The Court of Star Chamber


The Court of Star Chamber was named for the star pattern painted on the ceiling of the room at Westminster Palace where its meetings were held. The Court of Star Chamber was a court of law which evolved from meetings of the king's royal council. Although its roots go back to the medieval period, the court only became powerful as a separate entity during the reign of Henry VII. In 1487 the court became a judicial body separate from the king's council, with a mandate to hear petitions of redress.

In a sense the court was a supervisory body; its members oversaw the operations of lower courts. As well, its members could hear cases by direct appeal. Members of the court were either privy councillors or judges drawn from the courts of common law.

The mandate of the court expanded under the Tudors to include instances of public disorder. Judges would receive petitions involving property rights, public corruption, trade and government administration, and disputes arising from land enclosures. Under the leadership of Thomas Wolsey and Archbishop Cranmer, the Court of Star Chamber became a political weapon for bringing actions against opponents to the policies of Henry VIII, his ministers and his Parliament. Although the court was initially a court of appeal, Henry VIII and his councillors WoIsey and Cranmer encouraged plaintiffs to bring their cases directly to the Star Chamber, bypassing the lower courts entirely.

Although the court could order torture or prison, it did not have the power to impose the death sentence or hear  cases that might involve the death penalty. Under the Tudors Star Chamber sessions were public.

The power of the court of Star Chamber grew considerably under the Stuarts, and by the time of Charles I it had become a byword for misuse and abuse of power by the king and his circle. James I and his son Charles used the court to examine cases of sedition, which, in practice, meant that the court could be used to suppress opposition to royal policies. It became used to try nobles too powerful to be brought to trial in the lower courts. Court sessions were held in secret, with no right of appeal, and punishment was swift and severe to any enemy of the crown.

Charles I used the Court of Star Chamber as a sort of Parliamentary substitute during the years 1628-40, when he refused to call Parliament.

Finally, in 1641 the Long Parliament abolished the hated Star Chamber, though its name survives still to designate arbitrary, secretive proceedings in opposition to personal rights and liberty.

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