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It has been claimed that King Edward the Confessor chose Earl Harold Godwinson as his successor on his deathbed in January 1066.

I googled "did Edward the Confessor name Harold his heir?" and got about 651,000 results.

On the first page that came up:

1) Wikipedia: Edward the Confessor.

Edward probably entrusted the kingdom to Harold and Edith shortly before he died on 5 January 1066. On 6 January he was buried in Westminster Abbey, and Harold was crowned on the same day.1

In Stephen Baxter's view, Edward's "handling of the succession issue was dangerously indecisive, and contributed to one of the greatest catastrophes to which the English have ever succumbed."[38]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_the_Confessor1

2) "The Death of Edward the Confessor and the Conflicting Claims to the English Throne".

Some English sources claimed that on his deathbed, King Edward designated Harold as his heir. Other sources are more equivocal; the famous deathbed scene in the Bayeaux Tapestry, for example, shows Edward reaching out and touching Harold, who is kneeling beside him, but the text does not explain the meaning of this gesture. As we have seen, in the early days of 1066 the kingdom was recovering from a crisis and Harold was in pole position – did Edward believe that his succession would be best for the kingdom? We simply cannot say for sure whether the deathbed bequest took place – and even if it did, it does not mean that Harold ‘should’ have been king, or that Edward may not have designated someone else as his heir earlier in his reign.

https://history.blog.gov.uk/2016/01/05/the-death-of-edward-the-confessor-and-the-conflicting-claims-to-the-english-crown/2

3) Norman Invasion. Biography of Edward the Confessor.

The Normans claimed that Edward had named a Norman as his successor to the English throne. Harold Godwinson claimed that on his death bed Edward had named Harold as the next King of England. There is no mention of Edward favouring the rightful heir to the English throne, Edgar the Aethling. And to make matters even more complicated the Viking King Hardrada also believed that he had a claim to the English throne.

http://www.normaninvasion.info/biography-edward-the-confessor.htm3

4) BBC - History - Edward the Confessor.

Consequently, shortly before his death, Edward named Harold as his successor even though he may already have promised the crown to a distant cousin, William, Duke of Normandy.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/edward_confessor.shtml4

5) Enclylopedia.com - Does not discuss whether Edward named Harold his heir.

http://www.encyclopedia.com/people/history/british-and-irish-history-biographies/edward-confessor5

Websites are notorious for jumping in where angels fear to thread, and claiming something is certain when historians are uncertain.

But only one out of the first five sites claimed that it is certain that Edward the Confessor named Harold as his heir, thus indicating that historians are uncertain about that.

What do historians of Anglo Saxon England and the Norman Conquest think about the claim that Edward the Confessor on his deathbed named Harold Godwinson as heir to the English throne?

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Yes.

Or at least, as far as we can know based on available sources. Of course, if one chooses to disregard extant historical records, then all kinds of speculations are possible. Hence, the general consensus of historians is that Edward designated Harold his successor.

Moreover there is no doubt that on his deathbed Edward the Confessor did name Harold Godwinson to succeed him.

Szarmach, Paul E., M. Teresa Tavormina, and Joel T. Rosenthal, eds. Routledge Revivals: Medieval England: An Encyclopedia. Taylor & Francis, 1998.

This is not new. Even in the 1860s Edward Freeman wrote in his influential (if tedious) magnus opus, the History of the Norman Conquest of England, that::

But what the last dying wisehs of Eadward were we know beyond a doubt. His last wishes, his last hopes, were the same as the wisehes and the hopes of every faithful Egnlishman. His last earthly desire was that Harold should wear his crown.

Freeman, Edward Augustus. *The History of the Norman Conquest of England: Its Causes and Its Results Clarendon Press for Macmillan and Company, New York, 1873.

Now, not all historians write about this in such absolutely certain terms, but few outright argue the deathbed grant. John S. Beckerman, writing on English and Norman testamentary customs, reasons that the balance of probability favours the bequest to Harold. He then point blankedly blames Edward for provoking the Conquest by designating Harold his heir:

According to the Vita Ædwardi Regis, however, Edward left the kingdom to Harold just before his death, and there is no inherent reason for doubting the chronicle's veracity on this matter . . . By regranting the kingdom on his death-bed, Edward laid the grounds for the dispute which was to find its bloody resolution at Hastings.

Beckerman, John S. "Succession in Normandy, 1087, and in England, 1066: The Role of Testamentary Custom." Speculum 47.2 (1972): 258-260.

Similarly, after a careful review of all the primary sources on the succession, Stephen Baxter ended his treatment of the subject by castigating Edward for his indecisiveness and last minute bequest.

Having spent about half of his adult life in Normandy and half in England, Edward must have known that these customs differed over the crucial question as to the revocability of bequests; yet it would appear that one of his last acts on earth was to put this difference to the test, thereby setting two of the most powerful and ambitious men in north-west Europe on a collision course.

Baxter, Stephen. “Edward the Confessor and the Succession Question.” Edward the Confessor: The Man and the Legend, edited by Richard Mortimer, Boydell and Brewer, 2009, pp. 77–118.

Even those who argue that Edward has always wanted William to succeed him do not consistently deny that the bequest happened. Eric John wrote a famously pro-Norman article defending William's claims, advancing a couple of arguments on the topic of Edward's last wishes. The first is based on Norman sources:

It is sufficient here to note that William did not deny Edward's deathbed donation but in effect says that it belies everything that had gone before.

John, Eric. "Edward the Confessor and the Norman succession." The English Historical Review 94.371 (1979): 241-267.

So here John does not disputed Edward named Harold his heir; he simply relays the argument that the promise to William takes priority. Another argument John advanced is semantical: he reasons that word choices in some of the chronicles implies Edward gave Harold the kingdom only temporarily for safe keeping until William arrives. So John does not so much argue against the bequest, as he attempts to rationalise it to fit the pro-William stance.

Ultimately, it appears only one historian of note is know to deny outright that Edward's bequest happened:

Only Trggvi J. Oleson has chosen to deny its occurrence . . . most historians studying the 1066 succession to the English throne simply accept the fact that Harold had been the designated heir to Edward for a very long time.

De Vries, Kelly. "Harold Godwinson in Wales: Military Legitimacy in Late Anglo-Saxon England." Abels, Richard P., and Bernard S. Bachrach. eds. The Normans and their Adversaries at War. Boydell Press, 2001.


There's a good reason for the consensus that Edward named Harold. All the contemporary sources of the time said Edward designated Harold - including both English and Norman records. In addition to the various Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, it appears in William of Poltiers' records. There as even an account of Edward the Confessor's deathbed words: the Vita Ædwardi Regis

Even the Norman sources do not deny the designation. If they address the issue directly, they accuse Harold of perjury for breaking his oath to support William's right to the crown, rather than of usurpation of the throne.

Szarmach, Paul E., M. Teresa Tavormina, and Joel T. Rosenthal, eds. Routledge Revivals: Medieval England: An Encyclopedia. Taylor & Francis, 1998.

The Normans were supporters of William's claims, and tried hard to airbrush Harold's kingship out of history after the Conquest. Harold's claim to the crown was principally based on being nominated as heir by the last king, which helped him win the election. If Edward's bequest had not happened, why wouldn't the Normal writers call it out? Why would they even admit Edward designated Harold?

"[Most historians] are convinced that as William of Poitiers, whose loyalty to duke is irrefutable, even records it, such a bequest must have indeed happened.

De Vries, Kelly. "Harold Godwinson in Wales: Military Legitimacy in Late Anglo-Saxon England." Abels, Richard P., and Bernard S. Bachrach. eds. The Normans and their Adversaries at War. Boydell Press, 2001.

The simplest explanation is that Edward did name Harold to succeed him.

Of course, in the absence of a tape recorder, nothing is proof beyond a shadow of doubt. Yet, history is the study of the recorded past. To dispute Edward's bequest, an argument should at least address what the primary sources say and explain any differences. Not just conjectures based on random websites.

  • If Edward loved Harold so very very much, why didn't he name him as successor before his deathbed? – JMS Dec 8 '17 at 2:19
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    @JMS From the answer: "Most historians studying the 1066 succession to the English throne simply accept the fact that Harold had been the designated heir to Edward for a very long time." - Professor Kelly DeVries. Love most likely had nothing to do with it. – Semaphore Dec 8 '17 at 2:22
  • I think Edward the Confessors' original preference was Edward the Exile, but he died in 1057 shortly after returning from Hungary (?). The exile's son, Edgar, was probably considered too young. – Lars Bosteen Dec 8 '17 at 9:49
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    @LarsBosteen Edward also never gave Edgar any substantial roles or landholdings. Whether out of his own volition or not, the Confessor apparently didn't groom Edgar to succeed himself. And of course preferring Edward in 1057 doesn't mean he didn't name Harold in 1066. – Semaphore Dec 8 '17 at 15:41
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    @Semaphore. "preferring Edward in 1057 doesn't mean he didn't name Harold in 1066" - agreed, I think Edward the Confessor probably did name Harold even though it seems he didn't much like him. – Lars Bosteen Dec 9 '17 at 1:40
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Excellent Question....

Short Answer..

It is not settled history and calls for both knowledge of King Edward the Confessor's relationship with the Godwin clan, and who that relationship had profoundly impacted his family, his life, and his reign. ** Given these facts, I seriously doubt King Edward would have reversed his life's work to keep the Godwin's from the throne, forgiven their terrorism, betrayal and murders perpetrated against his closest family members and endorsed their ascension to the throne.

On his death bed, to say Edward the Confessor wasn't close to the Godwin's clan who had long sought to control the throne was an understatement. The Godwin's were a powerful family and a political necessity for King Edwards rule. King Edward ended his exile in France which had begun when his father was overthrown when Edward was a child, by agreeing to take Godwin's daughter(Edgitha / Edith) as his queen. Godwin believing this agreement ensured the Godwin's bloodline would eventually control the throne, supported Edward's line being re-established to the monarchy. Beyond the marriage agreement however Godwin favored appointing a weak king such as Edward because it left his hands free to consolidate power, which he did. King Edward who agreed to the political marriage, is said to have never consummated the marriage; thus denying Godwin his prize. On his deathbed King Edward reportedly told Harold Godwinson his would be successor, that he gave his sister Edgitha back untouched, still a virgin. Such was Edwards discipline to deny the Godwin's the throne.

Godwin's had betrayed and helped to brutally torture and murder King Edwards younger brother Alfred Atheling. in 1036 They may have had a hand in imprisoning and torturing Edward's mother. During Edward's reign the Godwins harassed and intimidated Edwards advisors and ministers forcing them to flee court, dictating who King Edwards advisors and ministers were. King Edward had exiled the entire clan from the kingdom, after the Godwin's tried to appoint their ally to become Arch Bishop of Canterbury over the King's objections. The Godwin's military strength however allowed them to return the following year. The facts are the Godwin clan had been in open rebellion several times during King Edwards rule. King Edward was especially distant from Harold Godwinson who was in open rebellion of the throne just months before the king died. Harold Godwinson had attacked a then rival earldom over the King's excess orders not to, and installed his brother inlaw as earl, thus ensuring Harolds control over all three earldoms.

King Edward entire reign was spent trying to defend his authority and deny the Godwin bloodline his throne at great personal sacrifice. Why after all that would Edward have endorsed Harold or any Godwin to his throne?

Beyond that Harold Godwin did not need Edward's endorsement to become King. Harold Godwin had consolidated his power and had effective control over all three earldom's when King Edward died. The King was not a hereditary title back then, he was chosen by a wicken of his bannormen. Harold control of all three earldom's ensured his control over the wicken. The only reason for Harold to proclaim Edward's timely endorsement upon Edwards deathbed, was to delegitimize Edward's cousin William of Normandy ( William the Conquerer ). It was widely believed William had King Edwards endorsement, so much so that Harold had traveled to France the previous year to be knighted by William and pledge his loyalty.

Why would Edward who spent his entire reign defending and denying the Godwin's numerous attempts to claim the throne with his dyeing breath given the throne to his most hated nemesis, the Godwin's. The answer is he wouldn't. The facts are historians are mixed along cultural lines (largely because the partisan English and Norman sources disagree.) as to whether Edward the Confessor appointed his most powerful rival, some might say mortal enemy and nemesis; on his deathbed without any creditable witnesses or documentation his successor.

Longer Answer..

Edward the Confessor had good reason to hate the Godwin's.
see Edwards Early Years in Exile

  • The Godwins had helped to torture and murder his brother.

    Alfred (King Edwards younger brother) was captured by Godwin, Earl of Wessex who turned him over to Harold Harefoot. He had Alfred blinded by forcing red-hot pokers into his eyes to make him unsuitable for kingship, and Alfred died soon after as a result of his wounds. The murder is thought to be the source of much of Edward's later hatred for the Earl and one of the primary reasons for Godwin's banishment in autumn 1051.

  • They may have had a hand in imprisoning and torturing his mother (Queen Emma)

    He (King Edward the Confessor) therefore suffered the bishops to take cognizance of the cause in an assembly which they held at Winchester; and, in the mean time, the bishop was confined in that city, and Emma (the kings mother) in the royal nunnery of Farewell in Hampshire.

    Queen Emma walked blindfold and barefoot over nine red-hot ploughshares, laid in St. Swithin’s church in Winchester, without receiving the least hurt, so that when she was gone over them she asked how far she was from her purgation? Upon which her eyes were uncovered, and looking behind her upon the ploughshares which she had passed over, she burst into praises of God

  • Controlling King Edwards Advisors

    At home Earl Godwin, and some other ambitious spirits, complained he kept several Normans, whom he had brought over with him, about his person. But the holy king with great prudence brought them to reason, or obliged them to leave his dominions for a time, without bloodshed; so that the little clouds which began to gather in his time, were immediately scattered without embroiling the state.

Edward the Confessor the only king of England to be canonised, was a militarily weak king compared to his nobleman. Godwin, Earl of Wessex(Harold's father) was a power in the kingdom. So Edward and Godwin in an attempt to form an accommodation and avoid war, made a marriage agreement.

bartleby

Earl Godwin, whose immoderate power and wealth seemed to raise him above the level of his fellow-subjects, moved every engine to make the choice fall upon his daughter Edgitha, a lady totally unlike her father, being most remarkably virtuous and abstemious; for beauty, understanding,

King Edward the Confessor had the bloodline, would marry Godwin's daughter Edith of Wessex, and in that way Godwin's blood would rule England. This was a forced marriage because Edward would have been unlikely to become king without Godwin's support. Edward had also lost several brothers while his family had been out of power. For the Godwin's who were not strong enough to take the throne on their own, it was a good match because they favored a weak king who could not check their authority without significant aid. The marriage included the unprecedented step at the time of having the Queen actually crowned, this had not been done in hundreds of years, clearly an attempt to cement her on the thrown.

Only Edward following the letter of the agreement saw a loop hole in this forced marriage, declined to sleep with the queen Edith of Wessex and the marriage was childless. Thus Edward the Confessor goes down in history as a very religious man so religious, he declined to sleep with his own wife for his entire 19 year marriage. At one point Edward put his wife Edith in a nunnery only to have her restored to the thrown by the Godwin's by force of arms..

source

The marriage produced no children. Later ecclesiastical writers claimed that this was either because Edward took a vow of celibacy, or because he refused to consummate the marriage because of his antipathy to Edith's family, the Godwins.

bartleby

(King Edward the Confessor on his death bed)Commending her(Queen Edith) to her brother Harold, and certain other lords, he (the king) declared he left her an untouched virgin. He calmly expired on the 5th of January, in 1066, having reigned twenty-three years, six months, and twenty-seven days, in the sixty-fourth year of his age. How would you feel if on his deathbed your brother in law returned your sister to your care, proclaiming she's still a virgin, I never touched her after two decades of marriage?

Anyway.. Godwinson clan fractured after the death of the father Godwin in 1053.

bartleby

The following year was remarkable for the death of Earl Godwin, who fell down dead whilst he was at supper with the king at Winchester, 12 or, according to Brompton, 13 at Windsor, in 1053. Ralph of Disse, Brompton, and others say, that, thinking the king still harboured a suspicion of his having been the contriver of his brother Alfred’s death, he wished that if he was guilty he might never swallow a morsel of meat which he was putting into his mouth; and that he was choked with it.

Edith the fourth wealthiest person in the Kingdom in 1066 behind the king, Archbishop of Canterbury, and her brother Harold according to the Doomsday book. So she had become a political force, who potentially started to favored her other brother Tostig Godwinson, over brother Harold Godwinson. At least King Edward and Queen Edith sided with Tostig in a confrontation with Harold.

Edith's brother Tostig, 1055 had been appointment as Earl of Northumbria with Edith's and Harold's help. 1065 just months before King Edward would die, Harold unseated his brother Tostig in favor of his brother in law, Morcar. When Tostig got this news he was reportedly hunting with King Edward.

source

Tostig charged Harold with conspiring with the rebels(who had unseated him as Earl of Northumbria), a charge which Harold purged himself of with a public oath. King Edward demanded that the rebels be suppressed, but to his and Queen Edith's fury Harold and the English thegns refused to enforce the order. Harold's brother in law, Morcar was confirmed as earl and brother Tostig forced into exile.

So why is it important historically whether or not Edward the Confessor tapped his brother in Law Harold Godwinson as his successor. Harold didn't need the endorsement. The english throne was not passed down through heredity, nor were kings allowed to name their successors. English monarchs were chosen by an assemblage of lords in the kingdom. The most powerful of these lords were the earls. When King Edward had become king their were three powerful earldoms in the English Kingdom. The Godwin's controlled only one. When King Edward died in 1066, the Godwins had used their position close to the throne to placed loyalists in the other two earldoms. So Harold always had the votes to be come king. Indeed the Wicking voted Harold Godwinson in as king the very next day after King Edward the Confessor died unanimously.

The reason why the King Edwards donation was important was because there was a very inconvenient historical rumor going around that King Edward had already named William of Normandy, his cousin as his successor. Why would he do this?(*) In fact Harold Godwinson had traveled to Normandy years before Edwards Death, some have said to swear allegiance to William of Normandy. The historical truth is that Harold Godwinson while in Normany was knighted by William, and also did take a pledge of fidelity to William of Normany, the exact wording being lost to history though. Truth or not of Williams claim / donation by Edward the Confessor, Harold needed it as a way of superseding whatever belief Edward of Normandy did have in 1066. Especially after Harolds perjury.

So Harold needed the Donation of Edward not to be king, but to cast doubts on the legitimacy of his rival.


(*) King Edwards family lost the throne to invaders when his father Harold the Unready was invaded. King Edward was round 10 years old at the time. Edward and the Kings family fled England for Normandy where his mother's family ruled. Edward likely spent most of the next 20 years in Normandy with his mother's people until his eventual return to the throne. So Edward had spent about the same amount of time living with the Normans in France as he had on the Throne.


I think King Edward was a pretty crafty man. He realized in life he wasn't strong enough to be king without some serious sacrifices and political accommodations. I don't think such a man who got what he wanted through self discipline and pragmatism; would have deluded himself that he was strong enough to determine his successor other than denying the Godwin clan a legitimate successor.

I think King Edward didn't care for the Godwin's. They had tortured and murdered his family members. They had been the threat and obstacle to his reign. I think King Edward would have thought it poetic justice for William the Bastard( soon to be Conqueror) to come and smite Harold Godwinson(1/51066 - 10/14/1066), the last Anglo Saxon King of England.

If you are interested in reading more about King Edward the Confessor and the Godwin/Godwinsons. Read about the crisis of (1051-1052) The Godwin's tried to put their man in as the Archbishop of Canterbury and Edward rejected him, and banished the Godwin's for a time. They came back though the next year and jammed it down his throat.

What was King Edward the Confessors mindset on his death bead.. We can't tell of coarse. But one thing which does cast a little light on it, would be his death bed vision. the Vita Edward Regis which if it is to be believed, Edward has an apocalyptic vision where the evil corrupt English kingdom which he had ruled, is consumed in fire by a foreign invasion, which according to the document; Brings a smile to Edwards face right before he dies.

First about the claim there is a consensus on what happened at Edwards death bed.

Dr Nelson - Medieval records specialist at U.K.'s The National Archives, specialists in the records from 11th-13th centuries biography source

The death of Edward the Confessor and the conflicting claims to the English Crown

article
(1) We simply cannot say for sure whether the deathbed bequest took place

article
(2) The question of Edward’s intentions has troubled historians for centuries – largely because the partisan English and Norman sources disagree about what happened at certain crucial moments. Thus to a great extent, historians have chosen which sources they agree with, or tried to synthesize the arguments in some way......

Brandon Huebner

(3) Some believe that Edward promised William the throne, since William continued to push for his own succession. Edward, however, was unclear as to who his successor should be, an omission that had an enormous effect on England’s history.

A Companion to the Early Middle Ages: Britain and ireland c.500 - c.1100

(4) Edwards death in 1066 was ultimately so disastrous for the English kingdom because the lack of consensus and the fragmentations of English identity meant that there were so many possible kings after him.


Asked by Orangesandlemons **@JMS that's a contradiction: if it weakened Williams,, it by definition strengthened Harold's. And if it didn't strengthen Harold's why wouldn't Edward make it if he wanted to weaken William's? **

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I said it didn't strengthen Harold's claim to the throne. Harold controlled all three English Earldoms and thus controlled the whicken which selected who would ascend to the throne. Harold was going to be the next king whether King Edward endorsed him or not.

Yes King Edward's deathbed flip flop endorsement of Harold, suspect as it was, was directed at Edward's substantial claim to the throne.

  1. Harold had traveled to Normandy the previous year and pledged his loyalty and allegiance to William as the rightful King. Now Harold was going back on that pledge claiming his previous pledge of fidelity was coerced.

  2. It was and still is widely believed King Edward favored William of Normandy his cousin to succeed him.

  3. William, a bastard cousin of King Edward was still a closer blood relation than Harold Godwinson, King Edward's brother in law.

  4. Also unlike the history of the Godwin family torturing, betraying, rebelling, and murding King Edwards family members, and of coarse open rebellion against Edward's rule; Edward's Norman cousins were loyal.

  5. King Edward's Normand cousins sheltered, protected and supported King Edward and his family when they were forced to live in Exile after the death of Edwards father for years. They had demonstrated their friendship and loyalty to Edward in his time of greatest need.

  6. Finally Harold Godwinson had attacked and dispossessed a rival earl against the King's command just months prior to King Edward's death.

  • Much of what you wrote is indeed factual albeit poorly sourced, but your answer to the actual question - whether Edward named Harold as his successor - was entirely a supposition based on your conjecture that Edward wanted to spite Harold on his deathbed. This however flies in the face of contemporary records including the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, the Vita Ædwardi Regis, as well as the writings of the Norman partisan William of Poitiers. If you dispute the historical record, you should at least attempt to explain why those records should not be believed. – Semaphore Dec 8 '17 at 19:58
  • If Edward hated Godwin and Harold so much, why not make a last minute (death-bed) bequest in expectation of a Norman \victory? – Pieter Geerkens Sep 18 '18 at 22:32
  • Harold Godwin controlled all three earldoms. He had the support in the wicken to become king without Edwards endorsement. The only purpose for the endorsement was to weaken William's claim to the English thrown by dissuading the wide spread belief that King Edward had endorsed William the Conquerer, His cousin who's family had sheltered Edward and his family while they lived in exile in France. King Edward knew Harold Godwin was going to claim his throne, how could he not? King Edward's endorsement would have thus had the opposite effect, which is why Harold Godwinson claimed it. – JMS Sep 18 '18 at 23:26
  • If you're going down the speculation route, why not claim he named him successor to ensure that he'd personally have the problems with William? – Orangesandlemons Sep 20 '18 at 7:31
  • @Orangesandlemons as Dr Nelson from the UK's national archives states, this question is not settled history. Historians disagree based upon partisan bias. The question calls for facts and interpretation. The facts are that Williams supposed endorsement of Harold, did not strengthen Harold's claim to the throne, it only served only to weaken William of Normandy. The facts are that such an endorsement, without any creditable evidence to support it, benefited the family who had murdered and tortured Edward's family who Edward had been actively opposing throughout his reign. – JMS Sep 20 '18 at 17:34

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