Monday, October 6, 2014

Death by Quill, the Parliamentary Act of Attainder

by Beth von Staats


“Now is the false churl dead, so ambitious of others’ blood. These new erected men would, by their wills, leave no noble man a life. Now he is stricken with his own staff!”

-- Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey referring to the Parliamentary Act of Attainder that insured the swift and dramatic fall of Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex --


Common Law in medieval and early modern English and Welsh history could be quite a convenient tool for monarchs and their supporting ministers. With the stroke of the quill onto parchment and Parliamentary approval, not only could the riches and properties of "treasonous" nobility be easily converted to the crown, but most prominently during the reign of King Henry VIII, an attainder could also arrange for swift judicial murder.

Just how did this work? The Act of Attainder was a handy procedure of Parliamentary Law that swiftly enabled Parliament to pass judicial sentence upon an accused person, whether justified or not irrelevant, as if it was a court of law. The concept when actualized enabled Parliament to act as judge and jury, with the Act of Attainder submitted for review replacing a judicial verdict. Thus, the accused was condemned by statute rather than judged by a jury of peers. Literally speaking, the condemned was determined by legislative action to have "tainted blood" that needed to be "destroyed".

Think about that for a moment. With ink and quill a minister acting on behalf of a monarch could propose a law and demonstrate that an individual violated the said law, thus punishment levied -- often retroactively. The minister could bi-pass the potential of subject revolt based on questionable actions, a clever individual demonstrating his innocence, and the risk of trial and judgment by peers. An attainder could even be brought for Parliamentary consideration after an offender's death in battle or revolt. Nifty, eh? What a convenient stroke of genius!

Although the use of Acts of Attainder began in the 14th century, first to depose the DeSpensers, allies and favorites of King Edward II, they were initially limited to garnishing the riches and lands of men who rivaled the security of the monarch or who were defeated in battle. During King Henry VIII's reign, however, the Act of Attainder became a far more ominous tool, as for many unfortunate souls, it resulted in a death sentence, a convenient and expedient way to exact justice through judicial murder. In all cases, whether execution was exacted or not, the condemned lost nobility status if applicable with all property reverted to the crown, obviously leaving the condemned, family and heirs destitute.

Let's now look at some of the famous and infamous who became victims of 16th century Parliamentary Acts of Attainder...

Judicial Murder Victims of King Henry VIII 

Elizabeth Barton, Holy Maid of Kent
(Thomas Halloway)
Elizabeth Barton, Holy Maid of Kent

Born in obscurity, Elizabeth Barton became famous and exceptionally popular for her ability to speak in rhyming prophecies after suffering dramatic "trances". Questioned by a special commission established by William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, she was determined by the English Roman Catholic authority to be the "real deal". With the support of people as esteemed as the Archbishop and Bishop John Fisher, Barton's miraculous trances, prophecies and clairvoyance continued unabated.

From the monarchy's perspective, Elizabeth Barton, as popular as she became, initially seemed harmless enough -- well, until she began sharing negative and inflammatory prophecies about Lady Anne Boleyn and King Henry VIII himself, going so far as to speak directly of her thoughts to Thomas Cardinal Wolsey and the king. To Wolsey, the nun relayed that if the king abandoned his then wife Catherine of Aragon, the realm would be left in peril. To King Henry she professed that if he chose to marry the Lady Anne Boleyn, within nine months Princess Mary Tudor would be reigning as queen. 

Amazing as this sounds, King Henry VIII initially ignored the woman, but she didn't stop there. Elizabeth Barton gained access once again to the king, this time accompanied by Lady Anne Boleyn, by then Marquess of Pembroke, in a walled up garden at the abbot of St. Augustine's Canterbury. She boldly told them that should they marry, within one month he would no longer be the reigning monarch. Patient still, King Henry VIII tolerated Barton until the prophecies continued onward after his marriage to Anne Boleyn and her coronation as the new Queen of England. 

With Warham now dead and Thomas Cranmer Archbishop, the highly resourceful and Parliamentarian savvy Thomas Cromwell saw a huge opportunity. By manipulating the falls of Elizabeth Barton and all those around her, the prophecies so embarrassing to the king and his new queen would stop and high ranking clergy throughout the realm could be replaced with reformist minded theologians. There was one major problem, though. The Holy Maid of Kent was a popular national celebrity, literally a Tudor Era "superstar". A criminal or heresy trial would inevitably draw revolts and unwanted negative attention onto the crown. 

What was the easiest way to orchestrate the falls of the Holy Maid of Kent, her close circle and the high ranking Roman Catholic clergy who supported her? Well, Parliamentary intervention was needed, of course! Thomas Cromwell simply did what Thomas Cromwell was highly regarded for. He drafted a law forbidding the foretelling of the monarch's death, filing Acts of Attainder against the Holy Maid of Kent and her inner circle. How can one be convicted for violating a law before it actually became a law? Obviously, that mattered not. Parliament enacted sentence as judge and jury. Elizabeth Barton, Holy Maid of Kent and five men close to her subsequently condemned, they all were executed at Tyburn -- problem solved.

Cardinal Reginald Pole
(Artist Unidentified)
Henry Pole, 1st Baron Montagu

In our modern era, guilt by association is unconstitutional. People are not criminally blamed for the actions of their family members, though we all prefer our "skeletons stay in the closet" so our colorful relatives will not negatively influence the opinions of others. In Tudor England, however, it was very dangerous to be the immediate family member of an enemy to the king.

What were Henry Pole's crimes? Unfortunately, he was a relative of the king with Plantagenet blood -- and he was the older brother of Cardinal Reginald Pole, a man who safely in Europe, embarrassed and enraged King Henry VIII through his highly public and negative missives. This was enough to lead not only to Baron Montagu's destruction, but also the destruction of his mother, brother-in-law and other close relatives. (The Baron's younger brother Geoffrey was pardoned for providing "damning evidence" to the crown.)

Even in Tudor England it was possible that a respected noble who was innocent of any crime might actually win at trial. In fact, Thomas Cromwell admitted that the Baron Montagu "little offended save that he is of their kin". Consequently a handy and effective Act of Attainder was filed, and Henry Pole, 1st Baron Montagu, along with other relatives, was beheaded on January 9, 1539.

Thomas Cromwell
(Hans Holbein the Younger) 
Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex 

Born the son of the Putney town drunk, through tenacity, exhaustive work ethic, resourcefulness, good fortune and a genius intellect, Thomas Cromwell rose to Vicegerant, Chief Minister, Earl of Essex and Knight of the Garter -- second only to King Henry VIII in power and prestige. In doing so, Thomas Cromwell earned the respect and admiration of many in the realm, while also making enemies of others, particularly the conservative clergy and blue blood nobility. 

A brilliant Parliamentarian, Thomas Cromwell used his knowledge and influence to push King Henry VIII's agenda, successfully securing the king's Supremacy as well as a plethora of other Parliamentary Acts and Bills that not only served the best interests of the monarchy but often also the realm as a whole. 

This stated, Thomas Cromwell also utilized Parliament to exact laws and Acts of Attainder as a means to exercise expedient justice, leading to the judicial murders of many who rivaled the king's ever changing political stances and religious theology. Consequently, it is highly ironic that Thomas Cromwell also fell victim to condemnation and execution by beheading via an Act of Attainder laden with falsehoods orchestrated by his conservative rivals Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester and Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk.

Though King Henry VIII later regretted Cromwell's tragic death, blaming his Privy Council for their deceptions, as Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey observed in our introductory quote, what went around, came around. Case closed.

Blessed Margaret Pole
(Church of Our Lady and
The English Martyrs)
Blessed Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury

For traitors on the block should die;
I am no traitor, no, not I!
My Faithfulness stands fast and so,
Towards the block I shall not go!
Nor make one step, as you shall see;
Christ in Thy Mercy, save Thou me!
-- Blessed Margaret Pole --

Blessed Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury and her father, George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence, shared a common and deadly fate. Both father and daughter fell victim to the anger of their monarchs with resulting Acts of Attainder processed for their both real and perceived disloyalty. In fairness, King Edward IV did afford his brother the Duke a trial, such as it was. The irate king prosecuted the case himself, his condemned brother not allowed to attend.

Blessed Margaret Pole was first cousin to Queen Elizabeth of York, and thus was King Henry VIII's cousin, as well. A peeress in her own right, Blessed Margaret served Queen Catherine of Aragon as lady-in-waiting. Later, she would serve as governess to King Henry's daughter Princess Mary. Their bond was obviously close. When Mary was bastardized in 1533, Blessed Margaret Pole refused to return Mary's jewels and gold plate. Then, when the degraded Lady Mary's home was dismantled, the Countess of Salisbury offered to continue serving the Lady Mary at her own cost. The gracious and loving offer was refused by the king.

It is within this context that the Blessed Margaret Pole's fortunes tragically turned through the same fate as her eldest son Henry Pole, 1st Baron Montagu. Her Plantagenet blood, Roman Catholic faith, commitment to Catherine of Aragon and the Lady Mary, and most damning, her motherhood of King Henry VIII's sworn enemy Cardinal Reginald Pole led to her destruction. Like her son, the device used to condemn the Countess of Salisbury was a Parliamentary Act of Attainder.

Imprisoned for two and a half years in the Tower of London, Blessed Margaret Pole was executed by a grotesquely botched beheading on May 27, 1541, aged 68 years. She was beatified as a Roman Catholic martyr in 1886 by Pope Leo XIII.

Believed by Art Historians to be
Jane Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford
(Hans Holbein the Younger)
Jane Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford

Jane Parker Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford has a complicated, controversial and tainted legacy. Wife of George Boleyn, brother of Queen Anne Boleyn, this poor woman is painted as the jealous shrew who testified that her husband and the Queen engaged in incest, intent to place a Boleyn bastard on the throne. Did the Viscountess do it? The historical evidence is sketchy at best. It's far more likely that court innuendo instead told the story. 

What we do know to be factually true, however, is for reasons unknown but to her and God, Viscountess Rochford was a "go between and chaperone" to the reluctant Queen Katherine Howard and her suitor Thomas Culpepper. As the queen's premarital relationships and rendezvous with Culpepper were unraveled and discovered, Viscountess Rochford's complicity in arranging the covert meetings led to her arrest and downfall.

By several accounts, while imprisoned Jane Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford suffered a nervous breakdown and was declared insane. This posed a unique challenge for King Henry and his agents, as even in Tudor England it was unlawful to convict an insane person at trial. "Innocence by Reason of Insanity" actually was a known and accepted concept.

Instead, yet another "retroactively applicable law" was passed through Parliament. Thus, it became statute that the criminally insane could be executed if by reason of high treason. An Act of Attainder was filed, and Jane Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford was beheaded by a single blow of the ax on February 13, 1542. 

Unidentified Woman
(After Hans Holbein the Younger)
Historian Conor Byrne concludes
that this portrait is in actuality
Katherine Howard. Many also believe
this portrait to be an original Holbein.
Queen Katherine Howard

Upon meeting the niece of Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, King Henry VIII fell hard and fell fast. Thus, on the very day of Thomas Cromwell's execution, with his marriage to Anne of Cleves quickly annulled, the king took his fifth wife, the 17 year old Katherine Howard.

Sadly, this young woman had an exceptionally tragic childhood. Orphaned, Katherine Howard was a victim of child molestation by Henry Mannox and copulative sexual abuse by Francis Dereham. Upon her arrival at court, she told no one. After all, in Tudor England girls and women brought on sexual misconduct themselves through their lustful behavior and original sin. God willing, those who did know would keep her secret, because there really was no other choice in the matter.

Inexperienced at court and carrying a heavy secret, Queen Katherine Howard attempted to reign and showed kind spirited grace. Reassuring Archbishop Thomas Cranmer he was safe from falling on the heels of his close ally Thomas Cromwell, she thoughtfully sent clothing and bedding to the imprisoned Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury. 

Unfortunately, those who knew her secret attempted to gain advantage through blackmail. Francis Dereham thus became her private secretary, and it is thought Thomas Culpepper ingratiated himself through knowledge gained from Dereham. In short, her secrets eventually and inevitably came to the attention of the king, and the situation imploded. 

Rather than face trial as Queen Anne Boleyn did, the crown spared itself  another spectacle of a trial of a queen by passing yet again a retroactively enforced law. The Royal Assent by Commission Act of 1541 established failure of a queen consort to reveal her sexual history as high treason, punishable by death. By an Act of Attainder, Queen Katherine Howard was condemned to die and was executed by beheading along with Jane Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford on February 13, 1542. 

Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk
(Hans Holbein the Younger)

Did everyone condemned to die by a Parliamentary Act of Attainder during the reign of King Henry VIII fall victim to judicial murder? Actually, one lucky man dodged his fate through either exceptional good fortune or an act of God, whichever is your preferred belief. 

Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, was arrested for failing to disclose the actions of his son, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. As the story goes, the great Tudor Era poet used the arms of Edward the Confessor, a privilege only afforded to monarchs. King Henry VIII in his late reign paranoia believed Howard was planning to usurp him (or perhaps later, his child heir). The Earl of Surrey was tried for treason, convicted and then executed.

Unwilling to stage a second trial perhaps due to the king's failing health, Thomas Howard was condemned via an expedient Parliamentary Act of Attainder on January 26, 1547. With one last final command to issue, King Henry VIII ordered Howard's execution to take place the next day. In one of those fascinating twists that sometimes change the course of history, on January 27, 1547, King Henry VIII died instead. 

The Council ruling in the days after the king's death decided not to inaugurate the reign of King Edward VI with the execution of a noble, so Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk's execution order was lifted. Though he remained a prisoner in the Tower of London throughout Edward VI's reign, Howard was subsequently pardoned and released by Queen Mary Tudor. Howard's dukedom was reinstated, and he was appointed to the queen's new Privy Council. 

Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, once condemned to die via a damning Parliamentary Act of Attainder, was the lone survivor of "death by quill". He died of natural causes in his own bed on August 25, 1554. 



Byrne, Conor, Katherine Howard, A New History, MadeGlobal Publishing (August 14, 2014)

Luminarium, England Under the Tudors, Thomas Howard, 2nd Earl of Surrey, 3rd Duke of Norfolk.

Luminarium, England Under the Tudors, Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury.

MacCulloch, Diarmaid, Thomas Cranmer, Yale University Press, 1996.

Schofield, John, Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's Most Faithful Servant, The History Press, 2011. 

New Advent Encyclopedia, Elizabeth Barton


Beth von Staats is a short story historical fiction writer and administrator of 



  1. During the Civil war, both Strafford and Archbishop Laud were executed on Bills of Attainder. Both executions were unjust. But then, so was the execution of King Charles I himself. Thank you so much for explaining what a Bill of Attainder was!

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Evelyn.

    2. And yes, you are absolutely correct. Acts of Attainder were utilized during the Civil War similarly as in the reign of King Henry VIII. I believe their use and abuse in Great Britain is a major reason they are specifically named as unlawful in the Constitution of the United States of America.

  2. Fabulous article, Beth! I am so glad you are pointing out that Katherine Howard was molested as a young girl. That has always been my opinion as well. I feel so sorry for her.

  3. Thank you Elena. If you are interested in more information about Katherine Howard, there is a fabulous new biography of her written by Conor Byrne that I note a source for the blog post, "Katherine Howard: A New History".

  4. dear Beth is this little book called revelation the Tudor era. Is that available for to buy? and by the way that was a very great article. I learned a lot from it. As you know I'm still learning... Lol thanks again beth

  5. Terrylee, thanks for asking! Revelation is a series of short stories freely available at You can access it by clicking on the link just below the "book cover".


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