Origin and History
The Court of Star Chamber was the king's Council sitting judicially, the judges of the court being the body of councillors. The Council's judicial functions went back to the 13th century, and it is agreed by scholars that its jurisdiction sprang from that of the medieval king's Council. From the reign of Edward III, sessions of the king's Council were held in the Camera Stellata at the Palace of Westminster. This chamber consisted of two rooms, an inner and outer, the court being based in the outer. The origins of the Court of Star Chamber as such remain unclear, and the actual use of the term 'Star Chamber' does not appear to have been linked to the court until at least 1550, and possibly not until Ferdinand Pulton published his Collection of Sundrie Statutes, in 1618. The Star Chamber did not formally become a separate court until the reign of Elizabeth I, although it had developed significantly in that direction under the earlier Tudors, most notably under the latter during Thomas Wolsey's ascendancy as Lord Chancellor. This process of development was shaped and directed by changes made to the political and executive functions of the Privy Council itself. The corresponding body attending the monarch on progress was the Council Attendant. The Star Chamber and the Council Attendant heard cases in equity, both civil and criminal. Until about 1550, the business of the court was overwhelmingly concerned with civil cases.
Structure and Functions
The integration of administrative and judicial functions, which characterised the medieval Council chamber, was continued by Henry VII's Council after 1485.
Under Henry VII, membership of the council was large, and membership of the Star Chamber was correspondingly large, fluid and unfixed as to personnel. Members of the Court included a core of professional men at law, the justices of the courts of common law, the chief baron of the Exchequer, the king's solicitor and attorney, and a number of serjeants at law. In both the Star Chamber and the Council Attendant they heard cases concerned with real property, riot, forcible entry and disorder.
Under Henry VIII, Cardinal Wolsey radically changed the legislative functions of the Council, the Star Chamber and the Court Attendant. During his Lord Chancellorship, the functions of justice and administration were separated. Justice remained the proper business of the Star Chamber, legal administration was channelled to the Privy Council, and the Council Attendant's judicial function was directed to the White Hall Court, later the Court of Requests.
Initially, during the early years of Henry VIII's reign, the need to counsel a young king led to a Privy Council characterised by an inner ring of some twelve councillors. Wolsey developed a small group of working councillors in Star Chamber, whose members frequently included named councillors appointed to carry out the judicial functions of the Court; it was their function to remove from the leading officials of the state the relentless pressure of suitors.
He consolidated the distinction between the Council's executive work and justice, giving unprecedented emphasis to the Council's judicial function in Star Chamber. The number of suits initiated before the Council in Star Chamber multiplied tenfold. To the existing business were added cases concerned with the abuse of legal procedure, the perversion of justice, corruption and extortion. A small number of cases of trade dispute were also heard.
Following his demise in 1529, the Star Chamber retained its role as the forum for justice, whilst the Privy Council consolidated its administrative function; Sir Thomas More, and after him Thomas Cromwell, cemented the changes Wolsey had made. In 1540, the separation of functions of the Privy Council and the Star Chamber was institutionalised when, following Cromwell's fall in July, the Privy Council chose not to continue using the old council's registers in Star Chamber and began its own series of Privy Council registers, devoted solely to administration. To channel the flow of litigation correctly to either the Privy Council or the Star Chamber after July 1540, 'ordinary councillors' or 'masters of requests' were employed as needed to sort through petitions or requests addressed to the Crown, and to direct them as necessary. The normal composition of the Star Chamber bench remained the Privy Council of the day plus expert justices from the courts of common law. This arrangement stood in force until its abolition in 1641.
Under Edward VI, and under Mary Tudor, the court's workload increased, and under Elizabeth I reached its peak before falling back under James I. The Elizabethan Star Chamber came to deal more often with criminal than civil cases. During the later 16th century, the Star Chamber was the venue for an increasing number of government prosecutions against sedition, and Star Chamber Decrees were invoked by government to control the press and the printing trade, notably in 1566 and 1586.
By Stuart times, the court had become synonymous with criminal matters. James I and then Charles I continued the Elizabethan practice of using Star Chamber as a forum for political issues, and for the prosecution of sedition. Moreover, as prosecutions in Star Chamber could be brought on the information of the Attorney General only, the court had come to be associated with summary trial without jury, arbitrary power, and with singular and cruel punishment, like that meted out to William Prynne, John Bastwicke and Henry Burton in 1634 and 1637.
Abolition of the Star Chamber in 1641 ended this conciliar jurisdiction and its arbitrary punishments, and led also to the channelling of criminal prosecutions elsewhere, notably to the Kings Bench.
Officers of the Court
The major officers of the Court of Star Chamber were known collectively as the clerks of the court. The principal officer was the Clerk of the Council, who worked under the direction of the Lord Chancellor. His functions were: to note entries of appearance at court; to note commissions of attorneys and affidavits made before the court; to prepare warrants for process and commissions; and to record and file the sworn statements of witnesses and the certificates of commissioners in the country, together with answers and depositions made under their supervision. The clerk was aided by an assistant clerk, and from 1532 the clerk of the process. His main responsibilities were to organise the writing, sealing and issue of writs of subpoena, attachments, or any other legal process.
Proliferation of business in Elizabeth's reign led to the appointment of a number of under clerkships; most prominent among these being the examiner, registrars and clerk of the files. The examiner examined witnesses and defendants; the two registrars entered orders and decrees, rules upon motions, affidavits and appearances. An under-registrar entered affidavits, and orders made in chambers by the clerk of the court. The clerk of the files was responsible for filing. The usher of the Star Chamber was concerned with the upkeep of the Camera Stellata for which he also acted as court crier.