bill of attainder

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an act of legislature finding a person guilty of treason or felony without trial.
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Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2022


What is a bill of attainder?

A bill of attainder is legislation that declares a person or group guilty of treason or felony without a trial.

In English law, attainder was the loss of all civil and political rights of someone who was convicted of treason or another severe crime. The punishment for attainder was death or exile and their land forfeited to the ruling monarch. A bill of attainder resulted in the same losses, but the person named wasn’t given a trial. Parliament could decide a person was guilty of treason or a felony through a legislative act, with consent from the reigning monarch.

Why is bill of attainder important?

In English law, the Magna Carta (1215) stated that a person had the right to protection against unjust or unlawful arrest and imprisonment. Known as habeas corpus, this protection was intended to guard against tyrannical monarchs and prevent them from arresting and killing anyone they wanted, especially members of Parliament. However, English law still allowed Parliament to use legislation known as a bill (or act) of attainder to ignore habeas corpus and arrest people who were allegedly guilty of the highest crimes, such as treason, without a trial.

Over the centuries, many supposed traitors were killed through bills of attainder, including Henry VIII’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, in 1540 and his fifth wife, Catherine Howard in 1542, as well as the revolutionary Guy Fawkes in 1605. Despite their power to use them, Parliament did not frequently use bills of attainder, although they remained legal in the United Kingdom until 1870.

While not used anymore, bills of attainder were used throughout English history by monarchs and Parliament against their political enemies. The framers of the US Constitution found the practice so horrific, that the Constitution specifically forbids bills of attainder.

Did you know … ?

Famous English military general Oliver Cromwell was convicted of treason by a bill of attainder in 1661 for his involvement in England’s civil wars. Fortunately for him, he had already been dead for three years. His dead body was found guilty of treason and was “executed” by being hanged and then beheaded.

What are real-life examples of bill of attainder?

This video explains what a bill of attainder is and how it was used against Lord Thomas Seymour during the rule of King Edward VI:

Bills of attainder have been illegal in the United Kingdom and elsewhere for centuries. They are most often talked about in discussions of history or in court cases where controversial laws that may actually be bills of attainder are under debate.



What other words are related to bill of attainder?

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True or False?

A bill of attainder allowed Parliament to arrest and punish someone without giving them a trial.

How to use bill of attainder in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for bill of attainder

bill of attainder

(formerly) a legislative act finding a person guilty without trial of treason or felony and declaring him attaintedSee also attainder (def. 1)
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012