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What Was the Star Chamber?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 29 October 2016
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The Star Chamber was a special British Court which existed from the 15th through the 17th centuries. The judges in the Star Chamber were appointed by the monarch, with advisers coming from the ruler's privy counselors. While the Star Chamber may have been an effective tool for justice initially, it was ultimately used as a tool by British monarchs who were struggling to retain control of the country, and it came to be a topic of controversy due to its highly secret proceedings and summary judgments offered without the mediation of a jury. As a result, the Star Chamber was abolished in 1641 by an act of parliament.

The term “Star Chamber” is often used to describe a highly secretive legal proceeding of questionable legality or particular brutality, referencing the role of the Star Chamber in its later years. In the United States especially, some trials of foreign nationals accused of terrorist activity have been referred to as “Star Chamber proceedings” by people who feel that these trials are too secretive.

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This famous court was probably named for the room in Westminster Palace where it first convened, as the roof of the Star Chamber's meeting room was once apparently covered in stars. It was created by Henry VII, and was initially used as a tool to quickly and flexibly deal with wrong-doers. The efforts of the Star Chamber under the Tudor Dynasty focused heavily on forcing nobility and powerful members of British society to bow to the law. Without the Star Chamber, monarchs believed that they would be unable to control the landed gentry of England, potentially creating a recipe for another civil war.

Under the Stuarts, however, the Star Chamber acquired a new role. People were tried in the Star Chamber for things like treason, conspiracy, and libel, and the court began to be used to enforce severe judgments against people who were out of favor with the monarch. The Star Chamber went from being a tool for order to a weapon used to prosecute anyone who dared to dissent with the monarchy, ranging from the Puritans to booksellers. As a result, the court began to be associated with the abuse of power and authority.

The abolition of the Star Chamber under the Long Parliament was only one among a number of reforms made in England in the hopes of reforming the country as a whole. The abuses of the Star Chamber were cited by members of Parliament as one of the many reasons that the British monarchy should be abolished during the English Civil War, which did actually briefly succeed in creating a republic after executing Charles I of England in 1549.

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