Star Chamber

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Star Chamber

Star Chamber, ancient meeting place of the king of England's councilors in the palace of Westminster in London, so called because of stars painted on the ceiling. The court of the Star Chamber developed from the judicial proceedings traditionally carried out by the king and his council, and was entirely separate from the common-law courts of the day. In the 15th cent., under the Lancastrian and Yorkist kings, the role of the council as an equity and prerogative court increased, and it extended its jurisdiction over criminal matters. Faster and less rigid than the common-law courts, its scope was extended by the Tudors. Under Chancellor Wolsey's leadership (1515–29), the Court of Star Chamber became a political weapon, bringing actions against opponents to the decrees and edicts of Henry VIII. Wolsey also encouraged petitioners to use the Court of the Star Chamber as a court of original jurisdiction, not as a last resort after the common-law courts had failed. Depositions were taken from witnesses, but no jury was employed in the proceedings. Although its sentences included a wide variety of corporal punishments, including whipping, pillorying, and branding, those convicted were never sentenced to death. The court remained active through the reigns of James I and Charles I. The traditional hostility between equity and common law was aggravated by the use made of the Star Chamber by the Stuarts as a vehicle for exercising the royal prerogative, particularly over church matters, in defiance of Parliament. It was abolished by the Long Parliament in 1641. In its later period the court was so reviled that Star Chamber became a byword for unfair judicial proceedings. The court's harshness, however, has been exaggerated.

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