Star Chamber
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The Star Chamber (
Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical language belonging to the Italic languages, Italic branch of the Indo-European languages. Latin was originally a dialect spoken in the lower Tiber area (then known as Latium) around present-day Rome, but through ...
: ''Camera stellata'') was an English
court A court is any person or institution, often as a government institution, with the authority to Adjudication, adjudicate legal disputes between Party (law), parties and carry out the administration of justice in Civil law (common law), civil, C ...
that sat at the royal
Palace of Westminster The Palace of Westminster serves as the meeting place for both the House of Commons of the United Kingdom, House of Commons and the House of Lords, the two houses of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. Informally known as the Houses of Parli ...
, from the late to the mid-17th century (c. 1641), and was composed of Privy Counsellors and
common-law In law, common law (also known as judicial precedent, judge-made law, or case law) is the body of law created by judges and similar quasi-judicial tribunals by virtue of being stated in written opinions."The common law is not a brooding omnipresen ...
judges, to supplement the judicial activities of the common-law and equity courts in civil and criminal matters. It was originally established to ensure the fair enforcement of laws against socially and politically prominent people sufficiently powerful that ordinary courts might hesitate to convict them of their crimes. However, it became synonymous with social and political oppression through the arbitrary use and abuse of the power it wielded. In modern times, legal or administrative bodies with strict, arbitrary rulings, no "due process" rights to those accused, and secretive proceedings are sometimes metaphorically called "star chambers".


Origin of the name

The first reference to the "star chamber" is in 1398, as the ''Sterred chambre''; the more common form of the name appears in 1422 as ''le Sterne-chamere''. Both forms recur throughout the fifteenth century, with ''Sterred Chambre'' last attested as appearing in the Supremacy of the Crown Act 1534 (establishing the English monarch as head of the Church in England). The origin of the name has usually been explained as first recorded by
John Stow John Stow (''also'' Stowe; 1524/25 – 5 April 1605) was an English historian A historian is a person who studies and writes about the past and is regarded as an authority on it. Historians are concerned with the continuous, methodical nar ...
, writing in his ''
Survey of London The Survey of London is a research project to produce a comprehensive architectural survey of central London and its suburbs, or the area formerly administered by the London County Council. It was founded in 1894 by Charles Robert Ashbee, an Art ...
'' (1598), who noted "this place is called the Star Chamber, at the first all the roofe thereof was decked with images of starres gilted"."Star-chamber, starred chamber"; ''
Oxford English Dictionary The ''Oxford English Dictionary'' (''OED'') is the first and foundational historical dictionary of the English language, published by Oxford University Press (OUP). It traces the historical development of the English language, providing a com ...
'', second edition. Oxford University Press, 1989.
Gold stars on a blue background were a common medieval decoration for ceilings in richly decorated rooms: the Star Chamber ceiling itself is still to be seen at Leasowe Castle, Wirral, and similar examples are in the
Scrovegni Chapel The Scrovegni Chapel ( it, Cappella degli Scrovegni ), also known as the Arena Chapel, is a small church, adjacent to the Augustinian order, Augustinian monastery, the ''Monastero degli Eremitani'' in Padua, Italy, Padua, region of Veneto, I ...
in
Padua Padua ( ; it, Padova ; vec, Pàdova) is a city and ''comune'' in Veneto, northern Italy. Padua is on the river Bacchiglione, west of Venice. It is the capital of the province of Padua. It is also the economic and communications hub of the ...
and elsewhere. Alternatively,
William Blackstone Sir William Blackstone (10 July 1723 – 14 February 1780) was an English jurist, judge and Tory (British political party), Tory politician of the eighteenth century. He is most noted for writing the ''Commentaries on the Laws of England''. Bo ...
, a notable English
jurist A jurist is a person with expert knowledge of law; someone who analyses and comments on law. This person is usually a specialist legal scholar, mostly (but not always) with a formal qualification in law and often a legal practitioner. In the U ...
writing in 1769, speculated that the name had been derived from the legal word " starr" meaning the contract or obligation to a Jew (from the
Hebrew Hebrew (; ; ) is a Northwest Semitic languages, Northwest Semitic language of the Afroasiatic languages, Afroasiatic language family. Historically, it is one of the spoken languages of the Israelites and their longest-surviving descendants, ...
שטר (''shtar'') meaning 'document'). This term was in use until 1290, when
Edward I Edward I (17/18 June 1239 – 7 July 1307), also known as Edward Longshanks and the Hammer of the Scots, was King of England and Lord of Ireland from 1272 to 1307. Concurrently, he ruled the duchies of Duchy of Aquitaine, Aquitaine and D ...
had all Jews expelled from England. Blackstone thought the "Starr Chamber" might originally have been used for the deposition and storage of such contracts.''Commentaries on the Laws of England'', Vol. IV, Ch. 19, p. 263
Online text
However, the ''Oxford English Dictionary'' gives this etymology "no claim to consideration." Other etymological speculations mentioned by Blackstone include the derivation from Old English ''steoran'' (steer) meaning "to govern"; as a court used to punish cozenage (in
Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical language belonging to the Italic languages, Italic branch of the Indo-European languages. Latin was originally a dialect spoken in the lower Tiber area (then known as Latium) around present-day Rome, but through ...
: ''crimen stellionatus''); or that the chamber was full of windows.


History


Plantagenets and Tudors

The Court evolved from meetings of the King's Council, with its roots going back to the medieval period. The so-called "Star Chamber Act" of King Henry VII's second Parliament (1487) did not actually empower the Star Chamber, but rather created a separate tribunal distinct from the King's general Council. Initially well-regarded because of its speed and flexibility, the Star Chamber was regarded as one of the most just and efficient courts of the Tudor era.
Sir Edward Coke ''Sir'' is a formal honorific address in English language, English for men, derived from Sire in the High Middle Ages. Both are derived from the old French "Sieur" (Lord), brought to England by the French-speaking Normans, and which now exist i ...
described the Star Chamber as "The most honourable court (Our Parliament excepted) that is in the Christian world. Both in respect of the judges in the court and its honourable proceeding." The Star Chamber was made up of Privy Counsellors, as well as
common-law In law, common law (also known as judicial precedent, judge-made law, or case law) is the body of law created by judges and similar quasi-judicial tribunals by virtue of being stated in written opinions."The common law is not a brooding omnipresen ...
judges, and it supplemented the activities of the common-law and equity courts in both civil and
criminal In ordinary language, a crime is an unlawful act punishable by a state or other authority. The term ''crime'' does not, in modern criminal law Criminal law is the body of law that relates to crime. It prescribes conduct perceived as thre ...
matters. In a sense, the court was a court of appeal, a supervisory body, overseeing the operation of the lower courts, although it could hear cases by direct appeal as well. The court was set up to ensure the fair enforcement of laws against the English
upper class Upper class in modern societies is the social class composed of people who hold the highest social status, usually are the economic inequality, wealthiest members of class society, and wield the greatest political power. According to this view, t ...
, those so powerful that ordinary courts could never convict them of their crimes. Another function of the Court of Star Chamber was to act like a court of equity, which could impose punishment for actions which were deemed to be morally reprehensible but were not in violation of the letter of the law. This gave the Star Chamber great flexibility, as it could punish defendants for any action which the court felt should be unlawful, even when in fact it was technically lawful. However, this meant that the justice meted out by the Star Chamber could be very
arbitrary Arbitrariness is the quality of being "determined by chance, whim, or impulse, and not by necessity, reason, or principle". It is also used to refer to a choice made without any specific criterion or restraint. Arbitrary decisions are not necess ...
and subjective, and it enabled the court to be used later on in its history as an instrument of
oppression Oppression is malicious or unjust treatment or exercise of power, often under the guise of governmental authority or cultural opprobrium. Oppression may be overt or covert, depending on how it is practiced. Oppression refers to discrimination ...
rather than for the purpose of
justice Justice, in its broadest sense, is the principle that people receive that which they deserve, with the interpretation of what then constitutes "deserving" being impacted upon by numerous fields, with many differing viewpoints and perspective ...
for which it was intended. Many crimes which are now commonly prosecuted, such as
attempt An attempt to commit a crime In ordinary language, a crime is an unlawful act punishable by a state or other authority. The term ''crime'' does not, in modern criminal law, have any simple and universally accepted definition,Farmer, Lind ...
,
conspiracy A conspiracy, also known as a plot, is a secret plan or agreement between persons (called conspirers or conspirators) for an unlawful or harmful purpose, such as murder or treason, especially with political motivation, while keeping their agree ...
, criminal libel, and
perjury Perjury (also known as foreswearing) is the intentional act of swearing a false oath or falsifying an Affirmation in law, affirmation to tell the truth, whether spoken or in writing, concerning matters material to an official proceeding."Perjury ...
, were originally developed by the Court of Star Chamber, along with its more common role of dealing with
riot A riot is a form of civil disorder commonly characterized by a group lashing out in a violent public disturbance against authority, property, or people. Riots typically involve destruction of property, public or private. The property targeted ...
s and
sedition Sedition is overt conduct, such as speech and organization, that tends toward rebellion against the established order. Sedition often includes subversion of a constitution and incitement of discontent toward, or rebellion, insurrection agains ...
. The cases decided in those sessions enabled both the very powerful and those without power to seek redress. Thus King Henry VII used the power of the Star Chamber to break the power of the landed gentry which had been such a cause of problems in the
Wars of the Roses The Wars of the Roses (1455–1487), known at the time and for more than a century after as the Civil Wars, were a series of civil wars fought over control of the throne of England, English throne in the mid-to-late fifteenth century. These w ...
. Yet, when local courts were often clogged or mismanaged, the Court of Star Chamber also became a means of appeal for the common people against the excesses of the
nobility Nobility is a social class found in many societies that have an aristocracy (class), aristocracy. It is normally ranked immediately below Royal family, royalty. Nobility has often been an Estates of the realm, estate of the realm with many e ...
. In the reign of
King Henry VIII Henry VIII (28 June 149128 January 1547) was King of England from 22 April 1509 until his death in 1547. Henry is best known for his Wives of Henry VIII, six marriages, and for his efforts to have his first marriage (to Catherine of Aragon) ...
, the court was under the leadership of
Cardinal Wolsey Thomas Wolsey ( – 29 November 1530) was an English statesman and Catholic bishop A bishop is an ordained clergy member who is entrusted with a position of Episcopal polity, authority and oversight in a religious institution. In Chris ...
(the
Archbishop of York The archbishop of York is a senior bishop in the Church of England, second only to the archbishop of Canterbury. The archbishop is the diocesan bishop of the Diocese of York and the metropolitan bishop of the province of York, which covers the ...
and
Lord Chancellor The lord chancellor, formally the lord high chancellor of Great Britain, is the highest-ranking traditional minister among the Great Officers of State (United Kingdom), Great Officers of State in Scotland and England in the United Kingdom, no ...
) and
Thomas Cranmer Thomas Cranmer (2 July 1489 – 21 March 1556) was a leader of the English Reformation and Archbishop of Canterbury during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI and, for a short time, Mary I. He helped build the case for the annulment of Henry's ...
(the
Archbishop of Canterbury The Archbishop of Canterbury is the senior bishop A bishop is an ordained clergy member who is entrusted with a position of Episcopal polity, authority and oversight in a religious institution. In Christianity, bishops are normally resp ...
) (1515–1529). From this time forward, the Court of Star Chamber became a political weapon for bringing actions against those who opposed the policies of King Henry VIII, his ministers and his parliament. Although it was initially a
court of appeal A court of appeals, also called a court of appeal, appellate court, appeal court, court of second instance or second instance court, is any court of law that is empowered to hear an appeal of a trial court or other lower tribunal. In much of t ...
, King Henry, Wolsey and Cranmer encouraged
plaintiff A plaintiff (pi (letter), Π in List of legal abbreviations, legal shorthand) is the party who initiates a lawsuit (also known as an ''action'') before a court. By doing so, the plaintiff seeks a legal remedy. If this search is successful, the co ...
s to bring their cases directly to the Star Chamber, bypassing the lower courts entirely. The Court was used extensively to control
Wales Wales ( cy, Cymru ) is a Countries of the United Kingdom, country that is part of the United Kingdom. It is bordered by England to the Wales–England border, east, the Irish Sea to the north and west, the Celtic Sea to the south west and the ...
, after the Laws in Wales Acts (sometimes referred to as the "Acts of Union"). The Tudor-era gentry in Wales turned to the Chamber to evict Welsh landowners and protect themselves, and in general, protect the advantages given to them by the Laws in Wales Acts. One of the weapons of the Star Chamber was the ''ex officio'' oath where, because of their positions, individuals were forced to swear to answer truthfully all questions that might be asked. Faced with hostile questioning, this then gave them the "cruel trilemma" of having to incriminate themselves, face charges of
perjury Perjury (also known as foreswearing) is the intentional act of swearing a false oath or falsifying an Affirmation in law, affirmation to tell the truth, whether spoken or in writing, concerning matters material to an official proceeding."Perjury ...
if they gave unsatisfactory answers to their accusers, or be held in
contempt of court Contempt of court, often referred to simply as "contempt", is the crime of being disobedient to or disrespectful toward a court of law and its officers in the form of behavior that opposes or defies the authority, justice, and dignity of the cour ...
if they gave no answer.


Stuarts

The power of the Court of Star Chamber grew considerably under the
House of Stuart The House of Stuart, originally spelt Stewart, was a dynasty, royal house of Kingdom of Scotland, Scotland, Kingdom of England, England, Kingdom of Ireland, Ireland and later Kingdom of Great Britain, Great Britain. The family name comes from ...
, and by the time of King Charles I, it had become synonymous with misuse and abuse of power by the King and his circle.
King James I James VI and I (James Charles Stuart; 19 June 1566 – 27 March 1625) was King of Scotland as James VI from 24 July 1567 and King of England and King of Ireland, Ireland as James I from the Union of the Crowns, union of the Scottish and Eng ...
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. King Charles I used the Court of Star Chamber as a Parliamentary substitute during the eleven years of
Personal Rule The Personal Rule (also known as the Eleven Years' Tyranny) was the period from 1629 to 1640, when King Charles I of England, Scotland and Ireland ruled without recourse to Parliament of England, Parliament. The King claimed that he was entitled to ...
, when he ruled without a Parliament. King Charles made extensive use of the Court of Star Chamber to prosecute dissenters, including the
Puritan The Puritans were English Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries who sought to purify the Church of England of Catholic Church, Roman Catholic practices, maintaining that the Church of England had not been fully reformed and should become m ...
s who fled to
New England New England is a region comprising six states in the Northeastern United States: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts Massachusetts (Massachusett language, Massachusett: ''Muhsachuweesut assachusett writing systems, məhswatʃəwiːsət ...
. This was one of the causes of the
English Civil War The English Civil War (1642–1651) was a series of civil wars and political machinations between Parliamentarians ("Roundheads") and Royalists led by Charles I ("Cavaliers"), mainly over the manner of Kingdom of England, England's governanc ...
. On 17 October 1632, the Court of Star Chamber banned all "news books" because of complaints from Spanish and Austrian diplomats that coverage of the
Thirty Years' War The Thirty Years' War was one of the longest and List of wars and anthropogenic disasters by death toll, most destructive conflicts in History of Europe, European history, lasting from 1618 to 1648. Fought primarily in Central Europe, an es ...
in England was unfair. As a result, newsbooks pertaining to this matter were often printed in
Amsterdam Amsterdam ( , , , lit. ''The Dam on the River Amstel'') is the Capital of the Netherlands, capital and Municipalities of the Netherlands, most populous city of the Netherlands, with The Hague being the seat of government. It has a population ...
and then smuggled into the country, until control of the press collapsed with the developing ideological conflict of 1640–41. The Star Chamber became notorious for judgments favourable to the king, for example when
Archbishop Laud William Laud (; 7 October 1573 – 10 January 1645) was a bishop in the Church of England. Appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by Charles I of England, Charles I in 1633, Laud was a key advocate of Caroline era#Religion, Charles I's religious re ...
had
William Prynne William Prynne (1600 – 24 October 1669), an English lawyer, voluble author, polemicist and political figure, was a prominent Puritan opponent of church policy under William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury (1633–1645). His views were Presbyter ...
branded on both cheeks through its agency in 1637 for
seditious libel Sedition and seditious libel were criminal offences under English common law, and are still criminal offences in Canada. Sedition is overt conduct, such as speech and organization, that is deemed by the legal authority to tend toward insurrection a ...
. In 1571
Elizabeth I Elizabeth I (7 September 153324 March 1603) was List of English monarchs, Queen of England and List of Irish monarchs, Ireland from 17 November 1558 until her death in 1603. Elizabeth was the last of the five House of Tudor monarchs and is ...
set up an equivalent Court in Ireland, the Court of Castle Chamber, to deal with cases of riot and offences against public order. Although it was initially popular with private litigants, under the Stuarts it developed the same reputation for harsh and arbitrary proceedings as its parent court, and during the political confusion of the 1640s, it disappeared. In the early 1900s, Edgar Lee Masters commented:


Abolition and aftermath

In 1641, the
Long Parliament The Long Parliament was an Parliament of England, English Parliament which lasted from 1640 until 1660. It followed the fiasco of the Short Parliament, which had convened for only three weeks during the spring of 1640 after an Personal Rule, 11-y ...
, led by
John Pym John Pym (20 May 1584 – 8 December 1643) was an England, English politician, who helped establish the foundations of Parliament of England, Parliamentary democracy. One of the Five Members whose attempted arrest in January 1642 sparked the F ...
and inflamed by the severe treatment of
John Lilburne John Lilburne (c. 161429 August 1657), also known as Freeborn John, was an English people, English political Leveller before, during and after the English Civil Wars 1642–1650. He coined the term "''freeborn, freeborn rights''", defining them ...
, as well as that of other religious dissenters such as
William Prynne William Prynne (1600 – 24 October 1669), an English lawyer, voluble author, polemicist and political figure, was a prominent Puritan opponent of church policy under William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury (1633–1645). His views were Presbyter ...
, Alexander Leighton,
John Bastwick John Bastwick (1593–1654) was an English Puritan The Puritans were English Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries who sought to purify the Church of England of Catholic Church, Roman Catholic practices, maintaining that the Church of En ...
and Henry Burton, abolished the Star Chamber with the Habeas Corpus Act 1640. The gruesome punishments which the Star Chamber imposed were not forgotten, and were revived by
King James II James VII and II (14 October 1633 16 September 1701) was King of England and King of Ireland as James II, and King of Scotland as James VII from the death of his elder brother, Charles II of England, Charles II, on 6 February 1685. He was depo ...
, prompting an article in the Bill of Rights of 1688 "That excessive Baile ought not to be required nor excessive Fines imposed nor cruell and unusuall Punishments inflicted". The Chamber itself stood until its demolition in 1806 (or 1834 or early in 1836), when its materials were salvaged. The door was reused in the nearby
Westminster School Westminster School is a Public school (United Kingdom), public school in Westminster, London, England, in the precincts of Westminster Abbey. It derives from a charity school founded by Westminster Benedictines before the 1066 Norman Conquest, as d ...
until it was destroyed in
the Blitz The Blitz was a German bombing campaign against the United Kingdom in 1940 and 1941, during the World War II, Second World War. The term was first used by the British press and originated from the term , the German word meaning 'lightning wa ...
, and the historic Star Chamber ceiling, with its bright gold stars, was brought to Leasowe Castle on the
Wirral Peninsula Wirral (; ), known locally as The Wirral, is a peninsula in North West England. The roughly rectangular peninsula is about long and wide and is bounded by the River Dee, Wales, River Dee to the west (forming the boundary with Wales), the Ri ...
in
Cheshire Cheshire ( ) is a Ceremonial counties of England, ceremonial and Historic counties of England, historic county in North West England, bordered by Wales to the west, Merseyside and Greater Manchester to the north, Derbyshire to the east, and Sta ...
from the Court of Westminster, along with four tapestries depicting the four seasons.


Recent history

In the late 20th century, the expression was revived in reference to ways of resolving internal high-level questions within the government, usually relating to budget appropriations. The press and some civil servants under the
premiership of Margaret Thatcher Margaret Thatcher's term as the prime minister of the United Kingdom began on 4 May 1979 when she accepted an invitation of Queen Elizabeth II to form a government, and ended on 28 November 1990 upon her resignation. She was elected to the pos ...
(1979–1990) revived the term for private ministerial meetings at which disputes between the Treasury and high-spending departments were resolved. In 2010, the press employed the term for a committee established by the Cameron ministry to plan spending cuts to reduce public debt. In March 2019, the European Research Group formed its own 'Star Chamber' to pass judgement on
Theresa May Theresa Mary May, Lady May (; née Brasier; born 1 October 1956) is a British politician who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Leader of the Conservative Party (UK), Leader of the Conservative Party from 2016 to 2019. She pre ...
's then proposed
Brexit Brexit (; a portmanteau of "British exit") was the Withdrawal from the European Union, withdrawal of the United Kingdom (UK) from the European Union (EU) at 23:00 Greenwich Mean Time, GMT on 31 January 2020 (00:00 1 February 2020 Central Eur ...
deal, and which recommended that MPs should ''not'' back it. On 29 December 2020, the ERG's Star Chamber gave a similar verdict on
Boris Johnson Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson (; born 19 June 1964) is a British politician, writer and journalist who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Leader of the Conservative Party (UK), Leader of the Conservative Party from 20 ...
's recently agreed EU–UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, but on this occasion recommending that their members vote for it because the deal is "consistent with the restoration of UK sovereignty".


Influence on the U.S. Constitution

The historical abuses of the Star Chamber are considered some of the reasons, along with English common law precedent, behind the protections against compelled self-incrimination embodied in the
Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution The Fifth Amendment (Amendment V) to the United States Constitution The Constitution of the United States is the supreme law of the United States of America. It superseded the Articles of Confederation, the nation's first consti ...
. The meaning of "compelled testimony" under the Fifth Amendment – i.e., the conditions under which a defendant is allowed to " plead the Fifth" to avoid self-incrimination – is thus often interpreted via reference to the inquisitorial methods of the Star Chamber. As the U.S. Supreme Court described it, "the Star Chamber has, for centuries, symbolized disregard of basic individual rights. The Star Chamber not merely allowed, but required, defendants to have counsel. The defendant's answer to an indictment was not accepted unless it was signed by counsel. When counsel refused to sign the answer, for whatever reason, the defendant was considered to have confessed."


Notes


References


Further reading

* * {{Kingdom of England 1487 establishments in England 1641 disestablishments in Europe 17th-century disestablishments in England Abuse of the legal system Former courts and tribunals in England and Wales Informal legal terminology Palace of Westminster Parliament of England Political metaphors referring to people Courts and tribunals established in 1487 Courts and tribunals disestablished in the 1640s