The Historical Journal


I. Attainder and Forfeiture, 1453 To 15091

J. R. Landera1

a1 University College of Ghana

Attainder was the most solemn penalty known to the common law. Attainder for treason was followed not only by the most savage and brutal corporal penalties and the forfeiture of all possessions, but in addition the corruption of blood passing to all direct descendants, in other words, by the legal death of the family. Before proceeding to an examination of the effects of parliamentary acts of attainder in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries it is necessary first of all to define the scope of forfeiture for treason as it affected landed property. Bracton's classic definition of forfeiture had involved for the traitor ‘the loss of all his goods and the perpetual disinheritance of his heirs, so that they may be admitted neither to the paternal nor to the maternal inheritance’. Feudal opinion had always been very much opposed to the stringency of this conception and the Edwardian statute De Donis Conditionalibus, confirmed implicitly by the treason statute of 1352, had protected entailed estates from the scope of forfeiture, thus leaving only the fee simple and the widow's dower within the scope of the law. The wife's own inheritance or any jointure which had been made for her, because they ante-dated her husband's treason, as distinct from her right to dower which did not, were not liable to ultimate forfeiture—though a married woman could claim them only when ‘her time came according to the common law’, that is after the death of her husband when she ceased to be ‘femme couvert’. This equitable principle was confirmed by a statute of the Merciless Parliament of 1388 which, however, included for the first time the rule that lands held to the use of a traitor were also included in the scope of forfeiture. Thus, by 1388, of the lands held by a traitor (as distinct from the wife's inheritance and jointure), only those held in fee tail fell outside the scope of the treason laws. This loophole was closed by Richard II in 1398 when Parliament declared forfeit entailed estates as well as lands held in fee simple and to the use of a traitor, thus reverting with one exception to Bracton's view of forfeiture.


1 I wish to thank Dr E. B. Fryde for criticism and advice on this paper.