1902 Encyclopedia > Star Chamber

Star Chamber




STAR-CHAMBER, the name given in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries to an English high court of justice, consisting of the members of the ordinary council, or of the privy council only, with the addition of certain judges, and exercising jurisdiction, mainly criminal, in certain cases. The origin and early history of the court are somewhat obscure. The Curia Regis of the 12th century, combining judicial, deliberative, and administrative functions, had thrown off several offshoots in the Court of King's Bench and other courts, but the crown never parted with the supreme jurisdiction whence the subsidiary courts had emanated. When in the 13th century the council became a regular and permanent body, practically distinct from the parliament of estates, this jurisdiction continued to be exercised by the king in council. As the ordinary law-courts became more systematic and important, the inde-finite character of the conciliar jurisdiction gave rise to frequent complaints; and efforts, for the most part fruitless, were made by the parliaments of the 14th century (e.g., in 15 Edw. II. and 2 Edw. III.) to check it. The equitable jurisdiction of the chancellor, which grew up during the reign of Edward III., flowed from this supreme judicial power, like the common law-courts under Henry II., but without drying up the original source. It is in the reign of Edward III. that we first hear of the " chancellor, treasurer, justices, and others " exercising jurisdiction in the " star-chamber " or " chambre de estoiles " at Westminster. In Henry VI.'s reign one Dan vers was acquitted of a certain charge t by the king's council "in camera stellata." Hitherto such Acts of Parliament as had recognized this jurisdiction had done so only by way of limitation or prohibition, but in 1453, about the time when the distinction between the ordinary and the privy council first became apparent, an Act was passed by which the chancellor was empowered to enforce the attendance of all persons summoned by the privy seal before the king and his council in all cases not determinable by common law. At this time, then, the jurisdiction of the council was recognized as supplementary to that of the ordinary law-courts. But the anarchy of the Wars of the Roses, and the decay of provincial justice owing to the influence of great barons and the turbulence of the lower classes, obliged parliament to entrust wider powers to the council. This was the object of the famous Act of 3 Hen. VII., which was quoted by the lawyers of the Long Parliament as creating the court of star-chamber. This, however, as is shown above, it was far from doing. The Act of 3 Hen. VII. empowered a committee of the council, consisting of the chancellor, treasurer, privy seal, or any two of them, with the chief justices, or in their absence two other justices, a bishop, and a temporal lord, to act as a court of justice for enforc-ing the law in cases where it was thwarted by bribery, intimidation, or partiality. The jurisdiction thus entrusted to a committee of the council was not, therefore, like that granted in 1453, supplementary, but superseded the ordinary law-courts in cases where they were too weak to act. The Act simply supplied machinery for the exercise under special circumstances of that extraordinary penal jurisdiction which the council had never ceased to possess. This jurisdiction, Bacon tells us, was still further developed and organized by Wolsey. The court established by the Act 3 Hen. VII. continued to exist for about fifty years, but disappeared towards the end of Henry VIII.'s reign. Its powers were not lost, but fell back to the general body of the council, and were among the most important of those exercised by the council sitting in the star-chamber. A court not unlike that created in 3 Hen. VII. was erected in 1540. The Act of 31 Hen. VIII., which gave the king's proclamations the force of law, enacted that offenders against them might be punished by the usual officers of the council, together with some bishops and judges, "in the star-chamber or elsewhere." These powers also came after a time, like those granted in 1488, to be exercised by the council at large instead of by certain members of it. It is clear, however,—and this was one of the chief complaints against the court,—that the jurisdic-tion which belonged by law or custom to the whole body of the king's council was usurped at this time by the inner body of advisers called the privy council, which had engrossed all the other functions of the larger body. Sir T. Smith (temp. Eliz.) tells us that juries misbehaving "were many times commanded to appear in the star-chamber or before the privy council for the matter." The uncertain composition of the court is well displayed by Coke, who says that the star-chamber is or may be com-pounded of three several councils—(1) the lords and others of the privy council, (2) the judges of either bench and the barons of the exchequer, (3) the lords of parliament, who are not, however, standing judges of the court. Hudson ("temp. Car. I.), on the other hand, considers that all peers had a right of sitting in the court. The latter class had, however, certainly given up sitting in the 17tli century. The jurisdiction of the court was equally vague, and, as Hudson says, it was impossible to define it without offending the supporters of the prerogative by a limitation of its powers, or the common lawyers by attributing to it an excessive latitude. In practice its jurisdiction was almost unlimited. It took notice of maintenance and liveries, bribery or partiality of jurors, falsification of panels or of verdicts, routs and riots, murder, felony, forgery, perjury, fraud, libel and slander, offences against proclamations, duels, acts. tending to treason, as well as of a few civil matters,—disputes as to land between great men or corporations, disputes between English and foreign merchants, testamentary cases, &c,—in fact, " all offences may be here examined and punished if the king will" (Hudson). Its procedure was not according to the common law; it dispensed with the encumbrance of a jury; it could proceed on mere rumour or examine wit-nesses ; it could apply torture ; it could inflict any penalty short of death. It was thus admirably calculated to be the support of order against anarchy or of despotism against individual and national liberty. During the Tudor period it appeared in the former light, under the Stuarts in the latter. It was abolished by the Long Parliament in 1641, and was never afterwards revived.

Authorities.—Smith, Commonwealth of England; Bacon, Reign of Henry VII.; Hudson, Treatise of the Court of Star-Chamber (Collectanea Juridica, vol. ii.); Hallam, Const. Hist, of England; Gneist, Engl. Verfassungsgeschichte; Dicey, The Privy Council (Arnold Prize Essay). The pleadings in the star-chamber are in the Record Office; the decrees appear to have been lost. (G. W. P.)








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