Elizabethan government


The Court of Wards

Robert Cecil presiding over the Court of Wards

I can’t remember if I decided one of my Francis Bacon mystery series characters would become an orphan before or after I learned about the Court of Wards. Probably after, because I wouldn’t have recognized the dramatic potential of that condition. Although I vaguely remember thinking Tom would have to lose his money at some point, to juice up his series arc.

But you don’t care about that! You’re here for the history. The Court of Wards was a notorious sink of corruption in its day, loathed by everyone, but everyone still wanted a piece of the action. Get yourself an orphan with a tasty little estate and you could make a fat profit for yourself, managing the said estate until the said orphan reached his or her majority.


I’m basing this post on Joel Hurstfield’s book, The Queen’s Wards. He begins well before the beginning, with a long explanation of feudalism and its effects on land ownership. The upshot is that no one in the Tudor period or earlier simply owned their land, the way we own our lands, if we have any. Like the lot my house sits on; I consider that mine and so does the legal system under which I purchased it. I can’t do anything I like with it, given the many restrictions of a city lot, which I approve of in general — but it’s mine.

In the Tudor era, all the land in the country belonged to the Crown. Everyone else leased it on some terms or other. (I’m not sure about this, but it looks like the feudal obligation component was abolished after the English Civil War, being substituted by taxation. Read more at the Wikipedia page on English land law.)

Re-enactor at Kentwell

Different kinds of tenure entailed different obligations for service. At the bottom, we have cottars, who got a humble dwelling with a tiny plot for vegetables in exchange for working the master’s fields. At the top, we have major landowners who hold their vast estates from the monarch, in exchange for showing up with a troop of well-armed knights upon request.

This is called knight service. Oddly by modern standards, the duty went with the land, not the knight. The Church could owe knight service, which it would render by paying knights to go fight in place of the abbot or whoever. Widows could owe knight service. And here comes the wardship part: orphans could owe knight service, if they inherited a parcel of land to which that duty was attached.

George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland, in my all-time favorite knightly outfit

A child, however bold, could not serve the king by donning armor and riding to war. So the lord took back control of the land to manage it so it would pay for a substitute knight. It only made sense for the monarch to take charge of the child as well, to ensure that boys grew up able to perform their duties and girls married the right sorts of men. In which case, the monarch really ought to take charge of arranging those marriages too, to make sure everything turned out best for Crown and country.

Time passed, and monarchs became less keen on having a bunch of amateurs in their armies. Likewise, lords preferred less risk with their honours. Knight service because more transactional than literal. You paid an annual fee to get out of it, to the greater contentment of both parties. Hurstfield puts it thus: “So by a gradual, but by no means unconscious, process the feudal incidents had ceased to be military safeguards and had become articles of trade.”

There’s money in those tender babes!  Nearly everything was an article of trade in the Tudor century. Wardship and marriage of wards (and widows) were commodities that could be bought and sold, like advowsons, the right to appoint the vicar of a church. Wardships were basically sold at auction, with bids going in to the Court of Wards. Nobody could split hairs — or marketable rights — like a Tudor lawyer.

Order in the court

Henry VII

Henry VII started it, possibly whilst surveying the carnage on the Field of Bosworth. He and his successors did their best to eradicate the upper tiers of the nobility, distrusting the feudal system in its literal modes. But they preserved every vestige that might yield a profit. Henry VII appointed Sir John Hussey to take charge of royal wardships in 1503, not out of concern for the proper care of orphans, but to put the nation on notice that he intended to exert his feudal rights and exact his feudal fees.

The system of bartering wardships was already hated by the time Henry VIII succeeded his father. Great Harry promised to amend the practice, but he only pruned a few excesses. The game was just too profitable to give up. Then he Dissolved the monasteries, throwing vast acres owing knight service onto the property market, incidentally creating herds of fresh potential wards.

The Court of Wards was established in 1540 “to exercise a full surveillance over the king’s feudal rights.” Everything other than wardship and marriage rights had pretty much boiled away by this time, but the Crown clung to this source of much-needed revenue.

At the top of the court was the Master. In Elizabeth’s time, this was William Cecil, Lord Burghley. He effectively passed the office on to his son, Robert Cecil, near the end of the sixteenth century. Next in importance was the Attorney of the Court of Wards, a post Sir Nicholas Bacon held from 1546 to his appointment as Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. He was considered fair enough, but he did use the position to spy out good bargains in land — the foundation of his wealth.

Wlliam Cecil, Lord Burghley and Lord Treasurer and Master of the Court of Wards

The court had a Receiver-General, or Treasurer, who supervised Auditors. Then there were the usual multitude of junior officials, clerks, underclerks, messengers, and ushers. Each ones of these would expect his portion of the fees, and there were ever so many fees.

The Usher was responsible for the maintenance and equipment of the room in which the court met, in Westminster Palace. The Messenger, or Pursuivant, was responsible for interdepartmental correspondence, the carrying of writs, and the like.

Each county had a feodary, a fine obsolete word that in Elizabeth’s day denoted both a feudal tenant and an officer of the Court of Wards. The feodary was basically the court’s agent in the counties. His job was to keep a sharp eye out for “concealed wards”: orphans whose mothers, uncles, or other adult relations were trying to prevent the authorities from finding out about the father’s death or at least from looking too closely at the properties he left. (In those days, orphans were minors without fathers. Mothers didn’t count, legally. They had to bid for their children’s wardships like everyone else and rarely won.)

Feodaries were in charge of court activities in their respective counties. They ordered and evaluated surveys of lands of incoming wards. They supervised the taking of depositions on all sorts of matters related to determining exactly who had owned what and when, which could be fuzzy in those days, when people still relied on “living memory” for the definition of boundaries and a record of possession.

A plausible house for a feodary, now a coffee shop in Stratford-upon-Avon

Feodaries also collected depositions relating to the date of birth of the ward — another data point we take for granted. Feodaries had spies out listening for gossip about recent deaths of property-holders. They must have been dreadfully unpopular. They tended to be men of modest social status, not justice of the peace material — not leading gentlemen. But a hard-working, orderly-minded man could prosper in the position. Think of a lesser gentlemen, one who spent a few years at an Inn of Chancery, a place where men too poor or too low to get into an Inn of Court could learn the common law. He and his family would live in a nice house on a good street in the county seat, not in an ancient manor set on acres of rolling countryside.

For example, Michael Hickes, one of Lord Burghley’s secretaries, was the feodary of Essex for three years. The post alone brought a salary of £9/year, plus 41 shillings a year as a “carriage allowance.” That’s less than a skilled carpenter would make in a year. No idea what that carriage allowance is. Travel expenses, maybe, though he would ride his horse to and from, not travel in a bumpy, over-priced carriage. He also got £1 for every £100 he brought to London in fees from wards in his counties.

All of these offices were lucrative, mainly through the abundance of fees that widows, orphans, and their guardians had to pay at every turn, about which more in a later post. The fees were considered excessive, even back then. We’re accustomed to lots of little fees, especially if we’ve ever bought a house, but it will surprise you to learn about one little perquisite enjoyed by the Receiver. He got to keep all the court funds in his own possession until called upon to make payments. In the meantime, he could lend it out at interest. They were deeply ambivalent about usury in the sixteenth century, but they did it, all the same.

The Master of the Court

Most lucrative of all was the seat at the top: the Master of the Court of Wards. This was Lord Burghley during most of Elizabeth’s reign. History regards him as a major architect of the social and political transformations of that period, many of which are highly positive: the long peace, the rising prosperity, the balancing of hostile religious factions. He did all that and more, with the guidance of Queen Elizabeth, who demanded exactly those results from her ministers. But he was widely regarded as utterly corrupt during his lifetime and not without grounds. He took a bite from every coin that passed through the offices he controlled, especially the Court of Wards.

Theobalds Palace in 1836

The first cut he took was in the choice of wards to keep for himself. Let’s say you’ve “discovered a ward” — learned of the death of a landowner with a minor heir. You rush to send in a bid for the wardship, writing the oiliest letter you can compose and sending it with your swiftest messenger.

News of this sort of thing traveled fast, though. Soon you’d be bidding against the likes of the Earl of Cumberland and Sir Walter Raleigh, or lesser personages with more cash. Such things were never decided on their merits in those days. Sir Walter did not fill out a three-page application listing his qualifications as guardian, like I had to do when I adopted my best friend from the Heart of Texas Labrador Rescue.

Of course not. He sent a bribe and an offer to purchase the wardship for an amount based on the estimated annual rents of the estate on the chopping block. Burghley pocketed the bribes, of course. How do you think he built his palaces? The one on the Strand — Burghley House — was necessary, I would say, being a major administrative center of the nation. The one at Theobalds was pure ostentation, though the queen did drop by from time to time with her entire court.

Come to think of it, we do something roughly similar when buying a house in a hot market. We pay earnest money, which Investopedia says is “a deposit made to a seller showing the buyer’s good faith in a transaction.” Our real estate transactions carry a lot of ancient baggage. Funny.

Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, and his cat

Which wards did Burghley reserve for himself? Only the uppermost of the upper crust, whom he took into his own house and reared according to his principals. These lucky lads included the Earl of Oxford, the Earl of Essex, the Earl of Rutland, the Earl of Southampton, the Earl of Surrey, and Lord Zouche, a name you could not make up. Burghley got to design their educations and even better, he got to manage their vast estates, taking his annual percentage, naturally.

He also got to arrange their marriages, another lucrative right. Now you get bribes from the anxious parents of prospective brides, as well as a percentage of their marriage contracts. And you get to influence the development of that essential web of kinship that formed the power structure of English society. You could sell an earl’s marriage for £1000. Even better, you could present an unacceptable, yet plausible, bride and force the heir to pay a fine for refusing her. The Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton, was rumored to have paid £5000 to reject the girl, who happened to be Burghley’s granddaughter.

Here’s the paragraph I’m looking for, on page 263: “Thomas Wilson, nephew of Elizabeth’s Secretary of State [Sir Francis Walsingham], estimated that wardship brought in yearly between £20,000 and £30,000 to the queen, about twice as much to Burghley and even more subsequently to Sir Robert Cecil.

That’s a third of the queen’s annual revenue, from orphans. Talk about a racket!


Hurstfield, Joel. 1958. The Queen’s Wards: Wardship and Marriage under Elizabeth I. London: Longman’s.

The Marprelate Controversy, Part II

I know you’ve all spent the past week wondering who was involved in the Martin Marprelate controversy and whatever became of them all? You’ll be relieved to know that I intend to answer those questions here and now, in an essay that has mushroomed beyond all reason. Warning: this puppy is LONG. (Here’s part I, in case you missed it.)

Martin’s minions

At least 23 persons were involved in the production of Martin’s works, ranging in social statusPress1520 from a knight to a cobbler.

John Penry

The only person to hang in the aftermath of the Marprelate controversy was John Penry, whom Wikipedia calls a Welsh martyr. He was hanged for religious reasons, so I guess he qualifies. He discovered radical Protestantism at Cambridge, like so many others, and devoted his life to that cause. He wrote a few radical tracts prior to these events, including A Treatise Containing the Aequity of an Humble Supplication Which Is to Be Exhibited unto Hir Gracious Majesty and This High Court of Parliament in the Behalfe of the Countrey of Wales, That Some Order May Be Taken for the Preaching of the Gospell among Those People. (Whew!)

That book was considered so dangerous that all 500 copies were confiscated, Penry was tried by the Court of High Commission, and committed to the Gatehouse Prison for a month. He was characterized as an Enemy of the State, which he resented enough to push harder. He is generally regarded as the “business manager” of Martin’s works, recruiting the printers, helping find hiding places for them and their presses, and running materials back and forth.

When the archbishop turned up the heat in autumn, 1588, Penry scarpered off to Scotland, but his whereabouts were known. Lord Burghley pressured King James to banish him, if he couldn’t bring himself to extradite the man to England. Penry had influential supporters in Scotland too, pushing back against Burghley’s demands. The Puritan cause was overtly and covertly supported by many men and women in high places in both countries.

Finally, in August, 1589, Penry was banished from Scotland. He left his wife in Edinburgh and fled all the way to the outskirts of that fair city, where apparently he lurked and continued to write. Such was law enforcement in those days! He could have lived quietly until the fuss died down and led a long, comfortable life, but ideologues seldom choose that path. Penry was drawn back to England in 1591 by the arrest of some especially incompentent Puritan conspirators. Then back to Scotland for the birth of a daughter, appropriately named Safety. Then back again to London to rouse some rabble in Islington with the London Separatists, where he was finally caught by the authorities. He was tried, sentenced, and executed with astounding dispatch, being hanged on 29 May, 1591, at St. Thomas a Watering in Southwark.

Printers & other helpers

edinburghRobert Waldegrave, assisted by Henry Kildale, printed Martin’s Epitome in East Molesley, the Epistle in Northamptonshire, and the Mineralls and Hay Any Work for a Cooper in Coventry. Then things got too hot for the hot-headed Waldegrave, who fled to La Rochelle in France, where he continued to print radical works by Penry and Throckmorton. He then moved to Edinburgh, where he kept right on going. The English complained, but the Scots replied that Waldegrave had promised to stop printing the offensive materials, assuring Lord Burghley that the printer “was very sorry for his faults.” Besides, Scotland really needed a skilled printer; an interesting side view of the whole matter. Waldegrave lived another 13 years in Scotland, printing some 120 books. A productive life.

John Hodgskins was the next of Martin’s printers. He printed Martin Junior and Martin Senior in Wolston, Warwickshire. He and his team were captured after moving to Manchester and setting up there to print More Work for An Cooper. They were caught in August, 1589. Hodgskins spent 10 months in the Tower and was then moved to Marshalsea. In spring 1591, he was tried at the court of the Queen’s Bench for printing a book which contained “a malicious intent against the queen” in violation of statute law. Hodgskins denied that the Martinist works contained any such malice towards Her Majesty. He was judged guilty of felony, but solemn persons argued in his favor and he received the queen’s mercy in 1593 and was released.

Hodgskins’ assistants were Valentine Symmes & Arthur Thomlyn. We’ll leave Thomlyn in obscurity, but Symmes deserves a story of his own. If I were a devout Presbyterian looking for a protagonist for an historical novel, I’d pick Symmes and do the inside story of Martin Marprelate.

Valentine Symmes

Symmes proofread Martins Jr. and Sr. He was an employee of Hodgskins and testified “fully and freely,” so he wasn’t arraigned. He might have been tortured to get that information. It was a common method of eliciting testimony from accomplices in those days. I’ve written about the uses of torture in this period before.type

By 1594, he was back in business as a printer, but in constant trouble with his guild, the Stationers Company, for the next nineteen years. Carlson describes minor infractions, such as “breaking order” and “printing a thing disorderly.” Symmes pirated a popular grammar, of all things, infringing on the profits of the original publishers (not the authors, they get squat). For that, he was ordered to bring his press to the Stationers Hall and his type was melted. Yow!

Then in 1599, in a delicious irony, he printed a book by Thomas Nashe, one of the most memorable anti-Martinist pamphleteers — Nashe’s Lenten Stuff. Nashe must have known of his publisher’s history. But this book, along with a few others, was deemed so offensive by the archbishop that he forbade all printing of satires, epigrams, and plays without authorization of the Church. Further, all works by Thomas Nashe and Gabriel Harvey (Nashe’s favorite verbal opponent) were to be seized and none of their works printed hereafter. 

A traditional bookbinder.

If, like me, you’re now dying to read it, you can: Nashe’s Lenten Stuff. Warning: it’s pretty weird, but after several seconds of assiduous skimming, I haven’t noticed anything offensive.

How about that Valentine Symmes! He’s less of an ideologue, like Penry and Throckmorton, and more of a guy who just likes challenging the authorities. You’d think the authorities would find a way to imprison him, but no, he lives free in the city of London. He was fined on a semi-annual basis for some disorderly production or other, some of his books being burned by the High Commission. He was barred from printing altogether from 1608-1610.

None of that seems to have slowed him down. Between 1594-1612, he printed at least 164 books, about 9/year, including a folio edition of Michel de Montaigne’s Essays. He printed works by many authors, including Christopher Marlowe, Robert Greene, Ben Jonson, and William Shakespeare, and yet he doesn’t even rate a Wikipedia page! I really need to get this guy into my series somehow.

Minor players

Minor players were the bookbinder, Henry Sharpe and the many who helped distribute the finished books: Humphrey Newman,a cobbler in the employ of Job Throckmorton, John Penry, Mrs. Waldegrave, Henry Sharpe, John Bowman, and Augustin Maicocke. Richard Holmes & Mr. Grimston of Northampton transported paper, ink, type, and equipment.


Sir Richard Knightley of Fawsley Hall in Northamptonshire was the highest ranked of Martin’s supporters. His second wife was the daughter of Edward Seymour, the 1st Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector of his nephew, King Edward VI. Credentials! Sir Richard fathered twenty children, between his first and second wives. What became of that crowd is not recorded. He was a prominent member of the Puritan party in Parliament, so there would have been little surprise when he was revealed as providing room on his estate for Waldegrave and company to print Martin’s works. 

An engraving of the Star Chamber, 1873.

John Hales, Sir Richard’s nephew, was persuaded to find a safe house in Coventry for Waldegrave’s press.

Mr. and Mrs. Roger Wigston hid the second press team, led by Hodgskins, in their house in Wolston, Warwickshire.

These four were arrested after the press was discovered in Manchester and arraigned together before the Court of the Star Chamber. Sir Richard and his nephew claimed to have had no idea what sort of things were being printed in their houses, denying all knowledge of Martin Marprelate and rejecting all idea that they in any way intended any malice towards the queen. They got off with a few months in prison (Carlson doesn’t say which ones) and stiff fines: Sir Richard had to cough up L2,000, while his nephew paid 1,000 marks (L666 13s. 4d.)

Mrs. Wigston is my favorite of the Harborers. She “readily confessed that her zeal for the reformation in God’s church” motivated her involvement, but claimed that her husband didn’t know anything about it, being “neither over curious nor meddlesome.” The couple spent some beanstime in prison. He was fined L333 and she was fined L1,000, telling us that the court knew perfectly who wore the Puritan pants in that family.

Another woman committed to the cause was Mrs Elizabeth Crane, who hosted Waldegrave and company in her home in East Molesley, Surrey. This is near Hampton Court palace. She refused to take an oath or consult a lawyer or cooperate in any way with her trial. She spent time in prison and was fined L666 for contempt of court and another L500 for harboring Martin’s press.

Her servant, Nicholas Tomkins, spilled the beans about the press in her house. We don’t know what motivated him to betray his mistress. Fear of the authorities? Or something more personal? In an Agatha Christie story, he would turn out to be her unrecognized nephew, son of the brother she cruelly thwarted, driving him to an early death and thus impoverishing his widow and children.

Martin’s Mirrors

When Martin Marprelate looked in the mirror, who did he or she (or they) see? Over the nearly four hundred years since the last of Martin’s works, The Protestatyon, was published in October, 1589, some 22 candidates have been proposed. None of those candidates were women, which is ridiculous when you think about it.

Women wrote religious works; it’s one of the few genres they were allowed to create non-lady-hobys-diaryanonymously. Lady Anne Bacon was renowned in Calvinist circles on the Continent for her translations of religious works. Her sister, Lady Elizabeth Russell, wrote poetry, among other things. Devout ladies like Margaret Hoby kept diaries of their religious activities. These weren’t published in their day, but the historians dickering over Martin’s identity knew about them. Still, not one ever suggested Martin might have been a woman. That sort of blindness simply cries out for a novel, in my mental universe.

One of the first suspects to be interrogated was Giles Wigginton, a cantakerous former Cambridge scholar and lifelong thorn in Archbishop Whitgift’s side. Wiggy had been in and out of jail for seditious preaching for many years. He was arrested in December, 1588, and brought to Lambeth Palace by boat. During the journey, he lectured his captor, Anthony Munday, at length for serving on the wrong side. He continued that attitude throughout his interrogation. Carlson describes his behavior as “evasive, obdurate, saucy, insinuating, or silent.” He scolded the archbishop for trying a simple man for something great lords and ladies did with impunity (owning a copy of Martin’s works.) Wigginton was committed to the Gatehouse prison for some long period of time.

John Udall was also suspected in his time, thanks to his religious writings and prior acts of rebellion. He was arrested in January, 1589, and tried as the putative author of the Demonstration of Discipline, which was said to reveal a malicious intent against the queen. Unfortunately, none of the witnesses could be rounded up to testify. The jury decided he was guilty anyway (which he was), but he wasn’t sentenced for over a year, during which he lived in the Gatehouse Prison and wrote numerous letters to people like Sir Walter Raleigh, seeking aid in persuading Her Majesty to offer clemency. Some merchants among his supporters came up with a scheme in which Udall would go serve their purposes in Guinea or Syria, not returning until the queen allowed it. What an offer! He didn’t get the chance to try that route, because he died in prison in 1593.

Henry Barrow and John Greenwood.Stained glass windows in Emmanuel United Reformed Church, Trumpington Street, Cambridge, England

John Penry was the odd’s-on favorite in his day. I discussed him above. Carlson rules him out on rhetorical grounds. Penry was evidently a plodding writer, incapable of Martin’s sparkling with.

Several known clergymen known to be Puritans were proposed by someone over the course of the controversy, including Walter Travers and Thomas Cartwright. Less serious suspects were prominent men like the Earl of Essex and Robert Cecil, son of the Lord Treasurer. The Lord Treasurer’s chief secretary, Michael Hickes, was also suspected by some historians. A strong case was made for Henry Barrow, another very hot Puritan with a quick quill. He would have to have been exceedingly clever to pull Martin off, since he was imprisoned in the Fleet during the whole period in question.

Carlson makes the best case for his candidate, Job Throckmorton. The Throckmortons, whose principal estate is Coughton Court in Warwickshire, were a family of religious extremists. The ones who lived in the grand house were Catholics. Job’s father Clement was a moderate Protestant. His uncle, Sir Nicholas, was one of Queen Elizabeth’s diplomats. OK, neither Clement nor Nick was particularly extreme.

Job, however, was one of the leading Puritans. One of the precipitating events of the Marprelate affair was his speech to Parliament in 1587 criticizing Her Majesty’s policies regarding the fully Protestant Low Countries. He also cast aspersions on King James of Scotland, which cause the English authorities to try to arrest him. He fled and started writing anonymous diatribes. Well, this is what you do, isn’t it? He fled to his sister’s house in Hillingdon, near Uxbridge, which now is in West London and has a tube stop. Handy when you can flee with your Oyster card!

This is what grabs me about this conflict: how easy it was to flee and hide a press and print whatever you like and distribute widely, even with the full power of the government on your trail. These people weren’t afraid of their government either, or not much, in spite of spending time in horrible prisons (less horrible with friends to provide comforts) and being interrogated. Lesser folk might be tortured to get them to betray their co-conspirators, but that wasn’t really very common and was mainly used for those suspected of collaborating with the Jesuits. These radical Protestants seemed to be confident that they wouldn’t suffer much harm, even if they were caught.

Throckmorton must somehow have met with Penry and Hodgskins, each of whom had his own cause for disgruntlement, and come up with the scheme. If Throckmorton is Martin — the author — the main plot must have been his idea. “I have this idea for a book,” he must have said, “if you can figure out how to produce it.”

Throckmorton wrote other books, published openly under his name, during the Marprelate period, including the riveting The State of the Church of England Laid Open in a Conference betweene Diotrephes a Bishop, Tertullus a Papist, Demetrius an Usurer, Pandocheus an Inne-Keeper, and Paule a Preacher of the Worde of God, aka the Dialogue. Most of the first printing was confiscated and burned by the bishops, but this book enjoyed two further editions, in 1588 and 1593. 

I can’t see when he left his sister’s house to return to his own home in Haseley, Warwickshire to write some of Martin’s works in comfort. Hodgskins eventually implicated him and he was indicted in the summer of 1590 for “disgracing Her Majestie’s government and making certaine scornful and satyricall libells under the name of Martin.” He met this charge with legal adroitness which I am not going to detail, because I’m running out of steam. He’s a very well connected and well educated gentleman, comfortable with speaking and writing to those at the very top, including Lord Chancellor Christopher Hatton.

He wasn’t arrested during this time, but came and went freely t London. He appeared in Westminster to answer the bill of indictment in 1591, Easter term, after mollifying everyone with his cleverly written letters. The queen extended her clemency, and he got off. When questioned, he said, “I am not Martin. I know not Martin.” He lived to the ripe old age of 56, dying, we suppose, of natural causes.

And so endeth the lesson.


Carlson, Leland H. 1981. Martin Marprelate, Gentleman: Master Job Throkmorton Laid Open in His Colors. San Marino, CA: Huntington Library.


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