Attainders of English noblemen and women in the Middle Ages and Renaissance
Medieval and Renaissance English monarchs used acts of attainder to deprive nobles of their lands and often their lives. Once attainted, the descendants of the noble could no longer inherit his lands or income. Attainder essentially amounted to the legal death of the attainted's family.
Monarchs typically used attainders against political enemies and those who posed potential threats to the king's position and security. The attainder eliminated any advantage the noble would have in a court of law; nobles were exempt from many of the techniques used to try commoners, including torture. Likewise, in many cases of attainder, the king could coerce the parliament into approving the attainder and there would be a lower or non-existent burden of proof (evidence) than there would be in court.
Prior to the Tudors, most rulers reversed their attainders in return for promises of loyalty. For example, Henry VI reversed all 21 attainders, Edward IV 86 of 120, and Richard III 99 of 100. However, this changed with Henry VII, as described below.
Regnants who used attainder include:
- Margaret of Anjou: her attainder of Richard of York compelled him to invade England and attempt to seize the throne after the Battle of Northampton, which led to the penultimate phases of the War of the Roses.
- Edward IV of England: used attainder after killing his brother, George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence for high treason. This allowed Richard III of England to seize the throne when he claimed that Edward IV's sons were illegitimate.
- Henry VII: initially attainted men after he ascended the throne. He used the threat of attainder as a means to keep the few nobles who survived the War of the Roses in line. Often, however, he would penalize them with exorbitant fees and fines, or force them to have bonds which would be forfeit unless they exhibited good behaviour (his goal was to reduce the number of nobles with private armies of retainers.) Henry VII attainted 138 men, of whom he reversed only 46 attainders, and some of these were conditional.
- Henry VIII: compelled parliament to attaint many nobles during his lifetime, including magnates with major land holdings, and any magnates whom he came to mistrust. Examples include:
- Charles I: subsequent to the failed impeachment of his former Lord Deputy of Ireland, Sir Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford, was attainted during the political crisis of 1640 -1641. The Bill of Attainder, having passed the depleted House of Commons and House of Lords, was enacted by Charles I as a concession to his political opponents. During his reign, the Long Parliament of 1641 passed an Act of Attainder against William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury who was beheaded in 1645.
Once attainted, nobles were considered commoners, and as such, could be subjected to the same treatments, including torture and methods of execution. For example, commoners could be burned at the stake, whereas nobles could not.
Often, nobles would refer to the act of being attainted (and then executed) as the person's "destruction".