John Bell (bishop)

John Bell (bishop)

John Bell LL. D ("d." 1556) was Bishop of Worcester (1539-1543), who served during the reign of Henry VIII of England. Anglican Portal


The advent of movable type during the renaissance and its further innovation by Gutenberg, Fust, and Peter Schöffer, who were printing in Mainz, Germany, around 1446, marked the genesis of an era, that witnessed the liberation of the human mind of the Middle Ages. One of the first fruits of the press had become realized by the printing of the Holy Bible; as translated by William Tyndale and other scholars. This knowledge, sowed by circulation throughout Europe and today’s United Kingdom, helped nurture the spirit that would pour the foundation of heart, mind and conscience, needed to support the great religious and political changes that would be reaped in the sixteenth century and beyond. The following is a brief account of a man who lived during this time. He was a Master of the English (Hospice) College in Rome, Of Counsel and defender of the King, Ecclesiastic ambassador of faith, and, a, pillar of England, before and during the English Reformation. 33

Family origins and education

John Bell "d." 1556 was a resident of Worcester, and as will be demonstrated, speculations concerning his ancestry, and, further, the gentry of stock from which it is probable that he is descended will be clarified. 33

It is possible that John Bell is related to one William Bell; "a late 15th century Master (Benefactor), of Balliol College, Oxford, who was buried in St. Mary Magdalen." 2

Moreover, it is plausible to suggest that he might share some relation to one Lord Thomas Belle, (a bishop and suffragan of London and Prior of St. Mary's Hospital by bishopgate), whose Arms according to the blazon description found within one source, were very similar, if not the same Arms as John Bell.

However, at this time, it is difficult to appraise the precise nature of this connection. It is likely, however, that John Bell and Lord Thomas Belle, may have been in orbit of a common ancestor; particularly, after comparing the blazon descriptions of their respective Arms, of which tend to boast curious similarities.

:The Arms of John Bell:

:""Sable" on a Chevron Argent between three Griffin's heads erased Or, as many Moors' heads couped proper filleted of the second, on a chief of the last a cross potent between two fleurs de lis Or. (Bedford.), 25

:The Arms of Lord Thomas Bell:

:""Sable" on a Chevron Argent between three Griffin's heads erased Or three Blackmoors' heads couped proper wreathed about the temples with a ribbon Argent on a Chief Argent a cross potent between two Fleurs de Lys Gules. (College of Arms Mss. L10.94,4 and L10,73,11)

It has been further proposed that John Bell's probable relatives were Sir Thomas Bell "d." 1566 (Mayor of Gloucester) and his 'half' brother, also named Sir Thomas Bell (Mayor of Bristol). 24

In consideration that personal information concerning John Bell, is somewhat scant, this would appear to be a fair presumption worthy of further exploration.

In light of the potential benefits of these associations, an examination of the visitation of Gloucester of 1623, has been undertaken. Therin is recorded a five generation pedigree that is headed by Sir Thomas Bell, sometime Mayor of Gloucester, and his wife Sibill. The details that concern these connections reveal that a branch of this family is headed by one Edward Bell of Gloucester, father of William Bell of Newland, co. Gloucester, and, ends with Edward Bell of Writtle. co. Essex, who married Margaret Barley. Their daughter, Anne, was the first wife of Sir Fernando Gorges. (College of Arms Ms C17.102 & College of Arms Ms C15 (3) 14b)

:The Arms of Sir Thomas Bell "d." 1566:

:"Argent on a Chevron between three Falcoln's Bells on a Chief Gules a Hawk's lure Argent stringed Or between two Falcoln's Argent four Bars. The Crest is on a Wreath An Arm embowed vested Gules Cuffed Or supporting in the hand proper a Battleaxe the shaft Gules"

In the funeral certificate of Anne Bell the daughter of Edward Bell of Writtle, co. Essex, [mentioned above] is a record of the Arms borne by her family.

:The Arms of Edward Bell of Writtle:: "Ermine on a chief Sable an Escallop between two church Bell's Argent " (College of Arms Ms 116.37)

This heraldic evidence when combined with certain geographical clues that are found within the philanthropic details of John Bell's, 1556 will, suggest a common tie to this Bell family. The key found within his last will and testament follows in bold:

:"Item I give and bequeath £5 to be distributed discreetly and indifferently among the poor and most needy poor persons specially households of the town of Stratford upon Avon. And another £5 in likewise to be distributed within the parish of All Church. And also another £5 in the town of Bromesgrove. And further more other £5 in like form and fashion within the town of Tadcaster. And other £5 also within the town of Wymbersley as shall be seen most necessary by my executors or their sure and substantial agents with the council of the curates and churchwardens of the foresaid parishes without all corruption affection." 3

Upon further analysis of this detail, and after scrutinizing the following series of evidence, it appears that John Bell's relation to this ancient Bell family is strengthened.

: The Arms of Bell,* of Bromesgrove:

: "Argent, on a Chevron between three Escallops gules two barruletts (or rather bars Gemelles) of the field, on a chief of the second a hawks lure between two falcolns of the first". (Penn MS.) 25

::"A coat resembling this, except, that hawks bells are substituted for escallops, and martlets for falcolns, was granted by Barker, in 1542, to Thomas Bell, of Gloucester, gentleman. The grant is printed in Dallaway's "Heraldry" " 25 & is also recored in 26

Provided that the above contemporaneous evidence is in fact relevant, then the identification of the family and the origins of John Bell "d." 1556, is further unfolded in the following body of information; of which casts a flood of light on the historical tapestry of life and career of John Bell, and, can be helpful when considering a number of points. 33 As will be presented, John Bell, may have inherited a genetic predisposition to civil service that would have only complimented his academic achievements. It is this legacy that he may have also been indebted to, in addition to his own labors, for the rapid advancement of his career, and with securing various alliances that he would share within the social infrastructure of his time. 33

Upon careful review of the evidence, it is fair to presume that John Bell "d." 1556, was related in some fashion to the family of * "William Bell "d." 1598 27 of Temple Broughton, who attended Balliol College, Oxford."

It is quite fortunate that he took the time and liberty to draft a detailed will that was, discovered some thirty three years after his death, by his son Francis Bell, who was of the order of Freers Minors of the college of Dovvay, and who published his father's will in 1632, with additional notations. This will includes a generous amount of information concerning this Bell family, for example "according to his own account his great-grandfather had been forced to sell his patrimony to support a dissolute wife, the natural daughter of Arthur Plantagenet." 27, 33

Further details of the ancestry of this Bell family are found within his will and include a description of the family lands that were held in Worcestershire dating back to the time of Edward I.

"The name of this family was originally "de Belne", afterwards shortened to Bel [e] or Bell. It is asserted that the manors of Bromesgrove and King's Norton belonged to this family and during the reign of Elizabeth I, there was a Mr. Bell, who held the post of "deputy steward" of the manor of Bromesgrove. ("see" Field) The de Belne or Bell family were in fact anciently seated at Belne ("hodie" Bell), in Belbroughton, Kingsnorton, where Hugo de Belne held five hides temp. Edward I., of the Barony of Dudley (Lord Sutton of Dudley). ("see" Nash, i., 57.) " 25

Hugo's grandfather "Henry Bell of Ascham married 2.nd Agnes Brogan (b. in Cardiff, Wales).Andrew Bell his son had two sons and a daughter, Hugone.

On 22 May 1306, during the Feast of the Swan, ("described by one contemporary chronicler as the 'most splendid event since King Arthur was crowned at Caerleon' "), [] Andrew's son's were knighted by Edward I., or rather his son Edward II, who had also been knighted that day together with another 264 men. These men are recorded in "list of Knights" with Hugo and his brother who are styled "Hugo filius Henrici" and "Aungerus filius Henrici." 9

In consideration of his valiant contributions, Edward I., awarded Hugo the manor of Belne Broughton in Kingsnorton, Worcestershire, and granted him Arms,'Blackgreve and Bells.' 9

It has been stated that the Balckgreve was selected to commemorate that his honours came from his signal service to the King, as he was chief of the Longbowman, and had helped establish the longbow as an arm of offence and defence for the English Army. The 'three church Bells', were in honour of his grandfather, Henry Bell of Ascham, who was connected with the Convent and Priory and the Balckgreve was bent to signify that the bow was always ready to 'defend his King.' 9


It would appear curious, indeed, that generations later, this family legacy and the embodiment of these Arms would be personified in the character, and career of John Bell; who had first armed himself with knowledge while attending Balliol College, Oxford, and later at Cambridge where he took the degree of LL.B in 1504.

Following his preliminary education, Bell developed his abilities to a level that earned him a contemporary reputation as a learned theologian, that attracted the interest of both Thomas Wolsey, then Dean of Lincoln, and Silvestro de' Gigli, then, bishop of Worcester to Rome.


In 1512, Bell was serving as a lay judge in the courts of Canterbury when he was recommended by Gigli in the following correspondence, for appointment to Master of the English Hospital (college).

: To Andreas Ammonius of Lucca, Latin Secretary to Henry VIII:

:: “Thomas Coleman, Master of the English Hospital, is dead. There are no persons fit to succeed him. The Bishop of Leghlin is an idle voluptuary, Penent is a fool, John Grigh (dull), and the Suffragan of London unfit from his ignorance of the language. Thinks Master Bell, now Dean of the Arches, a more suitable person.” 11

In the same year Bell attended Gigli to the Fifth Lateran Council, possibly at the suggestion of Thomas Wolsey in place of Sir Thomas Docra who had been appointed to attend but was sent elsewhere by King Henry VIII. 12, "ODNB" By 1518, Gigli appointed Bell Vicar-general and chancellor of the diocese of Worcester, offices that he would continue to retain under two of his successors.

After this point it is found the he held the following posts:

::"Canon and prebendary of the collegiate church of St. Stephen in Westminster Palace (until 1539);" 7 –1526; Collated: Warden of the church of Stratford-Upon-Avon, 1 Preceptor of the hospital of St.Wulstans, 14 Magister, Bachelor of Civil law, acta capitularia (Chapter act book) Coventry & Lichfield Diocese.21-x 1528 Collated: Doctor of Canon law, Lincoln Cathedral,21-I: Doctor of Civil law, St. Pauls 21-V Rector of Gloucestershire, Weston-sub-Edge, Lichfield, Southwell and St.Paul’s, Cathedrals 1 1529 Collated: Magister, Doctor of Civil law Gloucester, 1539 Collated: Archdeacon of Gloucester.21-IV

Wolsey, would appoint Bell to the membership of the Legantine court of audience, where in 1523, he examined William Tyndall on charges of heresy.

Although Bell’s method of punishment resembled that of a disciplined schoolmaster, it should be noted that he elected to use words rather than the death penalty, of which on balance, it is likely that he never resorted.

King Henry VIII, a learned and keen theologian was aware of John Bell’s abilities, at length, and made him one of his chaplains.; He then deployed him abroad on state affairs, and upon his return was made one of Henry's counsellors’ (ib.). 1

One such mission was to secure a religious and political relationship with the Lutheran Princes in Germany. While abroad Bell was made LL.D of some foreign university, in which his degree was incorporated at Oxford in 1531. In 1526, Bell as Official of Worcester appears frequently as a member of the court appointed by Wolsey for the trial of heretics. 1

The King's Great Matter

In 1527, John Bell, appeared as one of the King’s proctor's concerning the divorce from Queen Catherine, and in 1528, he was consulted by the King and by Wolsey on the Popes dispensation, and on the commission to Wolsey and Lorenzo Campeggio to decide the validity of the royal union. 1

During the same period, in matters attached to the Wilton Affair, (an issue concerning the appointment of the Abbess of Wilton) he was clearly a staunch opponent of Elinor Carey, (a close relative of the Bolyns) when he boldly argued with the King concerning her elevation by reporting her as “Wolsey’s commessary in the diocese of Worcester, "at time when the king was considering him for the archdeaconry of Oxford." 1

Bell, would later be summoned in the capacity of court cleric, when drafting the royal letters that conveyed to Wolsey the King’s decision. Wolsey’s, unconventional, and delayed response, did not serve to remedy his recent failure in securing an annulment from the Pope for the King’s divorce, thus accelerating the beginning of Wolsey’s end. Bell would witness this incident first hand, while he reported the King’s reaction: 33

::"The King was ‘somewhat moved’; Bell, for his part, protested that ‘I would rather than part of all of my small substance that Wolsey had acted otherwise.’" 13

After this incident Bell exhibited more diligence and labour while in his signal service to the King, and was employed by Henry VIII in various duties to The Crown. 33

'Perhaps this success can be attributed to having been uncommonly educated at both Cambridge and Oxford, (Protestant vs. Catholic leanings 16c.). This afforded him a rare advantage by having channels of influence within England’s two schools of thought, that when combined with his connections with Rome proved Dr. Bell infallible during the three years he was in constant service upon the King as Henry’s "first and most trusted advisor on the divorce from Catherine of Aragon." ' 33, 13

During the spring of 1529, Henry's legal team assembled the libelus; the summary of Henry's royal arguments, including Lev. 20:21, that were presented before the papal legates, where the following may be observed:

:'The Queen was summoned to the great hall of the Blackfriars convent in London. The King, on a raised platform, sat at the upper end. Some distance away Catherine was given her place. The Cardinals, sitting lower than the King, flanked the royal presence, and near them the Archbishop of Canterbury and the bishops were given position. Doctor Sampson, afterwards Bishop of Chichester, and Doctor Bell, afterwards bishop of Worcester, led those who pleaded for the King. Representing the Queen was John Fisher bishop of Rochester, and Doctor Standish, a Gray Friar and Bishop of St. Asaph.' Following a series of deliberations, the matter was appealed to Rome, primarily after Catherine's nephew, Charles V, pressured the Pope into recalling Cardinal Campeggio and Catherine was then placed in the care of Sir Edmund Bedingfield at Kimbolton Castle. 14

In 1531, primarily as a reult of the innovative suggestion of Thomas Cranmer, who thought the King's position in the divorce would be strengthened by obtaining favorable opionions from the various universities in England and abroad, Henry VIII sent Dr. Bell, together with the bishop of Lincoln and Foxe, to deliver a letter that he had personally drafted and to canvass Oxford, for a favorable opinion concerning the King's cause; of which they successfully secured despite the danger, being pelted with stones by the popish opposition, together while overcoming the strong resistance from the junior members of convocation.

In the same year he was also one of a commission including Sir Thomas Moore to assist the Archbishop in preparing the royal proclamation against William Tyndale's translation of the Scriptures and a number of heretical books. 1In 1532 he took part in the proceedings of the convocation which decided that the King's marriage was contrary to divine law, and consequently that the pope's dispensation was "ultra vires", and which drew up ‘"the articles about religion",’ of which the original may be seen, with John Bell's name attached, in the Cotton Library. 1

"He served as proctor for the king at the trial at Dunstable Abbey [May 10-17, 1533] which definitively nullified Henry's first marriage in time for the coronation of Anne Boleyn." 7

On 19 August 1534, John Bell, then warden of the college of Stratford upon Avon, signed his acceptance of the royal supremacy.

In 1537, Bell was one of the composers of the Bishop's Book, properly entitled "The Institution of the Christian Man", of which he may have been laboring to formulate in alignment with Cranmer, building in Lutheran positions when warranted, in order to soften certain aspects of conservative doctrine.

Bishopric of Worcester 1539-1543

In 1539, John Bell succeeded Hugh Latimer as bishop of Worcester and was consecrated by Cranmer on 17 August. In the same year he was present during the baptism of Edward VI at Hampton Court. John Bell's elevation to bishop, was accompanied with a difficult managerial legacy, that followed in the wake of Latimer's ambitious reform agenda, and Bell did what he could to restore order and balance while rebuilding the diocese; this has been fairly appraised and noted in that he 'laboured to reverse' Latimer's abrupt restructuring. 29

In 1540, Bell was a member of the committee of convocation which pronounced the marriage of Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves illegal. 1

In 1541, Bell supported Archbishop Cranmer in the House of Lords when Cranmer was attempting to bring forward an act for the advancement of the true religion and the abolishment of the contrary" however, this caused a great disruption within the conservative factions and when Bell witnessed this 'he fell away from him' (Stripe, Cranmer, p. 141), 1

In the convocation of 1542, when the bishops undertook the work of a revised translation of the New Testament, the first and second epistles to the Thessalonians were assigned to Bell. 1

This would prove to be the beginning of the end as the certain conservatives would labour together with Kentish colleagues to remove Cranmer by formal complaint, in what has come to be known as the Prebendaries Plot.

On 17 November 1543, at Hartlebury Castle, bishop Bell unexpectedly resigned from the see of Worcester with a pension of £133-6s-81/2d, and retired to the parish of Clerkenwell, where he was priest until his death, 11 August 1556. 15, 22

Motivations for retirement

"It is possible that [Bell] found his diocese more than he was able to cope with as an elderly man. He was following Latimer, who had installed a number of evangelicals in its parishes, and caught between them and the demands of religious conservatives that he reduce his diocese to order, he gave it up as beyond him." 6

Will and Legacies

Bishop Bell's 1556 will:

:: "In the name of God Amen. The tenth day of August in the year of our Lord God 1556 and in the third and fourth year of the reigns of our sovereign lord and lady Philip and Mary by the grace of God king and queen of England, Spain France Jerusalem and Ireland defender of the faith Archduke of Austria Duke of Milan Burgundy and Brabant Count of Habsburg Flanders and Tirol. I John Bell priest of the parish of Clerkenwell in London sick in body but of good mind and perfect memory laud and praise be unto almighty God realising and considering the frail and unstable condition and state of this present life and namely amongst all other things the most uncertain hand of death and even as certain as death itself is most sure and certain willing therefore with God’s grace and help to prevent as peace as much as in me is, do ordain declare and make this my present testament and last will as hereafter follows. In primis commend my soul to the great mercy of God almighty with a firm steadfast belief and hope of this intent and grace through the mercy of the most precious passing and blood of my saviour and redeemer Jesus Christ, and my body to be buried in the parish church where I shall die after the discretion of my executors and friends without all superfluous expense and vain pomp."....

::" And I make and ordain the aforenamed Mr John Borne Knight the overseer of this my said testament and last will of whose good counsel and help I persuade myself most assured and my executors about the execution of the same and for his pains in this behalf my special confidence assure and trust is that he of his charity and love will be content only with my former bequest and legacy, considering my substance is so small and other my bequests so great." 3

It will be clear from the above that Bell asked for a modest buriel, however, despite his humble request, it was thought to bury him with episcopal honours on the south side of the east end of the

" Dr. Bell, sometime bishop of Worcester, was buried with due respect August 13, at Clerkenwell, with a sermon preached by Dr. Harpsfield; he was put into his coffin, like a bishop, with the mitre and other "pontificalibus"; his funeral was illuminated with two white branches, two dozen staff torches, and four great tapers, [near the altar] " 4

Further details of his will records friendships with John Feckenham, Robert Morwent of Magdalen College, Oxford, Gilbert Bourne, and John Brogden his servant. "He gave by his will 2l. to the poor of Clerkenwell, 5l. to Stratford-upon-Avon, and some legacies to Jesus chantry in St. Paul's Cathedral, desiring that ‘his soul might be prayed for.’ He was also a benefactor to Balliol College, Oxford, and to Cambridge, but especially to the former, where he provided for the maintenance of two scholars born in the diocese of Worcester." 3

"Coote says of bishop Bell (English Civilians): That ‘He died with the character of an eloquent preacher and advocate, a learned divine, and a man of integrity and beneficence.’ " 1

The memorial brass effigy that was laid over Bells' tomb in 1556, has not been lost, despite London having nearly "burnt" down during the great fire of 1666. Following the destruction of the old church, the brass was improperly sold to the antiquary Gough and would later become the possession of Mr. J.G. Nichols, who had it on display within his printing office for a number of years. In 1884, Mr. Stephen Tucker, Somerset Herald, (at his kind expense) successfully encouraged the excutors of Mr. Nichols trust to return the brass to the church St. James, Clerkenwell. The details of the brass represent Bishop Bell in full episcopal vestments: the mitre is curiously and unusually depressed, and the crozier rests upon his left shoulder. The lower portion of the figure was lost long ago. The inscription in Latin once represented at its' base, sheds light on a civil service career that was conducted with valor and in bold detail, it reveals a subject who honored his ancestors by wielding his knowledge of the law in a singular service to his country and his King. 32, 33

::Contegit hoc marmor Doctorem nomine Bellum.::Qui bene tam rexit præsulis officium::Moribus ingenio vitæ pietate vigebat::Laudatus cunctis cultus et eloquio.::A.D. 1556, die Aug. 11.


The Arms of Bishop Bell "d." 1556:""Sable" on a Chevron Argent between three Griffin's heads erased Or three humans heads couped Sable wreathed about the temples and ribboned Or"


#P.B.A, John Bell LL.D, d. 1556, "Dictionary of National Biography", Oxford, 1887.
#Jones, J., "A Balliol Gazetteer", []
#Barratt, N., Transcription Report, The National Archives, UK, Catalog Reference Prob. 11/38, Image Reference 144, (C) Crown Copyright
#Strype's Memorials, Vol. 3, p. 305
# Burnet's," History of the Reformation"
# Summerson, H., perceptions concerning Bells retirement, December 2005.
# Susan Wabuda, ‘Bell, John (d. 1556)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [accessed 2004]
# Dep. Keeper's Rep. viii, App. iii (106), The college of Stratford-upon Avon
# Seaver, J., "Bell Family Records", American Historical genealogical Society, pb. 1929
# Bell, R.R.L., "Bell~A~Peal"," John Bell d. 1556, Bishop of Worcester", VOL 18, issue 4, pb. Winter of 2005, Co-Editors Jim and Francis Bell
# PRO, The Complete State Papers Domestic, 1509-1702, Series III, The State Papers Domestic for the years 1509-1547 of the reign of Henry VIII, pb. 1994-1995
# Chibi, A., ‘Docwra, Sir Thomas (d. 1527)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 23 May 2005]
# Starkey, D., "Six Wives, The Queens of Henry VIII", Harper Collins Publishers, 2000, p. 328, 334-5
# Farrow, J., "Story of Sir Thomas Moore"
# Walker, R,G, Hartlebury, Hartlebury Castle Trustees, 1987, pg.24 (Details, kindly furnished by, David J. Kendrick, July 2004)
# Fuller, T., "The Church History of Britain", (1655)
# Pearce, E.H., "Hartlebury Castle", SPCK, London 1926. pg. 101 (Details, kindly furnished by, David J. Kendrick, July 2004)
# St. James, history of St. James*
# Redworth, G., "A Study in the formulation of Policy: The Genesis and Evolution Act of the "Six Articles"," Journal of Ecclesiastical History 37 (1986)
# The Gentleman's Magazine Library, Ed. George Laurence Gomme, Biographical notes 1731-1868, London, 1889, p. 309
# "Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae 1300-1541", Volume I, Lincoln Diocese, compiled by H.P. F. King; Volume IV, Monastic Cathedrals (southern province), compiled by B. Jones; Volume V, St. Paul’s, London, compiled by, Joyce M. Horn; Volume X, Coventry & Lichfield Diocese, compiled by, B. Jones.
# Chambers, J., "Biographical illustrations of Worcester", pb. 1820, p. 48
# Malcolm's, "Londinium Redivivium", Vol 3., p. 212
# Susan Wabuda, "Fruitful preaching in the diocese of Worcester": "Bishop Hugh Latimer and his influence", 1535–1539’, Religion and the English people, 1500–1640, ed. E. J. Carlson (1998)
# Grazebrook, H., "The Heraldry of Worcestershire", Vol. 1, A-L, London, 1873
# "Grantees of Arms to the end of the XVII. Century", Ed. by W. Harry Rylands, Harl. soc. 1915
# Broadway, J., ‘Bell, William (b. in or before 1538, d. 1598)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 10 May 2005]
# Cavendish, G.," The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey", ed. Richard S. Sylvester, Early English Text Society No. 243, London: Oxford University Press, 1959
# Summerson, H., "People, places, and shifting perspectives in the "Dictionary of National Biography"" []
# Hugh Latimer, DNB-"Oxford Dictionary of National Biography", University Press, London, 1917-reprinted 1921-1922, Editors-Sir Leslie Stephen & Sir Sydney Lee, volume XI, p. 617
# Stephenson, Mill.," Transactions of the St. Paul's Ecclesiological Society", Vol IV, Harrision and Sons, London, 1901 p. 222
# Bell, R.R.L., "Iconographical sketches of the ancient Bell family of England", 2007 p. 40
# Bell, R.R.L., "Tudor Bells Sound Out", pb. 2006

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