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History of Protestantism, vol. 3

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    Chapter 6: The Divorce-Thomas Bilney, the Martyr

    The Papacy Disgraces itself—Clement gives his Promise to Both Kings—A Worthless Document sent to London—The Pope’s Doublings—The Cardinal’s Devices—Henry’s Anger—Bilney sets out on a Preaching Tour—Discussions on Saint-Worship, etc—Bilney Arrested—Recants—His Agony—His Second Arrest and Condemnation—His Burning—The “Lollards’ Pit”—Other Martyrs—Richard Bayfield—John Tewkesbury—James Bainham—Crucifixes and Images Pulled down—Dissemination of the Scriptures—Fourth Edition of the New Testament

    Picture: Facsimile of Numbers 24:16-19 (Tyndale, 1531)

    Picture: Facsimile of Isaiah 12 (Tyndale, 1534).

    Picture: Portrait of William Tyndale

    We left Clement VII in the dungeons of the Castle of St. Angelo, with two kings kneeling at his feet. The Pope, “who cannot err,” contrives to gratify both monarchs. He gives to the one a promise that he will do as he desires, and grant the divorce; he assures the other that he will act conformably to his wishes, and withhold it. It is thus that the captive Pope opens his prison doors, and goes back to his kingdom. It was not without great delay and much tortuosity, dissimulation, and suffering that Clement reached this issue, so advantageous at the moment, but so disastrous in the end. His many shifts and make-believes; his repeated interviews with the ambassadors of Charles and Henry; the many angry midnight discussions in his old palace at Orvieto; the mutual recriminations and accusations which passed between the parties; the briefs and bulls which were drafted, amended, and cancelled, to be drafted over again, and undergo the same process of emendation and extinction; or which were sent off to London,to be found, upon their arrival, worthless and fit only to be burned-to detail all this would be foreign to our propose; we can only state briefly in what all these wearisome delays and shameful doublings ended. But these most disgraceful scenes were not without their uses. The Papacy was all the while revealing its innate meanness, hollowness, hypocrisy, and incurable viciousness, in the eyes of the emperor and the King of England, and was prompting in even their minds the question whether that system had not put itself into a false position by so inextricably mixing itself up with secular affairs, and assuming to itself temporal rule, seeing it was compelled to sustain itself in this office by cajolerys, deceptions, and lies, to its own infinite debasement, and loss of spiritual power and dignity. The prestige of which the Papacy then stripped itself, by its shameless tergiversations, it has never since recovered.HOPV3 376.3

    The envoy of the emperor, De Angelis, was the first to appear before the prisoner of St. Angelo. The result of the negotiation between them was that the Pope was to be released on the promise that he would do nothing in the divorce solicited by the King of England but what was agreeable to the emperor. Knight, the English envoy, unable to gain access to Clement in his prison of St. Angelo, contrived to send in to him the paper containing Henry’s request, and the Pope returned for answer that the dispensation asked for by the King of England would be forwarded to London. 1Burnet, vol. 1., p. 47. “So gracious,” observes Burner, “was a Pope in captivity.” The 10th of December, 1527, was the day fixed for the Pope’s release, but feeling that he would owe less to the emperor by effecting his own escape than waiting till the imperial guards opened the door, Clement disguised himself the evening before, and made off for Orvieto, and took up his abode in one of its old and ruinous tenements. The English envoys, Knight and Cassali, followed him thither, and obtaining an interview with him in his new quarters, the entrance of which was blocked up with rubbish, and the walls of which had their nakedness concealed by rows of domestics, they insisted on two things-first, the appointment of a commission to try the divorce in England; and secondly, a dispensation empowering King Henry to marry again as soon as the divorce was pronounced. These two demands were strongly pressed on the perplexed and bewildered Pope. The king offered to the Pope “assistance, riches, armies, crown, and even life,” as the reward of compliance, while the penalty of refusal was to be the separation of England from the tiara. 2See copy of original letter of Cardinal Wolsey to Sir Gregory Cassali, in Burnet, vol. 1.—Records, 3. The poor Pope was placed between the terrible Charles, whose armies were still in Italy, and the powerful Henry. After repeated attempts to dupe the agents, both the commission and the dispensation were given, 3Burnet, vol. 1., p. 48. but with piteous tears and entreaties on the part of the Pope that they would not act upon the commission till he was rid of the Spaniards. The French army, under Leutrec, was then in Italy, engaged in the attempt to expel the Spaniards from the peninsula; and the Pope, seeing in this position of affairs a chance of escape out of his dilemma, finally refused to permit the King of England to act on the commission which he had just put into the hands of his envoy, till the French should be under the walls of Orvieto, which would furnish him with a pretext for saying to Charles that he had issued the commission to pronounce the divorce under the compulsion of the French. He promised, moreover, that as soon as the French arrived he would send another copy of the document, properly signed, to be acted upon at once.HOPV3 377.1

    Meanwhile, and before the bearer of the first documents had reached London, a new demand arrived from England. Henry expressed a wish to have another cardinal-legate joined with Wolsey in trying the cause. This request was also disagreeable, and Clement attempted to evade it by advising that Henry should himself pronounce the divorce, for which, the Pope said, he was as able as any doctor in all the world, and that he should marry another wife, and he promised that the Papal confirmation should afterwards be forthcoming. This course was deemed too hazardous to be taken, and the councilors were confirmed in this opinion by discovering that the commission which the Pope had sent, and which had now arrived in England, was worthless-fit only to be burned. 4Burnet, vol. 1., pp. 49, 50. The king was chafed and angry. “Wait until the imperialists have quitted Italy!” he exclaimed; “the Pope is putting us off to the Greek Kalends.”HOPV3 377.2

    The remedies which suggested themselves to the cardinal for a state of things that portended the downfall of the Popedom in England, and his own not less, were of a very extraordinary kind. On the 21st of January, 1528, France and England declared war against Spain. Wolsey in this gratified two passions at the same time: he avenged himself on the emperor for passing him over in the matter of the Popedom, and he sought to open Clement’s way in decree the divorce, by ridding him of the terror of Charles. To war the cardinal proposed to add the excommunication of the emperor, who was to pay with the loss of his throne for refusing the Papal chair to Wolsey. The bull for dethroning Charles is said to have been drafted, but the success of the emperor’s arms in Italy deterred the Pope from fulminating it. Finding the dethronement of Charles hopeless, Wolsey next turned his thoughts to the deposition of the Pope. The Church must sustain damage, he argued, from the thralldom in which Clement is at present kept. A vicar, or acting head, ought to be elected to govern Christendom so long as the Pope is virtually a prisoner: the vicar-to-be was, of course, no other than himself. 5See “The Cardinal’s Letter to the Ambassadors about his Promotion to the Popedom,” in Burnet, 1.—Records, 20. It was a crafty scheme for entering upon the permanent occupation of the chair of Peter. Such were the intrigues, the disappointments, the perplexities and alarms into which this matter, first put in motion by Wolsey, had plunged all parties. This was but the first overcasting of the sky; the tempest was yet to come.HOPV3 377.3

    While the kingdoms of the Papal world are beset by these difficulties, there rises, in majestic silence, another kingdom, that cannot be shaken, of which the builders are humble evangelists, acting through the instrumentality of the Scriptures. Thomas Bilney, of Cambridge, exchanging his constitutional timidity for apostolic fervor and courage, set out on a preaching tour through the eastern parts of England. “Behold,” said he, like another preacher of the desert, addressing the crowds that gathered round him, “Behold the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world.” “If Christ takes away the sins of men,” he continued, “what good will it do you to be buried in the cowl of St. Francis? This ‘Lamb’ takes away your sins now: not after years of penance, but this moment.... Good people, put away your idols of gold and silver. Why are Jews and Mohammedans not yet converted? We have to thank the Pope and the priests for this, who have preached to them no other Gospel than that of offering wax candles to stocks and stones. Good people, refrain from lighting candles to the saints, for those in heaven have no need of them, and their images on earth have no eyes to see them.” 6Fox, vol 4., pp. 621-625.HOPV3 378.1

    Bilney was accompanied by Arthur, another Cambridge scholar and disciple. They were often pulled from the pulpit by the friars. “What matters it to silence me?” said Arthur on one of these occasions. “Though I should be put to death, there are 7,000 better preachers than myself who will rise up to take my place.” One day (28th May, 1527) when Bilney was preaching in Christ Church, Ipswich, he said, “Our Savior Christ is our Mediator between us and the Father: what should we need then to seek to any saint for remedy?” “That,” said a certain friar, named John Brusierd, “was true in St. Paul’s time, but not in ours: Christ was then the one Mediator, for no one had yet been canonized, and there were no saints in the calendar.” 7Fox, vol. 4., pp. 628, 629. At another time Bilney was asked by the same friar to solve the difficulty, how the Pope, who lived in his own house, could be “the Antichrist, sitting in the temple of God as God?”HOPV3 378.2

    “Do you know the Table of the Ten Commandments?” asked Bilney. The friar replied that he did.HOPV3 378.3

    “And do you know the constitutions devised by men, and bound on men under pain of death?” The friar gave a qualified confession of his knowledge of such constitutions.HOPV3 378.4

    “It is written,” said Bilney, “‘The temple of the Lord is holy, which is you.’ Therefore, the conscience of man is the temple of the Holy Ghost. For him who contemneth the Table of the Commandments of God there is but a small punishment, whereas for him who contemneth the constitutions of the Pope there is the punishment of death. What is this but for the High Priest of Rome to sit and reign in the temple of God (that is, in man’s conscience) as God?” 8Ibid., p. 630.HOPV3 378.5

    Bilney and Arthur were arrested, and on the 27th of November, 1527, were brought before the Bishops’ Court, in the Chapter-house of Westminster. Wolsey took his seat on the bench for a moment only to state the alternative-abjuration or death-and withdrew to attend to affairs of State. The two prisoners boldly confessed the faith they had preached. The extraordinary scene that followed between Tonstall, the presiding judge, and Bilney-the one pressing forward to the stake, the other striving to hold him back-has been graphically described by the chronicler. 9Fox, vol. 4., pp. 631, 632. But it was neither the exhortations of the judge nor the fear of burning that shook the steadfastness of Bilney; it was the worldly-wise and sophistical reasonings of his friends, who crowded round him, and plied him day and night with their entreaties.HOPV3 379.1

    The desire of saving his life for the service of truth was what caused him to fall. He would deny his Master now that he might serve him in the future.HOPV3 379.2

    On Sunday, the 8th of December, a penitential procession was seen moving towards St. Paul’s Cross. Bilney, his head bare, walked in front of it, carrying his fagot on his shoulder, as much as to say, “I am a heretic, and worthy of the fire.” Had he been actually going to the fire his head would not have been bowed so low; but, alas! his was not the only head which was that day bowed down in England. A standard-bearer had fainted, and many a young soldier ashamed to look up kept his eyes fixed on the ground. This was the first use served by that life which Bilney had redeemed from the stake by his recantation. 10Fox, vol. 4., pp. 631, 632.HOPV3 379.3

    After his public penitence he was sent back to prison. When we think of what Bilney once was, and of what he had now become, we shall see that one of two things must happen to the fallen disciple. Either such a malignant hatred of the Gospel will take possession of his mind as that he shall be insensible to his sin, and perhaps become a persecutor of his former brethren, or a night of horror and anguish will cover him. It was the latter that was realized. He lay, says Latimer, for two years “in a burning hell of despair.” 11Fox, vol. 4., p. 643. When at length he was released from prison and returned to Cambridge, he was in “such anguish and agony that he could scarce eat or drink.” His friends came round him “to comfort him, but no comfort could he find.” Afraid to leave him a single hour alone, “they were fain to be with him night and day.” When they quoted the promises of the Word of God to him, “it was as if one had run him through the heart with a sword.” The Bible had become a Mount Sinai to him, it was black with wrath, and flaming with condemnation. But at last the eye that looked on Peter was turned on Bilney, and hope and strength returned into his soul. “He came again,” says Latimer, like one rising from the dead. One evening in 1531, he took leave of his friends in Cambridge at ten o’clock of the night, saying that “he was going up to Jerusalem, and should see them no more.” He set out overnight, and arriving at Norfolk, he began to preach privately in the houses of those disciples whom his fall had stumbled, and whom he felt it to be his duty first of all to confirm in the faith. Having restored them, he began to preach openly in the fields around the city. He next proceeded to Norfolk, where he continued his public ministry, publishing the faith he had abjured, and exhorting the disciples to be warned by his fall not to take counsel with worldly-minded friends. He spoke as one who had “known the terrors of the Lord.” 12Latimer’s Sermons-Fox, vol. 4., pp. 641, 642.HOPV3 380.1

    In no long time, he was apprehended and thrown into prison. Friars of all colors came round him; but Bilney, leaning on Christ alone, was not to fall a second time. He was condemned to be burned as a heretic. The ceremony of degrading him was gone through with great formality. On the night before his execution, he supped in prison with his friends, conversing calmly on his approaching death, and repeating oft, and in joyous accents, the words in Isaiah 43:2, “When thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned,” etc. 13Bilney’s Bible is now in the library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. It has numerous annotations in his own hand; and the verse quoted in the text, from Isaiah 43, which consoled the martyr in his last hours, is specially marked with a pen on the margin. (Ed. of Fox, Lond. edition, 1846.) To test his powers of enduring the physical sufferings awaiting him, he put his forefinger into the flame of the candle, and, according to some accounts, kept it there till the first joint was burned.HOPV3 380.2

    Next morning, which was Saturday, the officers in their glaives, and holding their halberds, were seen at the prison door, waiting the coming forth of the martyr. Thomas Bilney appeared, accompanied by Dr. Warner, Vicar of Winterton, whom he had selected, as one of the oldest of his friends, to be with him in his last hours. Preceded by the officers, and followed by the crowd of spectators, they set out for the stake, which was planted outside the city gate, in a low and circular hollow, whose environing hills enabled the spectators to seat themselves as in an amphitheater, and witness the execution. The spot has ever since borne the name of the “Lollards’ Pit.” He was attired in a layman’s gown, with open sleeves. All along the route he distributed liberal alms by the hands of a friend. Being come to the place where he was to die, he descended into the hollow, the slopes of which were clothed with spectators. The executioners had not yet finished their preparations, and Bilney addressed a few words to the crowd. All being ready, he embraced the stake, and kissed it. Then kneeling down, he prayed with great composure, ending with the words of the psalm, “Hear my prayer, O Lord; give ear to my supplications.” He thrice repeated, in deep and solemn accents, the next verse, “And enter not into judgment with thy servant; for in thy sight shall no man living be justified.” Then once more he said, “My soul thirsteth for thee.” “Are you ready?” he inquired of the executioners. “We are ready,” was the reply. He put off his coat and doublet; and, standing on the step in front of the stake, the chain was put round his body. Dr. Warner came up to him, and in the few words which his tears suffered him to utter, he bade the martyr farewell. Bilney, his face lighted with a gentle smile, bowed his head towards him, and expressed his thanks, adding, “O Master Doctor, Pasce gregem tuum; pasce gregem tuum” (Feed your flock; feed your flock). Warner departed, “sobbing and weeping.” A crowd of friars, who had given evidence against Bilney on his trial, next pressed round the stake, entreating the martyr to acquit them of his death before the people, lest they should withhold their alms from them. “Whereupon,” says the chronicler, “the said Thomas Bilney spoke with a loud voice to the people, and said, ‘I pray you, good people, be never worse to these men for my sake, as though they should be the authors of my death: it was not they.’ And so he ended.”HOPV3 380.3

    The officers now made instant preparation for the execution. They piled up reeds and fagots about his body. The torch was applied to the reeds; the fire readily caught, and, mounting aloft with crackling noise, the flames enveloped the martyr, and blackened the skin of his face. Lifting up his hands, and striking upon his breast, he cried at times, “Jesu,” and again, “Credo.” A great tempest of wind, which had raged several days inflicting great damage on the ripened corn-fields, was blowing at the time. Its violence parted the flames, and blowing them to either side of the sufferer, left full in sight of the vast concourse the blackened and ghastly figure, of the martyr. This happened thrice. At last the fire caught such hold upon the wood that it burned steadily; and now “his body, being withered, bowed downward upon the chain.” One of the officers, with his halberd, struck out the staple in the stake behind, and the body fell along upon the ashes. Fresh fagots were heaped over it; and being again lighted, the whole was speedily consumed. 14Fox, vol. 4. pp. 654, 655.HOPV3 381.1

    So died the first disciple and evangelist in England in Reformation times. His knowledge was not perfect: some of the errors of Rome remained with him to the last; but this much had he learned from the Greek New Testament of Erasmus, that there is but one object of worship, namely, God; that there is but one Savior, namely, Christ; and that forgiveness comes freely to men through his blood. Twenty years after the tragedy in the Lollards’ Pit, Latimer, whom he had brought to the knowledge of the truth, preaching before Edward VI, called him “that blessed martyr of God, Thomas Bilney.”HOPV3 381.2

    The Scriptures sowed the seed in England, and the blood of martyrs watered it. Next after Bilney came Richard Bayfield. Bayfield was a monk of Bury, and was converted chiefly through Tyndale’s New Testament. He went beyond seas, and joining himself to Tyndale and Fryth, he returned to England, bringing with him many copies of the Bible, which he began to disseminate. He was apprehended in London, and carried first to the Lollards’ Tower, and thence to the Coal-house. “Here he was tied,” says the martyrologist, “by the neck, middle, and legs, standing upright by the walls, divers times, manacled.” 15Ibid., p. 681. The design of this cruelty, which the greatest criminals were spared was to compel him to disclose the names of those who had bought copies of the Word of God from him; but this he refused to do. He was brought before Stokesley, Bishop of London, and accused of “being beyond the sea, and of bringing thence divers and many books, as well of Martin Luther’s own works, as of others of his damnable sect, and of Ecolampadius the great heretic, and of divers other heretics, both in Latin and English.” He was sentenced to the fire. Before execution he was degraded in the Cathedral church of St. Paul’s. At the close of the ceremonies, the Bishop of London struck him so violent a blow on the breast with his crosier, that he fell backwards, and swooning, rolled down the steps of the choir. On reviving, he thanked God that now he had been delivered from the malignant Church of Antichrist, alluding to the ceremony of “degradation” which he had just undergone. He was carried to the stake at Smithfield in the apparel in which Stokesley had arrayed him. He remained half an hour alive on the pile, the fire touching one of his sides only. When his left arm was burned, he touched it with the right, and it dropped off. He stood unmoved, praying all the while. 16Fox, vol. 4., pp. 687, 688.HOPV3 381.3

    Many others followed. Among these was John Tewkesbury, merchant in London. Tyndale’s New Testament had delivered him from the darkness. Becoming an object of suspicion to the priests, he was apprehended, and taken to the house of Sir Thomas More, now Lord Chancellor of England. He was shut up a whole week in the Porter’s lodge; his hands, feet, and head being placed in the stocks. He was then taken out and tied to a tree in Sir Thomas’s garden, termed the Tree of Truth, and whipped, and small cords were drawn so tightly round his forehead that the blood started from his eyes. Such were the means which the elegant scholar and accomplished wit took to make this disciple of the Gospel reveal his associates. He was next carried to the Tower, and stretched on the rack till his limbs were broken. He yielded to the extremity of his sufferings, and recanted. This was in 1529. The brave death of his friend Bayfield revived his courage. The fact soon came to the knowledge of his persecutors, and being arrested, the Bishop of London held an assize upon him in the house of Sir Thomas More, and having passed sentence upon him as a relapsed heretic, he was carried to Smithfield and burned. 17Ibid., pp. 689-694.HOPV3 381.4

    James Bainham, a gentleman of Gloucestershire, and member of the Middle Temple, delighted in the study of the Scriptures, and began to exhibit in his life in eminent degree the evangelical virtues. He was arrested, and carried to the house of Sir Thomas More at Chelsea. He was passed through the same terrible ordeal to which the author of Utopia had subjected Tewkesbury. He was tied to the Tree of Truth, scourged, and then sent to the Tower to be racked. The chancellor was exceedingly anxious to discover who of the gentlemen of the Temple, his acquaintance, had embraced the Gospel, but no disclosure could these cruelties extort from Bainham. On his trial he was drawn by the arts of his enemies to abjure. He appeared a few days after at St. Paul’s Cross with his fagot; but recantation was followed by bitter repentance. He too felt that the fires which remorse kindles in the soul are sharper than those which the persecutor kindles to consume the body. The fallen disciple, receiving strength from on high, again stood up. Arrested and brought to trial a second time, he was more than a conqueror over all the arts which were again put forth against his steadfastness. On May-day, at two o’clock (1532), he appeared in Smithfield. Going forward to the stake, which was guarded by horsemen, he threw himself flat on his face and prayed. Then rising up, he embraced the stake, and taking hold of the chain, he wound it round his body, while a serjeant made it fast behind.HOPV3 381.5

    Standing on the pitch-barrel, he addressed the people, telling them that “it was lawful for every man and woman to have God’s Book in their mother tongue,” and walking them against the errors in which they and their fathers had lived. “Thou liest, thou heretic,” said Master Pane, town-clerk of London. “Thou deniest the blessed Sacrament of the altar.” “I do not deny the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood, as it was instituted by Christ, but I deny your transubstantiation, and your idolatry of the bread, and that Christ, God and man, should dwell in a piece of bread; but that he is in heaven, sitting on the right hand of God the Father.” “Thou heretic!” said Pane—“Set fire to him and burn him.”HOPV3 382.1

    The train of gunpowder was now ignited. As the flame approached him, he lifted up his eyes and hands to heaven, and prayed for the forgiveness of Pane and of Sir Thomas More, and continued at intervals in supplication till the fire had reached his head. “It is to be observed,” says the chronicler, “that as he was at the stake, in the midst of the flaming fire, which fire had half consumed his arms and legs, he spoke these words: ‘O ye Papists! behold, ye look for miracles, and here now ye may see a miracle; for in this fire I feel no more pain than if I were in a bed of down; but it is to me as a bed of roses.’ These words spoke he in the midst of the flaming fire, when his legs and arms, as I said, were half consumed.” 18Fox, vol. 4., pp. 697-705.HOPV3 382.2

    While these and many other martyrs were dying at the stake, indications were not wanting that the popular feeling was turning against the old faith in the destruction of its public symbols. Many of the crucifixes that stood by the highway were pulled down. The images of saints, whose very names are now forgotten, were destroyed. The images of “Our Lady” sometimes disappeared from chapels, and no one knew where they had gone, or by whom they had been carried off. The authors of these acts were in a few cases discovered and hanged, but in the majority of instances they remained unknown. But this outbreak of the iconoclast spirit in England was as nothing compared to the fury with which it showed itself in the Low Countries, and the havoc it inflicted on the cathedrals and shrines of Belgium, Switzerland, and the south of France.HOPV3 382.3

    But the one pre-eminent Reforming Power in England was that which descended on the land softly as descends the dew, and advanced noiselessly as the light of morning spreads over the earth-the Holy Scriptures. A little before the events we have just narrated, a fourth edition of the New Testament, more beautiful than the previous ones, had been printed in Antwerp, and was brought into England. A scarcity of bread which then prevailed in the country caused the corn ships from the Low Countries to be all the more readily welcomed, and the “Word of Life” was sent across concealed in them. But it happened that a priest opening his sack of corn found in the sack’s mouth the Book so much dreaded by the clergy, and hastened to give information that, along with the bread that nourisheth the body, that which destroyeth the soul was being imported into England. Nevertheless, the most part of the copies escaped, and, diffused among the people, began slowly to lift the mass out of vassalage, to awaken thought, and to prepare for liberty. The bishops would at times burn a hundred or two of copies at St. Paul’s Cross; but this policy, as might have been expected, only re-suited in whetting the desire of the people to possess the sacred volume. Anxious to discover who furnished the money for printing this endless supply of Bibles, Sir Thomas More said one day to one George Constantine, who had been apprehended on suspicion of heresy, “Constantine, I would have you be plain with me in one thing that I will ask thee, and I promise thee that I will show thee favor in all other things of which thou art accused. There is beyond the sea Tyndale, Joye, and a great many of you. There be some that help and succour them with money. I pray thee, tell me who they be?” “My lord, I will tell you truly,” said Constantine, “it is the Bishop of London that hath holpen us, for he hath bestowed upon us a great deal of money upon New Testaments to burn them, and that hath been and yet is our only succour and comfort.” “Now, by my truth,” said the chancellor, “I think even the same, for so much I told the bishop before he went about it.” 19Fox-Soames, Hist. of Reformation, vol. 1., p. 512.HOPV3 382.4

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