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In English criminal law, attainder was the metaphorical "stain" or "corruption of blood" which arose from being condemned for a serious capital crime (felony or treason). It entailed losing not only one's life, property and hereditary titles, but typically also the right to pass them on to one's heirs. Anyone condemned of capital crimes could be attainted.


Attainder by confession resulted from a guilty plea at the bar before judges or before the coroner in sanctuary. Attainder by verdict resulted from conviction by jury. Attainder by process resulted from a legislative act outlawing a fugitive (a bill of attainder). The last form is obsolete in England (and prohibited in the United States), and the other forms have been abolished.

Middle Ages and Renaissance

Richard of York, attainted by Margaret of Anjou Richard of York Talbot Shrewsbury Book.jpeg
Richard of York, attainted by Margaret of Anjou

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 their lands or income. Attainder essentially amounted to the legal death of the attainted's family. [1]

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. [2]

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. [3] However, this changed with Henry VII, as described below.

Rulers who used attainder include:

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".

Passage in Parliament

In the Westminster system, a bill of attainder was a bill passed by Parliament to attaint persons who were accused of high treason, or, in rare cases, a lesser crime. A person attainted need not have been convicted of treason in a court of law; one use of the attainder process was a method of declaring a person a fugitive. Another was applying collateral consequences of criminal conviction (especially property forfeiture) where the suspects had died and hence could not stand trial.

A rumour circulated that a bill of attainder against Thomas Jefferson was raised in 1774 following his authorship of A Summary View of the Rights of British America . [6]

The last bill of attainder passed in Britain was against Lord Edward FitzGerald, after his death in 1798; that provided for forfeiture of his estate.[ citation needed ] Attainders by confession, verdict and process were abolished in the United Kingdom by the Forfeiture Act 1870 (33 & 34 Vict., c.23).

Article One of the United States Constitution provides that no bill of attainder or ex post facto law shall be passed by Congress, [7] and forbids states from passing them. [8]

Corruption of blood

Corruption of blood is one of the consequences of attainder. The descendants of an attainted person could not inherit either from the attainted person (whose property had been forfeited by the attainder) or through their other relatives from them. For example, if a person executed for a crime leaves innocent children, the property of the criminal is forfeited to the crown and will not pass to the children. If the criminal's innocent parent outlives their child, the property inherited by the parent from the criminal cannot be inherited by the criminal's children either; instead, it will be distributed among other family members.

The United States Constitution prohibits corruption of blood as a punishment for treason, [9] (specifically, "no attainder of treason shall work corruption of blood, or forfeiture except during the life of the person attainted") and when Congress passed the first federal crime bill in 1790, it prohibited corruption of blood as a punishment for any federal crime. In England and Wales, corruption of blood was abolished by the Corruption of Blood Act 1814.


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  1. Lander, J. R. (1961). "I. Attainder and Forfeiture, 1453 to 1509". The Historical Journal. 4 (2): 119–151. doi:10.1017/S0018246X0002313X.
  2. "Attainder, Being Attainted, Attainder Reversed - Luminarium Encyclopedia". Retrieved 2012-10-27.
  3. 1 2 3 "Domestic and foreign policy of Henry VII". Archived from the original on 2011-09-27. Retrieved 2012-10-27.
  4. Mike Mahoney. "Kings and Queens of England - Henry VIII". English Monarchs. Retrieved 2012-10-27.
  5. "William III, 1701: An Act for the Attainder of the pretended Prince of Wales of High Treason". British History Online. Retrieved 2018-01-26.
  6. Meacham, Jon (2012). Thomas Jefferson The Art of Power. Random House. ISBN   978-1-4000-6766-4.
  7. U.S. Constitution, Art. I, Sec. 9, ¶ 3.
  8. U.S. Constitution, Art. I, Sec. 10, ¶ 1.
  9. U.S. Constitution, Art. III, Sec. 3, ¶ 2.

External sources