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19th-century drawing of the Star Chamber

The Court of Star Chamber

"I will make a Star-Chamber matter of it!"
          —Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor. I.i., 414.

STAR CHAMBER, the name given in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries to an English court of justice. The name is probably derived from the stars with which the roof of the chamber was painted; it was the camera stellata.

The origin and early history of the court are somewhat obscure. The curia regis of the 12th century, combining judicial, deliberative and administrative functions, had thrown off several offshoots in the Court of King's Bench and other courts, but the Crown never parted with its supreme jurisdiction. When in the 13th century the King's Council became a regular and permanent body, practically distinct from parliament, this supreme jurisdiction continued to be exercised by the King in council. As the ordinary courts of law became more important and more systematic, the indefinite character of the council's jurisdiction gave rise to frequent complaints, and efforts, for the most part fruitless, were made by the parliaments of the 14th century to check it. The equitable jurisdiction of the Chancellor, which grew up during the reign of Edward III like the courts of law under Henry II, was derived from this supreme judicial power, which was yet unexhausted.

It is in the reign of Edward III, after an Act of 1341, that we first hear of the Chancellor, Treasurer, Justices and other members of the King's Council exercising jurisdiction in the old chamber, or chambre de estoiles, at Westminster. In Henry VI's reign one Danvers was acquitted of a certain charge by the council in the camera stellata. Hitherto such acts of parliament as had recognized this jurisdiction had done so only by way of limitation or prohibition, but in 1453, about the time when the distinction between the ordinary and the Privy Council first became apparent, an act was passed empowering the Chancellor to enforce the attendance of all persons summoned by the Privy Seal before the King and his Council in all cases not determinable by Common Law. At this time, then, the jurisdiction of the Council was recognized as supplementary to that of the ordinary courts of law. But the anarchy of the Wars of the Roses and the decay of local justice, owing to the influence of the great barons and the turbulence of all classes, obliged parliament to entrust wider powers to the Council. This was the object of the famous Act of 1487, which was incorrectly quoted by the lawyers of the Long Parliament as creating the Court of Star Chamber, which was in reality of earlier origin.

The Act of 1487 (3 Hen. VII.) created a court composed of seven persons, the Chancellor, the Treasurer, the Keeper of the Privy Seal, or any two of them, with a bishop, a temporal lord and the two chief justices, or in their absence two other justices. It was to deal with cases of "unlawful maintainance, giving of licences, signs and tokens, great riots, unlawful assemblies"; in short with all offences against the law which were too serious to be dealt with by the ordinary courts. The jurisdiction thus entrusted to this committee of the council was not supplementary, therefore, like that granted in 1453, but it superseded the ordinary courts of law in cases where these were too weak to act. The act simply supplied machinery for the exercise, under special circumstances, of that extraordinary penal jurisdiction which the council had never ceased to possess. By an act of 1529 an eighth member, the President of the Council, was added to the Star Chamber, the jurisdiction of which was at the same time confirmed. At this time the court performed a very necessary and valuable work in punishing powerful offenders who could not be reached by the ordinary courts of law. It was found very useful by Cardinal Wolsey, and a little later Sir Thomas Smith says its object was "to bridle such stout noblemen or gentlemen who would offer wrong by force to any manner of men, and cannot be content to demand or defend the right by order of the law."

Drawing of the Old Star Chamber building

It is popularly supposed that the star chamber, after an existence of about fifty years, disappeared towards the end of the reign of Henry VIII, the powers obtained by the Act of 1487 being not lost, but reverting to the Council as a whole. This may have been so, but it is more probable that the Star Chamber continued to exist side by side with the Council, and the two bodies were certainly separate during the latter part of Elizabeth's reign. The Act of 1540, which gave the King's proclamation the force of law, enacted that offenders against them were to be punished by the usual officers of the council, together with some bishops and judges "in the Star Chamber or elsewhere." It is difficult, if not impossible, to draw a clear distinction between the duties of the Privy Council and the duties of the Star Chamber at this time, although before the abolition of the latter there was a distinction "as to their composition and as to the matters dealt with by the two courts." During the reign of Elizabeth, Sir Thomas Smith remarks that juries misbehaving "were many times commanded to appear in the Star Chamber, or before the Privy Council for the matter." The uncertain composition of the court is well shown by Sir Edward Coke, who says that the Star Chamber is or may be compounded of three several councils: (i) the Lords and others of the Privy Council; (2) the judges of either bench and the barons of the Exchequer; (3) the Lords of Parliament, who are not, however, standing judges of the court. William Hudson (d. 1635), on the other hand, considers that all peers had the right of sitting in the court, but if so they had certainly given up the privilege in the 17th century.

The jurisdiction of the Star Chamber was as vague as its constitution. Hudson says it is impossible to define it without offending the supporters of the prerogative by a limitation of its powers, or the lawyers by attributing to it an excessive latitude. In practice its jurisdiction was almost unlimited. It took notice of riots, murder, forgery, felony, perjury, fraud, libel and slander, duels and acts tending to treason, as well as of some civil matters, such as disputes about land between great men and corporations, disputes between English and foreign merchants, and testamentary cases; in fact, as Hudson says, "all offences may be here examined and punished if the King will." Its procedure was not according to the Common Law. It dispensed with the encumbrance of a jury; it could proceed on rumour alone; it could apply torture; it could inflict any penalty but death. It was thus admirably calculated to be the support of order against anarchy, or of despotism against individual and national liberty.

During the Tudor period it appeared in the former light, under the Stuarts in the latter. Under the Tudors, as S. R. Gardiner says, it was "a tribunal constantly resorted to as a resource against the ignorance or prejudices of a country jury," and adds that "in such investigations it showed itself intelligent and impartial." Under James I and Charles I all this was changed; the Star Chamber became the great engine of the royal tyranny. Hateful and excessive punishments were inflicted on those brought before the court, notable among whom were Prynne, Bastwick and Burton, and the odium which it gathered around it was one of the causes which led to the popular discontent against Charles I. As it became more unpopular its jurisdiction was occasionally questioned. An example of this kind occurred in 1629, but the barons of the Exchequer who heard the case declared that the Star Chamber was created many years before the statute of Henry VII and that it was "one of the most high and honourable courts of justice."

It was abolished by an act of parliament of July 1641. In 1661 a committee of the House of Lords reported "that it was fit for the good of the nation that there be a court of like nature to the Star Chamber"; but nothing further was done in the matter.




      Excerpted from:

      Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Ed. Vol XXV.
      Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910. 796.




Books for further study:

Guy, John A. Court of Star Chamber and Its Records of the Reign of Elizabeth.
            Unipub, 1984.

Hargrave, William. A Treatise on the Court of Star Chamber.
            Legal Classics Library, 1986.

Rawson, Samuel. Reports of Cases in the Courts of Star Chamber and High Commission.
            London: Camden Society, 1886.




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Robert Radcliffe, 5. Earl of Sussex
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Thomas Percy, 7. E. Northumberland
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William Herbert, 1. Earl of Pembroke
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Thomas Howard, 1. Earl of Suffolk
Henry Hastings, 3. E. of Huntingdon
Edward Manners, 3rd Earl of Rutland
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Images:

Chart of the English Succession from William I through Henry VII

Medieval English Drama

London c1480, MS Royal 16
London, 1510, the earliest view in print
Map of England from Saxton's Descriptio Angliae, 1579
Location Map of Elizabethan London
Plan of the Bankside, Southwark, in Shakespeare's time
Detail of Norden's Map of the Bankside, 1593
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Sketch of the Swan Theatre, c. 1596
Westminster in the Seventeenth Century, by Hollar
Visscher's Panoramic View of London, 1616. COLOR
c. 1690. View of London Churches, after the Great Fire
The Yard of the Tabard Inn from Thornbury, Old and New London




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