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.

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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

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