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The Star Chamber (Latin Camera stellata) was an Englishmarker court of law that sat at the royal Palace of Westminstermarker until 1641. It was made up of Privy Counsellors, as well as common-law judges, and supplemented the activities of the common-law and equity courts in both civil and criminal matters. 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. Court sessions were held in secret, with no indictments, no right of appeal, no juries, and no witnesses. Evidence was presented in writing. Over time it evolved into a political weapon and became a symbol of the misuse and abuse of power by the English monarchy and courts.

It was mistakenly thought that in 1487 an act was passed which established a special "Court of Star Chamber" to deal with the nobles; however; the only legislation passed in that year in this context was to set up a tribunal to prevent the intimidation of juries and to stop retaining, the keeping of private armies by persons of rank. It seems to have gone out of use by 1509 and it had no connection with the later Court of Star Chamber whose primary purpose was to hear political libel and treason cases.

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. The inherent lack of objectivity of any politically motivated charges has led to substantial reforms in English law in most jurisdictions since that time.

Name origins

The court took its name from the "Star Chamber" or "Starred Chamber" which was built in the reign of King Edward II specifically for the meetings of the King's Council, though the origins of the name of the room itself are unclear.

The first reference to the 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. No clear etymology can be found for the name of the chamber; the most common explanation, dating to the later sixteenth century, is "because at the first all the roofe thereof was decked with images of starres gilted". Whilst there is no documentary evidence that the room was decorated in this manner, it is regarded as the most likely explanation by the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Writing in 1769, William Blackstone speculated that it was derived from "starr", a term used in pre-14th-century England for the contract of a Jew (from the Hebrew שטר, document), and that the chamber was originally used for the deposition of copies of such contracts. The Oxford English Dictionary, however, gives this etymology "no claim to consideration". Other etymological theories mentioned by Blackstone as extant at the time of writing were as a derivation of steoran, "steer", in the sense of "to govern"; from its originally serving as a court to punish the crimen stellionatus (cozenage); or because the room in which it originally sat was full of windows.


The Court evolved from meetings of the King's Council, with its roots going back to the medieval period. Contrary to popular belief, 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, it was made up of Privy Counsellors, 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.

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 not in violation of the letter of the law. This gave the Star Chamber great flexibility as it could punish offenders for any action which the court felt should be illegal even when in fact it was technically legal; however it also meant that the justice imposed by the Star Chamber could be very arbitrary and subjective, and allowed 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, libel and perjury were originally developed by the Court of Star Chamber, along with its more common role of dealing with riots and sedition.

Star Chamber sessions were closed to the public. King Henry VII used the power of Star Chamber to break the power of the landed gentry which had been such a cause of problems in the Wars of the Roses. When local courts were often clogged or mismanaged, the Court of Star Chamber became a site of remittance for common people against the excesses of the nobility.

Under the leadership of Cardinal Wolsey (the Archbishop of York and Lord Chancellor) and Thomas Cranmer (the Archbishop of Canterbury) (1515-1529), 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 Walesmarker, 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 Wales Acts.

Court sessions were held in secret, with no indictments, no right of appeal, no juries, and no witnesses. Evidence was presented in writing.

As the U.S.marker Supreme Courtmarker 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." Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806, 821-22 (1975).

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, including the actions of King Henry VIII.

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 Englandmarker.

On 17 October 1632, the Court of Star Chamber banned all "news books" because of complaints from Spanishmarker and Austrianmarker diplomats that coverage of the Thirty Years' War in England was unfair. As a result, newsbooks pertaining to this matter were often printed in Amsterdammarker and then smuggled into the country, until the ban was lifted six years later.

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 Schoolmarker.

The excesses of the Star Chamber under King Charles I, including the case of John Lilburne, constituted one of the rallying cries for those who eventually executed King Charles.

In the early 1900s, Americanmarker poet, biographer and dramatist Edgar Lee Masters, 1868-1950, commented:

In the 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 defense of Charles against assaults upon those usurpations which cost him his life. . . .

The Star Chamber became notorious under Charles I for judgements favourable to the king and to Archbishop Laud (for example, the branding on both cheeks of William Prynne in 1637 for seditious libel).

Under the Thatcher government 1979–90 the term was revived 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.

The Star Chamber and the US 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 "take the Fifth"—is thus often interpreted via reference to the inquisitorial methods of the Star Chamber.

In popular culture

In Neal Stephenson's historical novel Quicksilver one of the book's chief figures, Puritan Daniel Waterhouse, appears before an illegally reconstituted Star Chamber tribunal.

In the 1983 movie The Star Chamber, Michael Douglas, playing an idealistic Los Angeles Superior Court judge frustrated about having to free obviously guilty criminals merely because of legal technicalities, learns from his mentor about a secret cabal of judges—a Star Chamber—that metes out its own brand of justice against those it determines have wrongly been set free.

In the Discworld books by Terry Pratchett, the Patrician's Palace contains the Rats Chamber, an anagrammatical equivalent to the actual Star Chamber. One of the differences is that the room is decorated with a unique fresco of dancing rats on the ceiling, rat wall paper, rat carpet, and so on, which is stated to have the effect of making people "feel as if they need a wash" after a few minutes.

See also


  1. Or, rather, the first reference in the OED. Blackstone mentions a reference in a document of 41 Edw. III - 1367 - but does not quote it
  2. "Star-chamber, starred chamber"; Oxford English Dictionary, second edition. Oxford University Press, 1989.
  3. Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book Four, Chapter Nineteen. Online text
  4. S.B. Crimes, Henry VII, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972: p. 99.
  7. Pennsylvania v. Muniz, 496 U.S. 582, 595-98 (1990)
  8. Id.

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