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An Analysis of the causes of the Wars and the course which they took.

Michael D. Miller

Chapter 23: Attainder and Forfeiture


It is often alleged that the ancient nobility of England, and also the lesser nobility, were destroyed by the Wars of the Roses, but if there was ever any truth in these assertions, there were only two ways in which this could have happened. Indeed a large number were killed on the battlefield, or were beheaded by the victorious side if they were taken prisoner immediately after the battle. They usually left numerous families, and even though they had died whilst backing the losing side, there was nothing to prevent the eldest son inheriting the title and the estate, and the continuance of the House, unless the dead man was also 'attained' for treason. If that happened, then the title and the estate would be 'forfeited' to the Crown.

Therefore, to judge whether or not the Houses of the ancient and lesser nobility were, or were not, decimated by the Wars, it is necessary to consider how many people were attained so that their estates were forfeited. A study will indicate that the allegations of wholesale destruction, which are particularly repeated by Philippe de Commynges' [Memoirs published 1924-1925], greatly exaggerate the true position.

As late as the 19th Century, a person convicted of a felony, a much more serious crime than a mere misdemeanour,  was liable to forfeiture of all his goods and possessions to the Crown in addition to any penalty such as death or imprisonment to which he might be sentenced. The basic difference between a felony and a misdemeanour, distinctions which have only recently disappeared from the law, was that conviction for a felony involved forfeiture (although this was not always strictly enforced) of goods and lands, whereas conviction for a misdemeanour did not. It needs no stretch of the imagination to see that Forfeiture was a severe penalty in itself.

Nature of attainder and forfeiture

Before we come to consider the Attainders and Forfeitures of the Yorkists by the Lancastrians by the Parliament of Devils in 1459, and the similar proceedings, this time against the Lancastrians by the House of York following the battles of Towton 1461 and Tewkesbury 1471, it is necessary to describe the serious penalties of Attainder and its natural corollary, Forfeiture. It is also necessary to consider how these penalties were used during the period of the Wars of the Roses.

To medieval man, there was no more serious crime than Treason, and in particular treason against the Sovereign. Such treason is still regarded as so serious that in a country which has in general abolished the death penalty, treason is one of the few crimes which still makes traitors liable to what has been described as the ultimate sanction. [In March 1998, the government of the day has announced its intention to repeal the death penalty for treason] To our ancestors however, it was regarded with even greater abhorrence. Medieval society, essentially pyramidal in nature, was based on loyalty, such as loyalty of a servant to his master or a wife to her husband, and, in the superlative degree, the loyalty of all subjects to the Monarch. A breach of that loyalty put the whole edifice of Society at risk, and was thus regarded as a crime worthy of the very severest punishment.

Attainder and Forfeiture were legal principles which were written into the law from very early times. Attainder lead on to Forfeiture, which started with Bracton's definition that the Traitor should suffer, besides some revolting corporal punishments and an agonising and humiliating death;-

"the loss of all his goods and the perpetual disinheritance of his heirs, so that they may be admitted neither to the paternal nor the maternal inheritance".

Not only were they to be beggared by Forfeiture, but also by Attainder they were to become non-persons in the legal sense. They were unable to enter into contracts, and they were not allowed to own land. There was little to distinguish them from outlaws. As some of the case histories will show later in this Chapter, this was not always so extreme. Even early opinion thought this was going too far, and in practise the King often mitigated the effects of the law. An example of this is provided by King Henry V. He refused to disinherit the infant Richard, the future Duke of York and head of that House during the early years of the Wars of the Roses, after the treason of his Father, the Duke of Cambridge, in 1415. [page ] Richard thus became the Duke of York after the death of his uncle on the battlefield of Agincourt a few weeks later. Bracton's definition was also thought too extreme by Edward III in the mid 14th century, and the Statute De Donis Conditionalibus, which was implicitly confirmed by the Treason Act 1351 - which is still on the Statute Book - exempted entailed land from the scope of the forfeiture. The law was however progressively tightened up in what was a reversion to the law as Bracton knew it. In 1388 the Merciless Parliament, sitting during the reign of King Richard II,  included the lands held to the use of the traitor. In 1397, also in King Richard II's time, it went even further and included entailed estates as well. Both these Parliaments were dealing with those people who were the losers in the chess game of medieval politics, and were thus more than usually vindictive. Thus by the end of King Richard II's reign in 1399, Bracton's dictum which is quoted above represented the law with one solitary exception; only the wife's inheritance and lands settled on her jointly with her husband were outside the scope of the forfeiture laws.

How Attainder was enforced

Attainder was more usually the judgement of Parliament rather than the Courts, and there were several disadvantages to leaving the law to take its course through the Courts from the point of view of a Monarch bent on revenge, as Henry VI's Queen and followers were in 1459, or a King simply concerned to neutralise his foes, and give them ample reason to repent, which characterised the more subtle approach of King Edward IV in the 1460s and 1470s. Legal proceedings were cumbersome and slow, and the conviction of a political foe could not be counted upon, particularly where the Accused was a prominent man who might be able to command considerable sympathy from the judges and jurors, or even to intimidate or bribe them. Trial also required the accused to be before the Court, and many of the accused were beyond reach, being either abroad or in a part of the country where they could not be arrested. Even if the accused was arrested and brought to trial, he might also be able to command considerable popular support, and a rowdy mob might compel an acquittal. A much more certain instrument to deal with political foes lay readily to hand, namely attainder by Act of Parliament. With a Parliament packed with the King's own supporters, all that was needed was the Assent of Parliament to a suitably drafted bill and its acceptance by the King. It was quick, dependable and effective, it did not depend on the accused being present in person, and it could if necessary be used quickly and on a massive scale. It is small wonder therefore that, during the Wars of the Roses and indeed in King Henry VII's reign, this was the favoured procedure for dealing with defeated enemies. Attainders could also be reversed with similar ease. The King in any case had the power to grant Royal Pardons by Letters Patent under the Great Seal, and these could be used to excuse an offender from execution or to restore to him all or part of his lands. Attainders, Reversals, and Pardons were thus potent instruments of great subtlety which could easily be framed to meet individual cases as the occasion, or the political situation, demanded.

The Parliament of Devils 1459

Even though the battle of Blore Heath on 23 September 1459 had ended in a Yorkist victory, Richard, Duke of York, was greatly discomforted by a much superior Lancastrian force at Ludford shortly afterwards, and had to retreat without a battle. The desertion of part of his own army to the Lancastrians added to his difficulties, and he and his main supporters had to flee the country. The triumphant Lancastrians set about the Attainders of the discomforted Yorkists. Parliament,  known as the Parliament of Devils, met in Coventry on 20th November 1459. [Fryde & Miller (Lander)pp124] A number of personages of royal blood were attained, namely Richard, Duke of York, and his sons Edward, Earl of March (the future King Edward IV) and Edmund, Earl of Rutland. The Duke and his sons were after all the chief objects of the Lancastrians fury. Of non-Royal persons, a total of 3 Earls, 2 Barons, 7 Knights and 9 Squires also suffered this fate. Mowat [pp 108 and 109, quoting from Whethamstede p 356 and Gregory p207] gives the names of the other prominent men and women attained as, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, his two brothers, Thomas and John, his father, also Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury,  his mother, Alice De Montacute, Countess of Salisbury, and Lord Bourchier's two sons, Lord Clinton and Lord Grey of Powys. It is not necessary to go too deeply into these Attainders, because all the Attainders passed by the Parliament of Devils were reversed by the Parliament which met in London in October 1460. By this time the wheel of fortune had spun once again, and the Yorkists had triumphed, even to the extent of having King Henry VI in their power as a virtual prisoner. There was too little time for the Attainders to have much effect on the fortunes or estates of those concerned.

[The grounds for annulling the doings of The Parliament of Devils were that this Parliament was not properly constituted; many of the "knights, citizens and burgesses having appeared without any or due election against the Laws, and the Liberties of the Commons."]

What does seem to have characterised the proceedings of the Parliament of Devils was their spite, and in this we can detect the hand of Queen Margaret. According to Friar Brackley, they were pursued in the "most vengeable labour". Doctor Aleyn, Chief Justice Fortescue, Doctor Morton, one John Heydon, and Thomas Thorpe seem to have been her chief instruments in this work. Thomas Thorpe was a Baron of the Exchequer and had been Speaker of the House of Commons in 1453 and 1454. He had then been involved in a violent quarrel with Richard,  Duke of York who had taken the opportunity to imprison him for a civil debt. One imagines that he pursued his work with relish. The only person who stood between the vengeful purposes of the Queen and those who thought like her in seeking the wholesale attainder of a great many people was King Henry VI himself, to whose gentle nature the whole thing was abhorrent. He only gave his consent on the clear understanding that he would not hesitate to pardon those he saw fit to pardon. This acted as some break upon the purposes of the rest. Nobody was executed, and the Duchess of York was merely sent to the easy confinement of the Duke of Buckingham, whose wife was the Duchesses' sister. Some attainders were reduced to fines, which, while heavy, were a final matter. In one case, that of Lord Stanley, the King rejected the Attainder outright, even though Stanley's behaviour at the Battle of Blore Heath had been suspicious to say the least.

How King Edward IV used attainder

During the period of the Wars of the Roses, King Edward IV was the main practitioner of the art of Attainder and Forfeiture. His was a long reign of 22 years, so that if there had been any wholesale destruction of the ancient nobility by these means, it would have happened between 1471 and 1483. Attainders by the Parliament of Devils in 1459 were to short-lived to have had any real effect. Likewise the massive number of attainders passed by King Richard III's only Parliament in 1484 could be reversed within the short period of two years by King Henry VII's first Parliament and they too made little lasting difference. It is thus with King Edward IV that we must be mainly concerned.

When Edward, the heir to the slain Richard, Duke of York, assumed power after the Battle of Towton in 1461, one of his first tasks was to seek the attainture of his Lancastrian foes. Not surprisingly, the list began with King Henry VI himself, his Queen Margaret and their son Edward. In his first Parliaments between 1461 and 1463, no less than 113 other people of non-royal blood were attained. This seems to indicate wholesale vengeance of a kind which King Henry VI had sought to avoid. Further examination shows however, that King Edward IV did not intend this, neither in the first period of his rule from 1461 to 1470, nor even in his second period, namely 1471 to 1483.

There is an interesting table which shows that altogether 141 people (apart from the heads of the House of Lancaster) suffered attainder during the whole of King Edward IV's reign. [We are indebted for this table to J.R.Green, History of the English People 2 pp 27, Fryde & Miller (Lander) pp97 & 124; the author has altered this table to include the attainture of the Duke of Clarence in 1478, and the reversal in favour of the Earl of Ormond, albeit for his Irish lands only] It is also interesting that only 13 people were attained after the political upheavals of 1470 and 1471. The table must be read with some caution because it does not take into account those who, like the Duke of Somerset, were attained, then forgiven, and later reattainted because of subsequent treachery. The first column must be read as showing those who were attained, sometimes more than once,  and then remained attained throughout the rest of the reign, unless they appear in the second column, which indicates that they were permanently forgiven by the time of King Edward IV's death in 1483. Likewise, the second column does not show those who were forgiven more than once during the course of the reign, but solely indites those who were permanently forgiven by 1483. Furthermore, the table indicates that the burden of attainder fell most heavily upon the lesser nobility and the humbler members of Society. It also indicates that King Edward IV used the penalty of Attainder sparingly, at least against the nobility, and there is a grain of truth in the bitter remark, "Such as were rych were hangid by the purs, and the othir(s) that were nedy were hangid by the nekkis"

As the subsequent accounts will show, Edward made full and subtle use of his ability to word as he saw fit the terms of the pardons which he granted by Letters Patent under the Great Seal, and to persuade Parliament to be equally discriminating in the terms of any Attainder or of any reversal. Any such reversals did not have to be in a set form; as has already been said, they could be, and were, drafted to fit the circumstances of each individual case.

Attained   Reversed
(1461-1483) (by 1483)
Dukes   3 -
Marquises  - -
Earls   5  2
Viscounts   1 -
Barons   8  3
Knights  38 16
Squires  55 15
Yeomen  15  3
Ecclesiastics  11  3
Merchants    5  1


141 43

These are indeed small numbers when compared with the numbers of 50/60 Great Magnates, 1, 200 knights, 1, 200 hundred Squires, and 2, 000 Gentlemen who are recorded as living in 1436; it seems reasonable to suppose that during the 1470s these figures were roughly similar. [Page ]

It would have been easy for the King to have undertaken a wholesale elimination and impoverishment of his enemies. Had he done so, there would be some justification for the charge, which is so often levied against him, that King Edward IV was a vengeful and cruel man who was only bent on revenge and who pursued the ancient nobility to its destruction. He could be ruthless and harsh, but behind his forbidding exterior, there nonetheless lurked a clever and calculating brain with a shrewd political sense. Edward was intent on neutralising his enemies and on reducing their power after he had won the battles of Towton 1461, Barnet 1471 and Tewkesbury, also 1471. He clearly intended to go further than this, and turn men who had been his enemies into supporters, albeit reluctant ones. They must not be allowed to think that there was an easy road back into favour; they must be prepared to work their way back by degrees, and to prove that they were worthy of forgiveness. In the meantime, a little poverty would do them no harm. It would in any case prevent them financing a rebellion, and the effort of rebuilding their estates, once they had re-gained them, would absorb their abundant energies.

There is no surviving document that describes this as his policy, and it would indeed be surprising if it was ever committed to writing. Men must be judged by their deeds rather than by their words, and there is enough to show the way the King's mind was working. It was however a very dangerous game to play, and if some of the men whom he forgave later betrayed him, then he may have been disappointed, but he cannot have allowed himself the luxury of surprise. It must be remembered that by 1461 (as opposed to the 1470s when he was much more secure politically), King Edward IV was beginning to feel that the Neville family was growing too powerful, and that he can have had little incentive in decimating entirely the nobility of England to whom he would look to counter-balance their influence. In fact, in the case of the Nevilles, he seems to have overplayed his hand. There is little to suggest that, unless he had first alienated them, the Nevilles would ever have turned against him and supported his Lancastrian enemies.

Who then bore the burdens of attainder and forfeiture?

The main burden fell on 124 people (knights, squires, yeomen, churchmen and merchants) who cannot be described as members of the ancient nobility however prominent they may have been locally. Of the 17 who could be so described, the following picture emerges.

Three Dukes were attained, Clarence, Somerset and Exeter, there being no reversals before 1483. Little need be said about Clarence, King Edward IV's own brother, who was attained in 1478, and died shortly afterwards in mysterious circumstances; his death was little short of judicial murder. [pages ] The House of York had a long standing feud with the Somersets, the Beaufort family, which dated back to the 1440s and possibly beyond. Henry Beaufort was executed after the battle of Hexham 1464. His brother Edmund suffered a similar fate after the battle of Tewkesbury 1471 while a third brother, John, was killed in the same battle. None of them left legitimate issue. Little is known of the shadowy fourth brother Thomas, but he took no interest in politics and also died without issue. The males of the family were all dead by May 1471, and it was left to the Beaufort females to carry on the resilient blood of the union of John of Gaunt and Catherine Swynford in the late 14th-century. One of them, Margaret Beaufort, was even the mother of a King, King Henry VII.

There are various picturesque stories that in the 1460s Henry Holland, Duke of Exeter lived in extreme poverty abroad and begged his bread from door to door, but it seems more probable that he shared Queen Margaret's exile at Kouer-La-Petite. There are also stories that he was killed at the battle of Barnet 1471, but in view of what his Duchess Anne was doing in 1471 and 1472, it seems more likely that he survived the battle. His servants were said to have found him after he had been left for dead and stripped of his armour by plundering Yorkist soldiers, dressed his wounds and carried him off to sanctuary at Westminster Abbey. There he recovered, and looked to his Duchess, King Edward IV's eldest sibling, to intercede on his behalf. This was not the first (or last) time that husbands have mistaken the temper of their wives, and Anne soon proved that her two brothers,   George and Richard, had little to teach her. [pages ] She was far more interested in getting a divorce, keeping a large part of the family estates, and marrying her paramour, Thomas St Leger, an esquire of the body who later had some trouble with Sir Thomas Fulford. [page ] She achieved all this to her own entire satisfaction by 1472, while the unfortunate Duke was removed from the comforts of sanctuary to the rigours of the Tower. He was released to take part in the 1475 expedition to France, but from then on he disappears from the pages of history. He was said to have been thrown overboard on the return voyage, possibly at the behest of Anne, then a much favoured method of disposing of those who had out-lived their usefulness. The sole fruit of the marriage between Exeter and his Duchess was a daughter, also Anne, who died when still an infant. Thus the House of Holland came to an end.

5 Earls and 1 Viscount were attained, but there were two reversals. The Percy family, the Earls of Northumberland for several centuries, were attained for fighting (and dying) for Lancaster at the battle of Towton 1461. Warwick's brother John Neville realised his ambition and became Earl of Northumberland after the battle of Hexham 1464. In 1470, when Warwick himself was in rebellion, Edward unwisely deprived John of his Earldom and restored the youthful Henry, the Percy heir, to his ancestral seat of Alnwick. Henry had recently given Edward valuable support in putting down the Lincolnshire rebellion and in chasing Warwick and Clarence out of the Kingdom, and after Edward's return from exile in 1471, he rendered Edward some sterling service which made all the difference between victory and defeat. Edward may have had some doubts that, with Warwick in rebellion, it was dangerous to leave the sensitive North entirely in Neville hands, but he needlessly antagonised John, a man who had hitherto shown him out-standing loyalty, into a bitter enemy. James Butler, Earl of Wiltshire and Ormond in Ireland,  a staunch Lancastrian, fought for Lancaster at the battles of Mortimers Cross and Towton, both 1461, and was beheaded and attained for doing so. His two brothers, John and Thomas, were also attained both in England and Ireland. The Irish attainders were reversed in 1475 when John was accepted as Earl of Ormond; his English lands could not be returned to him without causing the very gravest offence to William, Lord Hastings, Edward's close friend and the most loyal of Yorkists.

The three Earls who were not forgiven by 1483 were Oxford, Devon and Jasper Tudor. John de Vere, Earl of Oxford acquired the title after the execution of his father, also John, and elder brother Aubrey for treason in 1462. Although many favours were shown to John (he was made Knight of the Bath and put in charge of Queen Elizabeth's Coronation in 1465), he greatly resented these executions and hated the King who had caused them. When Warwick rebelled in 1469, he joined him, seeing in him a realistic chance of unseating the detestable Edward. He commanded the right division of the Lancastrian army at the battle of Barnet 1471, and after the defeat he fled to Scotland and then to France. He turned pirate for a time and then seized St Michael's Mount in 1473. Compelled to surrender early in 1474, he was sent to Hammes, one of the out-lying forts of Calais and the maximum security prison of the time. By 1474, he was beyond forgiveness, even if he had wished to seek it. He attempted suicide in 1478, but lived to escape from Hammes and join Henry Tudor's Court in exile in 1485. He commanded Henry Tudor's victorious army at the battle of Bosworth 1485, and became one of the main props of the Tudor dynasty. The one Viscount, William, Lord Beaumont, was taken prisoner with Oxford and may have shared his imprisonment in Hammes. There are other stories that he escaped before reaching Hammes, but if so he played no further substantial part in the Wars of the Roses. In Tudor times, he went mad and finished his days as Oxford's pensioner.

During the 1450s, the Courtenay Earls of Devon had supported the Yorkist cause, but Thomas Courtenay, Earl of Devon had fought for the Lancastrians at the battle of Towton 1461. Captured in April 1461, he was attained and beheaded. As early as the following June, a part of the Courtenay estates and the title were restored to his brother and heir Humphrey Courtenay. Humphrey was a restless and trouble-some man, but he was loyal to Edward and played a part in the Yorkist army which fought (and lost) the battle of Edgecote 1469. He was pursued and executed by the vengeful Warwick. The sympathies of the Courtenays shifted back to Lancaster, and John Courtenay was the Earl of Devon who commanded the Lancastrian left division at the battle of Tewkesbury 1471. He was killed in the battle, but the Courtenays lived on to play their part in Tudor times. The fifth Earl, Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke was a committed Lancastrian whose loyalties never waivered. From 1461 onwards, he was almost permanently in exile in Brittany or France, returning on at least two occasions to Wales to try to raise the Principality for Lancaster. After the defeat at Tewkesbury (he was not present at the battle), he returned to Brittany, taking his nephew Henry Tudor with him. He had no desire to make his peace with King Edward IV; he had always lived as a Lancastrian and intended to die as one.

We have a full but not complete picture of the five Barons who were remained attained until 1483, but their stories do show two interesting cases of attainder, reversal and re-attainder. Lord Rougemont-Grey was attained and executed in 1461. He left ho heirs and his House died with him. Robert, Lord Hungerford and Moleyns was attained in 1461, but was not captured and executed until after the battle of Hexham 1464. There seems to have been some reversal in favour of his son, Sir Thomas, who could not resist taking part in conspiracy for which he was executed and re-attained in 1469. Thomas, Lord Roos was captured at the battle of Hedgely Moor 1464, and he too went to the block. His son Edmund crops up again at the surrender of St Michael's Mount in 1474, and he shared Oxford's imprisonment at Hammes. Leo, Lord Welles was killed fighting for Lancaster at the battle of Towton 1461 and was subsequently attained. His son Richard, Lord Welles and Willoughby made his peace with King Edward IV and served in the victorious Yorkist army at the battle of Hexham 1464. Part of his father's estate was returned to him before the attainder was fully reversed in 1467. Even before this, he sat in Parliament in right of that part of his title he had gained from his wife; this is all the more remarkable as the lady was dead by 1460. He took a principal part in the Lincolnshire rebellion in 1470, and was re-attained and beheaded for doing so. We also know of two attainders that were reversed in favour of heirs before 1483; those of John, Lord Neville of the branch of the family which had always supported Lancaster, and Randolph, Lord Dacre.

Some case histories

Turning now to some of the case histories, they do show how the trust of King Edward IV was abused in a number of cases, and they are also an interesting view into the turbulent and unruly doings of our ancestors. Human nature does not change, and whilst most of those attained and subsequently forgiven had clearly learnt a dreadful lesson and gave no further offence, others seem to have regarded the King's forgiveness as a political move which put them under no obligation, whether of gratitude or of any other nature. There were, as always, some who could not resist the temptation to play with fire, and also some leopards who could not or would not change their spots.

Foremost among these was Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, who was captured by the Yorkists on the surrender of Bamburgh Castle in December 1462. He was sent under escort to Edward in Durham, and Edward would no doubt have liked to behead him without further ado. The surrender terms however made this impossible, and it was unheard of that such terms should not be honoured. It had happened, but such instances were rare and greatly disapproved. [For the full circumstances see page ] Edward had to accept his oath of allegiance and arrange for the reversal of his existing attainder. His sole precaution was to keep his brother Edmund in the Tower. Warwick at least could understand why it was necessary to go this far having had a hand in the surrender terms, but he did not think it necessary to go as far as Edward was prepared to do, whilst others were surprised and dismayed by the favour shown to Somerset.

Edward and Somerset went hunting together with only the barest of protection to the person of the King. Jousts were held in Somerset's honour. He shared the King's bed, to the unbridled fury of Warwick, to whom such an overwhelming favour had never been extended. Somerset even became Captain of the King's guard, and as such escorted him among a strong body of the Duke's men into Northampton in 1463. The feelings of some of Edward's supporters are revealed in an amusing quotation,

"The garde of hym was as men shulde put a lombe a

monge wolvysse of malyscyus bestys"

The citizens of Northampton, remembering the sack of their City in 1460, would have torn Somerset limb from limb but for the intervention of the King. King Edward IV sent him off to North Wales, obviously intending to keep him out of the way until tempers had cooled down a bit. Once out of Edward's sight, he betrayed him and fled to King Henry VI. He was captured at the Battle of Hexham in 1465. This time there would be no mistake. He was promptly beheaded and reattainted; his was a betrayal too many. Even this story of turning coats was not the record. Sir Henry Bellingham had fought on the Lancastrian side at Towton 1461, and had survived to take part in the Lancastrian raid on Carlisle later in that year. For this he was attained and, on being captured at Naworth, was imprisoned in the Tower. He was soon released and pardoned by Letters Patent, and took part in the Earl of Worcester's naval operations in 1463. His property was not restored at once, and clearly the King felt that he had some way to go before he could be trusted again. He himself proved the soundness of the King's view by fleeing to the Lancastrians at Bamburgh, and was again attained in 1465 for doing so. He fell into Yorkist hands once again on the surrender of Harlech in 1468, and once more found himself in the Tower. In October of that year, he was pardoned yet again. This particular leopard was not going to change his spots; when the Lancastrians returned briefly in 1470 he joined them. After the Battle of Tewkesbury 1471, a warrant was issued for his arrest. This time he had gone too far, and the new Attainder was not reversed until after King Henry VII came to the throne in 1485. Sir Henry's adventurous life had come to close by then, and the reversal was in favour of his son Roger.

King Edward IV seems to have been merciful enough with known Lancastrian supporters who had not taken part in the fighting which lead to the Battle of Towton 1461. Two of the foremost, Humphrey Neville, who was a member of the branch of the Neville family which favoured the Lancastrian cause,  and John De Vere, Earl of Oxford were not attained, although there was an existing Attainder on the De Vere family dating back to 1399. Even some who had taken part, such as Lords Rivers and Scales, were allowed to take their seats in Parliament. Some who continued to give grave offence were dealt with surprising leniency. In 1461, a prominent Lancastrian supporter, Sir Baldwin Fulford, had been captured and executed by one John Staplehill at Bristol. Attainture followed, and by August 1464 Staplehill had been granted most of the Fulford lands. Sir Baldwins son and heir, Sir Thomas Fulford, was living, prosperous and unmolested, in the countryside, where he neither forgot nor forgave the loss of his Father's lands. He secured some sort of grant to them in November 1464, but Staplehill refused to give up his gains. In April 1465 Sir Thomas, finding that persuasion was getting nowhere, invaded the lands with a considerable body of men, abused and beat Staplehill's servants, and so terrified Mrs Staplehill that for a time her life was despaired of. Sir Thomas did not stop there, because he carried off goods worth 300. Staplehill went to law, claiming that he had been wrongly dispossessed under the terms of the Letters Patent granted in August 1464, and a warrant was issued for Sir Thomas's arrest. None of these legal proceedings seem to have done the unfortunate Staplehill much good, and the King, having to weigh the respective influences of Staplehill and Sir Thomas, came down in the latter's favour. The Attainder was reversed in 1467, but this did not stop the ungrateful Sir Thomas from espousing the Lancastrian cause when the Lancastrians briefly returned to power in 1470 and 1471. After the Lancastrian defeat at the Battle of Tewkesbury 1471, he took sanctuary in Westminster, but escaped to Devon where he stirred up further trouble for King Edward IV. Although condemned by name in a proclamation, he obtained a pardon from the long suffering King in December 1471. Prudence would have dictated a quiet life thereafter, but this was impossible to a nature such as Sir Thomas's. He employed himself in harassing the luckless Staplehill, and in 1477 even mounted an attack upon the King's brother in law, Sir Thomas St Leger. It seems that the only legal proceedings ever taken against him were a bond not to enter Devon or maintain rioters under his protection, another bond requiring him to leave Staplehill alone, and yet a further bond to pay one Stephen Spycotte, one of St Legers servants, 20 for wounding and beating him. Sir Thomas showed by his behaviour just how much he was impressed by these Bonds and the financial penalties which their breach entailed. The only conclusion that is possible is that a man of his rumbustuous disposition thought it was but a small price to pay for harassing his political enemies, and was quite willing to incur the risks of driving a patient King into taking more severe measures against him.

After the Battle of Tewkesbury 1471, when King Edward IV was much more secure politically then he had been 10 years before, one would have expected wholesale revenge to be taken upon his enemies. This did not happen, and there were only 14 new attainders during the remaining 12 years of the reign. In the same period there were 36 reversals,   although some of these were completion of proceedings begun before the brief Lancastrian resumption of power. Even some who had given the King much cause for offence made their way back into society. Richard Tunstall had conducted the defence of Harlech Castle until its surrender in 1468. For this he was attained, but later served the King on an embassy. By 1473, he had proved that he was suitably penitent, and his attainder was reversed. Chief Justice Fortescue, against whom Edward IV could have been expected to nurture especial hatred after what he had done in the Parliament of Devils 1459,   renounced his Lancastrian sympathies and made his peace, subsequently becoming a Councillor. John Morton did the same, becoming not only a Councillor but Master of the Rolls and Bishop of Ely as well. Others, who could confidently have expected Attainder, escaped with heavy fines. Typical among these is Sir John Arundel of Uton in Devonshire, who was fined 6, 000 marks (4, 000) for fighting for the Lancastrians at Tewkesbury.

One who was not attained

Attainder of the Great of the Land after the battle of Tewkesbury 1471 should have begun with the Attainder of the so-called "Kingmaker", Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, whose betrayal in 1469 had come within an ace of finishing off King Edward IV and the House of York for good and all, but here there was a real difficulty. King Edward's two brothers had married the two co-heiresses of the vast Warwick estates, and quarrelled bitterly over their wives inheritance. George, Duke of Clarence, had married Isabel in 1469, whilst Richard, Duke of Gloucester had, to George's chagrin and in the teeth of all he could do to prevent it, married in 1472 the recently widowed Anne whose husband Edward, the son and heir of Henry VI, was killed at the Battle of Tewkesbury. One thing and one thing only united them in their disputes. If the Earl was attained, his estates would be forfeited to the Crown and so become Crown Lands. Doubtless their brother the King could be prevailed upon to make them suitable grants of the estates, although such grants were normally made for services rendered, and George may well have entertained some doubts how his eldest brother viewed the value of the services he had given. [pages ] Whatever the eldest brother might be prevailed upon to do, the Kings of the period were often put under great pressure by Parliament to "resume" grants of the Crown's lands [Chapter ], and they could not count on being as secure in their titles as if their wives had inherited the lands on their Father's and Mother's deaths. After much persuasion, and no doubt with much amusement at the antics of his two younger brothers, King Edward IV consented to an Act in 1474 which treated the girls Mother, Anne, Countess of Warwick, as though she were legally dead. This disgraceful piece of legislation opened the way to Isabel and Anne "inheriting" their maternal inheritance. It was still necessary to secure the paternal inheritance, and the same dubious device was used by two further Acts, passed in 1475, to prevent there being any question of the Montagues, who might well have been attained themselves, from inheriting any part of the Warwick estates. Only then could the two brothers be certain that there were indeed some spoils to quarrel over.


The question has often been asked that, if Edward did not proceed against Warwick or Montague, then how could he justify attaining others whose guilt was less? Was it a case of:-

"That were some love, but little policy."

[King Richard II, Act Scene by William Shakespeare]

King Edward IV was concerned with neither love nor fairness, but only with policy. He found it necessary to rebuild his Kingdom and its fractured society into a secure, peaceful and prosperous country, listened to and respected abroad but safe from foreign invasion and internal strife at home. Even if he had wanted to be, he could not afford to be too nice how he went about it. He made little headway during the first half of his reign (1461-1470), but this was mainly due to the political situation and the often unwise steps that he took to curb the power of the Nevilles. He made considerable headway during the reign's second half (1471-1483), when he was much more secure politically in spite of the several mistakes which he made in his dealings with France, Burgundy and Scotland. His objectives could not include the wholesale destruction of the ancient nobility, and it is suggested, this did not happen. He was merciless to those taken in arms against him and cut off their heads with little compunction, even if they had survived all that his soldiers could do. Yet he only reduced them and their families to the status of non-persons and beggared them into the bargain when he considered that no other course was open to him. Even then, he was prepared to forgive and forget when he thought that a dreadful lesson had been well and truly learnt and that in future they would behave as good and useful subjects; often the door of forgiveness was held open to the main offenders themselves. He did not require them to love him, but they had to obey him.

This was a very high risk strategy, but Edward was never one to shrink from a challenge. Edward was a man of supreme self-confidence and he considered, with much justification, that he was the equal to any one, or any combination, of this band of ruffians who surrounded him as his Court. In any case, it pleased his sense of malicious fun to see them all at Court, wearing pious expressions as though butter would not melt in their mouths, while their well-informed King knew perfectly well, or could sense, what was going through their minds. If some betrayed his trust, he could not allow himself to be surprised or disappointed. He could only persevere, and this he did. What is clear however is that the accounts that he perused the ancient nobility to its extinction cannot be sustained.

Copyright Michael D. Miller 2003