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Memoirs of the Reformers – Nicolas Ridley

Select Memoirs of the Reformers

Bishop Ridley the most learned Reformer.

Nicolas Ridley

OF all our English martyrs, bishop Ridley has been esteemed by far the most learned. He was born at Willymondswyke in Northumberland, of an ancient and very worthy family. He took his grammatical education at Newcastle upon Tyne, from which, about the year 1518, he was removed to Pembrokehall in Cambridge, at the expense of his uncle Dr. Robert Ridley. Here he soon acquired a great proficiency in the Latin and Greek tongues, and the other learning of that period. His reputation for learning procured him the friendship and esteem of both universities; and in the beginning of 1524, the masters and fellows of university college in Oxford invited him to accept of an exhibition, founded by Walter Skyrley, bishop of Durham; which he declined. The next year he took his degrees of master, and was appointed by the college as their general agent.

His uncle, observing the rapid progress he was making, was now willing to afford him the advantage of travel, and the improvement of foreign universities; and his studies being now directed to divinity, he sent him for some time among the doctors of the Sarbonne at Paris, which was then the most celebrated university in Europe. After this he also remained a short time among the professors of Lovain. Having remained abroad during the years 1527, 1528, 1529, he returned to Cambridge, where he pursued his theological studies, and applied himself to the reading of the scriptures as his surest guide. There is a walk in the orchard at Pembrokehall which has still the name of Ridley’s walk. Here he learned to repeat, without book, almost all the epistles in Greek. His behavior was truly obliging and pious, without hypocrisy or monkish austerity; he would sometimes shoot with the bow, play at tennis, and mix familiarly in the harmless amusements of the place. He was senior proctor of the university when the important question of the pope’s supremacy came before them, to be examined upon the authority of scripture; and their resolution—That the bishop of Rome had no more authority or jurisdiction derived from God, in this kingdom of England, than any other foreign bishop—was signed, in name of the university, by Simon Heynes, vice-chancellor; Nicholas Ridley, Richard Wilks, proctors. He lost his uncle in 1536; but the education he had received, and the proficiency he had acquired, recommended him to another and greater patron, Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury, who appointed him his domestic chaplain, and collated him to the vicarage of Herne in east Kent. Here he gave his testimony from the pulpit against the act of the six articles, and instructed his charge in the pure doctrines of the gospel, so far as he yet understood them. Transubstantiation was, however, still an article of his belief. During his retirement at this place, he read a little treatise, written seven hundred years before, by Bertram, a monk of Cerbey. The perusal of this treatise first opened Ridley’s eyes, and determined him to search the scriptures, and examine the doctrine of the primitive fathers respecting this article. The result of his researches he communicated to Cranmer, and both were convinced that the doctrine was novel and heretical.

After remaining two years at Herne, he was chosen master of Pembrokehall, and appointed chaplain to the king. And the cathedral church of Canterbury being made collegiate, he obtained the fifth prebendal stall. The courage and zeal he manifested in promoting the reformation was such, that he was considered, next to Cranmer, its greatest supporter amongst the clergy. In the succeeding reign of Edward VI., when a royal visitation was resolved on throughout the kingdom, he attended the visitors of the northern circuit, as their preacher, to instruct that part of the kingdom in the doctrines of the reformation. “His character, at this time (says Dr. Ridley, his biographer), was that of a celebrated disputant, a favorite preacher, undoubting in the article of transubstantiation; a zealous scripturalist, and particularly well acquainted with the fathers. He was made chaplain to Edward VI., and consecrated bishop of Rochester during the year 1547. He was translated to London on the deprivation of Bonner in 1550, and expired in the flames at Oxford in 1555.”

The church of Rome had taught the people to believe, that the mere action of receiving the sacrament was of itself sufficient for the justification of the receiver, unless he himself prevented it; and this seems to have occasioned the homilies relative to the ground of justification before God. Concerning the real presence of Christ in the sacrament, public disputations were held, in both universities, between the reformers and the papists; and Ridley, with some other delegates, were sent to Cambridge, where a disputation was held for three successive days. The propositions to be established by the protestants, and opposed by their antagonists, were: That transubstantiation cannot be found in the plain and manifest words of scripture: That neither can it be collected there from by rational inference and deduction; and that, as the scriptures are silent on this point, so neither is it confirmed by the consent of the primitive fathers; and that therefore there is no other sacrifice and oblation in the Lord’s supper, than a remembrance of Christ’s death and thanksgiving. The debate was summed up with much candor and learning by bishop Ridley; but decidedly against the corporeal presence. Ridley is allowed to have been master of that subject more than any man of the age; for having studied Bertram’s book of the ninth century, as formerly noticed, he came to the conclusion: That transubstantiation was not an original doctrine of the church, but had been introduced with other errors in the latter ages. This discovery he communicated to his friend Cranmer, and both set themselves to examine the matter with more than common care. In order to this, they made large collections from the ancient fathers, to prove the novelty as well as the absurdity of the opinion. They discovered, that all the lofty and swelling expressions to be found in Chrysostom, and other ancient writers on this subject, were merely strains and figures of eloquence to raise the devotion of the people, though following ages had built their opinion on these expressions, and the more readily believed them, as they appeared above all belief. But this opinion of the real presence having been so generally received in England for three hundred years, these eminent reformers went to work with great caution, and by gradually proceeding in their public discussions, afforded time for the people to consider the subject more leisurely, and of course more effectually.

Ridley, with the archbishop, the bishops of Ely, Worcester, Westminster, Chichester, and Lincoln; Sir William Petrie, Sir Thomas Smith, Dr. Cox, Dr. May, and others, were put into commission to search after all Anabaptists, heretics, and contemnors of the common prayer. This measure was adopted in consequence of information, that, together with the many protestant strangers that were come into England from Germany, several Anabaptists had arrived, who were disseminating their errors, and making proselytes. These men, as bishop Burnet informs us, building upon the principle held forth by Luther, that scripture is the only rule of faith, rejected all deductions there from, however obvious and unavoidable the inference might be; and the baptism of infants not being mentioned in scripture, they therefore rejected. The Anabaptists were not all of the same opinion, but differed both in doctrine and practice; some were moderate, others extravagant and fierce. The opinions of the latter may be partly gathered from some tradesmen in London, who abjured before the commission; such as, That a regenerate man could not sin; for if the outward man commit sin, the inward man sinneth not: That there was no trinity of persons in the godhead: That Christ was only a prophet, and not God: That all we had from Christ was his wise teaching and holy example; and that the baptism of infants was of no utility, as it was performed before the subject thereof could possibly believe in the doctrines of the religion into which he was thereby intended to be initiated. Among the people who held these, and similar tenets, was Joan Bocher, commonly called Joan of Kent. This woman appeared before the commission, and behaved with unparalleled obstinacy, vindicating her opinion with a mixture of ill nature and contempt, treating all the means used to reclaim her with scorn. She was accordingly pronounced an heretic, and delivered over to the secular arm. Ridley was still at Rochester; for the archbishop, John Smith, William Cook dean of the arches, Hugh Latimer, and Richard Lyel, were only named in the sentence. The king could scarcely be prevailed upon to sign the warrant for her burning; but Cranmer, among many things, represented that it would bespeak a strange indifference toward religion, to overlook the honor of God, by neglecting to put the laws in execution, framed for that particular purpose; while those laws that related to the honor of the king were executed with so much zeal and severity. However, the archbishop was not so intent on her punishment, as he had been for passing the sentence. He and Ridley labored a whole year to persuade her of her errors, but to no purpose; at last she was burnt in May 1550. A similar sentence was executed against George Van Parre, a Dutchman, for denying the divinity of our Saviour. It is mentioned here for the sake of connection, though it did not happen till April 1551, on the 6th of which month, Ridley, being one of the commissioners, signed his sentence of excommunication. Mild and gentle as he certainly was to every modest inquirer, however much in error, he would not relax or break through the existing laws to indulge an obstinate blasphemer.

The protestants were charged by the papists with a disregard to all religion, and that they could endure heresies, in every sectary, with the greatest indifference; while the most canonical truths held forth by the Romish church they treated with derision and ridicule. During the preceding winter, it was in~ agitation to unite the reformers, both at home and abroad, into one great body. Bullinger and Calvin, with others, in a letter to king Edward, proposed making him their defender, tendering, at the same time, their services and assistance in all cases of danger. The Roman fathers, on learning what was going forward, became alarmed, and sent two emissaries from Amsterdam into England, with orders to pass themselves for Anabaptists, and inculcate the belief of a fifth monarchy. A letter, dated 1549, was also dispatched by the same fathers, from Delf in Holland, to two English bishops; Gardiner of Winchester was one of them, and probably Bonner might be the other. In this letter they apprize the bishops of the approach of these incendiaries, and request them to countenance and protect them in case they should meet with any opposition; adding, that it was left for them, and some others, known to be well affected to the mother church, to assist in the present crisis. This letter was found, by Sir H. Sidney, in queen Elizabeth’s closet, among some letters of queen Mary’s; and the knowledge, or even the suspicion of these intrigues, might perhaps occasion the severity thus exercised against these Anabaptists. It was owing, however, as much to the ignorance as to the vice of the age, that the reformers, who had suffered so much from the persecuting spirit of Rome, had retained, along with much of her superstition, part also of her persecuting policy; opposed as it evidently was, not only to the mild economy of grace, but also to the justice necessary for promoting the peace and happiness of society.

Some time during the summer Ridley was called to preside at a disputation, appointed to be publicly held at Cambridge, relative to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Two positions were agreed upon as the subjects of disputation: 1st, That transubstantiation cannot be proved by the plain and manifest words of scripture, nor fairly deduced there from, nor yet by the consent of the ancient fathers for the last thousand years. 2d, That in the sacrament of the supper there is nose other oblation or sacrifice than one only remembrance of Christ’s death, and of thanksgiving.

The first disputation took place on Thursday the 21st of June—Dr. Madew of Clarehall, respondent, maintaining the above positions: Dr. Glyn, Messrs Langdale, Sedgwick, and Young, opponents. The second disputation was held on Monday the 24th—Dr. Glyn, respondent, maintaining the contrary positions: Messrs Perne, Grindal, Gest, and Pilkington, opponents. The third was on Thursday the 27th—Mr. Perne, respondent, maintaining the positions: Messrs Parker, Pollard, Vavasor, and Young, opponents. Between the disputations at Oxford and those at Cambridge there was one difference observed: Peter Martyr admitted a change in the elements; and Langdale, one of the opponents, asked wherein this change was effected, supposing it to be admitted, Whether was it wrought in the substances or in the accidents, or in both, or in neither? Ridley interposed, by saying, There is no change either of the substances or of the accidents, notwithstanding that the sanctifying and setting apart of the bread and wine adds te the original accidents others which they did not formerly possess.

After the disputation was closed, the bishop determined against transubstantiation on these five principal grounds: 1st, The authority, majesty, and verity of holy scripture: “I will not henceforth drink of the fruit of the vine.” St. Paul and St. Luke calls it bread after consecration. They speak of breaking, which corresponds with bread, but literally cannot with the body of Christ. It was to be done in remembrance of him. “This is the bread that came down from heaven;” but the body of Christ came not from heaven. “It is the spirit that quickeneth, the flesh profiteth nothing.” 2d, The most certain testimony of the ancient catholic fathers, of whom he produced Dionysius, Ignatius, Irenseus, Tertullian, Chrysostom, Cyprian, Theodoret, Gelasius, Austin, Cyril, Isychius, and Bertram, who call it bread after consecration, sacramental bread, a figure of the body of Christ; and expressly declare, that it still continues to be bread, and that both elements continue to be. as much as ever very bread and wine. 3d, The nature of the sacrament, in which the symbols represent the like spiritual effects; which, in the sacrament of the supper, are unity, nutrition, and conversion: The unity of the grains make one bread, as the unity of the members make the one mystical body of Christ. The substance of these grains nourish our bodies, and with great propriety represent the nourishment of our souls. Those therefore that take away the similitude between the bread and the body of Christ, destroy the very nature of a sacrament, as there can remain nothing to represent our being turned into Christ’s mystical body, if the bread be not converted into the substance of our bodies. 4th, That transubstantiation destroys one of the natures of Christ, because they who bold to the corporeal presence in the sacrament, destroy the reality of his human nature. Eutychas allowed the divine nature, but denied the human nature of Christ; and they who defend the ubiquity of Christ’s human nature, ascribe to it the attributes that alone belong to the divine. The fifth ground is, That Christ is ascended into heaven; and although, by his essential deity and invisible grace, he is with his people always, and his church, to the end of the world; yet, with respect to his manhood, he says, You shall not have me always with you.

Against the oblation of Christ in the sacrament, he produced from scripture an overwhelming mass of evidence, together with that of a number of the fathers of the catholic church, all which, said he, are sufficient at this time for a scholastic determination of these matters.

Ridley assisted Cranmer in the first edition of the common prayer. He was ranked with Cranmer, Hooper, Ferrar, and others, denominated the zealous protestants, in opposition to Gardiner, Bonner, and Tunstal, who were called zealous papists. Ridley had his injunctions for the visitation of his diocese printed, which show the progress then made in the reformation in England. They enjoin, that none should be admitted to the communion but such as were ready to confess the articles of the creed at the request of the curate: That the homilies should be read orderly, without omitting any part of them: That the common prayer should be read in every church on Wednesday’s and Friday’s: That none should maintain purgatory, invocation of saints, the six articles, bead rolls, pilgrimages, relics, rubrics, primers, the justification of man by his own works, holy bread, psalms, ashes, candles, creeping to the cross, hallowing of fire or altars, or such like abuses.

The king was under a visible decay, and Ridley preached before him toward the end of his sickness; and having in one of his sermons enlarged on the duty of charity, and its happy consequences, the king was so moved with what he had heard, that after sermon he sent for the bishop, and desiring him to sit down and be covered. His majesty ran over the heads of the discourse, and said, his lordship must give him some directions how to acquit himself of his duty. The bishop, astonished at so much tender (sensibility in so young a prince, burst into tears; but requested time to consider the channel in which the royal charity could be most advantageously directed, and that he might be permitted to consult with the lord mayor and aldermen on that subject. His majesty accordingly wrote them by the bishop, who returned with a scheme of three foundations: One for the sick and wounded; another for those that were unwillingly idle, or who were mad; and a third for orphans. His majesty therefore endowed St. Bartholomew’s hospital for the first, bride fell for the second, and Greyfriar’s church for the third. King Edward died in 1553, and was succeeded by his sister Mary, whose reign was one continued course of tyranny, bigotry, and persecution, by which the land was polluted with blood. She was a rigid papist, and caused lady Jean Gray, who openly professed the protestant religion, to be beheaded, though only about seventeen years of age, and one of the most accomplished ladies in her time, notwithstanding that Edward had bequeathed her the crown by his last will.

The duke of Northumberland and his son, the duke of Norfolk and his brother, were also beheaded for attempting to put this excellent lady on the throne. The infamous Gardiner, and the execrable Bonner, she released from prison, and appointed them to pull down the reformation, which her brother had brought to a considerable state of improvement. She introduced the mass, persecuted the protestants to the death, and reestablished the idolatrous worship of Rome, contrary to the will or inclination of three fourths of the population of England. Gardiner was the despicable tool in the hand of this ignorant, superstitious, and peevish lady, to extirpate from the land the religion which she called heresy; and his orders to purge the church of married clergymen were so pressing, and their execution so prompt, that of sixteen thousand inferior clergymen, twelve thousand were expelled their livings for the crime of legitimate marriage.

In order to force the protestants within the pale of the Roman church, Gardiner thought it best to begin with the most popular bishops and divines, judging, by his own shifting principles, that they would become an easy conquest, and that their example would influence the people; but he was much mistaken in his calculation, for bishops Latimer, Hooper, Ridley, and Ferrar, who were imprisoned, tried, and condemned, yet offered mercy, and even preferment in the church, providing they would recant and join the Romanists, boldly held the confession of their faith without wavering, and ultimately sealed their faith and obedience to the laws of Christ with their blood; which brought the Romish bishops to shame and popular disgrace.

The convocation was adjourned and removed to Oxford, where a public disputation was appointed between the popish and protestant adherents, to be held before the whole university. To give a color of justice to this conference, archbishop Cranmer, bishops Ridley and Latimer, were sent from the tower to the prison of Oxford to support the doctrines of the reformation, where they were ill accommodated, denied the use of their books and papers, or the conversation of one another, and their mutual assistance in managing the controversy, as it was so arranged that each had his separate day. To each of these three prelates, a committee from the convocation and the university were opposed, against whom they had to defend their opinions single-handed. This disputation, says Fuller, was intended for a prologue to the tragical death of these distinguished individuals, as it were to dry their bodies for the fire, that the flames might be the brighter.

Mary’s government and clergy have been charged with the most infernal cruelty, injustice, and public malversation. The queen was married to Philip of Spain; and imagining herself pregnant, declared she could Hot possibly be delivered till all the heretics, with which the goals in and about London were filled, should be delivered to the flames. While thus the council and clergy of England were become the willing executioners of the vengeance meditated by this infernal fury, the nation seemed in one general blaze of persecution, Commissions for the mock trial of Ridley, Latimer, and Cranmer, were directed to three bishops and several others; but the imprisoned prelates, at their different appearances, refused to acknowledge the papal authority. Cranmer was brought forward the first; the next was Ridley, who began with a solemn declaration, that although his present opinions were different from what they had once been, yet he had not changed them from any worldly consideration, but purely from the conviction of his mind, that he had discovered the truth; and seeing he was now called upon to maintain the cause of God, and the verity of his word, he protested that he should be permitted to add to, or alter, any argument as he should find it necessary; and hoped, as he had to contend against a whole committee, that he would not be interrupted or assailed by more than one at a time. All this was promised, but not complied with; for he was not only assailed by the whole committee, one after another, but sometimes by four or five of them at once. Still he maintained his ground, till his adversaries, having shot off their last arrows, the prolocutor put an end to the dispute, by saying, You see the obstinate, vainglorious, crafty, and inconstant mind of this man; but you also see the force of truth cannot be shaken, therefore cry oil! with me, Truth has the victory!

The three bishops were adjudged to be obstinate heretics, and declared no longer members of the church; to which they all objected. Ridley told the commissioners, that though he was not of their company, yet he doubted not but his name was written in a better place, whether their sentence would afford him a more early admission than the course of nature seemed to indicate. The prisoners were conducted to their separate prisons, where Ridley wrote a letter to the prolocutor, complaining of the noisy and irregular manner in which the dispute was carried on, whereby he was prevented from making a full defense, or of urging his arguments at length, being overpowered with clamor, and the cowardly abuse of four or five opponents at a time. He desired, however, to have a copy of what the notaries had set down; but the request was not granted.

Ridley and Latimer refused to recant, or to renounce their reason on the unintelligible jargon of a popish Eucharist, the common watchword in those days for murder; so they were delivered over to the secular arm. The bishops of Gloucester, Lincoln, and Bristol, were sent to Oxford to proceed against them. When their commission was read, and it appeared that they were to proceed in the name of the pope, Ridley put on his cap, and refused to pay any reverence to those who acted under that authority; Latimer also protested against the papal authority; and being both accused of the opinions they maintained in the public schools a year and a half before, they were allowed till next morning to consider whether they would retract. Next morning both adhered to the answers they had already made, and accordingly were pronounced obstinate heretics, degraded from their orders, and consigned over to the secular power to be punished.

Every possible method was tried upon Ridley to persuade him to receive the queen’s mercy; which he rejected, and a warrant was sent down for the execution of him and Latimer. Accordingly, on the 16th of October 1555, they suffered in the ditch opposite to Baliol college. When they came up to the stake, they embraced one another very affectionately; and Ridley, with an air of peculiar satisfaction, said to Latimer, cheer up your heart brother, God will either assuage the fury of the flames, or afford strength to endure it. He then returned to the stake, and falling on his knees, kissed it, and prayed fervently for a short space; after which, preparing to speak to the multitude, some persons ran up to him and stopped his mouth. After being stripped, he stood on a stone by the stake, and offered up the following prayer: “O heavenly Father, I give thee hearty thanks that thou hast called me to confess the truths of thy holy word, and maintain the doctrines of grace even unto death. I beseech thee, Lord God, to have mercy on this realm of England, and deliver it from all its enemies.” A Mr. Smith had delivered a long and very abusive sermon, to which they were not permitted to make any answer, unless they would recant. Ridley replied to this proposal, that he never would deny his Lord, nor the truths of which he was fully persuaded: so let the will of God be done. He said he had received fines, when bishop of London, for leases which were now voided, and requested that the queen might give orders, either that the leases might be made good, or the fines restored to the tenants out of the effects he had left behind him, which were more than sufficient for that purpose. After this they were ordered to fit themselves for the stake. As the smith was knocking in the staple that held the chain, he said, knock it hard, good man, for the flesh will have its course. Some gunpowder was hanged to their bodies to hasten their death, and the fire put to the wood. The powder took fire with the first flame, which put Latimer instantly out of pain; but there was so much wood thrown where Ridley was, that the flame could not break through, so that his legs were almost consumed before it was observed, when a passage for the flame was opened, which soon put an end to his life, in the fifty-fifth year of his age.

The station which both these martyrs had held in the church, their exemplary lives, their benevolent disposition, their age, and the patience, meekness, and fortitude of their behavior in passing through this fiery ordeal, raised the commiseration of the spectators, and sent them home in silent indignation at the actors and abettors of such inhuman cruelty. Ridley’s fine parts and acquirements in all the branches of literature, necessary for a divine, gave him the first rank in the clerical profession; and the purity of his life corresponded with his knowledge. He was of an. easy and obliging temper; and though he had spirit to support his character, and do himself justice with the great and powerful, he was always ready to forgive injuries or offences. His zeal for religion was never manifested by promoting severities against those who held opinions different from his own, but in diligently explaining the matters that appeared to be misunderstood, and shewing their foundation in scripture and antiquity. The grace of his Master was not only shewn in the candor and charity of his sentiments, but also in kind and beneficent offices to those who differed from him in their opinions. He was a benefactor to the poor and the oppressed; he maintained Heath, the deprived bishop of Worchester, for a year and a half, in the same splendor as though Fulhamhouse had been his own; and Bonner’s mother, who merited nothing on her own account, dined always at his table so long as her son was held prisoner in the tower. The reformation was greatly promoted by his learning, zeal, and active exertions while he lived, and perhaps more so by his death in its defense. In England, as everywhere else, the ancient observation has been verified, that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. And the magnanimity evinced by these good men, during this period of persecuting barbarity, led to consequences the very reverse of those anticipated by their adversaries. The cruelties exercised towards these innocent and unresisting victims, set all the powers of commiserating sensibility in motion, which, like a stream of electricity, rushed from bosom to bosom. The terrors of power were lost in the triumph of the martyrs, and every attempt to put the sufferers to shame recoiled on their disappointed persecutors. So much was this the case, that Gardiner, the insolent and browbeating bishop of Winchester, began’ to take shame to himself for wallowing in blood to so little purpose; and that he might screen himself from the general execration, left that staunch bloodhound Bonner, bishop of London, to play off the most abhorrent parts of this infernal tragedy. But even Bonner himself turned cool; and that he might not bear alone the infamy poured upon him, not only from every corner of England, but from most of the nations of Europe, he brought Philip and Mary on the theatre, that as they were the original instigators, so they might come in for their share of merited renown; and in all probability the early death of Mary saved her from the mortification of becoming a queen without subjects, as she exhibited no symptoms whatever of returning moderation.

We shall conclude the life of this eminent divine, and inflexible martyr, with a quotation from Dr. Ridley, his friend and learned biographer. “Bishop Ridley (says he) was gentle to tender consciences; but wherever he found that .the will was in fault from vanity, malice, or obstinacy, he set himself with great steadfastness to reduce them to reasonable obedience. With respect to himself, he was a man of humility, much given to prayer and contemplation. Ever careful of the best interests of his family, he was assiduous in their instruction; he provided every one of them who could read with a New Testament, and even hired them to learn select passages by heart. So soon as he arose and had dressed himself, he retired for about half an hour to his private devotion; after which, unless interrupted by other business, he continued at his studies till ten, when he came to family worship, and there read a lecture, beginning with the Acts of the Apostles, and so went regularly through Paul’s epistles. In person, he was small of stature, but great in learning, and profoundly read in divinity. Among several things that he wrote were these: A Treatise concerning Images not to be set up nor worshipped in churches—A brief declaration of the Lord’s Supper.—A Treatise of the blessed Sacrament.—A piteous Lamentation over the miserable state of” the Church of England on the introduction of Popery.—A Comparison between the comfortable Doctrines of the Gospel and the Traditions of the Popish Religion.—He had a hand in compiling the Common Prayerbook, as also in several disputations and conferences about matters of religion.

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