Star Chamber

views updated May 21 2018


STAR CHAMBER. The court of Star Chamber took its name from the Camera Stellata in Westminster where its sessions were routinely held. The term does not appear to have been used before 1550 and only became popular in 1618 in Ferdinand Pulton's Collection of Sundrie Statutes. The court grew out of the medieval practice of the king's council hearing cases by petition, an alternative to the cumbersome process of the common law courts. Under Cardinal Wolsey's chancellorship (15151529), these legal functions of the council were separated from its administrative functions and the business of the court increased tenfold. Privy councillors, sometimes joined by the leading common law judges and lawyers, heard petitions and passed judgment. Most of the court's business in the early sixteenth century was civil, but by the 1560s an increasing number of criminal cases were heard. From 1566 the court also dealt with sedition, and its reputation for hearing politically sensitive cases increased. The court's business declined under the early Stuart kings, but its unsavory reputation for summary trial without jury and use of arbitrary power by the crown increased. Political show trials, such as those of the Puritans Alexander Leighton in 1630 and William Prynne, John Bastwicke, and Henry Burton in 1637, and the cruel and unusual punishments inflicted meant that Star Chamber became a prime target of opponents of Charles I in 16401641. On 5 July 1641, the Long Parliament abolished Star Chamber along with that other symbol of prerogative justice, the Court of High Commission.

See also Charles I (England) ; Law: Courts .


Baldwin, J. F. The King's Council in England during the Middle Ages. Oxford, 1913.

Barnes, T. G. "The archives and archival problems of the Elizabethan and early Stuart Star Chamber." Journal of the Society of Archivists 2 (1963): 345349.

Guy, John. The Cardinal's Court: The Impact of Wolsey in Star Chamber. Hassocks, U.K., 1977.

. The Court of Star Chamber and its Records to the Reign of Elizabeth I. London, 1985.

Phillips, H. E. "The Last Years of the Court of Star Chamber, 16301641." Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 4th series 21 (1939): 103131.

David Grummitt

Star Chamber

views updated Jun 11 2018


An ancient high court of England, controlled by the monarch, which was abolished in 1641 by Parliament for abuses of power.

The English court of Star Chamber was created by King Henry VII in 1487 and was named for a room with stars painted on the ceiling in the royal palace of Westminster where the court sat. The Star Chamber was an instrument of the monarch and consisted of royal councillors and two royal judges. The jurisdiction of the court was based on the royal prerogative of administering justice in cases not remediable in the regular courts of law.

The Star Chamber originally assisted with some administrative matters, but by the 1530s it had become a pure court, relieving the king of the burden of hearing cases personally. It was a court of equity, granting remedies unavailable in the common-law courts. As such, the court was an informal body that dispensed with "due process" as it was then understood.

During Henry VII's reign (1485–1509), about half the cases involved real property. During the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the Star Chamber became a useful tool in dealing with cases involving members of the aristocracy who often defied the authority of the regular courts. It was during this period, moreover, that the court acquired criminal jurisdiction, hearing cases on issues concerning the security of the realm, such as sedition, criminal libel, conspiracy, and forgery. Later, fraud and the punishment of judges came within its jurisdiction.

The importance of the Star Chamber increased during the reigns of James I (1603–25) and Charles I (1625–49). Under Archbishop William Laud, the court became a tool of royal oppression, seeking out and punishing religious and political dissidents. In the 1630s Laud used the Star Chamber to persecute a group of Puritan leaders, most of whom came from the gentry, subjecting them to the pillory and corporal punishment. Though the Star Chamber could not mete out capital punishment, it inflicted everything short of death upon those found guilty. During this time the court met in secret, extracting evidence by torturing witnesses and handing out punishments that included mutilation, life imprisonment, and enormous fines. It turned equity's traditionally broad discretion into a complete disregard for the law. The Star Chamber sometimes acted on mere rumors in order to suppress opposition to the king.

The Star Chamber's arbitrary use of power and the cruel punishments it inflicted produced a wave of reaction against it from Puritans, advocates of common-law courts, and others opposed to the reign of Charles I. In 1641 the Long Parliament abolished the court and made reparations to some of its victims.

The term star chamber has come to mean any lawless and oppressive tribunal, especially one that meets in secret. The constitutional concept of due process of law is in part a reaction to the arbitrary use of judicial power displayed by the Star Chamber.

further readings

Elton, G. R. 1974. Star Chamber Stories. New York: Barnes & Noble.

Guy, J. A. 1977. The Cardinal's Court: The Impact of Thomas Wolsey in Star Chamber. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield.

Star Chamber

views updated May 23 2018

Star Chamber. The origins of the Court of Star Chamber have been disputed, but it undoubtedly arose as an offshoot of the king's council. The origins of its name have also been debated but it probably derived from the fact that the king's council sat as a judicial tribunal in the ‘camera stellata’, a chamber with a starred ceiling, built in 1347 at Westminster. The court did not owe its existence to a statute of 1487 (described as the statute pro camera stellata) though this statute was regarded by some later commentators as its origin. The court was at first little more than an aspect of the council, but it became prominent especially under the Tudors as a court which would control ‘over-mighty subjects’ and prevent abuses of the courts and the justice system, as well as threats to public order. It also provided civil remedies to petitioners seeking redress which was unavailable at common law. However its main role was the enforcement of statutes and the prevention of public disorder, including riot, libel, and sedition. It was at first popular, but under the Stuarts became hated because of its increasingly draconian rulings on libel and sedition and its savage punishments. Having become a byword for tyranny, it was abolished by the Long Parliament in 1640.

Maureen Mulholland

Star Chamber

views updated May 23 2018

Star Chamber English court of the 15th to 17th centuries, named after its meeting place in Westminster. It arose as a judicial branch of the Royal Council, which received petitions from subjects and tried offences against the Crown. It proved a useful, honest, and speedy source of justice under the early Tudors but was used by Charles I to attack his opponents. It was dissolved by Parliament in 1641.