Skip to main content

Off with their heads!

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: History, Politics

This blog will look at the piece of English law known as an ‘Act of Attainder’. It can be passed for the crime of treason to sentence a person, or multiple people, to death without trial. Attainders date back to the 14th century and they were only taken off the statute books when the 1870 Forfeiture Act was passed. Court politics was a major motivation behind passing attainders. We will look especially at the reign of Henry VIII (1509-1547), with attainders for advisors, Dukes and even Queens.

Oil painting of a white fat man in Tudor dress.
King Henry VIII
by Unknown artist
oil on panel, perhaps early 17th century, based on a work of circa 1542
NPG 496
Licence: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial National Portrait Gallery

This blog was written by Katherine Emery, Assistant Archives Officer.

Act of Attainder

An Act of Attainder was one of the most severe laws in England it was reserved for what was considered the most serious crimes, frequently relating to treason. The term attainder comes from the Old French ‘to condemn’ and is also referred to as the ‘corruption of blood’. Any and all rights of the person or group in question would be null and void. Once the Act gained Royal Assent, the person or group would be found guilty without a trial and as such punished for their treasonous crimes by execution. However, death was not the only punishment of an Attainder, you would also forfeit all property and any titles you held which would be returned to the Crown. The phrase ‘corruption of blood’ referred to this, meaning property and titles were not then inherited by your family. This was a serious matter as your treasonous actions not only impacted your own life but ultimately impoverished your family.

Elizabeth Barton – the Holy Maid of Kent (1506-1534)

Elizabeth Barton, also known as the ‘Holy Maid of Kent’, began as a simple domestic servant in 1525 but started to experience religious visions and recite prophecies. She entered St Sepulchre Nunnery in Canterbury after a few years. Word soon spread and she began to gain fame and attention for these religious visions, even attracting praise from William Warham Archbishop of Canterbury. Most importantly she prophesised against the intended divorce between Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon and denouncing the potential marriage with Anne Boleyn. Archbishop Warham organised Barton to speak with Cardinal Wolsey and managed to gain an audience with the King to tell of her various visions and prophecies. She fervently continued her opposition to the annulment and even foretold of the death of the King if he went on to marry Anne Boleyn. However, despite many supporters and believers both in religious circles and throughout all ranks of society, the annulment went ahead and Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn on 25 January 1553.

After none of the terrible events Barton predicted happened, people began questioning Barton for her treasonous accusations and imprisoned her in the Tower of London. She later confessed to faking her visions and confirming herself as a traitor and a heretic. However, it is unclear if the confession was made under duress. After her confession, the Act of Attainder was passed in 1553, condemning Elizabeth Barton and some of her closest supports to death. She was hanged on 20th April 1554.

Handwritten document
An Act concerning the Attainder of Elizabeth Barton and others, 1533, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/PU/1/1533/25H8n12

Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540)

Thomas Cromwell started off as a lawyer in London before working under Cardinal Wolsey in 1524. However, Wolsey was falling out of favour with Henry VIII after failing to achieve the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and he later died in 1530. After Wolsey’s death, Cromwell continued to make his way up the ranks into the Royal Household and gain favour with the King. Cromwell assisted with the break with Rome that finally allowed Henry to annul his marriage with Catherine and marry Anne Boleyn in 1533. Cromwell’s success continued to grow, confirmed as Henry’s chief minister in 1534 and given both the peerage Baron of Wimbledon and title Lord Privy Seal in 1536. Cromwell aided with various religious reforms and played a major part in organising the dissolution of the monasteries from 1536-1540. On 18 April 1540 he gained the title of Earl of Essex and the important role of Lord Great Chamberlain.

However, Cromwell’s favour with the King went downhill very quickly. The main reason behind this was the marriage to Anne of Cleves, which Cromwell had arranged. Anne of Cleves arrived in England on 27 December 1539 and married Henry on 6 January 1540, but his new wife did not impress Henry. At the same time Cromwell was having disputes with the Lords and nobles over religious reforms and his main rivals Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk and Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester began to plot his demise. With both the loss of favour to the King over the new marriage and the nobles against him, Cromwell was arrested on 10 June 1540 for treason and heresy. The Act of Attainder was passed on 29 June 1540, Henry and Anne of Cleves  annulment was made official on 9 July 1540 and Cromwell was executed on 28 July 1540.

Handwritten document. Ink on parchment.
An Act for the Attainder of Thomas Lord Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex, 1540, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/PB/1/1540/32H8n52

Catherine Howard (1523-1542)

Catherine Howard was the fifth wife of Henry VIII and the last to be beheaded after Anne Boleyn. She was the daughter of Lord Edmund Howard and Joyce Culpeper. Catherine’s family, despite the aristocratic status of the Howard name was relatively poor. The family fortune spread thin between her father’s 20 siblings. Her uncle Thomas Howard, as the eldest son, inherited the title 3rd Duke of Norfolk and received much of family estates. After the death of Lord Edmund in 1539, in attempts to raise the status of the Howard family, Thomas Howard found Catherine a place in the Royal Household as a lady-in-waiting to Anne of Cleves. However, Catherine soon caught the eye of the King.

Anne of Cleves marriage to the King was annulled on 9 July 1540 and only 19 days later Catherine Howard married Henry VIII. However, the marriage did not last long. In November 1540 Henry learnt of Catherine’s premarital affairs and she was also accused of adultery with her distant cousin Thomas Culpeper. Soon after these allegations she was stripped of her title as Queen and imprisoned in Syon House. The Act of Attainder was passed on 11 February 1542 and she was then beheaded 2 days later at the Tower of London.


Handwritten document. Ink on parchment. There is a large red was seal at the bottom of the document.
An Act concerning the Attainder of the late Queen Katharine and her Complices, 11 February 1541, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/PU/1/1541/37H8n33

Thomas Howard (1473-1554)

The Howard family fought alongside Richard III during the War of the Roses, so Thomas Howard tried to gain back favour with Henry VII and Henry VIII through loyal military service. This served him well as he rose up the ranks and gained the King’s favour. In 1510 he was made a Knight of the Garter, in May 1513 he became Lord Admiral, and later a member of the King’s Council. He became Lord Treasurer on 4 December 1522 and after the death of his father in May 1524 gained the title of 3rd Duke of Norfolk. As the uncle to both Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, he was involved in the arrangements for both of their marriages to Henry, however both of these unions resulted in their beheadings after only a few years. Howard did benefit politically from the fall of Cardinal Wolsey in 1530 however he had a serious rivalry with his successor Thomas Cromwell.

Over the course of the 1540s, he began to lose favour with the King again, as the Seymour family gained more power and favour. His son Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey caused serious trouble for himself and his father. In 1546, he added the arms of Edward the Confessor to his own coat of arms, although technically through his lineage he was permitted to use them, these arms were traditionally reserved only for royalty. Henry VIII was ill and in the last years of his life, he became suspicious of the Earl’s actions and potential ambitions to seize the throne after his death. In December 1546 both father and son were arrested and sent to the Tower of London. Thomas Howard admitted to knowing about and concealing his sons treasonous coat of arms. On 2 January 1547 the Duke of Norfolk and his son were found guilty of high treason. Henry Howard was beheaded on 19 January 1547. The Act of Attainder was passed on 27 January 1547 and his execution scheduled for the next day.

An Act for the Attainder of the Duke of Norfolk and the Earl of Surrey, 27 January 1547, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/PB/1/1546/38H8n32

However, Henry VIII died the night before Thomas Howard’s execution. The execution was hurriedly revoked. Howard remained imprisoned in the Tower of London throughout the short reign of Edward VI (1547-1553). But when Mary I took the throne in 1553, she released and pardoned him. She passed an Act which declared the first attainder to be null and void and he regained his title of Duke of Norfolk.

An image of a handwritten parchment membrane. The image is of the first membrane of rolled Act.
An Act declaring the supposed Attainder of the Duke of Norfolk to be void, 1553, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/PB/1/1553/1M1s2n27

Acts of Attainder as legislation was not only to punish treasonous activity against the crown like Elizabeth Barton. The confiscation of property and titles also made the Act a great political tool, especially for the cutthroat politics of the Tudor period and Henry VIII. For Thomas Cromwell the deadly combination of plotting nobles and lost favour with the King. For varying reasons both Elizabeth Barton and Thomas Howard presented threats to Henry’s reign and his own legacy. However, an Attainder for a Queen was much more unusual, Catherine Howard only reigned as Queen for over a year before her Attainder. But things can change quickly in the unstable world of court politics, as seen with the case of Thomas Howard receiving both an Attainder and a pardon.

Sharing and comments

Share this page

1 comment

  1. Comment by Laurie Pettitt posted on

    One of the most far reaching Acts of Attainder was that of Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford in 1641. The act was repealed shortly after the Restoration and contains a little irony.
    The Act got it's strength from perjury, committed by both Henry Vane the Elder and Henry Vane the younger. The perjury was encouraged by John Pimm. (A man who seems to come out of history as 'sqeaky clean'. In fact... He was stalking the monarchy through three monarchs.
    The Irony I mentioned was that although young Sir Henry Vane had little to do with the death of Charles the first, he was singled out for the chop because he was regarded as too dangerous to live. The fact that his execution took place long after those of the Regicides may well be a matter of ironic timing. He had to wait until shortly after the repeal of the act of Attainder against Thomas Wentworth.
    Something else that may interest Parliament is that Cromwell referred to the Mace as a bauble... That was just after he had called Vane a 'juggler'. A word that could also be construed as entertainer or Jester. Removing the Jester's bauble was a symbol of removing the Jester's traditional impunity.
    Oliver Cromwell hardly ever said something that didn't mean anything.