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Goofy Hypocrites

This Day in Goofery

May 17
1521: Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham, is executed by order of King Henry VIII; attainted July 31, 1523.

Source: Tough luck, Ed

If I’d lived in Henry VIII’s time, I would really dread getting a jury summons. Not only would you likely be pressured to cut someone’s head off, but if after the deed was done, a writ of attaint was issued, you yourself would know the wrath of the king.

The writ of attaint (to reverse a verdict), derived from an Old French word meaning “bring to justice,” was issued at the Crown’s pleasure. The review of the verdict and determination of correctness would be made by a 24-person grand jury of attaint.

If it were found that an erroneous verdict had been given, the wrong was redressed, and the original jury was punished. The punishment inflicted was quite severe; at the common law, the judgement was: “1. That they should lose their liberam legem, and become for ever infamous. 2. That they should forfeit all their goods and chattels. 3. That their lands and tenements should be seized into the king’s hands. 4. That their wives and children should be thrown out of doors. 5. That their houses should be razed and thrown down. 6. That their trees should be rooted up. 7. That their meadows should be ploughed. 8. That their bodies should be cast into gaol.” However, during the reign of Henry VIII, Parliament passed an act reducing the punishment to perpetual infamy and a fine.

Source: Writ of Attaint

But not before Henry scooped up his share of property and goods.

So after Edward Stafford had his head cut off, he was retroactively attainted two years later, through an bill of attainder, which disinherited his family through “corruption of blood.” Not to be confused with the writ of attaint–a jury nullification procedure–an act of attainder gave the ruling monarch carte blanche to override civil rights. It was a license to kill–through legislative rather than judicial means. Henry VIII was especially good at this. Sick of your wife? Off with her head!

Before offing Catherine by act of attainder, he would be required to give Royal Assent after hearing the charges read. Henry feared that his delicate constitution might be disturbed by “the repetition of so grievous a Story and the recital of so infamous a crime” and “might reopen a Wound already closing in the Royal Bosom”. So Parliament inserted a clause into the Act, providing that Assent granted by Commissioners “is and ever was and ever shall be, as good” as Assent granted by the Sovereign him- or herself.

“Don’t look at me–Parliament made me do it!”

Unfortunately, beheading victims were made to look at themselves. “Following execution the severed head was held up by the hair by the executioner. This was done, not as many people think to show the crowd the head, but in fact to show the head the faces of crowd and it’s own body! Killing by beheading is not immediate. Consciousness remains for at least eight seconds after beheading until lack of oxygen causes unconsciousness and eventually death.”

Source: One Last Indignity

Henry also repealed a law against killing the insane, so he could dispose of Lady Rochford, George Boleyn’s widow, who as lady-in-waiting to Catherine Howard facilitated the affair between “Kitty” and Thomas Culpepper. Hard to believe they didn’t know how that one would end.

King James II was even better at exploiting his royal weaponry. He used the “Great Act of Attainder” to kill off 2 to 3,000 “disloyal” subjects.

Henry must have found May 17 a good day to die–or kill, at least.

1536: George Boleyn, Viscount Rochford, executed at Tower Hill, along with Sir Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, Sir William Brereton and Mark Smeaton

All five men, including George, the brother of Anne Boleyn, had been accused of adultery (one count incest) with Queen Anne. Henry VIII and his top yes-man, Thomas Cromwell, had cooked up this scheme to get rid of Anne so he could marry Jane Seymour. Sir Thomas Boleyn, his daughter’s pimp, was on the jury and voted his own son guilty, thereby condemning both his children to death. As big a scuzz as was Henry VIII, Tom was right up there with him, and yet Henry let him live. Coming from someone who had people beheaded with a wave of his hand, never will I understand that bit of mercy. Nor forgive it! Of course Cromwell was later executed for treason for fixing Henry up with another wife, Anne of Cleves, that Henry didn’t fancy. He merely divorced her, though, and went on to the next wife.

But guess what other popular historical figure drafted a bill of attainment against a treasonable offense?

In his first inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson listed “trial by juries impartially selected” as one of the essential American liberties, and in 1783 he proposed a new Virginia constitution outlawing “any bill of attainder, (or other law declaring any person guilty) of treason or felony.” And yet only five years earlier, he had been instrumental in passing just such a bill.

In 1777, Josiah Philips, a Tory laborer, began plundering southeastern Virginia and terrifying the citizens with arson and murder. In May 1778, Governor Patrick Henry ordered the militia to arrest “the noted Traitor” and his fifty followers, but the government’s forces were routed, and Philips and his men went into hiding. Henry turned to Jefferson-a General Assembly delegate from Albemarle County-who called for a bill of attainder. Jefferson drafted the bill May 28, and introduced it to the legislature the same day. It begins:

“Whereas a certain Josiah Philips labourer of the parish of Lynhaven and county of Princess Anne together with divers others . . . have levied war against this Commonwealth, . . . and whereas the delays which would attend the proceeding to outlaw the said offenders according to the usual forms and procedures of the courts of law would leave the said good people for a long time exposed to murder and devastation. Be it therefore enacted by the General assembly that if the said Josiah Philips his associates and confederates shall not on or before the last day of June in this present year render themselves to the Governor . . . then shall stand and be convicted and attainted of high treason, and shall suffer the pains of death.”

Jefferson was clear about his reasons: “the usual forms and procedures of the courts of law” would result in delays and leave the public “exposed to murder and devastation.” The threat was enough to make him advocate mob justice, deputizing all the population to serve as summary executioners: “It shall be lawful for any person with or without orders, to pursue and slay the said Josiah Philips and any others who have been of his associates or confederates.” Even “associates or confederates” could be legally executed on the spot.

Damn, man!


Just one year after the Philips unpleasantness, the U.S. Constitution, signed by the show-off John Hancock and the recent legal vigilante Jefferson, was signed into effect on September 17, 1778. Article 1-The Legislation, Article 9-Limits on Congress, reads: “No Bill of Attainder or ex post facto Law shall be passed.” (Corruption of blood is also outlawed, at least after the traitor’s death–Article 3-Judicial Branch, Section 9-Treason).

But it’s prefaced by: “The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.”

Huh? Isn’t that what Jefferson had just done? Habeus corpus guarantees that prisoners can be released from unlawful detention (detention lacking sufficient cause or evidence). It doesn’t provide for being shot in the street, accused or not, a prisoner or not, by any old citizen, does it? I’m a lover, not a lawyer; I can’t speak to difference between legal suspension of habeas corpus and illegal attainder, but it smells like a loophole to me.

James Madison, elected President in 1809, had proclaimed in The Federalist, in 1788, “Bills of attainder, ex post facto laws, and laws impairing the obligations of contracts, are contrary to the first principles of the social compact, and to every principle of sound legislation. … The sober people of America are weary of the fluctuating policy which has directed the public councils. They have seen with regret and indignation that sudden changes and legislative interferences, in cases affecting personal rights, become jobs in the hands of enterprising and influential speculators, and snares to the more-industrious and less-informed part of the community.”

Jefferson asked to be remembered on his tombstone as the “author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia” and, at his request, “not a word more.” Like don’t mention that time I told everybody to kill anybody anytime.

And habeas corpus has been suspended–by Abraham Lincoln (who ignored the MD Circuit Court order not to), Jefferson Davis and others. An attempt by the House to pass a bill indemnifying Lincoln resulted in The Habeas Corpus Suspension Act of 1863 (March) which authorized the president of the United States to suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus in response to the Civil War. And that he did, in September of that same year, in any case involving prisoners of war, spies, traitors, or military personnel.

In 1865, President Andrew Johnson issued Proclamation 148, which “revoked and annulled” suspension of habeas corpus…”excepting as to the States of Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas, the District of Columbia, and the Territories of New Mexico and Arizona.”

Some revocation, prez! Now that’s just goofy.

And the challenges to habeas corpus go on.

As the Queen of Hearts put it, “Sentence first–verdict afterwards.” She was a Queen, after all–they get to do what they want.

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