The Search for a
Real Robin Hood

Kings and Queens

by Allen W. Wright

Robin Hood may be an outlaw, but in many ballads, books and movies, he is a strong supporter of the monarchy. Other times, royals like Prince (later King) John are among his worst enemies. Here we examine several of the kings and queens that have contributed to the legend of Robin Hood. (With the exception of Eleanor, the dates in brackets refer to the king's reign.)

William the Conqueror (1066-1087)

William rarely appears in the Robin Hood legend. The stories of Robin Hood are set over 100 years after this king's day. Parke Godwin's novels are a notable exception. But William's influence can be felt in most Robin Hood stories since Ivanhoe.

Normandy was a section of France given over to the Vikings in the 10th century. The king of France used the Normans to keep out their fellow raiders. Over the years, the Normans adopted the French language and customs. They acquired a lot of land. At one point Norman holdings were much larger than the king of France. But for all their lands, the duke of Normandy was still a vassal to the French king. The duke had to pay homage for his French holdings. To become equals, the dukes needed to be kings as well. (Although even in the eras of Henry II, Richard I and so on, the king/dukes still had to offer homage for their French holdings.)

In 1066, William, illegitimate by birth and duke of Normandy, invaded England. The English had just finished defeating a viking invasion, and marched straight to Hastings to battle the Normans. The English, fatigued from their previous battle and long march, lost. On Christmas Day, 1066, William was crowned king of England.

He set about reforming England, building mighty castles, putting his Norman buddies in positions of power and oppressing the Saxons. This didn't sit well with the English. There were rebellions, like the one led by Waltheof, earl of Huntingdon, in 1075. Unlike many versions of the legend, Parke Godwin's Robin Hood was not the earl. In fact, he helped William stop this rebellion. Hereward the Wake, a legendary but also historical hero, also caused trouble for the Normans. Stories of Hereward may have inspired aspects of the Robin Hood legend.

In most cases, even in Godwin's books, Robin was opposed to the Normans. The Norman versus Saxon politics were added to the legend with Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe in 1819. Scott's novel, like most Robin Hood stories after that, was set in the time of Richard I. By that point, the anti-Norman hostility would have cooled, but in legend, Saxon independence was as hot a topic then as it was in William's day.

Henry II (1154-1189)

Henry Fitz-Empress was the son of Matilda (or Maud), daughter of Henry I and widow of the Holy Roman Emperor, and Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou. His parents were involved in a long conflict with King Stephen for the control of England and Normandy. Geoffrey had conquered Normandy, and finally in 1153, King Stephen said that Henry Fitz-Empress would succeed him. Henry became king in 1154. With the lands of Normandy, Anjou, England and from his wife, Aquitaine, Henry was an extremely powerful monarch ruling over what was called the Angevin empire. Compared to the life of his parents, Henry's reign was peaceful. Until his children grew up.

Henry had four legitimate sons who survived to adulthood (he also had daughters, some sons died as children, and he had illegitimate sons and daughters): Henry the Young Prince, Richard, Geoffrey and John. In 1170, Henry's son, Henry, was crowned king of England at the elder's request. Unfortunately, the Young King soon plotted against his father with the aid of Richard, Geoffrey and Henry II"s wife Queen Eleanor. David of Huntingdon was made an earl by the Young King, and temporary lost his earldom when the rebellion failed.

The Young King died in 1183, and Geoffrey died in 1186. Still the plotting continued. In 1188 and 1189, Richard, count of Poitou, joined with King Philip II of France against Henry II. Henry II surrendered, and died on July 6, 1189. He died with a broken heart, for one day before his death, Henry learned that his favourite son John had been on Richard's side.

The counts of Anjou were said to descend from the devil's daughter. And with the furious tempers that all members of this family seemed to have and the wars between Henry and his sons, many contemporaries could almost believe the Plantagenets had the devil in their family tree. The kings themselves joked about this heritage.

Henry was energetic. He doodled in church. He travelled around so quickly the French king once remarked that he must fly rather than travel by horse or ship. He was interested in justice, reforming the sheriffs. Henry was a scholar. He suggested the monks at Glastonbury look there for the legendary King Arthur. Henry's affairs were notorious, particularly the tragic one with Rosamund Clifford. And his temper? He had a conflict with Thomas Becket; the king's hasty words caused the Archbishop of Canterbury to be martyred in 1170.

The Sloane Manuscript of 1600 claimed Robin Hood was born in 1160, during Henry II's reign. And some books, like Howard Pyle's classic children's book, are set in the time of Henry II. But it's Henry's wife and sons who would have a greater impact on the legend of Robin Hood.

Eleanor of Aquitaine (b. 1122, d. 1204)

Meet Queen Eleanor. She was the queen of two kingdoms, and the mother of two more kings. And yet she was powerful in her own right too,

As Duchess of Aquitaine, Eleanor controlled lands vaster than the king of France. So, it's not a surprise that the French king would seek an alliance with her. She married King Louis VII of France in 1137. As queen of France, she accompanied Louis on the Second Crusade. There, Eleanor and many other women dressed as amazons -- something that shocked the men of the time. Even more shocking was the scandal that she might have had an affair with her uncle Raymond of Antioch. Louis and Eleanor had their marriage annulled in 1151. In 1152, she married Henry, Duke of Normandy, who was 11 years younger than Eleanor. Two years later, Eleanor had become queen of England.

In the 1170s, she sided with her sons as they rebelled against Henry II. In 1173, she was caught fleeing, disguised as a man. Eleanor was imprisoned for most of the rest of Henry's reign. But even in prison she plotted, encouraging rebellion against King Henry II. She was freed right after Richard became king. Richard was her favourite son, but when Richard died, she supported King John's bid for the throne. A rival claimant, her grandson Arthur of Brittany, briefly imprisoned Eleanor in 1202. King John promptly rescued her. She died in 1204 at the age of 82.

She had enormous influence over England, including forcing Richard to marry Queen Berengaria.

Eleanor was a great patron of arts and architecture. And in some stories, she was the patron of Robin Hood. Sometimes Robin Hood is said to have shot for her at an archery contest. The original ballad makes the queen "Catherine", but Eleanor is a fitting replacement for stories set in the 12th century. In Munday's plays, Eleanor is madly in love with Robin Hood. She schemes against Robin and Marian. And The New Adventures of Robin Hood plays upon Eleanor's role as a crusading amazon. In that TV series, Eleanor is the head of a secret society of amazons.

The movie, and play it was based on, The Lion in Winter, offers an absorbing, interesting and somewhat fictionalized account of Eleanor and her family. Katharine Hepburn won an Oscar for her part as the queen.

Richard I the Lionheart (1189-1199)

When Richard approached his father's corpse at Fontevrault Abbey, blood flowed from the dead king's nose. Corpses were supposed to bleed in front of their murderer. Richard's wars had driven his father to his grave. Later, on September 3, 1189, a bat appeared at Richard's coronation. So, the reign of the most famous Robin Hood king began with bad omens.

Writing in 1521, John Major, a Scottish chronicler, said Robin Hood and Little John operated in 1193-4, the time of Richard I. Many, many writers have followed Major, including Anthony Munday, Sir Walter Scott and most Robin Hood novels and movies today. Although Richard wasn't the king in the earliest Robin Hood ballads, he is the one most closely associated with Robin Hood.

When Richard was crowned king in 1189, he sold every office and title he could. The king is reported to have said he'd have sold London itself if he could find a buyer. Then, almost immediately, he left England to go on the Third Crusade. Some Robin Hood stories, like the Richard Greene television series and the Fairbanks and Costner movies, say Robin Hood accompanied Richard on Crusade. There's some debate as to whether Earl David of Huntingdon (who held the earldom that many writers ascribe to Robin Hood) went on Crusade with Richard.

In 1191, King Richard ordered the execution of 2,600 Muslim prisoners at Acre. In movies like Robin and Marian and the 2010 film with Russel Crowe, as well as in novels such as Tales of Robin Hood by Clayton Emery, Robin is angry at the king for committing this atrocity.

While on the Third Crusade, King Richard had deeply offended Duke Leopold of Austria. In December of 1192, he made his way home through the lands of the duke. King Richard was seized while in the disguise of a kitchen servant. He was handed over to the duke and then later to Henry VI, the Holy Roman Emperor and ruler of Germany. The emperor ransomed Richard for 150,000 marks. Money that had to be raised from the English people.

In the Errol Flynn movie, Robin Hood robs the rich in order to pay Richard's ransom. Robin helps pay Richard's ransom in many stories such as Jennifer Roberson's novel Lady of the Forest.

Eventually, 100,000 marks were paid and Richard was let go.

He landed in Britain in late March 1194. While he was gone, his brother Count (or Prince or Earl, depending on the title you want to use) John conspired with the king of France. Count John was hoping to seize power for himself. When Richard returned, John fled England. Most of John's supporters quickly surrendered to Richard. Except those in Nottinghamshire.

Ranulf, earl of Chester, and his brother-in-law, the Earl of Huntingdon (David in real history, Robin Hood in legend) led an attack on Nottingham. King Richard joined them and seiged Nottingham Castle for two days. On March 28, 1194, the castle garrison surrendered to the king. And the next day, Richard went hunting in Sherwood Forest.Afterwards, Richard called a great council in Nottingham. He told the lords that the positions they bought in 1189 were only on lease and their terms were up. Richard raised a lot of money by re-selling these offices.

Many, many Robin Hood stories have Robin helping Richard at Nottingham. The television series Robin of Sherwood uses Richard's "on lease" speech at the council, for example. On the other hand, the 1976 Robin and Marian and the 2010 movie Robin Hood change history to suggest that Richard never returned to England after the Crusades.

Afterwards, Richard went to reclaim the possessions lost to Philip of France. He did not return to England, and had only spent a handful of months in the country during his reign. Richard was killed by an arrow at Chaluz in 1199. The 1976 movie Robin and Marian has Robin as a witness to Richard's death.

In legend anyway, Richard was considered a great king. Historically, the judgment is mixed. He was a larger than life figure. He was a poet and musician. He was a fierce and brave fighter, sometimes fool-hardily charging into battle with little or no armour. He also had a terrible temper. And it was his temper as much as his bravery that earned him the nickname "the Lionheart".

Also, there's a good possibility that Richard might have been gay. This is still a matter of historical debate, but that hasn't stopped Robin Hood writers like Jennifer Roberson and Nicholas Chase making the king's homosexuality part of the plot.

There are some reports that Richard did have an illegitimate son named Philip of Cognac. Usually ignored in Robin Hood stories, this Philip was a character in 2001 television movie Princess of Thieves and the love interest of Robin Hood's daughter, Gwyn. But in real history, Philip did not become the king of England. Another fictionalized version of Philip the Bastard is an important character is Shakespeare's play, King John.

Ivanhoe made Richard a strong supporter of the native English Saxons. Many Robin Hood books and movies have portrayed Richard as the Great Saxon Hope. In truth, Richard hated England. He only visited the country twice as king and only a few times before that. Apparently, Richard couldn't even speak a word of English.

Still, with his epic battles, the story of a ransom and brotherly betrayal, his musical ability and talent for disguise, it's not really surprising that Richard has become the Robin Hood king of choice.

John I (1199-1216)

Along with Richard came his brother, John. John was a troublemaker in Anthony Munday's Elizabethan plays and a downright villain in many later Robin Hood stories.

John was the youngest of Henry II's sons, and when Henry divided his land amongst his children, John was slighted. Hence, John would earn the nickname "Lackland". By the time of Richard's coronation, it was not true any longer. John was count of Mortain, Earl of Gloucester and Lord of Ireland. Richard had left him in charge of many counties, including Nottinghamshire. John's plotting at this time is mentioned above.

When Richard was dying in 1199, he named John his heir. There was some dispute over the succession. While David, Earl of Huntingdon opposed John's supporters in 1194, he did support John as king. Unfortunately, the people of Anjou did not. They supported Arthur of Brittany, son of John's late older brother Geoffrey. Arthur caused trouble for John including imprisoning Eleanor of Aquitaine. On August 1, 1202, John defeated Arthur and Mirebeau and rescued his mother. Arthur was imprisoned. Some say John called for Prince Arthur's castration. And although it's never been completely resolved, it's likely King John had his nephew murdered.

His shabby treatment of Arthur drove Anjou into the hands of King Philip of France. John lost most of his lands in France. To fight the French, John had to raise the first income tax. Although he did win some battles, Normandy was eventually lost. His failure in battle earned John the nickname "Softsword". John told his lords that they could not serve two masters. They should either claim their English lands or their Normans ones, not both. For his defeats on the battlefield, John is sometimes considered the first English king after 1066.

King John argued with his monks over who should be the archbishop of Canterbury. Pope Innocent III disagreed with both groups and chose his own candidate, Stephen Langton, in 1207. John wouldn't let the archbishop into England. The conflict escalated. In 1208, the pope slapped an Interdict on England. Virtually no church services could be performed. Later King John was excommunicated. Finally the king surrendered England as a vassal state to the pope in 1213 in exchange for papal support against the barons.

While at Nottingham in 1212, John learned of a plot to assassinate him. One of the suspected plotters was the Earl of Huntingdon. Another baron, Robert FitzWalter, was exiled for his role in the affair. In English legend, Fitzwalter is known as the father of Matilda. Anthony Munday made Marian the semi-legendary Matilda, a woman who John pursued.

In history, Fitzwalter is better known as one of the leaders of the Baronial rebellion. In 1215, King John was forced to sign a charter that would become known as Magna Carta. During this rebellion, supporters of the king seized the lands belonging to the Earl of Huntingdon. One of John's supporters was Philip Mark, the sheriff of Nottinghamshire.

In 1216, the uprising returned. Many of the barons looked to France for support. (The 2010 Robin Hood movie significantly alters this aspect of history.) Meanwhile, King John lost the crown jewels when his baggage train overturned in the Wellstream (aka "in the Wash"). Not long after, John died from dysentry at Newark in Nottinghamshire.

At this point, I should say some good things (or at least less bad things) about King John. He was a capable administrator, an avid reader, had an interest in law, and he travelled all across England and knew the language. He visited Nottingham on many occasions, and his favourite hunting lodge was Clipstone in Sherwood Forest. In the reign of Henry VIII, he was portrayed as a hero for arguing with the pope.

Unfortunately, the 13th century monks were the ones who first wrote John's history. And needless to say, they were annoyed about the Interdict among other things. They probably exaggerated the king's faults. But John did have a terrible temper (like his father and brother), he could be autocratic, and John turned friends into enemies. Even the famous supporter of the monarchy William Marshall broke faith with John for a time. (Getting the Marshall to turn against his king was quite a feat, but John managed it.) And then there's his lechery which found its way into Munday's plays.

All told, John does make a pretty good villain. And in one story or another, Robin Hood was present at all the major upsets in King John's reign.

Henry III (1216-1272)

Henry, the nine-year old son of King John, became king in 1216. For the next decade or so, England was more or less governed by his advisors. When Henry grew to manhood he had troubles with the barons just like his father did.

Simon de Montfort was the earl of Leicester and married to Henry's sister. In 1258, Montfort led a baronial movement against the king. The Provisions of Oxford were imposed on Henry III, restricting the king's power. The king ruled with the consent of a council and needed to call Parliament three times a year. Henry began to ignore the provisions. So, Montfort went to France.

The earl returned in 1263 and started making some trouble. The barons won important an important battle in 1264. But in 1265, they were defeated at the battle of Evesham by the future Edward I. Montfort was brutally mutilated and killed. He became a martyr and a cult sprang up around him.

In 1440, the Scottish chronicler Walter Bower said that Robin Hood and Little John were famous murderers that supported Montfort and set their activities in 1266, after Montfort's defeat. Bower was critical of both Robin Hood and the "disinherited" supporters of Montfort. But a few Robin Hood stories have tapped into the myth that Montfort helped pave the way for Parliamentary democracy.

During Montfort's rebellion, the barons imprisoned Peter of Aigueblanche, the bishop of Hereford. Stephen Knight suggests this bishop may have been the corrupt bishop in the Robin Hood ballad.

Also, there was a real Robin Hood early in Henry's reign. Robert (Hobbehod) Hod of Yorkshire was a fugitive in 1225-6.

Elizabeth Hallam states that Henry was pious and honest, but he also had the Plantagenet temper of his forefathers. This king was also supposed to be stupid and not a realist.

Edward I (1272-1307)

The early Robin Hood ballad A Gest of Robyn Hode states the king's name is Edward. Henry III's son is the first claimant to be the king of that ballad.

Patrick McGoohan played Edward I in Braveheart, a movie about William Wallace.This king had a nickname for practically every side of his personality. Edward was tall and nicknamed Longshanks for his long limbs. He was religious, but this king was also devious and called the Leopard. He was a strong fighter who launched invasions into both Scotland and Wales. Edward I was called the Hammer of the Scots, and also built several Welsh fortresses. Some historians call Edward the "father of the longbow", believing -- possibly mistakenly -- that he introduced this supposedly Welsh weapon to the English army.

The earliest chronicler to mention Robin Hood was Andrew of Wyntoun, yet another Scot. Writing in 1420, he placed Little John and Robin Hood in 1283. I don't know of any reason why Wyntoun chose this time, except for the similarity between Robin Hood and Edward I's opponent of a dozen years later.

William Wallace was, according to the English of the day, "a runaway from righteousness, a robber, a committer of sacrilege, an arsonist and a murderer, more cruel than Herod and more debauched in his insanity than Nero." (quoted in Hallam's Four Gothic Kings., p.156) According to the Scottish, popular legend, and moviegoers everywhere, Wallace was a great hero. Many of his legendary deeds resemble Robin Hood's. Stephen Knight suggests that the Robin Hood ballads may have borrowed from the Wallace stories. I think that's likely.

Wallace beat Edward I's forces in 1297, but lost to them the next year. In 1305, the English finally captured him. He was quite literally hung, drawn and quartered.

"The Hammer of the Scots", Edward, has occasionally been associated with Robin Hood. In one Elizabethan play about the king, some of the characters disguise themselves as Robin Hood and company. But even with that early historical reference to Robin Hood, it's unlikely that this king was the Edward of the ballads. His main contribution to the legend of Robin Hood was probably the conflict with William Wallace.

Edward II (1307-1327)

Edward II is known for being a spendthrift, a poor military leader, a bad ruler -- and apparently being gay.

Of course being gay isn't a character flaw, and in any evident, it's a matter of debate if Edward was gay. But Edward picked cruel, foolish and powerful men for special favour. He spent a lot of money on them, and Edward's friends had a lot of influence over English politics.

So, how does this relate to Robin Hood?

Well, in 1308, Piers Gaveston became regent of England. This appointment annoyed the barons, and Gaveston was exiled. He later returned to England was beheaded by Thomas, Earl of Lancaster.

Lancaster was forgiven for this, but 1321, he once again rebelled against the king's special favourites. The Despensers, Hugh the Elder and Hugh the son, were cruel, greedy and got loads of cash from the king and the English people. Lancaster and the barons dismissed the Despensers, but they were restored to power when Edward II's forces defeated Thomas of Lancaster in 1322. The earl's supporters fled to the forest and feasted on the king's deer.

Edward II's journey through England in 1322 closely resembles the journey that the king named Edward took in the ballad known as the Gest. And it was around this time that a man named Robyn Hood is recorded as a porter in the king's service. Historians who believe this was the real Robin Hood, or one of them, suggest that perhaps Robin had been a supporter of Lancaster and was pardoned for his crimes much like the legendary Robin had been.

Edward II was a keen hunter, and did hunt in Sherwood. He was also a constant traveller, visiting over 4,000 places in England -- Nottingham among them.

For these reasons, Edward II has been pegged as the Edward of the early Robin Hood ballad. But as the 1320s candidate for a real Robin Hood has fallen out of favour, so has this choice for the Edward of the ballad.

In case you're curious, the Despensers finally met a bad end. In 1326, Edward's wife Isabella (the She-Wolf of France) and her lover Roger Mortimer invaded England. The Despensers were tortured and killed in public. Edward was arrested, thrown in prison, surrendered the throne and was likely murdered in 1327. Apparently it was Adam Orleton, the Bishop of Hereford, who convinced Edward to give up his reign. One source states Orleton might have ordered Edward II's death. This bishop may be inspiration for the bishop who Robin Hood outwits in a ballad.

Edward III (1327-1337)

Edward III is the current darling of those seeking to identify the Edward of the Gest. The setting of the early Robin Hood ballads most closely resembles Edward III's time. Edward III was called a comely king in a 1339 poem, and Edward of the Gest is also called "our comly kynge".

Again, I'll turn to Hallam's Four Gothic Kings (American edition titled: Chronicles in the Age of Chivalry). Her coffee table books have been of enormous help in writing this page. On page 233, she has this to say about Edward III:

He was above all a man of action and passion, energetic, restless, generous to a fault, a lover of display and pageantry. The swashbuckling coup by which he seized power in 1330 set the tone for his reign, and for his great feats of arms on the fields of France. He was never happier than when leading his troops on campaign, or jousting and feasting with his knightly companions in arms. In short, he was a new King Arthur, just as his subjects expected him to be.
  -- Four Gothic Kings, p. 233.

Does that not sound like Robin Hood's king?

Adventures in Nottingham and France

That swashbuckling coup happened in Nottingham. In October 1330, Edward III and supporters snuck into Nottingham Castle threw a series of caves. They overthrew Roger Mortimer and forced Mortimer's lover and Edward's mother Queen Isabella into seclusion.

Edward III created several livery guilds. And Professor Thomas Ohlgren suggests that the Gest may have been written for a cloth guild's dinner. Edward III died in 1377, the very year of the first literary reference to Robin Hood. Robin Hood stories must have been common in this king's day.

Also, in the reign of Edward III, the longbow is traditionally (although not entirely accurately) credited with winning battles against France in the Hundred Years War, like Crecy (1346) and Poitiers (1356). Military historian, Professor Kelly DeVries notes that in the Gestthere's no social stigma in using the longbow, both the knight and the king use one. But DeVries also points out that there's little fighting done with the bow. It's mainly used in sporting competitions between the characters. When Robin and his men fight, they pull out their swords. He says the style of archery most closely fits the latter half of the 14th century -- during and just after Edward III's time.

(A note for fans of the movie Braveheart: Edward III was not the child of William Wallace. Wallace was executed in 1305; Edward was born in 1312. I don't think the Middle Ages of Hollywood has to conform to the Middle Ages of history. All Robin Hood movies take great liberty with historical facts. But I've encountered several people who have taken the film as gospel truth. Here endeth the tangent.)

Henry VIII (1509-1547) and Catherine of Aragon

In his youth, Henry was much slimmer and a champion archer. Once he pretended to be Robin Hood. The Robin Hood stories had been circulating long before Henry and Catherine were born. That didn't stop writers from weaving them into the legend. Catherine, Henry's first wife, was mostly likely the title character in the ballad Robin Hood and Queen Catherin. In the ballad, the queen invites Robin Hood to shoot for her in an archery tournament. A sequel ballad has Henry chasing Robin all over England.

But even in history, Henry and Catherine had encounters with Robin Hood. In 1510, Henry VIII and 11 nobles snuck into the queen's chamber. They were disguised as Robin Hood and his men. In 1516, the pair came across a Robin Hood pageant. They watched an archery competition and were wined and dined by the people playing the Merry Men.

Henry's best known for his divorce from Catherine, and the things that happened to his next five wives. He also broke the English church away from Rome. And as virtually any portrait will tell, Henry VIII ate a lot.

But in his early years, Henry was slimmer, active and a champion archer. He'd frequently went competitions. And he ordered all men from 16 to 60 must know how to use a bow.

At the end of his reign and afterwards, England started to become Protestant. Robin Hood underwent a similar conversion.

Note: The search for a real Robin Hood is but a minor part of Robin Hood studies. The character that has delighted us for generations is a literary character. For a more advanced look at how the legend has changed over time, please visit other sections of this website.

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© Text and Location pictures, Copyright 2020 Allen W. Wright - All Rights Reserved
Louis Rhead and Howard Pyle illustrations are taken from the Robin Hood Project at the University of Rochester and are used with permission.
Illustrations of Henry II from Menace of the Royal Assassins in Robin Hood Tales #5 from Quality Comics. Art most likely by Sam Citron. © copyright 1956 Comics Magazines Inc. and is used without permission, under fair use. Also the Quality copyrights appear to have expired.
Prince John in The Secret of Sherwood Forest in Brave and the Bold #14. Art by Russ Heath. © copyright 1957, DC Comics (formerly National). Used without permission under fair use.
Patrick McGoohan as Edward I in Braveheart, © copyright 1995, Paramount Pictures/Icon Pictures. Used without permission under fair use.
Medieval art of Henry III, Edward II and Edward III is from Wikipedia and is believed to be public domain
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