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Today in history

No, this hasn’t anything in particular to do with anniversaries.

The Court of Star Chamber was a court of law which evolved from meetings of the king’s royal council. Although its roots go back to the medieval period, the court only became powerful as a separate entity during the reign of Henry VII. In 1487 the court became a judicial body separate from the king’s council, with a mandate to hear petitions of redress.

In a sense the court was a supervisory body; its members oversaw the operations of lower courts. As well, its members could hear cases by direct appeal. Members of the court were either privy councillors or judges drawn from the courts of common law.

The mandate of the court expanded under the Tudors to include instances of public disorder. Judges would receive petitions involving property rights, public corruption, trade and government administration, and disputes arising from land enclosures. Under the leadership of Thomas Wolsey and Archbishop Cranmer, the Court of Star Chamber became a political weapon for bringing actions against opponents to the policies of Henry VIII, his ministers and his Parliament. Although the court was initially a court of appeal, Henry VIII and his councillors WoIsey and Cranmer encouraged plaintiffs to bring their cases directly to the Star Chamber, bypassing the lower courts entirely.

Although the court could order torture, prison, and fines, it did not have the power to impose the death sentence. Under the Tudors Star Chamber sessions were public.

The power of the court of Star Chamber grew considerably under the Stuarts, and by the time of Charles I it had become a byword for misuse and abuse of power by the king and his circle. James I and his son Charles used the court to examine cases of sedition, which, in practice, meant that the court could be used to suppress opposition to royal policies. It became used to try nobles too powerful to be brought to trial in the lower courts. Court sessions were held in secret, with no right of appeal, and punishment was swift and severe to any enemy of the crown.

… Finally, in 1641 the Long Parliament abolished the hated Star Chamber, though its name survives still to designate arbitrary, secretive proceedings in opposition to personal rights and liberty.

— Tudor Place: The Court of Star Chamber (1487-1641)

Although the Court of Star Chamber did not itself have the power to order torture for gathering evidence, other commissions under the power of the Crown did, and testimony extracted under torture was often used against prisoners brought before the Court. The power of imprisonment included the power to throw convicts into prison at the King’s pleasure, to remain incarcerated indefinitely as long as the King wanted.

Mr. Hallam, who wrote most authoritatively of the English Constitution said that the course of proceeding in the Star Chamber seems to have nearly resembled that of the chancery. … The Star Chamber was established to secure good government. … The Star Chamber’s powers were directed towards preventing riots and unlawful assemblies. … In the Star Chamber there was no indictment. … In the Star Chamber there were no witnesses, and the evidence was produced in writing and read to the council. … In the Star Chamber there was no trial by jury. … 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. From the beginning it defied Magna Charta in denying jury-trial, in forcing men to incriminate themselves, or what is scarcely less repugnant to reason, to manifest their innocence. … At last with the inhuman punishment administered by it to Prynn, Burton and Bastwick, the people long cultivated by the constitutional lawyers of England procured its abolition. Can the chancery courts of this country expect to escape appropriate discipline when the time shall arrive that the eyes of the people shall see that these courts have habitually over-ridden the laws of the land?

… For nothing relaxes objection and silences criticism upon usurpation so much as the creation of a condition which strengthens the Must-do-something policy. Nothing has helped the employer so much in the plainly lawless and forbidden use of the writ of injunction as that condition of violence which he so loudly deplores. …

— Edgar Lee Masters (1904): The New Star Chamber

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

— William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun


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Anticopyright. This was written in 2006 by Rad Geek. Feel free to reprint if you like it. This machine kills intellectual monopolists.