Star Chamber

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Related to Court of the Star Chamber: Petition of right, The Golden Bull, justices of the peace

Star Chamber

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

a tribunal abolished in 1641. It was effectively the king in council exercising criminal jurisdiction. It was inquisitorial, and torture is believed to have been used. It is now used more generally to denote an any arbitrary tribunal.

STAR CHAMBER, Eng. law. A court which formerly had great jurisdiction and power, but which was abolished by stat. 16, C. I., c. 10, on account of its usurpations and great unpopularity. It consisted of several of the lords spiritual and temporal, being privy counsellors, together with two judges of the courts of common law, without the intervention of a jury. Their legal jurisdiction extended over riots, perjuries, misbehaviour of public officers, and other great misdemeanors. The judges afterwards assumed powers, and stretched those they possessed to the utmost bounds of legality. 4 Bl. Com. 264.