In English criminal law, attainder or attinctura is the metaphorical 'stain' or 'corruption of blood' which arises from being condemned for a serious capital crime (felony or treason). It entails losing not only one's property and hereditary titles, but typically also the right to pass them on to one's heirs. Both men and women condemned of capital crimes could be attainted.

Attainder by confession results from a guilty plea at the bar before judges or before the coroner in sanctuary. Attainder by verdict results from conviction by a jury. Attainder by process results from a legislative act outlawing a fugitive.


Attainders of British aristocracy in the Middle Ages and Renaissance

Medieval and Renaissance British kings and queens used acts of attainder to deprive nobles of their lands and often their lives. Once attainted, the descendents of the noble could no longer inherit his lands or income. Attainder essentially amounted to the legal death of the attainted's family.[1]

Kings 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.

Regnants who used attainder include:

  • Margaret of Anjou - whose 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.
  • Henry VII - initially attainted men after he ascended the throne.[4] 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 behavior. (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:

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 is a bill passed by Parliament attainting persons condemned for high treason, or, in rare cases, a lesser crime. Notably, a person thus attainted need not have been convicted of treason in a court of law. Consequently, attainder has historically been used for political purposes against people whose guilt would have been difficult to prove, or indeed who were entirely innocent. Bills of attainder are also available to condemn criminals who cannot be brought to justice.

A bill of attainder was last passed in Britain in 1798. Attainders by confession, verdict and process were abolished in the United Kingdom by the Forfeiture Act 1870 (33 & 34 Vict., c.23).

Section 9 of Article One of the United States Constitution provides that no bill of attainder or ex post facto law shall be passed by Congress. Article One, Section 10 forbids states from passing them.

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 criminal (whose property had been forfeited on conviction) or from their other relatives through the criminal. For example, if a son is executed for a crime leaving innocent grandsons as orphans, and the innocent grandfather has other children besides the criminal, the property of the criminal is forfeited to the crown. But when the grandfather dies, the property of the grandfather will not be seized by the Crown or pass to the grandchildren: it passes to the other children of the grandfather.

While the United States Constitution (in article III, section 3) prohibits corruption of blood, it is nonetheless possible in many states for a crime to affect the inheritance rights of innocent relatives due to the slayer rule.

In England and Wales, where a judge considers it just, the Forfeiture Act 1982 applies in murder and in some forms of manslaughter, to simplify the common law rule. The rule applied to felony before the Forfeiture Act 1870.

Examples of cases where a person's property was subject to attainder


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  • attainder — at·tain·der /ə tān dər/ n [Anglo French atteinder, from ateindre to convict, sentence, literally, to reach, attain, ultimately from Latin attingere to reach, from ad to + tangere to touch]: the termination of the civil rights of a person upon a… …   Law dictionary

  • Attainder — • An Act of Parliament for putting a man to death or for otherwise punishing him without trial in the usual form Catholic Encyclopedia. Kevin Knight. 2006. Attainder     Attainder      …   Catholic encyclopedia

  • Attainder — At*tain der, n. [OF. ataindre, ateindre, to accuse, convict. Attainder is often erroneously referred to F. teindre tie stain. See {Attaint}, {Attain}.] 1. The act of attainting, or the state of being attainted; the extinction of the civil rights… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • attainder — [ə tān′dər] n. [ME atteindre < Anglo Fr atteinder, inf. used as n. < OFr ataindre (see ATTAIN); sense infl. by ME atteinten, ATTAINT] 1. forfeiture of property and loss of civil rights of a person sentenced to death or outlawed: see BILL OF …   English World dictionary

  • attainder — (n.) extinction of rights of a person sentenced to death or outlaw, mid 15c., from noun use of O.Fr. ataindre to touch upon, strike, hit, seize, accuse, condemn (see ATTAIN (Cf. attain)). For use of French infinitives as nouns, especially in… …   Etymology dictionary

  • attainder — /euh tayn deuhr/, n. 1. the legal consequence of judgment of death or outlawry for treason or felony, involving the loss of all civil rights. 2. Obs. dishonor. [1425 75; late ME, n. use of AF attaindre to convict, OF ataindre to convict, ATTAIN]… …   Universalium

  • attainder — /ateyndar/ At common law, that extinction of civil rights and capacities which took place whenever a person who had committed treason or felony received sentence of death for his crime. The effect of attainder upon such felon was, in general… …   Black's law dictionary

  • attainder — /ateyndar/ At common law, that extinction of civil rights and capacities which took place whenever a person who had committed treason or felony received sentence of death for his crime. The effect of attainder upon such felon was, in general… …   Black's law dictionary

  • attainder — [ə teɪndə] noun historical the forfeiture of land and civil rights suffered as a consequence of a sentence of death for treason or felony. Phrases act (or bill) of attainder an item of legislation inflicting attainder without judicial process.… …   English new terms dictionary

  • attainder — The state into which the offender was placed by operation of law when sentence was pronounced against him for a capital offense, by the ancient common law. The three principal incidents of attainder were forfeiture of property, corruption of… …   Ballentine's law dictionary

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