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

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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.

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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.

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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

Gay Icon, Intriguer, Author, Adventuress: The Many Lives of Aphra Behn

Aphra_Behn

Bit of a mystery, is Aphra – who says that the reinvention of one’s past is an activity reserved to Hollywood starlets?

She kept her early years a closely-guarded secret.

The Histories And Novels of the Late Ingenious Mrs. Behn (1696) states that she was born to Bartholomew Johnson, a barber, and Elizabeth Denham, a wet-nurse. (That story recurs, as a contemporary, Anne Finch, wrote that she was born in Wye in Kent, the “Daughter to a Barber”) However, a contemporary essay by the unidentified “One of the Fair Sex” maintains that Aphra was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. John Johnson of nearby Canterbury. Johnson was a gentleman related to Lord Willoughby, who appointed him lieutenant-general of Surinam, for which Willoughby was the royal patentee.

Whether Aphra was Johnson’s by-blow or fostered by him is not known, but what has been established with reasonable certainty was that in 1663 she accompanied Johnson, his wife, and a boy, described as her brother, on a voyage to take up residence in the West Indies. Johnson died on the way, and his wife and children lived for several months in Surinam. Her novel, Oroonoko (1688), is allegedly based on her experiences there and her friendship with a prince of the indigenous peoples…. although there is no evidence that Oroonoko existed, that she had a friendship with him, or that the slave rebellion of the novel ever happened. Colonel Thomas Colepeper, the only person who claimed to have known her as a child, wrote that she was born at “Sturry or Canterbury” to a Mr Johnson and that she had a sister named Frances.

Southerne_Oroonoko_1776_performanceShortly after her supposed return to England from Surinam in 1664, she may have married Johan Behn. He may have been a merchant of German or Dutch extraction, possibly from Hamburg. He died – or they separated – soon after 1664, and from this point she used “Mrs Behn” as her professional name. Whatever the truth of it, none of it appears in the records… I have played a little fast and loose with Aphra’s activities, for it was not until 1666 that she appears officially attached to the court.

She was recruited as a political spy in Antwerp on behalf of King Charles II, possibly under the auspices of courtier and theatre-owner Thomas Killigrew. (And possibly not.) It happens to suit my story to have her in 1665 as already recruited as a spy, simply because, like many things about the divine Astraea – her code name, and the name she used for much of her later writing – we don’t know she wasn’t, and it tickles me to think of the dubiously-widowed Mrs Behn languishing on the Continent with other impoverished Royalist ex-pats, spinning lurid tales and batting her eyelashes at Russell.

(He didn’t. He wouldn’t…. Did he?)

Her role in Antwerp was to establish an intimacy with the son of Thomas Scot, a regicide who had been executed in 1660 – which is a discreet way of saying she was expected to seduce him. William Scot was believed to be ready to become a spy in the King’s service, reporting on the plots of Roundhead exiles. Aphra arrived in Bruges in July 1666, probably with two others (I wonder who?), tasked with turning Scot into a double agent, but it failed.

The cost of living in Europe shocked her, and only a month after arrival, she was forced to pawn her jewelry. Money had to be borrowed so that she could return to London, where a year’s petitioning of Charles for payment for her expenses was ultimately unsuccessful. It may be that she was never paid by the crown. A warrant was issued for her arrest, but there’s no evidence she ever went to prison for debt. Knowing the fair Astraea, it’s equally likely that she would have served His Majesty for love, and laughed at the warrant.

She began to work for the King’s Company and the Duke’s Company players as a scribe, to keep the wolf from the door. (Not her first writing, but her first paid gig, at least.) Her first play, The Forc’d Marriage, was staged in 1670, followed by The Amorous Prince (1671). After her third play, The Dutch Lover, failed, she disappears for three years. It is speculated that she went travelling again, possibly in her capacity as a spy – though I wouldn’t put a staged comeback past Mistress Behn’s sense of the dramatic.

Linked with notable writers of the day, she was acknowledged as part of the circle of the Earl of Rochester. (Interestingly, her name was never romantically linked with any of the Merry Gang.) As a mature woman her primary publicly acknowledged relationship was with a bisexual man, John Hoyle, himself the subject of public scandal for murder and sodomy. She was known to have had male lovers – those poems weren’t written by a woman who didn’t know what sex was – but she also writes explicitly of the love of women for each other. Did she have female lovers? She says so, but then she also claimed that Nature had meant her as a nun. More of the self-mythologising of the fair Astraea.

Gay icon, intriguer, author, adventuress. Unconventional businesswoman who lived and died on her own terms, as independently as she had lived. I wasn’t entirely serious, comparing her to stars of the silver screen, but the more I think about it – tirelessly self-promoting, glamorous, self-reliant, deceptively professional, and ultimately tragic. In her last years her health began to fail, beset by poverty and debt, but she continued to write, though it became increasingly hard for her to hold a pen. She died on 16 April 1689, and was buried in the East Cloister of Westminster Abbey. The inscription on her tombstone reads: “Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be Defence enough against Mortality.”

Oh, I don’t know.
Reckon the gal’d be proud of the likes of me and you, Jess…

masthead-coverM. J. Logue is a re-enactor, half-trained archivist, sometime copywriter, retired professional tarot reader, and almost always a writer. When not living with a troop of Parliamentarian cavalry circa 1642, she lives in the West Country with her husband, her son, and five cats.

The new book is The Broom at the Masthead – in which the Divine Astraea does not have an affair with Russell, but not for want of trying – and the blog is www.asweetdisorder.com.

The Act of Oblivion: Guest Post by Historian John Polsom-Jenkins

Charles II in exile. Philippe de Champaigne, 1653
By early 1660, England and Wales had been in a state of civil war since 1642 and engaged in intermittent related conflicts in Scotland and Ireland since 1638, to say nothing of foreign wars against the Dutch and increased colonial engagements. The success of Parliament against King Charles I had resulted in the traditional structure of England: its monarchy, government, courts, and national church, being dismantled and replaced with a series of experiments in republican government and more radically reformed religion. However, Parliament ultimately found itself unable to negotiate a political and religious settlement between the varied interests who had fought against the King, especially since a wide range of fanatical religious groups had developed during the unstructured years of war, some of them now espousing a radical social agenda, all of which was deeply threatening to those who still believed in a rigid social structure and unified national church.

Parliament eventually having felt compelled to put the King on trial and execute him for treason against his own people, and with his son in exile on the continent, the reins of government fell to the army and Oliver Cromwell in particular. In the 1650s, Cromwell succeeded in creating a sort of hereditary military dictatorship (the Protectorate), in which he fulfilled the role of king in all but name.  When the Protector passed on in 1658, his son, Richard, inherited his mantle but wore it unconvincingly and was persuaded to resign in April 1659. This left the army in charge of the country and it was George Monck who emerged as its foremost and most decisive general. Monck had been a royalist commander under Charles I before joining Parliament to lead its forces against the Irish. Once again, Monck demonstrated his preference for strong, stable government and, in March of 1660, began negotiating directly with Charles II (whose Scottish coronation had been moved as a result of Monck’s attacks) to secure his Restoration to the throne of England. Charles was restored by May.

By the time Charles returned to England, popular opinion had swung in his favor and the army was decidedly on his side, but ruling the country would be no easy task. The extravagant celebrations which accompanied Charles’ entrance into London on his 30th birthday, 29thMay, 1660, masked a country which had suffered years of bitter warfare and division. How to unite the Parliamentarian idealists, who had seen their hopes (in many cases for no less than bringing about heaven on Earth) dashed, with the Royalists, who had suffered military defeat, exile, and confiscation of their property, and who were now anxious for payback?

Charles II was canny enough to realize that for the country to heal, or even cease to tear itself apart, there would have to be plenty of forgiveness, not least from himself. Before he even set foot on English soil, the Act of Free and General Pardon Indemnity and Oblivion, or Act of Oblivion as it is usually referred to, had been agreed on and passed by the interim Convention Parliament. The Act of Oblivion offered a general pardon towards the King’s disloyal subjects for anything they might have done in the regular passage of warfare or governance during the Civil War and tried to prevent the “late Differences” from being perpetuated further by instigating fines for factional name-calling for the following three years (£10 for gentlemen; 40 shillings for everyone else).

Although the Act of Oblivion and Charles’ Declaration made from exile in Breda both represented a genuine attempt at reconciliation in April 1660, they both left unsaid some uncompromising realities. Charles had many who had followed him into battle and exile at the expense of their families, estates, and fortunes and who now expected their loyalty to be repaid. However, the new King could ill-afford to reinforce divisions and push his former opponents back to rebellion. Indeed, his Restoration could not have happened without the support of former opponents in the army, especially Monck.

Further, there were limits to forgiveness. Those most personally offensive to the King, those regicides most directly involved in the trial and execution of his father, were excepted from the general pardon, the new regime famously even going to the length of exhuming the bodies of Oliver Cromwell, Henry Ireton, and John Bradshaw, in order to give the corpses a traitor’s death. Of the forty-one surviving signatories to Charles I’s death warrant, only nine shared this fate with the unfortunate corpses along with four others regarded as contributing to the regicide (a preacher, Charles’ guards). Others were saved by family connections, excuses, or running into exile. Charles II needed to restrain himself from being too vindictive in order to preserve the peace, but it was also dangerous to allow those who had so blatantly challenged the divinely-appointed status of his family to rule to do so without consequence.

Perhaps the Act did do something towards consigning the divisions of the immediate past to oblivion, but new divisions developed from the old and Charles’ brother was deposed within five years of taking the throne.

For the verbose legalese of the Act in its entirety, see: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/statutes-realm/vol5/pp226-234

Dr. John Polsom-Jenkins

Of Cakes and Kings (With their Heads on or Otherwise…)

Guest post by Hannah Methwell

Bosse. The Pastry Shop, 1632

Now I am a somewhat bloody-minded historical novelist. I write about a rather ruffianly troop of Oliver Cromwell’s cavalry, all very rough and manly, and they spend a deal of their fictional career engaged in violent mayhem. 

Which is all very well, but when not smiting the heathen hip and thigh, what would an Ironside officer, circa 1642, do with himself at home? 

In the case of Captain Holofernes Babbitt, the answer is – hang around the kitchen hoping for cake. Known for it. Every time his good lady appears in those books, she’s either trying to feed him, or fatten up somebody else in his troop. Het Babbitt is a lady after my own heart. 

But what? Parliamentarians? Puritans? With cake

Cakes. Custard tarts. Fruit pies. Biscuits. Cheesecake. You betcha. 

Cake in the seventeenth century did not, on the whole, come as a snack, but rather, as part of a course at dinner in which multiple dishes would be set forth. A menu from a 1594 recipe book, “The Good Huswife’s Handmaid for the Kitchen”, gives the somewhat exotic guidance for a two-course dinner as: 

Brawne and Mustard. Capons stewed in white broth: a pestle of Uenison vpon brewes: A chine of Beefe, and a breast of Mutton boyled: Chewets or Pies of fine Mutton: three greene Geese in a dish, Sorrell sauce. For a stubble Goose, mustard and Uinigar: after Alhallowen day a Swanne, sauce Chaudron: A Pigge: A double ribbe of Beefe roasted. Sauce Pepper and Uinigar. A loyne of Ueale or breast, sauce Orenges: Halfe a Lambe or a Kid: Two Capons roasted, Sauce Wine and salt, Ale and salt, except it be vpon sops: Two pasties of fallow Deere in a dish: a Custard: A dish of Leash. 

The second course. 
Jellie, Peacockes, sauce Wine and Salte: Two Connies, or halfe a dozen Rabbets, sauce Mustard and Sugar: halfe a dozen of Pigions, Mallard, Toyle, sauce Mustard and Uergious: Gulles, Storke, Heronshew, Crab, sauce Galantine: Curlew, Bitture, Bustard, Feasant, sauce Water and Salt, with Onions sliced: Halfe a dozen Woodcockes, sauce Mustarde and Sugar: Halfe a dozen Teales, sauced as the Feasants: A dozen of Quailes: a dish of Larkes: Two Pasties of red Deare in a dish: Tarte, Ginger bread, Fritters

Pieter Claesz. Still Life With Turkey Pie, 1627


Fruit, both candied and fresh, would be a given at this type of formal dinner. As we can tell, the “sweet” dishes are a minority, but expected as part of both courses. (Leash – if you’re curious – is leche lombard, another kind of spiced baked custard.) 

But back to the cake thing. Without baking powder, and thus without self-raising flour, the “sponge” cake didn’t arrive until way after the 17th century. Het Babbitt’s baked cakes would have been sweetened, enriched bread doughs – possibly, but not necessarily, baked in cake hoops, wooden or metal versions of our modern cake tins which stood on a plank in the oven. A 1617 recipe book, “A Daily Exercise for Ladies and Gentlemen”, gives the following recipe for sugar cake: 

Bake a pound of finewheat flower in a pipkin close couered, put thereto halfe a pound of fine Sugar, foure yolkes and one white of egs, Pepper and Nutmegs, straine them with clouted creame, and with a little new Ale yeast, make it in past, as it were for a Manchet, bake it in a quicke ouen with a breath fire in the ouens mouth, but beware of burning them. 

(I feel your pain regarding the burning. Every time…) 

Rosewater, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves were popular flavourings in period cakes. What is interesting is that honey as a sweet ingredient in confectionery doesn’t seem to appear in any of the period recipe books I’ve consulted, apart from in one recipe for apple and orange tart where the orange peel is stewed in water sweetened with honey before it’s added to the apple puree. There’s a lot of talk of strewing with sugar, and a deal of sweetening with same, but I have as yet been unable to find an authenticated recipe using honey, apart from an uncooked gingerbread recipe from Gervase Markham’s “English Housewife” (1614): 

 A Seventeenth Century Cookbook


Take a quart of honey clarified, and seethe it till it be brown, and if it be thick put to it a dish of water; then take fine crumbs of white bread grated, and put to it, and stir it well, and when it is almost cold, put to it powder of ginger, cloves, cinnamon, and a little liquorice and aniseeds; then knead it, and put it into moulds and print it; some use to put to it also a little pepper, but that is according to taste and pleasure.

Hannah Methwell
Read more of Hannah’s posts and find her books on her blog, An Uncivil War