What the Star Chamber did. It served the king’s authority but was light on legal procedures.
Continuing The End of the Star Chamber,
with a selection from Constitutional History of England from the Accession of James II by Henry Hallam published in 1827. This selection is presented in three easy 5 minute installments. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Previously in The End of the Star Chamber.
Among the exertions of authority practised in the Star-chamber which no positive law could be brought to warrant he enumerates “punishments of breach of proclamations before they have the strength of an act of Parliament; which this court hath stretched as far as ever any act of Parliament did. As in the 41st of Elizabeth, builders of houses in London were sentenced, and their houses ordered to be pulled down, and the materials to be distributed to the benefit of the parish where the building was; which disposition of the goods soundeth as a great extremity, and beyond the warrant of our laws; and yet, surely, very necessary, if anything would deter men from that horrible mischief of increasing that head which is swollen to a great hugeness already.”
The mode of process was sometimes of a summary nature; the accused person being privately examined, and his examination read in court, if he was thought to have confessed sufficient to deserve sentence, it was immediately awarded without any formal trial or written process. But the more regular course was by information filed at the suit of the attorney-general or, in certain cases, of a private relator. The party was brought before the court by writ of subpoena, and, having given bond, with sureties not to depart without leave, was to put in his answer upon oath, as well to the matters contained in the information as to special interrogatories. Witnesses were examined upon interrogatories, and their depositions read in court. The course of proceeding, on the whole, seems to have nearly resembled that of the chancery.
It was held competent for the court to adjudge any punishment short of death. Fine and imprisonment were of course the most usual. The pillory, whipping, branding, and cutting off the ears grew into use by degrees. In the reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII, we are told by Hudson, the fines were not so ruinous as they have been since, which he ascribes to the number of bishops who sat in the court, and inclined to mercy, “and I can well remember,” says he, “that the most reverend Archbishop Whitgift did ever constantly maintain the liberty of the free charter, that men ought to be fined, salvo contenemento. But they have been of late imposed according to the nature of the offence, and not the estate of the person. The slavish punishment of whipping,” he proceeds to observe, “was not introduced till a great man of the common law, and otherwise a worthy justice, forgot his place of session, and brought it in this place too much in use.” It would be difficult to find precedents for the aggravated cruelties inflicted on Leighton, Lilburne, and others; but instances of cutting off the ears may be found under Elizabeth.
The reproach, therefore, of arbitrary and illegal jurisdiction does not wholly fall on the government of Charles. They found themselves in possession of this almost unlimited authority. But doubtless, as far as the history of proceedings in the Star-chamber are recorded, they seem much more numerous and violent in the present reign than in the two preceding. Rushworth has preserved a copious selection of cases determined before this tribunal. They consist principally of misdemeanors, rather of an aggravated nature, such as disturbances of the public peace, assaults accompanied with a good deal of violence, conspiracies, and libels. The necessity, however, for such a paramount court to restrain the excesses of powerful men no longer existed, since it can hardly be doubted that the common administration of the law was sufficient to give redress in the time of Charles I, though we certainly do find several instances of violence and outrage by men of a superior station in life, which speak unfavorably for the state of manners in the kingdom.
But the object of drawing so large a number of criminal cases into the Star-chamber seems to have been twofold: first, to inure men’s minds to an authority more immediately connected with the crown than the ordinary courts of law and less tied down to any rules of pleading or evidence; secondly, to eke out a scanty revenue by penalties and forfeitures. Absolutely regardless of the provision of the Great Charter, that no man shall be amerced even to the full extent of his means, the counselors of the Star-chamber inflicted such fines as no court of justice, even in the present reduced value of money, would think of imposing. Little objection, indeed, seems to lie, in a free country, and with a well-regulated administration of justice, against the imposition of weighty pecuniary penalties, due consideration being had of the offence and the criminal. But, adjudged by such a tribunal as the Star-chamber, where those who inflicted the punishment reaped the gain, and sat, like famished birds of prey, with keen eyes and bended talons, eager to supply for a moment by some wretch’s ruin, the craving emptiness of the exchequer, this scheme of enormous penalties, became more dangerous and subversive of justice, though not more odious, than corporal punishment.
A gentleman of the name of Allington was fined twelve thousand pounds for marrying his niece. One, who had sent a challenge to the Earl of Northumberland, was fined five thousand pounds; another for saying the Earl of Suffolk was a base lord, four thousand pounds to him, and a like sum to the King. Sir David Forbes, for opprobrious words against Lord Wentworth, incurred five thousand pounds to the King and three thousand pounds to the party. On some soap-boilers, who had not complied with the requisitions of the newly incorporated company, mulcts were imposed of one thousand five hundred pounds and one thousand pounds. One man was fined and set in the pillory for engrossing corn, though he only kept what grew on his own land, asking more in a season of dearth than the overseers of the poor thought proper to give. Some arbitrary regulations with respect to prices may be excused by a well-intentioned though mistaken policy. The charges of inns and taverns were fixed by the judges; but even in those a corrupt motive was sometimes blended. The company of vintners, or victuallers, having refused to pay a demand of the lord-treasurer, one penny a quart for all wine drunk in their houses, the Star-chamber, without information filed or defense made, interdicted them from selling or dressing victuals till they submitted to pay forty shillings for each ton of wine to the King.
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