TRAVEL NORTH - 21: HOME TO THE MIGHTY - Middleham Castle, Watching O'er Dale and Fell

A stronghold that became a palace, residence of a king

Reconstruction of Middleham Castle in its heyday, a stronghold adapted for luxury living with feasting hall and all 'mod cons'
Reconstruction of Middleham Castle in its heyday, a stronghold adapted for luxury living with feasting hall and all 'mod cons' | Source
Middleham Castle from the south -  evident from the foreground is Middleham's modern role as a training centre for racehorses, a role Richard would have endorsed heartily
Middleham Castle from the south - evident from the foreground is Middleham's modern role as a training centre for racehorses, a role Richard would have endorsed heartily | Source
Seen from the west, Middleham Castle with some of the four-legged residents that keep the name of Middleham to the fore in racing circles
Seen from the west, Middleham Castle with some of the four-legged residents that keep the name of Middleham to the fore in racing circles | Source
 This is just one of many English Heritage castle sites in Yorkshire. Amonst others are Helmsley, Pickering, Scarborough and Richmond
This is just one of many English Heritage castle sites in Yorkshire. Amonst others are Helmsley, Pickering, Scarborough and Richmond | Source

A strong link to Richard III, 'this glorious son of Yorke'

Richard III boar emblem replica
Richard III boar emblem replica | Source
Richard III waxwork on Monkbar at York - last time I was in York (May 2015) it had been removed from its site outside the Richard III Museum
Richard III waxwork on Monkbar at York - last time I was in York (May 2015) it had been removed from its site outside the Richard III Museum | Source

A handy, slim publication - I've got a copy - from English Heritage, that doesn't burden you with unnecessary detail. The subject matter is the castle. The history is included insofar as it has a depth of bearing on the fabric of the structure and its present state

Around Middleham and the castle

Black Bull Hotel to the left on the way into Middleham from Bedale or Masham, just one of a number of fine hotels in this North Yorkshire market town
Black Bull Hotel to the left on the way into Middleham from Bedale or Masham, just one of a number of fine hotels in this North Yorkshire market town
To the west at nearby Coverham Hall, Coverdale, the Forbidden Corner - lose yourself in the fantastic, but book ahead
To the west at nearby Coverham Hall, Coverdale, the Forbidden Corner - lose yourself in the fantastic, but book ahead
Middleham Castle reconstruction of the chapel, the 'soul' of the stronghold
Middleham Castle reconstruction of the chapel, the 'soul' of the stronghold
Drawing of Middleham Castle's courtyard in its heyday - you can see the clean lines of the main and outer buildings in this view
Drawing of Middleham Castle's courtyard in its heyday - you can see the clean lines of the main and outer buildings in this view
Reconstruction of the Great Hall where the lord and his noble guests would celebrate successes. At religious festivals - Easter and Christmas - commoners would be invited to share the bounty
Reconstruction of the Great Hall where the lord and his noble guests would celebrate successes. At religious festivals - Easter and Christmas - commoners would be invited to share the bounty
The gatehouse, somewhat modified over the hears, is still there. It is nowadays the public entrance for visiting the castle
The gatehouse, somewhat modified over the hears, is still there. It is nowadays the public entrance for visiting the castle
Seen from above, the  keep stands central to the stronghold, defendable until later in the Civil War royal castles were rendered unfit for residence as bolt-holes for royalist resistance
Seen from above, the keep stands central to the stronghold, defendable until later in the Civil War royal castles were rendered unfit for residence as bolt-holes for royalist resistance
The keep, plan view shows the solid lines inherited from Norman times
The keep, plan view shows the solid lines inherited from Norman times
The northern range from above with the rooves of ancillary buildings that look towards where the market square is situated now
The northern range from above with the rooves of ancillary buildings that look towards where the market square is situated now
The Middleham Jewel, found at the back of the town at the site of the earlier castle
The Middleham Jewel, found at the back of the town at the site of the earlier castle
Late mediaeval re-enactment at Middleham castle by people dedicated to historical accuracy in portraying the era
Late mediaeval re-enactment at Middleham castle by people dedicated to historical accuracy in portraying the era
Middleham Falls, close to where the original castle stood to the south-west
Middleham Falls, close to where the original castle stood to the south-west
The stump of the market cross, Middleham. You'll witness everything from here in the course of an hour on market day
The stump of the market cross, Middleham. You'll witness everything from here in the course of an hour on market day
The top end of the market square, Middleham - the town is built on a gradient that rises toward the Coverdale road past here. Turn right to descend towards Leyburn
The top end of the market square, Middleham - the town is built on a gradient that rises toward the Coverdale road past here. Turn right to descend towards Leyburn
Middleham from the north-east with the castle behind the town
Middleham from the north-east with the castle behind the town
Priory Guesthouse also faces onto the market square
Priory Guesthouse also faces onto the market square
Racehorses returning to Middleham from the Low Moor gallops close to the Coverdale road, on the way to the Forbidden Corner (be sure to visit!)
Racehorses returning to Middleham from the Low Moor gallops close to the Coverdale road, on the way to the Forbidden Corner (be sure to visit!)
The White Swan, on the north side of the square
The White Swan, on the north side of the square

(You have to stand on the north side of the market square to see the castle Richard III 'inherited' from Richard Neville, the King-Maker...)

"Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York!" (About the only bit Shakespeare got right about Richard, Duke of Gloucester-cum-King)

Mind you, on first entering the township of Middleham you wouldn't know Richard had ever lived here until you left the high street and market square. Certainly, looking around there are road signs that warn of race-horses, and on any day you're sure to witness either the transfer, or these fine animals being ridden around the main market square in the shadow of the castle on their way to or from the gallops on the moors behind.

Close to the back of the town also is the broad opening to Coverdale to the south-west. Nearby Coverham Hall boasts the Forbidden Corner, another holiday attraction that draws the crowds in droves from further afield. More about that another time. However there is a much more important draw to this southern edge of Wensleydale. Middleham Castle's ruins betray nothing of the historical grandeur of the location.

Originally there was a motte-and-bailey castle here built for Alan Fergeant, Lord of Richmond, scion of the counts of Brittany and ally of Duke - later King - William 'the Bastard'. The site was forsaken in the 12th Century when the basis of the later castle was erected. The main building on this site was a great stone keep made from locally quarried stone, and is still the most obvious element of the castle's ruins. The abutting ranges were added in subsequent centuries, and were used for added accommodation of a level that was grand for its time.

In the 15th Century Middleham Castle became the main northern quarters of a number of the most important lords of the time and was by the eighth decade of the century home to Richard, Duke of Gloucester - latterly Richard III. During the 17th century Civil War in which Oliver Cromwell and Charles I glared at one another over open fields littered with corpses, the Parliamentarian cause was pursued by partly demolishing all the royal bolt-holes in the north (and there were many of these as you may know already, by the number of ruined castles including those at Helmsley, Pickering, Richmond and Scarborough). They wanted no flank attacks from Royalist garrisons, so all castles that could be dwelt in were 'wasted', like the abbeys in Henry VIII's time.

In the eyes of many historians, Middleham's closest link is with Richard III, however. As a youth he whiled away the years as a guest of Richard Nevill, Earl of Warwick, known as 'the King-maker'. Here he learned courtly behaviour and the arts of warfare. Richard Nevill changed sides from the Yorkist to the Lancastrian cause on the marriage of Edward IV to Elizabeth Woodville and was slain at the Battle of Barnet in 1471. Richard was granted the stewardship of Middleham Castle by his older half-brother the king. It was here that Richard's son Edward was born in 1474, only to die in 1484. Richard was not to outlive his son for long, being slain on 22nd August, 1485 by the French mercenary bodyguard of Henry, Earl of Richmond. Richard had seen Henry on his horse with his standard bearer close by on the field near Market Bosworth, Leicesershire, and had charged downhill alone. Cleaving the standard bearer to the navel with one blow, he was about to deal with Henry close by when the young earl's French mercenaries closed on him, cutting him down with their halbards. Pay no mind to Shakespeare. Richard died a hero... He would never have gained such a stalwart following amongst the northern nobles if he had been the shallow despot portrayed in the Bard's play. (That in itself was based on a tale put about by Bishop Beaufort, another Lancastrian, and slavishly copied by [St.] Thomas More, his erstwhile protege).

Middleham's gestation began four centuries earlier with the first castle on higher ground south-west of the ruin you see now. This was a Norman edifice, a motte-and-bailey structure of earth and timber that came into the possession of Lord Alan's brother Ribald. The earlier site was abandoned in the second half of the 12th Century. A new castle was begun lower down, the strong keep being its main core. In AD1270 Middleham Castle passed by marriage to Robert de Nevill, staying in this family's possession until AD1471.

The Nevills were lords of Raby and Brancepeth in County Durham and actively participated in the defence of the kingdom against the invading Scots at the time of the reign of Edward III. Ralph, the fourth Lord Nevill was made Earl of Westmorland for services to Richard II. His son and grandson the earls of Salisbury and Warwick fought on the side of Richard Duke of York against Henry VI and his queen, Margaret. In 1440 Middleham was separated from the manors of Raby and Brancepeth and the title Earl of Westmorland, and passed on to Richard Nevill, Earl of Salisbury, in turn to Richard Nevill, Earl of Warwick before passing out of Nevill hands to Duke Richard of Gloucester - Richard III.

The Nevills:

Middleham castle passed to Robert de Nevill in AD1270 through marriage to Mary, daughter of Ralph fitzRanulph of Middleham. Their son Ralph, the first Lord Nevill of Raby inherited Middleham. From his grandfather he also acquired the vast Nevill estates centred on the castles of Raby and Brancepeth in County Durham, and those of the village of Sheriff Hutton in the East Riding. It is likely it was he who rebuilt the outer defences, replacing timber palisades around the keep with a stone 'curtain wall' and corner towers. He also added the new chapel east of the keep. Ralph died in AD1331, to be followed by son Ralph who shone in the service of Edward III, tsking part in the AD1337 Siege of Dunbar, the siege of Tournai in AD1340 and alongside eldest son John at the Battle of Neville's Cross on the north-west side above Durham in AD1346. Here King David II was taken prisoner after invading England to ease the pressure on his ally the King of France, faced with Edward III and Edward of Woodstock, 'the Black Prince'. Ralph was appointed Joint Warden, later Warden of the Marches (the border with Scotland) and at times was Keeper of Bamburgh Castle as well as Keeper of Bamburgh Castle and Borough of Berwick-upon-Tweed. John, 3rd Lord Nevill was Ralph's eldest son and successor. He was a warrior like his father, and able administrator wgo was appointed steward of the Royal Household later in Edward III's reign. He later campaigned under John of Gaunt [Ghent], Earl of Lancaster. A mercurial career in the service of John of Gaunt was topped by his work on Middleham Castle, although his responsibilities precluded overseeing any major works on the castle. In turn his son Ralph, who followed his father into the title in AD1388, saw service in France but for a large part of his life he was involved with controlling the border against the Scots at Carlisle, being made Earl of Westmorland by Richard II. He was granted the Honour of Penrith but went over to the Lancastrians in AD1399. In reward for assisting Henry of Lancaster he was granted the Honour of Richmond. Thus his lands at Raby and Brancepeth were linked with those at Middleham. In the Percy rebellion against Henry IV Ralph profited from his loyalty in the downfall of the Percy family. From AD1405 until dying in AD1425 Ralph enjoyed the king's favour, benefiting from more grants of land. He was the richest and most influential lord in the north, serving Henry V and his son Henry VI as Warden of the Marches against the Scots, keeping the northern border safe during Henry V's French campaigns. In AD1388 he was granted a weekly market and an annual fair on November 5th. He had nine children by his first wife. His second wife Joan gave him fourteen, therefore provision needed to be made for them all.

In around AD1300 the keep was ringed by a stone curtain wall and in the first half of the 15th Century a canny programme of new work was embarked upon by Richard Neville, 1st Earl of Westmorland. Work on sheriff Hutton's castle was completed and - although there are no records of payments to this effect - it is asumed this was when he set about improving Middleham. The castle metamorphosed into a comfortable residence with new chambers and lodgings added within the courtyard and ranged against the outer walls. As centre of a large estate this castle needed to reflect the lord's status. Architectural detail hints that the first stage was the rebuild of the south range, followed shortly afterward by the west range, accompanied by the heightening of the curtain to take in the increase in height of these structures from one storey to two.

Chambers and lodgings were provided by these new buildings, linked to the keep by covered timber bridges at first floor level. By this development the new rooms were built to increase the accommodation available. The great hall and great chamber were still used, only the privy chamber was moved. This was added to the south range and a 'chambre of presens' took its place in the keep.

Further changes were additions to the south-western and north-western towers, raising them; the conversion of the north-east tower into the present gate-house gave direct access to the inner courtyard, rather than through the household utilities of the outer eastern courtyard. <uch of the first phase would have been complete by AD1410. Henry IV (Bolingbroke) was a guest at Raby Castle in AD1405, at that time the Nevills' main seat. He was regaled in AD1410 at the newly-modernised Middleham. The long-term aim of these improvements was to leave an appropriate inheritance for Ralph's eldest son, Richard by Joan Beaufort, for whom Raby and Brancepeth would not be available. Ralph Nevill's additions to his Middleham estate were made to compensate. Legal devices would ensure that Middleham and Sheriff Hutton came to Richard rather than to Ralph Nevill, 2nd Earl of Westmorland, his son by his first wife.

Richard Nevill, Earl of Salisbury was born around AD1400, appointed Warden of the West March in AD1420 and married in AD1425 to Alice Montacute,the only child and heiress of Thomas, Earl of Salisbury. This was one of a series of great matches arranged for the younger Nevills (by Joan Beaufort). He was granted the title of Earl of Salisbury in AD1429. In AD1431 he was with Henry VI in France, again in Ad1436. His main duties - as with the Nevills before him - were on the border with Scotland. The title Warden of the West March brought with it profit and influence. It was also license to recruit a private army.

He had the use of Middleham and other properties during his mother's lifetime, but on the death of Joan Beaufort in AD1440 he was left the castles of Sheriff Hutton and Middleham, which became his main residence. Probably at this time the north range was built, the north-west tower raised to its present height and the upper part of the gatehouse was re-modelled with diagonal buttresses, turrets and machiolations (parapets with openings to drop stones or other 'hardware' onto unsuspecting attackers). The upper reaches of the Chapel block would have been re-structured at this time, too. The staircase tower of the keep was raised and the great chamber given a new window, lightening the room within. These alterations also provided more accommodation in the castle, and made it look externally more imposing - appropriate to the image projected by an earl.

One of the main supporters of his brother-in-law Richard, Duke of York, Lord Salisbury had a leading role at the outset of the family squabble (termed.The Wars of the Roses by Sir Walter Scott), Middleham Castle became his recruiiting base. In AD1454 Lord Egremont, the son of the Earl of Northumberland, was kept hostage in the castle after a skirmish between the Nevills and Percys. In August, 1459 Henry VI was openly challenged and Lord Salisbury set out for Ludlow (Shropshire) with his armed retainers to join the Duke of York. They met and scattered part of the royal army at Blore Heath in Shropshire on their way. However Richard Nevill was caught together with Richard, Duke of York at the Battle of Wakefield on December 30th, 1460, and executed with him a little later at Pontefract Castle. He was interred in Bisham Abbey, (Berkshire).

Middleham passed to the eldest son, Richard Nevill. In his wife's right he was granted the title of Earl of Warwick as well as the huge Warwick inheritance. He was significant in his support for Edward of York to the kingship as Edward IV, and earned for himself the title of 'Kingmaker'. His later reversal of support to Henry VI because of Edward's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was his downfall. Richard, Duke of Gloucester, his erstwhile friend defeated the Lancastrian force at the Battle of Barnet in 1471 in a protracted slaughter through the streets and alleys of the town.

However the castle of Middleham emerged as a centre of royal entertainment. In AD1461, after the Yorkist victory of Towton the young King Edward IV was regaled here by Warwick. Three years later prisoners from the Battle of Hexham were taken to the castle for execution. In headier days Richard, Duke of Gloucester stayed here from late AD1465 until around AD1468. King Edward was held prisoner here after the Battle of Edgecote whilst Richard Nevill tried to rule the kingdom for him. In the decade from AD1461 Middleham Castle was used continuously, as a centre of patronage, a site of political influence, focus of social life and as a military centre. It was effectively a royal court.

It may have been Richard, Earl of Warwick or Richard, Duke of Gloucester who built a new chamber over the Great Hall in the keep. It was lit from the windows in the east side and afforded views over Wensleydale's wooded hillsides. It was a room suited to the more private entertainment of the earl's guests and a means of impressing them with his might and the sheer handsomeness of his castle.

After Warwick's defeat and death at Barnet in april, 1471 his estates north of the Trent were granted to Richard, Duke of Gloucester by his brother the king. In AD1472 he wedded Ann Nevill, the younger daughter of his erstwhile mentor. Through this marriage he also came into the lordship of Barnard Castle. Three years later the lordship and castle of Skipton was granted to him, and in AD1478 the castle of Richmond and reversion of the lordship and castle of Helmsley.

Through these vast estates Richard became the single most important lord in the north. His might and standing were confirmed in AD1483 when he was granted the hereditary lordship of Cumberland and Westmorland after defeating the Scots. With this he was entitled to whatever south-western Scottish districts he had over-run in the course of the campaign.

With a Nevill wife and knowing the region from his years spent with Richard Nevill in the area Richard, Duke of Gloucester had built up a loyal following. Whatever changes he made to the castle are unknown unless - as hinted above - it was he who added the chamber above the Great Hall. His preference for Middleham over any other properties is common knowledge. It was a highlight of his Nevill inheritance and, after earlier changes, a centre of operations worthy of him. The great keep held the Great Hall and chamber for ceremonial purposes. Comfortable, private rooms and lodgings were there for noble guests. Middleham became a byword for high standards of living.

However, after taking the crown as protector to his nephews, during his reign from July 6th, 1483, Richard was unable to visit Middleham as often as he wished. He visited over the first ten days of May, 1484 after the death in April of his son Edward at the age of ten. During his time there he received the embassy from the Emperor Frederick III, presenting Nicholas von Poppelau with a gold chain.

Following his victory at Sutton Chaney near Market Bosworth in August, AD1485 the newly-crowned Henry VII seized Middleham. The castle was kept in good order in the 16th Century but the castle was sold by James I and slid into a state of 'genteel disrepair', all the same a potential bolt-hole for malcontent royalists. Which explains the obvious signs of 'dismantling' by Parliamentarians. The Office of Works took over the building in 1925, being made safe in the 1930s for sight-seers. The site is now under the jurisdiction of English Heritage (as are also Helmsley, Pickering, Richmond and Scarborough castles) and is open to visitors.

A guide book is available at the shop that tells of the castle's chequered past, its past owners and links with the royals. Chief amongst the building's interesting points are the Gatehouse, the Keep, the Chapel, the East Gatehouse and Outer Courtyard. When visiting take care - although visitor safety is checked regularly and maintenance is rigorously followed - and do not hazard other visitors' enjoyment of the site by carelessness.

Your five minute armchair guide:

Approach the main gateway from the town by way of public roads and designated footpaths that lead from the main square. Through the gateway, to the left, is the English Heritage admissions and souvenir shop. Keep some time at the end of your visit for a browse in here. Ahead of you is the keep, a high set of steps with safety rails gives you access to an entrance almost halfway up the wall. At this level turn right to a viewing platform with a picture of what the main feasting hall would have looked like in its heyday, a cross-section shows where the kitchens were below. To your left are more steps that take you up to the top of the tower for a view across the dale to the west. Across the dale, amongst trees and on the side of a slope is the site of the original castle built by Alan 'Fergant' (Rufus) that was abandoned. To your left is the site of the 'home farm', where the castle's crops and food stores were kept.

Back downstairs - watch out, the steps are steep and ascend/descend in a tight curve in the tower. Here and there are printed views of how the castle environs looked. Compare them to what you see. What is enduring is the quality of the stonework, clean cut slabs of locally quarried stone, the masonry of which was only destroyed by Parliamentary cannon (to cheat the Royalists of their boltholes). This castle would otherwise have been ripe for 'remodelling' by the Crown Agents. Walk around outside the walls, taking care around the moat walkway, and your way comes to a dead end where one of the racehorse stableyards abuts onto the castle walls. Back within the walls you can see in the range of outbuildings where forges were once worked, where wells had been sunk and where walkways linked the keep with the outer apartments (there are two of these, on right-angled adjoining walls). An interesting statue of Richard III stands opposite the shop, to the right as you enter.(it seems to be based on Tudor propaganda, furthered by Shakespeare's play).

To the rear (south) of the castle are racing stables, in front is the town of Middleham with its inns and tearooms, grey stone walls and market cross. To the south-east is the road to East Whitton, Jervaulx Abbey, Masham and Ripon, (for Bedale take this road and turn left at the next road junction) whilst north-westward is the road to Leyburn and Wensley. Westward is Coverham and Coverdale, leading down to Kettlewell in Upper Wharfedale (towards Grassington and Skipton). Footpaths and minor roads lead westward to Agglethorpe, Melmerby and Carlton-in-Coverdale and West Whitton in Wensleydale. The River Ure wends its way west-east across the dale and down to Ripon, its banks twisting between pasture and growing land down from near Hawes, around twenty-one miles westward (on the A684 from Leyburn).

Forget Shakespeare. He wrote his play to keep his head on his shoulders. History was written by the victors. Richard died on the battlefield, close to killing Henry. He was brought down when his horse was mired within yards of the Tudor claimant, slain by foreign mercenaries. It has now been re-written by those who see the way history is taught as a mockery. True, he was no angel, but he was well respected and a true heir to the throne with a much better claim than Henry Tudor. Jeremy Potter's book goes a long way to unravelling Lancastrian-Tudor propaganda.

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Comments 6 comments

Patty Kenyon profile image

Patty Kenyon 4 years ago from Ledyard, Connecticut

Awesome and Interesting!!! The pictures are amazing!!! I have heard of this castle and yet never knew of the history nor was I aware that there was a motte and bailey castle prior to Middleham Castle. Thanks for sharing the very interesting history!!!!


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 4 years ago from England

Hi, I don't believe it! I have never heard of Middleham Castle! lol! considering I am a castle fanatic, this was new to me! and with so much history, really interesting stuff too, Richard III being one of the people who lived there, wow! I think I have learned more history since reading your stuff than I ever knew! and there's me thinking I was good at history! lol! voted up! cheers nell


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 4 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Patty and Nell, welcome to Middleham. Even better than reading about it is seeing it. I've made two or three visits over the years, and been to or through Middleham a few more times than that. It's worth a visit to watch the racehorses being exercised and trotting through town.


Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 3 years ago from Essex, UK

Like Nell, I've never heard of Middleham Castle, but then, apart from two visits to Manchester, I've never been north of Birmingham. When I do eventually make a visit to Yorkshire, I will be sure to visit this place which seems remarkably well preserved, even allowing for the reconstruction of some of the buildings. Well described history of the castle and the surrounding area, and useful photos which makes one want to visit. Voted up.


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 3 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Hello there young feller me lad! I don't know if you'll drive up there, but it's probably the best for getting there. There's a lot of good budget accommodation around, including self-catering if you like. Until the Wensleydale Railway opens its link from Leeming Bar via Scruton to Northallerton for the East Coast Main Line, the connection that way is a bit broken. From Essex take the M11 onto the A14 and right onto the A1(M) near Huntingdon. Off the A1(M) before Scotch Corner turn left for Bedale via Leeming Bar - there's a large motorway hotel there - and carry on up Wensleydale through Bedale Market Place (turn right after passing over the level crossing and up the hill along the A684). Drive to Leyburn and take a left turn (after the station on your right) that takes you straight into Middleham's market square. The castle is straight ahead behind the houses and there's usually ample parking. I usually turn right onto the road to Coverham and Kettlewell, and park off road near the side of the castle by a small cobbled square that looks down onto the market square.

There are buses there, from Northallerton to Bedale and Leyburn, and from Leyburn to Middleham, but you'd need to study the timetables on the web.


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 3 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Sub-note to Greensleeves: nothing at Middleham's been re-constructed. Walkways and stairways have been added to access the keep and other areas, and a reception cabin has been built near the gateway to sell souvenirs etc. Everything is as left after the Civil War when the (royal demesne) castle was made intenable for use by the royalist military as a 'bolt-hole'.

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