March 5, 1549 – Bill of Attainder Against Thomas Seymour

Thomas Seymour, by Nicolas Denisot (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Thomas Seymour, by Nicolas Denisot (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

March 5, 1549 was the day Thomas Seymour realized his life was over, the day that a parliamentary bill of attainder declared him guilty of 33 counts of treason and sentenced him to death.

Wikipedia gives such a dispassionate description of what the bill of attainder (also referred to as the act of attainder) represents. They call it “an act of a legislature declaring a person or group of persons guilty of some crime and punishing them, often without a trial…. Bills of attainder were passed in England between about 1300 and 1800 and resulted in the executions of a number of notable historical figures.

Luminarium adds more judgment: “[I]n the reign of Henry VIII they were much used, through a subservient parliament, to punish those who had incurred the king’s displeasure; many distinguished victims who could not have been charged with any offence under the existing laws being by this means disposed of.”

Yep. Think of Thomas Cromwell when you read that. Both for starting the widespread use of attainder in the first place as well as for ending up as one of its victims.

Though truth be told, in an age where simply displeasing the sovereign could be construed as treason, most cases simply had no hope of defense even for behavior that was not technically so. After all, for Catherine Howard and Jane Rochford laws were retroactively changed to ensure their deaths (in Catherine’s case, to make it treason for a non-virgin to marry the King in Rochford’s case, to remove insanity as an impediment to execution).

And we know that a defense makes no difference. Anne Boleyn got a trial and the opportunity to defend herself, but was still unanimously convicted. Her brother, George, put on such a good defense that the wagering favored an acquittal – and was also unanimously convicted. (I believe the only reason they weren’t convicted by act of attainder was to ensure that all doubts were removed from the equation. I see this as the ultimate proof of Anne’s innocence.)

But back to Tom Seymour. In another blog post (here), I describe his crime: breaking into a sleeping Edward VI’s bedchamber in the middle of the night and killing his dog. There really would have been no way to defend that, especially given his erratic and dangerous conduct since the death of Katherine Parr – and the implication that he had killed her. Attainder was merely the convenient approach – convenient, but still relatively thorough, since the bill was passed by the Lords and Commons rather than just the Star Chamber (a small group of noblemen).

Upon the bill’s approval, Tom was stripped of his property and titles. His daughter, Mary, was placed in the care of the Duchess of Suffolk – who didn’t really want her (Mary was penniless but as the daughter of a dowager queen required expensive protocols). That’s another blog post…here, if you’re interested.

February 7, 1542 – Bill of Attainder Passed Against Catherine Howard and Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford

Catherine Howard and Jane Rochford, from BBC America’s The Tudors

February 7, 1542 marks an important point in the surprisingly complex legal case against Catherine Howard: the passage of the Bill of Attainder that declared Catherine Howard and Jane Rochford guilty of treason and all their properties forfeit. The Bill was more than a simple attainder: it also made it treason for a woman with an unchaste reputation to marry the King, and for any third person who knew of such unchastity to conceal it. It further made it treason for a queen to commit adultery, and for anyone to incite someone to have “carnal knowledge” of the queen.  The Bill was introduced into Parliament on January 21 – but took two weeks to pass.  Even then, February 7 did not establish the final sentence: the Bill lingered for another three days. The Council finally “signed” it on February 10 by writing “Le Roy le veut” (the King wills it) at the top and attaching the Great Seal.

Some argue that this Bill necessary for a case against Catherine – that otherwise, she logically should have followed Francis Dereham and Thomas Culpeper to the block back in December. But by Tudor standards, Catherine was precontracted to Dereham (though she vehemently denied this) and therefore could not have committed adultery since she had never been lawfully married to the King. Others believe that the attainder process was just a simple case of avoiding a sensational trial that would expose the King to even more embarrassment than he had already suffered.

(Interestingly, Chapuys reports that the King, “immediately after Parliament had pronounced sentence, wishing to proceed with all moderation and justice in the Queen’s case, had sent to her certain privy councillors and members of Parliament to propose that she should, if she wished, defend her own case in that assembly. This the Queen refused, submitting herself entirely to the King’s commiseration and will, all the time admitting and owning that she deserved death.”)

For Jane Rochford, her attempts to throw Catherine under the bus were in vain – her fate was sealed by Catherine’s own letter to Culpeper. “Come to me when my Lady Rochford be here, for then I shall be best at leisure to be at your commandment….”  Upon Jane’s arrest, she is said to have undergone a nervous breakdown – which many people refused to believe was real but rather a ploy to escape a trial and death sentence. Henry apparently didn’t care: he implemented a law which would allow the execution of the insane for high treason. When Jane learned of this, she recovered.

The two women were executed on February 13 at Tower Green, the same spot where Catherine’s cousin and Jane’s sister-in-law, Anne Boleyn, had been beheaded in 1536.


Calendar of State Papers, Spain, 6(1), 232 contains Chapuys’ description of the events

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