Star Chamber (Latin: Camera stellata) was an English court of law
which sat at the royal Palace of Westminster, from the late 15th
century to the mid-17th century (c. 1641), and was composed of Privy
Councillors and common-law judges, to supplement the judicial
activities of the common-law and equity courts in civil and criminal
Star Chamber was originally established to ensure the
fair enforcement of laws against socially and politically prominent
people so powerful that ordinary courts would probably 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 usage, legal or administrative bodies with strict, arbitrary
rulings and secretive proceedings are sometimes called, metaphorically
or poetically, "star chambers". This is a pejorative term and intended
to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the proceedings. "Star Chamber" can
also, rarely, be used in its original meaning, for instance when a
politician uses parliamentary privilege to examine and then exculpate
or condemn a powerful organisation or person. Due to the
constitutional separation of powers and the ceasing of the Star
Chamber, the main powers of select committees are to enhance the
public debate — politicians are deemed to no longer wield powers in
the criminal law, which belongs to the courts.[a]
1 Origin of the name
2.1 Under the Plantagenets and Tudors
2.2 Under the Stuarts
2.3 Abolition and aftermath
2.4 Recent history
3 Influence on the U.S. Constitution
6 Further reading
Origin of the name
Starry vault of the Scrovegni Chapel, frescoed by Giotto
The first reference to the "star chamber"[b] 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. The origin of the name has usually been explained
as first recorded by John Stow, writing in his Survey of London
(1598), who noted "this place is called the Star Chamber, at the first
all the roofe thereof was decked with images of starres gilted".
Gold stars on a blue background were a common medieval decoration for
ceilings in richly decorated rooms, as still to be seen at Leasowe
Castle, Wirral, the
Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, and elsewhere.
Alternatively, William Blackstone, a notable English jurist writing in
1769, speculated that the name may have derived from the legal word
"starr" meaning the contract or obligation to a Jew (from the Hebrew
שטר (shetar) meaning 'document'). This term was in use until 1290,
when Edward I had all Jews expelled from England. Blackstone thought
the "Starr Chamber" might originally have been used for the deposition
and storage of such contracts. However, the Oxford English
Dictionary gives this etymology "no claim to consideration".
Other etymological theories mentioned by Blackstone on the use of star
include the derivation from steoran (steer) meaning "to govern"; as a
court used to punish (crimen stellionatus) (cozenage); or that the
chamber was full of windows.
Under the Plantagenets and Tudors
The Court evolved from meetings of the King's Council, with its roots
going back to the medieval period. Contrary to popular belief, the
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, Star
Chamber was regarded as one of the most just and efficient courts of
the Tudor era.
Sir Edward Coke
Sir Edward Coke once described
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
Star Chamber was made up of Privy Counsellors, as well as
common-law judges, and it supplemented the activities of the
common-law and equity courts in both civil and criminal 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, 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 and subjective, and it enabled the court to be
used later on in its history as an instrument of oppression rather
than for the purpose of justice for which it was intended. Many crimes
which are now commonly prosecuted, such as attempt, conspiracy,
criminal libel, and perjury, were originally developed by the Court of
Star Chamber, along with its more common role of dealing with riots
The cases decided in those sessions enabled both the very powerful and
those without power to seek redress. Thus King Henry VII used 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. Yet, when
local courts were often clogged or mismanaged, the Court of Star
Chamber also became a site of remittance for the common people against
the excesses of the nobility.
In the reign of King Henry VIII, the court was under the leadership of
Cardinal Wolsey (the
Archbishop of York
Archbishop of York and Lord Chancellor) and
Thomas Cranmer (the Archbishop of Canterbury) (1515–1529). From this
time forward, the Court of
Star Chamber became a political weapon for
bringing actions against opponents to the policies of King Henry VIII,
his Ministers and his Parliament.
Although it was initially a court of appeal, King Henry, Wolsey and
Cranmer encouraged plaintiffs to bring their cases directly to the
Star Chamber, bypassing the lower courts entirely.
The Court was used extensively to control Wales, after the Laws in
Wales Acts 1535–1542 (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 English
advantages of the Laws in
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 by hostile
questioning, this then gave them the "cruel trilemma" of having to
incriminate themselves, face charges of perjury if they gave
unsatisfactory answers to their accusers, or be held in contempt of
court if they gave no answer.
Under the Stuarts
The power of the Court of
Star Chamber grew considerably under the
House of Stuart, 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 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 court.
King Charles I used the Court of
Star Chamber as Parliamentary
substitute during the eleven years of Personal Rule, when he ruled
without a Parliament. King Charles made extensive use of the Court of
Star Chamber to prosecute dissenters, including the Puritans who fled
to New England. This was also one of the causes of the English Civil
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
Thirty Years' War in England was unfair. As a
result, newsbooks pertaining to this matter were often printed in
Amsterdam and then smuggled into the country, until control of the
press collapsed with the developing ideological conflict of
Star Chamber became notorious for judgments favourable to the
Archbishop Laud had
William Prynne branded on both cheeks
through its agency in 1637 for seditious libel.
Elizabeth I had 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 simply disappeared.
In the early 1900s, American poet, biographer and dramatist Edgar Lee
Masters, 1868–1950, commented:
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 defence of Charles against assaults upon those usurpations
which cost him his life.
Abolition and aftermath
In 1641, the Long Parliament, led by
John Pym and inflamed by the
severe treatment of John Lilburne, as well as that of other religious
dissenters such as William Prynne, Alexander Leighton, John Bastwick
and Henry Burton, abolished the
Star Chamber with an Act of
Parliament: the Habeas Corpus Act 1640.
The Chamber itself stood until demolished in 1806, when its materials
were salvaged. The door now hangs in the nearby
Westminster School and
Star Chamber ceiling, with its bright gold stars, was
Leasowe Castle on the
Wirral Peninsula in
Cheshire from the
Court of Westminster, along with four tapestries depicting the four
In the late 20th century, the expression was revived in reference to
ways 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
Premiership of Margaret Thatcher (1979–90)
revived the term for private ministerial meetings at which disputes
between the Treasury and high-spending departments were resolved.
The term was again revived by the popular press to describe a panel
set up by the Labour party's National Executive Committee to review
expenses claims by Labour MPs in May 2009. In 2010, the press
employed the term for a committee established by the Cameron ministry
to plan spending cuts to reduce public debt.
Influence on the U.S. Constitution
The historical abuses of the
Star Chamber are considered a primary
motivating force behind the protections against compelled
self-incrimination embodied in the Fifth Amendment to the United
States Constitution. 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.
U.S. Supreme Court
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."
^ "The Ceann Comhairle intervened and said the Dáil could not be used
as a "star chamber" warning that people's reputations were involved
and if the deputy had information he should go to the gardaí."
^ Or, rather, the first reference in the OED. Blackstone mentions a
reference in a document of 41 Edw. III – 1367 – but does not quote
^ "Wallace claims NAMA official sought bribe". RTÉ News. 15 July
^ Lord Denning, Landmarks in the Law (1984), p 61–62.
^ a b "Star-chamber, starred chamber"; Oxford English Dictionary,
second edition. Oxford University Press, 1989.
^ a b Commentaries on the Laws of England, Vol. IV, Ch. 19, p.263.
^ S.B. Chrimes, Henry VII, Berkeley: University of California Press,
1972: p. 99.
^ Edward P. Cheyney. The Court of Star Chamber. The American
Historical Review, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Jul., 1913), pg. 745
^ Trevor-Roper, Hugh
Archbishop Laud Phoenix Press reissue 2000
^ Raymond, Joad Pamphlets and Pamphleteering in Early Modern Britain
Cambridge University Press, 2003
^ Trevor-Roper, Hugh
Archbishop Laud Phoenix Press reissue 2000 pp.
^ Crawford, Jon G. A
Star Chamber Court in Ireland – the Court of
Castle Chamber 1571–1641 Four Courts Press Dublin 2005
^ "Star Chamber". Tiscali.co.uk. Retrieved 2012-03-05.
^ "Elliot Morley and David Chaytor first to face 'star chamber' as
Brown moves to cull expenses cheats Mail Online". Dailymail.co.uk.
2009-05-19. Retrieved 2012-03-05.
^ Smale, Will (2010-06-07). "What can the UK learn from Canada's
budget cuts?". BBC News. Retrieved 2012-03-05.
^ a b Pennsylvania v. Muniz, 496 U.S. 582, 595–98 (1990)
^ Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806, 821–22 (1975)
Cheyney, Edward P. (1913). "The Court of Star Chamber". The American
Historical Review. 18 (4): 727–750. doi:10.1086/ahr/18.4.727.
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