The Star Chamber: Corrupt Legal Practices and the Origin of Habeas Corpus

old_and_new_london_-_a_narrative_of_its_history_its_people_and_its_places_1873_14598096217

Engraving of The Star Chamber from Old and New London (1873)

“The Star Chamber” 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.

The Star Chamber actually 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 was convened at short notice to deal with urgent matters. Initially well regarded because of its speed and flexibility, it was made up of Privy Counselors, 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 interfere with the ordinary processes of law. In practice it meant that it heard cases and imposed 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 their reigns. 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.

The Court’s 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.

wenceslas_hollar_-_charles_i_state_3

Charles I. Wenceslaus Hollar, 1644.

Charles I routinely used the Star Chamber 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. 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. Lilburne was a Leveller* (“Free born John”). In 1637, he was arrested for publishing unlicensed books (one of them by William Prynne). At the time, all printing presses had to be officially licensed. In his examinations in 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.

00lilburne5

John Lilburne, as depicted on the cover of the Leveller pamphlet “The Liberty of the Freeborne English-Man” (1646)

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 Habeas 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.

References:

Baker, J.H. An Introduction to English Legal History.

Luminarium Encyclopedia Project. The Court of the Star Chamber.

Wikipedia: Star Chamber

feathersinthewindfinalAbout Alison Stuart

Award winning historical fiction author, Alison Stuart, is a former lawyer with experience in the military and emergency services. She has a passion for the period of the English Civil War and her latest English Civil War set story And Then Mine Enemy is now available in all reputable online stores. Visit Alison’s website at www.alisonstuart.com.

To celebrate the release of And Then Mine Enemy, Alison is running a Rafflecopter contest to give away a $20 Amazon gift card. Click here to enter.

Editor’s Notes for additional context

*  “Levellers” was a perjorative term applied to a group of London radicals agitating for greater spiritual and social equality during the reign of Charles I and the Civil Wars.  They went on to become particularly influential in the Parliamentary army but their demands for extensions of religious freedom and the franchise were ultimately suppressed by their own officers.  The extent to which the Levellers constituted precursors to modern socialists or democrats has been a source of historical debate but they have certainly attracted a degree of symbolic importance among the British left since the 1960s, as summarized in this article by the late politician, Tony Benn

**  The ex officio oath was one imposed on the defendant directly by the official (judge) and requiring them to swear to God to give a truthful account on pain of perjory (for lying) or contempt of court (for remaining silent).  The oath was often used by Tudor and Stuart courts to trap religious nonconformists into incriminating themselves but was increasingly resisted by men like Lilburne and ultimately abolished by the legal minds of the victorious Civil War Parliament.  Historians, such as B. J. Shapiro, have considered the importance of the solemn oath in early modern England.  John Spurr, meanwhile, offers a parallel history of profane oaths (swearing).

***  An ‘apology’ in this context was a work making the case for a particular position, not an expression of contrition.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Levellers, the Online Library of Liberty has an excellent selection of their pamphlets you can read online here. -Eds

Lies, Spies, and Unsung Heroes: Espionage and the British Empire

queen_elizabeth_i_sir_francis_walsingham_william_cecil_1st_baron_burghley_by_william_faithorne_2

Engraving of Elizabeth I with William Cecil (left) and Francis Walsingham (right)

We’ve loved our spy fiction for over 100 years. The early years of the twentieth century saw the start of the genre, with Kim, by Rudyard Kipling, several books by Joseph Conrad, The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Orczy, even some of the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Sexy heroes, thrilling encounters, mysterious beautiful women, and ghastly villains. Spy novels had it all. How things have changed.

Disreputable and dishonest

In the past, spying was a murky hidden business, and spies despised as liars who sold their honour. The British Secret Service was not founded until the twentieth century, and before that spies were seen as dishonest and disreputable. Yet without them, the history of England would be very different.

Henry VIII and Elizabeth I both had spymasters whose extensive spy networks helped keep their royal majesties on their throne.

Sir Anthony Standen—torn between loyalties

standintro-1

Standen’s alias: Pompeo Pellegrini

One of those spies was a Catholic refugee from Protestant England, whose reports on the Spanish Armada allowed the English to attack the Spanish Fleet at Cadiz. Sir Francis Drake fired ships and sunk galleys, putting the invasion off for years.

Poor Sir Anthony Standen. His love for England and his love for his faith conflicted, and — although he eventually returned to his home country — he was not welcomed by a grateful nation. Indeed, though he was sent on further spying missions, he was also imprisoned for a time in the Tower of London.

It is an interesting juxtaposition: his sterling work for the Crown did not (in the eyes of some) prove his patriotism, but rather his lack of moral fibre. He spied, therefore he could not be trusted.

Spying at home as well as abroad

Walsingham and his successors were as likely to spy on Englishmen as on enemies from abroad. William Pitt the Younger, in more than tripling the amount spent by the government on spying and infiltration of potentially rebellious organisations, was walking in well-trodden footsteps. The budget passed through the hands of a few civil servants at home, and ambassadors and military commanders abroad, with no more accounting than this oath.

I A.B. do swear, That the Money paid to me for Foreign Secret Service, or for Secret Service in detecting, preventing, or defeating, treasonable, or other dangerous Conspiracies against the State…, has been bona fide, applied to the said Purpose or Purposes, and to no other: and that it hath not appeared to me convenient to the State that the same should be paid Abroad. So help me GOD.

A secret part of the Post Office opened, read, and copied mail, especially mail from foreign governments. And both amateur and professional informers reported on their neighbours.

Systematic spying

Napoleon employed a network of spies, under the Minister of Police, Joseph Fouche, who had survived the two previous regimes and would survive the Empire to serve the restored monarchy.

The English system was much more ad hoc. Spies, yes, and many of them, but probably no central co-ordination, though William Savage makes a good argument for the central role of The Alien Office.

Overseas, diplomats and military commanders took the fore. We know the names of some of the diplomatic spymasters who plotted against Napoleon: William Wickham in Switzerland, Francis Drake* in Munich and later Italy.

15129894_707783796037856_508416501_n

Colquhoun Grant by George Jones (1815-1820), National Portrait Gallery. Grant was a British army soldier and intelligence officer during the Napoleonic Wars.

Noble spies

Wellington had ‘exploring officers’, who would have challenged you to a duel had you dared to call them spies. They were officers and gentlemen, and if they did creep behind enemy lines to collect information, they wore their uniforms to do so. Wearing a disguise or other forms of deception would be beneath their code of civilised behaviour.

But Wellington (and other military leaders) also had other intelligence gatherers who were less particular. Did some of them include members of the great aristocratic families of England? If so, we would not expect to find out from the records. Such a secret would reflect badly on those families, and would never be disclosed.

Spies of romance

So we are free to imagine that the romantic heroes and heroines of our modern stories might represent some, at least, of the spies whose reports on Napoleon’s troops, movements, and intentions saved England from invasion. Or who uncovered plots at home.

Prudence Virtue, heroine of my book Revealed in Mist, is a spy in the service of the mysterious Tolliver. Recruited after a love affair turned sour, she infiltrates the houses of the ton to uncover secrets and help defend the State. Or so Tolliver claims.

Jude Knight

15057987_707784779371091_490009922_nJude Knight’s writing goal is to transport readers to another time, another place, where they can enjoy adventure and romance, thrill to trials and challenges, uncover secrets and solve mysteries, delight in a happy ending, and return from their virtual holiday refreshed and ready for anything.

Since publishing Candle’s Christmas Chair in December 2014, Jude’s name has seldom been off Amazon bestseller lists for one or more books. She is a member of Romance Writers of New Zealand, and of the Beau Monde chapter of Romance Writers of America. You can visit her at http://www.judeknightauthor.com

Revealed in Mist is out December 13, 2016.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Email

References
Ioffe, Alexander: Espionage During the Napoleonic Wars. The Dear Surprise.
Rice, Patricia: Spies in Regency England. Word Wenches
Savage, William: The C18th British Secret Service under Pitt. Pen and Pension.
Secrets and Spies, National Archives Exhibition.

*The diplomat, not to be confused with Sir Francis Drake. -Ed.

 

Review: Homosexuality in Renaissance England by Alan Bray

bray_sex_amazon-1I write mysteries set in Elizabethan England featuring Francis Bacon as my primary sleuth. No one knows for sure — no love letter from Bacon to another person has survived. He isn’t likely to have written such things, in my opinion, because he was a courtier practically from birth and knew better than to write down anything that could be used against you later. But most historians believe he was a man who preferred men, sexually. The evidence is slender; such as there is I discussed on my blog.

Based on that slender evidence, my version of Francis Bacon is decidedly gay, to use the modern term. So I need to understand what that would have meant in his time. Toward that end, there is no better resource than Alan Bray’s excellent Homosexuality in Renaissance England (1996, Columbia University Press.)

This book is not only a clear-eyed, detailed resource on the stated topic, but also a fine example of historical writing, on both technical and stylistic grounds. Read this together with Alan Haynes’ Sex in Elizabethan England and you’ll learn the difference between history and literature-based speculation. Bray’s thesis is that a study of homosexuality ought properly to belong in a general study of interfamilial relations.

He begins quite correctly with a discussion of his sources. He notes that most of our ideas about homosexuality in early modern England derive from Havelock Ellis’ provocative 1897 Sexual Inversion. Ellis was trying to create a new culture; he was not writing a history book. It’s not much help for those of us who try to cleave to the actual as much as possible.

The slippery slope

goat-1Bray notes on page 9, “There was an immense disparity in this society [early modern England] between what people said — and apparently believed — about homosexuality and what in truth they did.” Thank goodness! What people said was pretty horrible. Diatribes and sermons of the time displayed a persistent association between unnatural acts, homosexual sex and bestiality. Boys + goats = demonic debauchery.

Strictly speaking, nobody ranted about homosexuality, because the term wasn’t coined until the late nineteenth century. The earlier term was ‘sodomite;’ gritty and biblical, meant to be shocking. Like ‘atheist,’ the word had more to do with outlawry and social nonconformity, — behaving in a manner contrary to the laws of man, God, and nature — than with sex. Nobody you liked and respected was ever a sodomite. It was a word you hurled at someone you were trying to injure.

Turned upside down

upside-downThere was plenty of ranting, some of it truly vile. The odious Sir Edward Coke thought buggery was treason against the King of Heaven. (Coke was one of Bacon’s lifelong rivals; for this and other reasons I despise him.) Bray reviews the rantings and discusses the reasons people were so fearful about overturning God’s laws. If you go too far, you risking turning the whole world upside down. Chaos would result. We’d all go mad!

Bray also gives us a look at the caricatures drawn in early modern literature: “…the sodomite is a young man-about-town, with his mistress on one arm and his ‘catamite’ on the other; he is indolent, extravagant and debauched.” The Earl of Oxford fit this portrait perfectly. Note that this man-about-town was omnisexual — depraved in all directions.

Lots of storm, little fury

Bray examines court records for hints about interpersonal relations. Buggery cases were heard in the Quarter Assizes, judged by county Justices of the Peace. While the crime was a felony, cases were rare. In the 66-year period 1559-1625, in all of Kent, Sussex, Hertfordshire, and Essex, there were only 4 indictments for sodomy. These cases involved violence and were thus breaches of the peace. Nobody was sneaking around spying out naughty buggers and hauling them into court; not even into church courts.

Bray situates garden variety homosexuality inside the home, observing that homes in early modern times were also workplaces. The workshop was on the ground floor of the house or in the yard. A typical path for a young person, male or female, was to leave the natal home in the early teens and go off to work in someone else’s house. Boys might be apprenticed to a craftsman; girls would find work as servants. They would work until they were able to support themselves, through savings and advancement in their craft.
In early modern England, as now, couples were expected to establish independent households. They married later as a result; men well into their twenties or even thirties, women around mid-twenties. Note that this is also an effective means of managing the birth rate; pretty much the only means they had other than abstinence.

Arden farm

Servants’ beds

Servants and apprentices lived with the family, though they might sleep on cots in the attic or in a cockloft over the barn, segregated by sex. Thus there were many opportunities for opportunistic sexual relations; desirable as a way of relieving sexual pressures without producing unwanted pregnancies.

Neither ask thou, nor tell

Bray concludes that, “In general homosexual behaviour went largely unrecognised or ignored, both by those immediately involved and by the communities in which they lived.” Vehement hostility in public was matched by willing blind complicity in private.

Bray notes that Francis Bacon was known to have sexual relations with his servants, which no one would have minded if he hadn’t been so outrageously generous with gifts, for which he probably borrowed the money. He quotes Aubrey’s Life of Francis Bacon: “He was a παιδεραστής. [paiderastes~pederast] His Ganymedes and favourites took bribes; but his lordship always gave judgement secundum aequum et bonum [according to what is just and good.] His decrees in Chancery stand firm, i.e. there are fewer of his decrees reversed than of any other Chancellor.”

Thus we see that Bacon may have been queer, but he was also always fair.

Anna Castle

References
Bray, Alan. 1996. Homosexuality in Renaissance England. Columbia University Press.

mbm_small_150wdAward-winning author Anna Castle writes two historical mystery series: the Francis Bacon mysteries and the Professor & Mrs. Moriarty mysteries. She has earned a series of degrees — BA in the Classics, MS in Computer Science, and a PhD in Linguistics — and has had a corresponding series of careers — waitressing, software engineering, grammar-writing, assistant professor, and archivist. Writing fiction combines her lifelong love of stories and learning.

Website | Blog | Facebook | Twitter | Email

Editor’s note: For more on the contraception available in this period, check out this post on 17th century condoms. They were more of a protection against syphilis, and not a very effective one at that…