Kingdom of Kent

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Kingdom of the Kentish
Cantaware Rīce
Regnum Cantuariorum
Vassal of Mercia (764–769, 785–796, 798–825)
Vassal of Wessex (825–871)
c. 455–871
File:Kingdom of Kent.svg
The Kingdom of Kent.
Capital Unknown
Languages Old English, Latin
Religion Paganism, Christianity
Government Monarchy
 •   ?–488 Hengist (first)
 •  866–871 Æthelred (last)
Legislature Witenagemot
Historical era Heptarchy
 •  Established c. 455
 •  Disestablished 871
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Sub Roman Britain
Kingdom of Wessex

The kingdom of the Kentish (Old English: Cantaware Rīce; Latin: Regnum Cantuariorum), today referred to as the Kingdom of Kent, was an early medieval kingdom in what is now South East England. Establishing itself in either the fifth or sixth centuries AD, it continued to exist until being fully absorbed into the Kingdom of England in the tenth century.

Under the preceding Romano-British administration, the area of Kent faced repeated attacks from seafaring raiders during the fourth century AD, with Germanic-speaking foederati likely being invited to settle in the area as mercenaries. Following the end of Roman administration in 410, further linguistically Germanic tribal groups moved into the area, as testified by both archaeological evidence and Late Anglo-Saxon textual sources. The primary ethnic group to settle in the area appears to have been the Jutes, who established their Kingdom in East Kent, which was potentially initially under the dominion of the Kingdom of Francia. It has been argued that an East Saxon community initially settled West Kent, before being conquered by the expanding East Kentish in the sixth century.

The earliest recorded king of Kent was Æthelberht, who as bretwalda wielded significant influence over other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the late sixth century. The Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons began in Kent under Æthelberht’s reign with the arrival of the monk Augustine of Canterbury and his Gregorian mission in 597. It was one of the seven traditional kingdoms of the so-called Anglo-Saxon heptarchy, but it lost its independence in the 8th century when it became a sub-kingdom of Mercia. In the 9th century, it became a sub-kingdom of Wessex, and in the 10th century, it became part of the unified Kingdom of England that was created under the leadership of Wessex. Its name has been carried forward ever since as the county of Kent.

Knowledge of Anglo-Saxon Kent comes from scholarly study of Late Anglo-Saxon texts such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, as well as archaeological evidence such as that left by Early Medieval cemeteries and settlements, and by the toponymical evidence of Kentish place-names.

Decline of Romano-British Kent

Roman fort wall at Regulbium

In the Romano-British period, the area of modern Kent that lay east of the River Medway was a civitas known as Cantiaca.[1] Its name had been taken from an older Common Brittonic place-name, Cantium ("corner of land" or "land on the edge") that had been used for the area in the preceding pre-Roman Iron Age, although the geographical extent of this tribal area is unknown.[1]

During the late third and fourth centuries, Roman Britain had fallen victim to repeated raids by Franks, Saxons, Picts, and Scots.[2] Given that it was the closest part of Britain to mainland Europe, it is likely that Kent would have experienced many attacks from seafaring raiders, resulting in the construction of four Saxon Shore Forts along the Kentish coast: Regulbium, Rutupiae, Dubris, and Portus Lemanis.[2] It is also likely that Germanic-speaking mercenaries from northern Gaul, known as foederati, would have been hired to supplement these official Roman troops during this period, being given land in Kent as payment.[3] These foederati would have assimilated into wider Romano-British culture, making them difficult to distinguish archaeologically from the Romano-British population.[4]

At the same time, there is evidence that in the fourth and early fifth centuries, rural villa sites were coming to be abandoned, suggesting that the Romano-British elite were moving to the comparative safety of the fortified urban centres.[5] However, various urban centres also witnessed decline; Canterbury showed evidence of a declining population and reduced activity from the late third century onward, while Dover was abandoned by the end of the fourth century.[6] In 407, the Roman legions departed from Britain in order to deal with incursions by attacking forces in the Roman Empire's continental heartlands.[2] In 410, the Roman Emperor Honorius sent a letter to his British subjects announcing that they must thenceforth look after their own defence and could no longer rely on the imperial military to protect them.[2] According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a text produced in late Anglo-Saxon England and which is not considered an accurate record of events in the fifth century, in 418 many Romans left Britain via Kent, taking much of their wealth with them, which may represent a memory of a genuine exodus of the Roman aristocracy.[7]

Early Anglo-Saxon Kent

Anglo-Saxon Migration: 410–499

According to archaeologist Martin Welch, the fifth century witnessed "a radical transformation of what became Kent, politically, socially and in terms of physical landscape."[1] Both historical and archaeological records attest to the migration of linguistically Germanic peoples from northern Europe into Britain during this century.[8] There nevertheless remains much debate as to the scale of this migration; some see it as a mass migration in which large numbers of linguistically-Germanic peoples left their northern European homelands to settle in Britain, whereas other scholars have argued that only a small warrior elite arrived in Britain, where they took control over the pre-existing Romano-British population, who then acculturated to using the traditional Old English language and material culture of the newcomers.[9] The fate of the settled Romano-British population also remains debated; one argument is that a large portion of the population fled from the incoming Anglo-Saxon invaders, either to Western Britain or to Brittany, while an alternative approach sees most of the population remaining and assimilating with the new arrivals, with many perhaps being enslaved as a result.[10] In the Kentish context, it is likely that there was some continuation of the Romano-British population in this region, as the Roman name for the area, Cantiaca, clearly influenced the name of the new Anglo-Saxon kingdom, the Cantware ("dwellers of Kent").[11]

Hengest and Horsa, from A Restitution of Decayed Intelligence by Richard Verstegan (1605)

Accounts of the Germanic migration to Britain were provided in a number of textual sources authored in the late Anglo-Saxon period, most notably Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; both relied upon oral histories passed down from the fifth-century and constituted attempts to establish origin myths which would justify the political situation of the late Anglo-Saxon period.[7] According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a "king of the Britons" known as Vortigern invited two Germanic leaders, Hengist and Horsa, to Britain to help defend the Britons against Pictish raiders. After arriving at Ebba's Creek in Kent in 449, Hengist and Horsa led the defeat of the Picts before turning on the British, inviting further Germanic tribes to sail over and colonise Briton; among those to do so were three tribal groups, the Old Saxons, the Angles, and the Jutes, the latter of whom settled in both Kent and the Isle of Wight, establishing the peoples known as the Cantware and Wihtware.[12]

According to the Chronicle, in 455 Hengist and Horsa battled Vortigern at Ægelesthrep (probably Aylesford in Kent), in which Horsa was killed. As a result, Hengist became king of his kingdom, in turn being succeeded by his son Æsc.[13] In 456 Hengest and Æsc then battled the Britons at Crecganford (probably Crayford), and after the Britons were defeated they fled from Kent and into their London stronghold.[13] A similar account is provided in Bede's Ecclesiastical History, where it also states that the people of Kent and Isle of Wight were descended from Jutish settlers, and that Horsa was killed in battle against the Britons, adding that his body was buried in east Kent.[14] The accuracy of these accounts is often questioned; S. E. Kelly for instance stated that "the legendary details are easy to dismiss".[15] Scholars often view Hengist and Horsa as mythological figures who were borrowed from folk tradition for use in legitimating ruling elites in the Mid-to-Late Anglo-Saxon period.[16]

It appears that the incoming Germanic-speaking peoples settled on the prime agricultural land that had previously been used by the Romano-Britons, particularly the foothills to the north of the downs and Holmesdale south of the downs escarpment.[17] It is likely that they adhered to a mixed farming regime that complemented arable agriculture with animal husbandry, although given their proximity to coastal and riverine areas it is also likely that they engaged in fishing and trading.[18] The Anglo-Saxons made use of pre-existing prehistoric and Roman road systems, with 85% of cemeteries being located within 1.2km of a Roman road, a navigatable river or the coast, and the remaining 15% being close to ancient trackways.[19] Little archaeological evidence of these early settlements has been unearthed, although one prominent example includes a grubenhaus at Lower Warbank, Keston that was built atop the site of a former Roman villa, adjacent to a Romano-British trackway through the North Downs.[18] Fifth-century ceramics have also been found at a number of villa sites around Kent, suggesting reoccupation of these locations during this period.[20] In East Kent, fifth century cemeteries mostly comprise solely of inhumation burials, having a distinctively Kentish character to them. Conversely, in West Kent cemeteries such as that in Orpington mix both cremations with inhumations, something which is instead typical of Saxon cemeteries north of the River Thames.[21] This is suggestive of the idea that West Kent at this point was independent of East Kent and that it was instead part of the Kingdom of the East Saxons which existed north of the Thames Estuary.[22]

Development and Westward Expansion: 500–590

It is apparent that during the sixth century the Kingdom of Kent had some relationship with the Merovingian-governed Kingdom of Francia in continental Europe, which was then extending its political, military, and economic influence throughout northwestern Europe.[23] Various textual sources suggest the possibility that Kent may have been under Merovingian control for part of this century.[24] Frankish material culture from this period has often been found from archaeological contexts in Kent, but is absent from other areas of lowland Britain, suggesting that Kent may have had a trade monopoly with the Frankish kingdom.[25]

Sixth century Kentish artefacts have also been found in continental Europe, in particular in the areas of modern Charente, western Normandy, the Rhineland, Frisia, Thuringia, and southern Scandinavia. Conversely, Kentish artefacts are relatively absent from the area of continental Europe between the Sein and the Somme, which directly faces the Saxon settlement in Sussex, suggesting that trade links were established between particular tribal or ethnic groups rather than operating within a free market open to all in northwestern Europe.[26] There is also archaeological evidence of Kentish trade links extending west, with Kentish artefacts being found in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, and copies or imitations appearing in cemetery contexts further afield, in areas such as Wiltshire and Cambridgeshire. [22]

Archaeological evidence suggests that at some point in the sixth century, East Kent annexed the area of West Kent.[22] To the south of Kent lay the Weald, a dense forest that did not offer political enhancement for the Kentish elite, leaving the area west of the kingdom a prime area for conquest, particularly as the Darenth Valley and the dip slopes of the North Downs to the west of the Medway contained some of the most fertile soils in southern Britain.[22]

Established Kingdom and Christianisation: 597–650

A putative early illustration of Augustine

Kent first appears in the historical record in 597, by which time the kingdom had been fully established under the control of a ruling elite.[27] This early appearance makes it the first kingdom in Anglo-Saxon England to appear within the historical record.[28] The historical account provided by the later English monk Bede refers to Kent as having been under the rule of a king named Æthelberht at this period, making him the earliest reliably attested Anglo-Saxon monarch.[29] Bede states that Æthelberht was a bretwalda who exerted control over all those south of the River Humber, thus wielding significant control over other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms beside his own.[30] The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refers to various wars between different kingdoms in sixth-century Britain, but most took place in the west of the island and did not affect Kent; the one exception is a recorded battle that took place between the Kentish and West Saxons in 568, during which Æthelberht's forces were pushed back into Kent.[31] Æthelberht's reign also left behind the Law of Æthelberht, a set of legal provisions that constitute the oldest surviving text written in Old English.[32]

According to Bede's account, the Christianization of Anglo-Saxon England began in Kent under Æthelberht's reign when the Benedictine monk Augustine arrived on the Ebbsfleet peninsula in 597, bringing the Gregorian mission with him.[29] Æthelberht's Frankish wife, Bertha, was already a Christian, with Æthelberht himself converting to the faith a few years later.[29]

During this period, Anglo-Saxon kings were not stationed in one place but moved around their kingdoms, collecting subsistence goods from the population and giving gifts in an economic system rooted in reciprocal goods exchange.[33] Various seventh and eighth century documents attest to the fact that Kent was governed by two kings, a dominant one based in the east and a subordinate based in the west, likely reflecting an earlier divide between the two kingdoms.[34]

Archaeologically, this period witnessed the final phase of furnished burial, marked by a decrease in the regional distinctiveness of grave goods and the increasing inclusion of artefacts decorated in the Salin Style II motifs.[35] It also saw the emergence of elite burials in which individuals had been interned with far greater wealth than other individuals; notable Kentish examples have been found at Sarre Anglo-Saxon cemetery and the Kingston Barrow cemetery, while the elite Taplow burial in modern Buckinghamshire also contained Kentish characteristics, suggesting a potential Kentish influence in that region.[36]

Middle and Late Anglo-Saxon Kent

Decline and Mercian Domination: 650–785

During the seventh century, Kent's power within Anglo-Saxon England waned as that of Mercia and Northumbria grew.[37] It nevertheless remained the fourth wealthiest kingdom in England, at least according to a document known as the Tribal Hidage with 15,000 hides of land, likely written in the seventh or eighth century.[38] However the period was a tumultuous one for the Kentish royal family; Kent was ruled by Ecgberht from 664 to 673, and at one point between 664 and 667 two royal cousins, Æthelred and Æthelberht, were killed at Eastry royal hall, perhaps because they threatened Ecgberht's reign.[39] Ecgberht was succeeded by his brother, Hlothere, who ruled from 674 to 686 before being overthrown and killed by one of Ecberht's sons, Eadric, who had allied with the South Saxons; Eadric then ruled until 687.[39]

In the late seventh century, Kent gradually came under the dominion of the expansionist Mercians. Whereas there had been a Kentish royal hall and reeve in Lundenwic until at least the 680s, the city soon passed into Mercian hands.[37] Losing control of Lundenwic probably broke Kent's monopoly over cross-Channel trade and its ability to control the Thames, further eroding its economic influence. [39] According to Bede's later account, in 676 the Mercian king Æthelred I led an attack into Kent that decimated many of the kingdom’s churches.[40] Mercia's control of Kent increased over the coming decades; by 689/90 East Saxon kings under Mercian overlordship were active in West Kent, while there are also records attesting that Æthelred was arbitrating on the income of the Christian communities at Minster-in-Thanet and Reculver, indicating strong Mercian control over the east of the kingdom too.[39]

In 686 Kent was conquered by Caedwalla of Wessex; within a year, Caedwalla's brother Mul was killed in a Kentish revolt, and Caedwalla returned to devastate the kingdom again. After this, Kent fell into a state of disorder. The Mercians backed a client king named Oswine, but he seems to have reigned for only about two years, after which Wihtred became king. Wihtred, famous for the Law of Wihtred, did a great deal to restore the kingdom after the devastation and tumult of the preceding years, and in 694 he made peace with the West Saxons by paying compensation for the killing of Mul.

The history of Kent following the death of Wihtred in 725 is one of fragmentation and increasing obscurity. For the 40 years that followed, two or even three kings typically ruled simultaneously. It may have been this sort of division that made Kent the first target of the rising power of Offa of Mercia: in 764, he gained supremacy over Kent and began to rule it through client kings. By the early 770s, it appears that Offa was attempting to rule Kent directly, and a rebellion followed. A battle was fought at Otford in 776, and although the outcome was not recorded, the circumstances of the years that followed suggest that the rebels of Kent prevailed: Egbert II and later Ealhmund seem to have ruled independently of Offa for nearly a decade thereafter. This did not last, however, as Offa firmly re-established his authority over Kent in 785.

Many of the religious establishments at this period, known as minsters, which contained within them a church, were often far larger and more populous than standard lay settlement, often having access to many resources and trade links.[41] The Minster-in-Thanet religious community was for instance recorded as possessing three trade ships.[42] The seventh century witnessed the reintroduction of masonry as a building material in Anglo-Saxon England, primarily for churches.[42] The earliest churches in the region have been termed the “Kentish Group” and reflect both Italian and Frankish influences in their architectural design; early examples include St. Pancras, St Mary, and St Peter and St Paul, all of which were part of St. Augustine’s monastery in Canterbury, as well as St. Andrews in Rochester and St Mary in Lyminge.[43] It was in the late seventh century that the earliest charters appear, providing evidence on estate boundaries from this period.[44] It also appears that there was a more intensive use of the landscape developing in this period, with the reclamation of the Wantsum Channel and Romney Marsh beginning, allowing for these areas to be used for grazing livestock.[45] The Ebbsfleet watermill, dated to circa 700 and located in West Kent, also reflects new uses of the landscape. [45]

Canterbury emerged as the economic and political centre of Kent during the seventh century, with added urban growth, as testified to by the archaeological discovery of rubbish pits, metalworking, timber halls, and sunken-feature buildings dating to this period.[46] A similar growth in intensive occupation was present at Dover,[47] and it is possible that the same took place at Rochester, although the archaeological evidence for this is currently lacking.[48] It is known that both Canterbury and Rochester were the home to major mints in this period, primarily producing silver sceattas.[48] This suggests that from the seventh century onward, kings in Kent were tightening their control over the kingdom’s economic structure.[49]

Viking attacks: 785–825

During the eighth and ninth centuries, a number of fortified earthworks, most notably Wansdyke and Offa's Dyke, were constructed as barriers between the warring kingdoms; the Faestendic passing through the Cray Valley and the routeway that has since become the A25 were likely Kentish earthworks of this period designed to protect the kingdom.[50] Evidence for such militarisation might also be seen in the Rochester Bridge burdens, documented from the 790s, which lay out the obligation for the Roman bridge across the River Medway to be maintained, which would be vital for allowing Kentish troops to cross the river.[50]

After King Ealhmund presumably died shortly after witnessing a charter in 784, his son Egbert was driven out of Kent and into exile by Offa and Beorhtric. It is clear from charters that Offa was in control of Kent by 785. Rather than just acting as overlord of his new possession, he attempted to annex it or at least reduce its importance by creating a new diocese in Mercia at Lichfield, possibly because the archbishop of Canterbury Jænberht refused to crown his son Ecgfrith. Jænberht resigned a part of his bishopric and the pro-Mercian Hygeberht was chosen by King Offa to replace him “through enmity conceived against the venerable Jænberht and the Kentish people” according to Offa's eventual successor Coenwulf. In 796 Offa died, and in this moment of Mercian weakness a Kentish rebellion under Eadbert Praen temporarily succeeded. Offa's eventual successor, Coenwulf, reconquered Kent in 798, however, and installed his brother Cuthred as king. After Cuthred's death in 807 Coenwulf ruled Kent directly. Mercian authority was replaced by that of Wessex in 825, following the latter's victory at the Battle of Ellandun, and the Mercian client king Baldred was expelled.


According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Kent was first attacked by Viking raiders in the late eighth century.[51] Kent and southeast England would have been an attractive target for these Scandinavian raiders because of its wealthy minsters, often located on exposed coastal locations.[51] In 804, the nuns of Lyminge were granted refuge in Canterbury to escape the attackers, while in 811 Kentish forces gathered to repel a Viking army based on the Isle of Sheppey.[51] Further recorded attacks occurred on Sheppey in 835, through Romney Marsh in 841, in Rochester in 842, Canterbury and Sandwich in 851, Thanet in 853, and across Kent in 865.[51] Kent was also attractive for providing access to major routes, both by land and by sea.[52] By 811, it is recorded that there were Viking fortifications on the north coast, and they were reported as having over-wintered their armies on Thanet in 851–52 and Sheppey in 854–55.[52] Canterbury and Rochester still had Roman fortified walls, which could have been refurbished in this period.[53] The cities were nevertheless attacked by Viking forces; Rochester in 842, Canterbury in 851, and Rochester again in 885, when they laid siege to it until it was liberated by Alfred's army.[54] The Burghal Hidage lists the construction of the Eorpenburnam fort, which was possibly Castle Toll.[54] A number of hoards have been found, particularly around the West Kent coast, which might have been wealth hidden from the Vikings.[55]

In 892, when all southern England was united under Alfred the Great, Kent was on the brink of disaster. A hundred years earlier pagan Vikings had begun their raids on Britain—they first attacked Lindisfarne on the coast of Northumbria, killing the monks and devastating the Abbey. They then made successive raids further south until in the year 878 the formidable Alfred defeated them, later drawing up a treaty allowing them to settle in East Anglia and the North East. However, countrymen from their Danish homeland were still on the move and by the late 880s Haesten, a highly experienced warrior-leader, had mustered huge forces in northern France having besieged Paris and taken Brittany.

Up to 350 Viking ships sailed from Boulogne to the south coast of Kent in 892. A massive army of between 5000 and 10,000 men with their women, children and horses came up the now long-lost Limen estuary (the east-west route of the Royal Military Canal in reclaimed Romney Marsh) and attacked a Saxon fort near lonely St Rumwold's church, Bonnington, killing all inside. They then moved on and over the next year built their own giant fortress at Appledore. On hearing of this, resident Danes in East Anglia and elsewhere broke their promises to Alfred and rose up to join in. At first they made lightning raids out of Appledore, in one of these they razed to the ground a large settlement, Seleberhtes Cert (present-day Great Chart near Ashford); later, the whole army moved further inland and engaged in numerous battles with the English, but after four years they gave up. Some retreated to East Anglia and others went back to northern France. There they were the forebears of the Normans who returned in triumph less than two centuries later.

See also



  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Welch 2007, p. 189.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Brookes & Harrington 2010, p. 25.
  3. Kelly 1999, p. 269; Brookes & Harrington 2010, pp. 26–27.
  4. Brookes & Harrington 2010, pp. 26–27.
  5. Brookes & Harrington 2010, p. 27.
  6. Brookes & Harrington 2010, pp. 28, 29.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Brookes & Harrington 2010, p. 32.
  8. Brookes & Harrington 2010, p. 31.
  9. Arnold 1997, p. 22; Welch 2007, p. 194.
  10. Welch 2007, p. 201.
  11. Welch 2007, pp. 189–190; Brookes & Harrington 2010, p. 35.
  12. Brookes & Harrington 2010, pp. 32–33.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Welch 2007, p. 190; Brookes & Harrington 2010, p. 33.
  14. Brookes & Harrington 2010, p. 34.
  15. Kelly 1999, p. 270.
  16. Welch 2007, p. 190.
  17. Welch 2007, p. 194; Brookes & Harrington 2010, pp. 37–38.
  18. 18.0 18.1 Brookes & Harrington 2010, p. 38.
  19. Welch 2007, p. 197.
  20. Welch 2007, p. 195.
  21. Welch 2007, p. 209; Brookes & Harrington 2010, p. 40.
  22. 22.0 22.1 22.2 22.3 Brookes & Harrington 2010, p. 65.
  23. Brookes & Harrington 2010, p. 46.
  24. Brookes & Harrington 2010, pp. 46–47.
  25. Brookes & Harrington 2010, p. 47.
  26. Brookes & Harrington 2010, p. 49.
  27. Brookes & Harrington 2010, p. 44.
  28. Brookes & Harrington 2010, p. 8.
  29. 29.0 29.1 29.2 Brookes & Harrington 2010, p. 69.
  30. Brookes & Harrington 2010, p. 70.
  31. Brookes & Harrington 2010, pp. 70–71.
  32. Brookes & Harrington 2010, pp. 72–73.
  33. Brookes & Harrington 2010, pp. 80–81.
  34. Brookes & Harrington 2010, p. 71.
  35. Brookes & Harrington 2010, p. 75.
  36. Brookes & Harrington 2010, pp. 76–78.
  37. 37.0 37.1 Brookes & Harrington 2010, p. 93.
  38. Brookes & Harrington 2010, pp. 94–95.
  39. 39.0 39.1 39.2 39.3 Brookes & Harrington 2010, p. 95.
  40. Brookes & Harrington 2010, p. 94.
  41. Brookes & Harrington 2010, pp. 107–108.
  42. 42.0 42.1 Brookes & Harrington 2010, p. 108.
  43. Brookes & Harrington 2010, p. 109.
  44. Brookes & Harrington 2010, p. 97.
  45. 45.0 45.1 Brookes & Harrington 2010, p. 101.
  46. Brookes & Harrington 2010, p. 112.
  47. Brookes & Harrington 2010, p. 113.
  48. 48.0 48.1 Brookes & Harrington 2010, p. 115.
  49. Brookes & Harrington 2010, p. 117.
  50. 50.0 50.1 Brookes & Harrington 2010, p. 96.
  51. 51.0 51.1 51.2 51.3 Brookes & Harrington 2010, p. 120.
  52. 52.0 52.1 Brookes & Harrington 2010, p. 122.
  53. Brookes & Harrington 2010, p. 126.
  54. 54.0 54.1 Brookes & Harrington 2010, p. 127.
  55. Brookes & Harrington 2010, p. 123.


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External links