Sunday, 13 May 2012


I suspect I am having a reaction to finally having walked away from legal practice, after thirty years. All the posts I have drafted in the last few weeks have been on legal matters and this post is no exception. Inspired by last week’s post on the Levellers I thought it might be appropriate to talk about “the Star Chamber” which reached such a level of infamy during the reign of Charles I that the term “Star Chamber” still exists in our idiom today.  It is generally used to denote any judicial or quasi-judicial action, trial, or hearing which so grossly violates standards of "due process" that a party appearing in the proceedings (hearing or trial) is denied a fair hearing.

It has its origins in the fourteenth century and is said to have derived from a room in the Palace of Westminster decorated  with a starred ceiling where the King and his privy council met. Initially it served the valuable role as a “conciliar court” which were convened at short notice to deal with urgent matters. Initially well regarded because of its speed and flexibility, it was made up of Privy Councillors, as well as common-law judges, and supplemented the activities of the common-law and equity courts in both civil and criminal matters. In a sense, the court was a supervisory body, overseeing the operations of lower courts, though its members could hear cases by direct appeal as well. The court was set up to ensure the fair enforcement of laws against prominent people, those so powerful that ordinary courts could never convict them of their crimes.

In 1487, a Star Chamber Act was enacted setting up a special tribunal to deal with subversive activities within the King’s household. In theory the Star Chamber could only take cognisance of a matter if there was a good reason to interfering with the ordinary processes of law. In practice it meant that it heard cases and impose punishments in matters where no actual crime had been committed but, in the subjective opinion of the court, were considered morally reprehensible. The sort of matters coming before it would now constitute offences such as conspiracy, libel, forgery, perjury, riot, conspiracy and sedition. Henry VII and Henry VIII, in particular, used the power of the Star Chamber to break the powerful nobles who opposed his reign. Prosecutions were brought by the Attorney General and prisoners tried summarily by affidavit and interrogation (which very often included torture). Punishments included fines, imprisonment, pillory, branding or loss of an ear. It did not have the power to order a death sentence.

Its more sinister side began to emerge by the end of the fifteenth and into the sixteenth century when it began to lose its “civil” side and notwithstanding its inability to mete out death, by the reign of Charles I, the Star Chamber had achieved a terrible reputation for severity and tyranny. 

Charles I
Charles I routinely used the Star Chamber Charles to examine cases of sedition, which meant that the court could be used to suppress opposition to royal policies.During the time of Charles' “personal rule” he ruthlessly stamped down on the freedom of the press and religious and political dissenters.  William Prynne, Alexander Leighton, John Bastwick and Henry Burton, all appeared before the Star Chamber for their views on religious dissent. William Prynne for example was a puritan who published a number of tracts opposing religious feast days and entertainment such as stage plays. The latter was construed as a direct attack on the Queen and in 1634 he was sentenced in the Star Chamber to life imprisonment, a fine of £5000, he was stripped of his qualifications and membership of Lincolns Inn and lost both his ears in the pillory.

It was the treatment of John Lilburne that eventually led to the abolition of the Star Chamber. As you will have read in Keith Livesey’s post, John was a Leveller. “Free born John”, as he came to be known, was arrested in 1637 for publishing unlicensed books (one of them by William Prynne). All printing presses had to be officially licensed. John was brought before the Star Chamber.  He refused to take the oath known as the 'ex-officio' oath (on the ground that he was not bound to incriminate himself), and thus called in question the court's usual procedure. On 13 February 1638 he was sentenced to be fined £500, whipped, pilloried, and imprisoned till he obeyed.

John Lilburne at the Pillory
On 18 April 1638 Lilburne was flogged with a three-thonged whip on his bare back, as he was dragged by his hands tied to the rear of an ox cart from Fleet Prison to the pillory at Westminster. He was then forced to stoop in the pillory where he still managed to campaign against his censors, while distributing more unlicensed literature to the crowds.  He was then gagged. Finally he was thrown in prison. He was taken back to the court and again imprisoned. During his imprisonment in Fleet he was cruelly treated. While in prison he however managed to write and to get printed in 1638 an account of his own punishment styled The Work of the Beast and in 1639 an apology for separation from the church of England, entitled Come out of her, my people. John spent the next few years going back and forth between the Star Chamber and prison.

 In 1640, the King’s personal rule ended and he was forced to reconvene Parliament. Incensed by John Lilburne’s treatment at the hands of the Star Court, John Pym led a campaign to abolish it and in 1640 one of the most significant pieces of legislation in the western world was enacted, the Habeus Corpus Act. This Act abolished the Star Chamber and declared that anyone imprisoned by order of the king, privy council, or any councilor could apply for a writ of habeas corpus (literally meaning “release the body”) and it required that all returns to the writ "certify the true cause" of imprisonment.  It also clarified that the Court of Common Pleas had jurisdiction to issue the writ in such cases (prior to which it was argued that only the King's Bench could issue the writ). On this statute stands our basic right to a fair trial.

Physically the Star Chamber stood in the precinct of the Westminster Palace until its demolition in 1806.

Despite the rights of Habeas Corpus, “Star Chambers” still creep into our modern age. In modern American history, for example,  the best example of star chamber proceedings was the conduct of the House Un-American Activities Committee (1938-1975) which used its subpoena power to intimidate citizens by asking them unconstitutional questions about their political beliefs and associations, and then charging them with contempt of Congress for refusing to answer. Another example was the conduct of criminal proceedings against black defendants in some southern states from 1876 until the late 1960s. As a lawyer I have my doubts about the proceedings against the Guantamo Bay detainees but this is not the time and place to discuss these issues.
The House Un-American Activities Committee in session

An Introduction to Legal History J.H. Baker


Vonnie said...

Thank you Alison. A really, really interesting blog on a part of history I hadn't given a great deal of thought to.

Deborah Swift said...

This was a fabulous post. So much so that this is the third time I have been back to read, digest and take notes. Fascinating.

Alison Stuart said...

Thanks for your comments Vonnie and Dee. We always assume we know our history but one of the things I love about participating in Hoydens is I have been able to explore topics like this and realise I knew very little about them and it becomes a learning experience for me.

Keith Livesey has reblogged the post over at Trumpet of Sedition.

Alison Stuart said...

I meant to add that I found it particularly interesting that the Star Chamber did not have the power to sentence a person to death. I think that is often misunderstood.