Court of Star Chamber is, in English law, the court made up of judges and privy councillors that grew from the medieval king’s council as a supplement to the regular justice of the common-law courts. The room was so named for stars were painted upon the ceiling.
When Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, became Henry VII after his defeat of Richard III’s army at the battle of Bosworth Field, he did one of the smartest things of his reign. Henry was not educated for he spent much of youth in Wales and his adulthood in exile in Brittany. He was not afforded the type of education he would require as King of England. Realizing his deficiencies, Henry surrounded himself with competent advisors. His most learned consultant was Cardinal John Morton. He succeeded Bourchier as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1486 and Alcock as Lord Chancellor in 1487; and he was responsible for much of the diplomatic, if not also of the financial, work of the reign, though the ingenious method of extortion popularly known as “Morton’s fork” seems really to have been the invention of Richard Fox, who succeeded to a large part of Morton’s influence. Morton no doubt impressed Lancastrian traditions upon Henry VII, but he cannot be credited with any great originality as a statesman, and Henry’s policy was as much Yorkist as Lancastrian. The fact that parliament continued to meet fairly often so long as Morton lived, and was only summoned once by Henry VII after the Archbishop’s death, may have some significance; but more probably it was simply due to the circumstance that Morton’s death synchronized with Henry’s achievement of a security in which he thought he could almost dispense with parliamentary support and supplies.
During Henry’s reign, the king was served by some 200 councillors from both the Lancastrian and Yorkist facets. His advisors included noblemen, men of law, men of religion, and those of the gentry. They gathered with the King in the Court of the Star Chamber at Westminster Palace. The men Henry VII had gathered dispatched cases of law involving those with specific grievances against one of the nobility. Sessions known as Requests were also conducted there. In these, the poor could pursue their grievances. Encyclopedia Britannica says, “Finding its support from the king’s prerogative (sovereign power and privileges) and not bound by the common law, Star Chamber’s procedures gave it considerable advantages over the ordinary courts. It was less bound by rigid form; it did not depend upon juries either for indictment or for verdict; it could act upon the petition of an individual complainant or upon information received; it could put an accused person on oath to answer the petitioner’s bill and reply to detailed questions. On the other hand, its methods lacked the safeguards that common-law procedures provided for the liberty of the subject. Parliaments in the 14th and 15th centuries, while recognizing the occasional need for and usefulness of those methods, attempted to limit their use to causes beyond the scope or power of the ordinary court.”
Star Chamber weakened baronial power, a fact that Cardinal Thomas Wosley used to the Crown’s benefit. It was during Wosley’s chancellorship (1515–29) that the judicial activity of Star Chamber grew. In addition to prosecuting riot and such crimes, Wolsey used the court with increased vigour against perjury, slander, forgery, fraud, offenses against legislation and the king’s proclamations, and any action that could be considered a breach of the peace. Wolsey also encouraged those with grievances to appeal to it in the first instance, not after they had failed to find an efficient remedy in the ordinary courts.
The Star Chamber also became a source of revenue. One of the major issues that Henry VII had to deal with was retaining. Retaining was a problem that had haunted kings for some time and was sometimes referred to as livery or maintenance. Livery was the giving of a uniform or badge to a follower and maintenance was the protection of a retainer’s interests. By allowing retaining a king could all but guarantee social stability in his kingdom. Retaining also served another purpose – the king frequently needed a large army at short notice to fight foreign campaigns and retaining effectively allowed a king to gather around him a sizable number of trained men at short notice. However, retaining also had one obvious weakness. There was always the chance that one nobleman or several grouped together would become more powerful than the king. This was something that Henry VII was not willing to tolerate or risk. Edward IV had legislation passed in 1468 that outlawed retaining except in the cases of domestic servants, estate officials and legal advisers. However, the law was effectively ignored and it also had a major weakness contained within it – it allowed retaining for ‘lawful service’. Therefore lords continued to maintain their retinues claiming that the men in them were for ‘lawful service’. Therefore, these retainers continued to provide a possible threat to the king.
The number of retainers fell as his reign progressed. Evidence suggests that certain magnates such as Buckingham and Northumberland got around this by employing more men to work on their estates than was really necessary. However, both men covered their tracks well and no evidence was found by Henry or his supporters to support this. Those who did break the law and were caught were fined. In 1506, Lord Burgavenny was deemed to have too many retainers for his needs and was fined £5 for every retainer. His fine totalled £70,550 – a huge sum of money then. Henry suspended the sum and held Burgavenny to a promise that he would adhere to the rules. Henry won on two counts – the nobility would have been horrified at the total fine they could pay (using the Burgavenny example) if Henry used the law to its fullest extent and he tied closer to him a noble who had been implicated in the Cornish Rebellion.
Henry treated all the nobles the same with regards to retaining. Whereas Edward IV had allowed those nobles who were closest to him to do as they wished with regards to retaining, Henry did not – as the Earl of Oxford was to find out. Oxford was one of Henry’s closest advisors. When Oxford entertained Henry at his castle at Henningham, the Earl put on a grand finale with all his retainers flanking the royal carriage as it drove out of the estate. Henry asked Oxford who all the people were and Oxford casually informed the king that they were retainers. He was fined £15,000.
Henry VIII used the Star Chamber extensively for it provided the ability to enforce the law when other courts had no power. When, however, it was used by Charles I to enforce unpopular political and ecclesiastical policies, it became a symbol of oppression to the parliamentary and Puritan opponents of Charles and Archbishop William Laud. It was, therefore, abolished by the Long Parliament in 1641.