the fact that Edward made peace with the East Anglian and Northumbrian Danes in 906; one manuscript of the Chronicle says he made peace "from necessity", a formula which suggests he had to pay the Vikings to cease ravaging. A cryptic note from 907 that Chester was restored suggests more fighting in that year.

The first clear action of the reconquest came in 909, when Edward sent an army of West Saxons and Mercians into Northumbria, where it ravaged for five weeks. The following year the Northumbrian Danes descended on Mercia, and the army of the West Saxons and the Mercians overtook them at Wednesfield near Tettenhall and killed a great many of them, including two or three kings and, according to the Chronicle, "many thousands of men". After this defeat the Northumbrian Danes stayed north of the Humber, which allowed Edward and his Mercian allies, Æthelred and Æthelflæd, to concentrate on the Danish armies south of the Humber.

An important part of Edward's efforts against the Danes, as it had been of Alfred's, was the construction of fortresses to restrict the freedom of movement of the invading armies. The restoration of Chester in 907 has already been noted. In November 911, Edward ordered a fort built at Hertford, blocking the southward advance of Danes from Bedford and Cambridge; in the summer of 912 he took his army to Maldon in Essex and camped there while a fort was built at Witham, blocking the westward advance of Danes from Colchester, while a second fort was built at Hertford. This made London relatively secure to attacks from north and east, and many of the English in Essex who had been under Danish rule submitted to Edward instead. In 912 also Æthelflæd built a fortress at Bridgnorth, blocking a crossing of the Severn recently used by the Danes, and another at Scergeat (unidentified).

Edward's advance paused in 913 and 914. In 913, the main Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records only local raids, though Æthelflæd's fortress-building continued, with fortresses up at Tamworth and Stafford, shoring up the northeastern border of English Mercia against the Danish armies in the Five Boroughs. In 914 a Viking army came from Brittany and ravaged the Severn estuary. The army was eventually defeated by the armies of Hereford and Gloucester, and the Vikings were besieged and gave hostages and promised to leave. Edward kept the English army stationed on the south side of the Severn estuary, and it was just as well because the Vikings twice broke their oaths and stole ashore. They were repelled both times, and so in the autumn, when they were growing very short of food, the Vikings sailed to Ireland. While this was going on, Æthelflæd built forts at Eddisbury, to stop invaders raiding into northern Mercia from the Mersey, and at Warwick, another block on the northeast border of English Mercia against the Five Boroughs.

From late 914 until 918, Edward advanced until he held all the land south of the Humber. In November 914, Edward went to Buckingham and built two fortresses, one either side of the river, and the Danish Earl Thurcetel submitted to him, as did many of the Danes of Bedford and Northampton. After their submission Edward had a fort of his own built at Bedford. In 915, Æthelflæd built a fort at Chirbury on the Welsh border, another at Weardburh (unidentified), and a third at Runcorn, which like the fort at Eddisbury would block access to the north of Mercia from the Mersey.

In 916, Edward built a fortress at Maldon, near Witham and so another bulwark against the Danes of Colchester. In the same year, the Danish Earl Thurcetel and his men left for France. In Mercia, an Abbot Egbert was killed, presumably by the Welsh, as Æthelflæd retaliated by sending an army into Wales. The fort that Æthelflæd had built at Chirbury in 915 should perhaps therefore be seen as part of ongoing English / Welsh hostilities that are otherwise unrecorded.

By April 917, Edward had ordered a fort built at Towcester, to block the southern advance of Danes from Northampton. Within a month he ordered another fortress at Wigingamere (unidentified). In the summer, the Danes of Northampton and Leicester and "north of these places" stormed Towcester but were repelled. Afterwards this Danish army made a succesful raid on a less well-protected area. Meanwhile, the Danish army of Huntingdon and East Anglia built a fortress at Tempsford, some ten miles south of Huntingford, abandoning Huntingdon because Tempsford was closer to the English border. The Danes of Tempsford attacked the nearby English garrison of Bedford, but were put to flight. Another Danish army, this one of East Anglia, Essex, and Mercia, besieged the fort at Wigingamere, but they too were put to flight. The system of fortifications put together by Edward and Æthelflæd was showing its worth. Another reason for the poor showing of the Danes in the summer of 917 is that they were actually under attack from two fronts, because at the same time as Edward's armies were holding the southward advance from the Five Boroughs and advancing westward on the Danes of East Anglia, Æthelflæd took Derby, one of the Five Boroughs, and probably many Danes were diverted to that struggle. Towards the end of the summer, a great English host besieged the Danish fort of Tempsford and took it, killing the last Danish king of East Anglia.

In the autumn of 917, the English took Colchester. An army of East Anglian Danes (probably fragmenting, with their king and many other nobles dead) besieged the English fort at Maldon, but they were put to flight and many of them were killed. Edward went back north to Towcester, and built a stone wall around the fort there, which show of strength probably convinced Earl Thurferth and the Danes of nearby Northampton to submit to Edward. The army then took the fort at Huntingdon and repaired it, and all those who survived in the area submitted to Edward. Before the end of 917 Edward went to Colchester, and repaired that fortress, and many people in East Anglia and Essex who had been ruled by the Danes submitted to Edward, as did the Danish armies of East Anglia and of Cambridge.

So by the end of 917, all the Danish armies south of the Humber had submitted to the English, except for those of Leicester, Stamford, Nottingham, and Lincoln (four of the Five Boroughs). Æthelflæd had taken Derby (the fifth Borough) in 917, and in 918 she peacefully obtained the submission of the borough of Leicester, and also pledges from the Northumbrians of York. She died shortly afterwards, at Tamworth, on 12 June 918. Edward, meanwhile, had taken his army to Stamford, and built a fortress south of the river, and Stamford had surrendered to him. When he heard of Æthelflæd's death, he went to Tamworth and occupied it and received the oaths of the Mercians, as well as of the Welsh. Edward then returned to the Five Boroughs, taking Nottingham and ordering the fort to be manned by both English and Danes. The concluding words of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 918, "And all the people who had settled in Mercia, both Danish and English, submitted to him", suggests that the last of the Five Boroughs with a Danish force, Lincoln, also submitted to Edward at this time.

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"Father and Lord" of the North

The peaceful submission of Leicester and York to Æthelflæd in 918 look odd in the context of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, especially as the Northumbrian Danes had not been threatened by the English since the battle of Wednesfield in 910. But the Chronicle is chiefly concerned with the south of England. What it overlooks, and what must be reconstructed from Irish annals and the works of Simeon of Durham, is the advent of Norse Vikings in the north in the second decade of the tenth century. In about 914, Rægnald seized the lands of Ealdred of Bamburgh: the English Northumbrians allied themselves with the Scots, but Rægnald defeated their combined armies at Corbridge on Tyne. It was doubtless in response to Rægnald that Æthelflæd built the two forts near the mouth of the Mersey in 914 and 915. Rægnald's actions cannot be traced for the next few years, but in 918 he won another battle at Corbridge, probably against another combined English-Scottish army. It is uncertain whether the people of York at this time were English or Danes or whether they were already a mixed people, but in submitting to Æthelflæd, they showed the pragmatic political sense of York seen again in the middle of the eleventh century as they chose between Eadred and Eric Bloodaxe. If with Æthelflæd's help they could defend themselves more successfully from the Norse, then so be it.

It seems that the people of York did not renew their oaths to Edward after Æthelflæd's death. At any rate, Edward did not prevent Rægnald from taking York in 919: some Northumbrian coins survive bearing Rægnald's name. Edward took a Mercian army to Thelwall, built a third fort there near the mouth of the Mersey, and sent another Mercian army to occupy and repair the fort of Manchester in Northumbria. The order of events in 919 and 920 is uncertain, but it may only have been when another Norse Viking, Sihtric, invaded northwest Mercia in 920 and destroyed Davenport in Cheshire that Edward began his final move against the north. Before midsummer of 920 Edward had ordered a second fortress built at Nottingham, and he went from there into the Peak district, where he had a fort built at Bakewell. It is uncertain whether any English / Norse combat followed; the Chronicle simply reports that after the building of the fortress at Bakewell, the king of the Scots, and Rægnald, and all of those who lived in Northumbria, English and Danish and Norse, and also the Welsh of Strathclyde, chose Edward as their father and lord.

Though the north had in some sense submitted to Edward, it seems unlikely that he had any direct control north of the Humber. The only entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in the last four years of Edward's reign notes that he built a fortress at Cledemutha (probably the mouth of the Clwyd, in north Wales not far from the cluster of forts at the mouth of the Mersey), suggesting that the Norse Vikings were still a threat. Though Rægnald died in 920 or 921, his cousin Sihtric took over as king of York, and some coins survive in Sihtric's name. Further, it is likely that these coins were minted in Lincoln rather than York, which suggests that Sihtric's York absorbed Lincoln in the last four years of Edward's reign, or even that Lincoln was not part of the general submission of Mercians to Edward in 918.

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Edward and the Mercians

Edward died on 17 July 924, at Farndon near Chester. Contemporary sources record no further details, but William of Malmesbury (Gesta Regum, ii.133) records that he died a few days after quelling a combined Mercian / Welsh revolt at Chester.

Since Ealdorman Æthelred of Mercia acknowledged the overlordship of King Alfred in 883 or earlier (as seen in the charter S 218), it was clear that Alfred, and Edward after him, was in overall charge of the West Saxons and the Mercians. This shows in the change of title that Alfred adopts, King of the Anglo-Saxons rather than merely of the West Saxons, a title that is continued through the reign of his son Edward and into the beginning of the reign of his grandson Æthelstan, and in the fact that in 909 and 910 Edward could command the army of the West Saxons and the Mercians. It shows in the fact that, though Æthelred and Æthelflæd governed Mercia, they normally appeared as subordinates in charters of Edward instead of issuing charters in their own right. It shows also in the fact that coins from both Wessex and western Mercia were in the name of Edward rather than Æthelred or Æthelflæd. In the last ten years of the reign, English coins were minted in the reconquered Danelaw as well, and here again they were in Edward's name and not Æthelflæd's.

It is possible, though this may be building too much on a single document, that there was an attempt at Mercian independence in 901, when a charter (S 221) of Æthelred and Æthelflæd gives the Lord and Lady of the Mercians grander styles than usual, and there is no mention of Edward. This was also the time of Æthelwold's revolt against Edward, which might have encouraged the Mercians to make their own bid for freedom. Regardless, Mercia was certainly fully under Edward's control by 903, when Æthelflæd and Æthelred are explicitly said to hold the governance of the Mercians under the authority of Edward (S 367).

In 911, Æthelred died, and Æthelflæd took over as sole governor of the Mercians. In the same year, Edward assumed direct control of London and Oxford and their surrounding areas. This has been seen as an encroachment on Mercian territory, but as the evidence of charters and coins makes clear, all of English Wessex and Mercia was already under Edward's overall jurisdiction. And in terms of the campaigns of Edward and Æthelflæd over the next several years, in which Edward concentrated on the southern Danes of Essex and East Anglia while Æthelflæd built fortresses mostly against the northern Danes of the Five Boroughs, it probably made sense for the lands that Edward was defending to be under his immediate control.

On 12 July 918 Æthelflæd died. Edward, who was in the process of reducing one of the Five Boroughs, went immediately to Tamworth and "occupied" it, and all the Mercians who had been subject to Æthelflæd submitted to him. This seems at first glance an unnecessarily martial transfer of power, and it has been suggested that it was the Danish threat that kept the kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons together, and that, with the threat of the Danes removed, the Mercians would once more rather choose a ruler of their own people. This ignores, however, the fact that the threat of the Norse Vikings was still very much present, even if the Danes were mostly defeated. It is also possible that Edward's move was designed not to secure the loyalty of the English Mercians, but of the Danish Mercians, as Æthelflæd had taken two of the Five Boroughs, Derby and Leicester, and Edward was perhaps ensuring that they were in no doubt that he was Æthelflæd's successor, and prepared to act as decisively as she. The fact that the Welsh submitted to Edward immediately after he took Tamworth suggests that the show of force may not only have been to impress the Danes.

Two further events in 918 relate to the Mercians, and perhaps also to each other. The main annals of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle note that after Edward reduced Nottingham, all of the Mercians, both Danish and English, submitted to him. This appears to be a second submission, after the first submission of all the Mercians at Tamworth in the summer. Given that two of the Five Boroughs were still in hostile Danish hands at the time of the first submission, there would need to be a "second" submission at least for these areas when they finally fell. The other event, recorded in the Mercian annals of the Chronicle, is that in December 918 Ælfwyn, the daughter of Æthelflæd and Æthelred, "was deprived of all authority in Mercia and taken into Wessex". There was clearly a feeling that whether Edward enjoyed overall authority or not, the Mercians expected to retain their own governor. It is possible that the second submission of the Mercians in 918 should be associated with Edward's removal of Ælfwyn and establishment of his own direct control. This is not the impression given by the main annals of the Chronicle, which have Edward receiving the second submission after reducing Nottingham. But this is another case, as was seen earlier in the 890s, when different versions of the Chronicle come from very different viewpoints. The "main" version in the 910s is very much a West Saxon version, and records only Edward's achievements, not describing any of Æthelflæd's vital fortress-building against the Five Boroughs or the Norse Vikings or the Welsh, simply noting her death. In this context it is not at all surprising that Ælfwyn, and whatever aspirations the Mercians may have had for her continuing governorship, go unrecorded by the West Saxon annalist.

It would have been very useful had charter evidence survived from this period: a single charter of Ælfwyn from the second half of 918 would make much clearer what authority she held in Mercia. Such a document might also shed light on the position in the conflict of Edward's son Æthelstan, normally assumed to have been brought up at Ætheflæd's court. Unfortunately, the last charters of Edward are dated 909, and the series does not resume until Æthelstan's reign. There are two charters of Æthelflæd from around 914 and 915 (S 224, 225), one of them witnessed by Ælfwyn, but otherwise Ælfwyn makes no appearance in the records.

There is no reference to Edward's relations with the Mercians in the narrative sources between 919, when Edward is commanding Mercian armies, and 924, when William of Malmesbury records a Mercian revolt at Chester. It may be that lingering Mercian resentment of Edward's summary treatment of Ælfwyn helped to inspire the revolt. A more pragmatic reason, though it cannot be dated precisely to Edward's reign, might be that the reorganization of western Mercia into shires took place in the last five years of Edward's reign. The first evidence of the new Mercian shires comes in a reference to Cheshire in 980: the boundaries of the new shires run rough-shod over the ancient divisions of Mercia. Such a rearrangement would probably have caused at least as much resentment in the tenth as it did in the twentieth century. Edward, having just conquered the Danes south of the Humber, is unlikely to have worried about the unrest of the English Mercians, and it is plausible that the rearrangement of the Mercian shires closely followed Edward's assertion of direct control over Mercia in 918. It is equally plausible that this action would result in revolts, such as the one that apparently led to the Edward's death in 924.

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Edward's New Minster

Edward was buried at the New Minster, Winchester, a monastery he himself had founded in 901. The New Minster was built just beside the Old Minster, which had been built by the West Saxons in the mid-seventh century, and one of the reasons for the new and more spacious church was very likely to be a visual symbol of the wider horizons of the new kings of the Anglo-Saxons. It also served as a royal mausoleum in the first twenty-five years of its existence, housing not only Edward himself but both his parents, Alfred and Ealhswith, his younger brother Æthelweard, and his son Ælfweard. The house did not retain this role after the accession of Edward's son Æthelstan, who was buried at Malmesbury and in any case after he took full control of Northumbria in 927 played in an even wider arena than his father and grandfather. But for that first twenty-five years, the New Minster may well have been the symbol of Edward's dream and achievement of a united England of Angles and Saxons south of the Humber.

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