The Court of Star Chamber

Who do we hear from that the ‘infamous’ Court of Star Chamber was bad news?  According to Wikipedia, we might hear it from lower English courts, the powerful who could escape the judgment of lower courts (perhaps because they were on their own manor!), or who could get off on a technicality(!), libellors (sp?) and traitors and conspirators and rebels (ie, usually those who put themselves above the Common Good and loyalty and honor), the landed gentry, (big) landowners in Wales, of course its convicts and their partisans, Sectarian Protestants including Puritans (who of course later themselves tried “witches” and mutilated “blasphemers” and “adulterers/esses”!), early news media(!)….  Later on, Classical Liberals and modernists, American Revolutionaries and (small-R) republicans, Whig historians – ie, the dominant kind – on both sides of the Pond….

Of course, I don’t defend abuse of power, and the justice system has “come a long way, baby.”  But we tend to forget – or not know – four things:

  1. Constitutionally in Commonwealth Realms the Monarch is the Fount of Justice, a role they traditionally took very seriously and personally, especially regarding the depredations of their rivals for power, the nobility and the ‘politicians’ of the era, against us lower sorts and the Common Good.  In fact some say before Anglo-Saxon kings were rulers per se, they were supreme judges, and even early-on in the Middle Ages spent more time hearing cases than any other duty.  Now they delegate most of that responsibility to trained, (ideally) impartial judges, and juries when applicable.  But for a monarch to be that involved in justice – for good or for ill – was not unusual in that day and age.  (For that matter, Monarchs were still considered able to even make law by themselves, without running it through the Houses of Parliament!  Technically they still may, but normally wouldn’t risk it!!)
  2. The judges of Star Chamber were Privy Counsellors.  To this day the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council functions as a supreme court for the UK, and the supreme court for several other Commonwealth countries and territories, ie, The Queen in Council.  Not so weird there either.
  3. There was little if any sense of “Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition” before the Stuart Restoration and religious toleration (of Protestants) – late 1600s, post-Star Chamber.  Before that, active opposition to the Monarch in any way at all was considered disloyal, a sentiment sadly we’re not unfamiliar with in the States still today!  A king would’ve been seen as weak, and possibly taken further advantage of – even to the detriment of the Common Good and public order – if he didn’t prosecute those who undermined his policy.  Today Commonwealth democracy relies on Loyal Opposition to help it work right, so it’s easy to forget … and a lesson extreme partisans of the Chief Executive of the day in “presidential republics” would do well to learn.  (What does religion have to do with it?  After a century of tumult between “No bishop, no King,” and Puritan dictatorship, England was ready for the idea that people could disagree in good conscience without betraying the Realm.  Mostly-nonviolent, conscientious Quakers, a dissident sect who differed with, but got along with, both Cromwell and Charles II, had something to do with it.)
  4. A main purpose for Star Chamber was equity, justice when ‘the letter of the law’ failed to render justice.  Today most courts in England and America have been mandated to judge according to equity if necessary.

Just some things to think about….

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