[Home]Star Chamber

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An English court of law at the royal palace at Westminster?, so named because it had a large star painted on its ceiling. The Star Chamber evolved from meetings of the king's royal council, with its roots going back to the medieval period. The court only became unusually powerful during the reign of Henry VII, when in 1487 the court became a separate judicial body from the king's council with a mandate to hear petitions of redress. The Star Chamber was finally abolished in 1641 by the Long Parliament.

Initially well regarded because of its speed and flexibility, it was made up of privy councilors as well as common-law judges and supplemented the activities of the common-law and equity courts in both civil and criminal matters. In a sense the court was a supervisory body, overseeing the operations of lower courts, though its members could hear cases by direct appeal as well. The court was set up to ensure the fair enforcement of laws against prominent people, those so powerful that ordinary courts could never convict them of their crimes. Under the Tudor?s, the mandate of the court expanded to include instances of public disorder and rioting. Judges would receive petitions involving property rights, public corruption, trade and government administration, and disputes arising from land enclosures. Although the court could order torture, prison, and fines, it did not have the power to impose the death sentence. Under the Tudors Star Chamber sessions were public.

Under Chancellor Wolsey and Cranmer?s leadership (1515?-1529?), the Court of Star Chamber became a political weapon for bringing actions against opponents to the decrees and edicts of Henry VIII. Although the court was initially a court of appeal, Henry VIII and his councillors Wolsey and Cranmer encouraged plaintiffs to bring their cases directly to the Star Chamber, bypassing the lower courts entirely.

The power of the court of Star Chamber grew considerably under the Stuart?s, and by the time of Charles I it had become a byword for misuse and abuse of power by the king and his circle. James I and his son Charles used the court to examine cases of sedition, which meant that the court could be used to suppress opposition to royal policies. It came to be used to try nobles too powerful to be brought to trial in the lower courts. Court sessions were held in secret, with no indictments, no right of appeal, no juries, and no witnesses. Evidence was presented in writing, and the verdict was whatever the privy council decided. Charles I used the Court of Star Chamber as a sort of Parliamentary substitute during the years 1628-1640, when he refused to call Parliament. On October 17 1632, the Court of Star Chamber banned all "news books" over complaints from the ambassadors from Spain and Austria that coverage of the Thirty Years War in English newspapers was unfair. Newspapers had to be printed in Amsterdam and then smuggled into the country until the ban was lifted six years later. Charles I made extensive use of the Court of Star Chamber to persecute dissenters, including the Puritans who fled to New England. Star Chamber proceedings were not only used to gain arbitrary convictions, but also arbitrary acquittals for guilty parties whom the crown wished to protect as well. The abuses of the Star Chamber by Charles I were one of the rallying cries for those who eventually executed him.

In the early 1900s, [Edgar Lee Masters]? wrote:

"In the Star Chamber the council could inflict any punishment short of death, and frequently sentenced objects of its wrath to the pillory, to whipping and to the cutting off of ears. ... With each embarrassment to arbitrary power the Star Chamber became emboldened to undertake further usurpation. ... The Star Chamber finally summoned juries before it for verdicts disagreeable to the government, and fined and imprisoned them. It spread terrorism among those who were called to do constitutional acts. It imposed ruinous fines. It became the chief defense of Charles against assaults upon those usurpations which cost him his life. ..."

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Last edited October 19, 2001 5:30 am by Bryan Derksen (diff)