English Legal History and its Materials

Bill of Information

A written complaint alleging an offense punishable by the Court that was signed by private party's counsel or the attorney general, and given to the clerk of the Chamber. [Cheyney 737]

Writ of Subpoena

Document issued to defendant compelling him to appear before the court. The defendant would appear at the proscribed date where he would obtain a copy of the bill against him. Sometimes the defendant would also need to enter into a bond to not leave the jurisdiction of the court without its license. [Cheyney 737-8] Failure to appear would result in a writ of attachment against the defendant, and possibly a proclamation of rebellion. [Stuckey 152]


Defendant's response to the plaintiff's bill of complaint where he had to confess, deny or demurrer to all of the charges laid out against him within eight days after his initial appearance. Answers were written and signed by the defendant's counsel. [Cheyney 737-8]


Questions put forward by the plaintiff to the defendant. The interrogatory would then be read to the defendant by the examiner of the court who would record the defendant's answers under oath during a private conference. The defendant would not have access to the interrogatory before the examination, and did not have access to a lawyer during the questioning. The plaintiff was given only four days to write an interrogatory, and it was limited to 15 articles. [Boyd 14] The parties had the option to have the interrogatory be conducted by commissioners chosen by the parties instead of by examiners who were court officials. [Cheyney 738]


A reply to the defendants answers in the interrogatory put forward by the plaintiff with the assistance of his counsel. [Cheyney 738]


The defendants reply to the plaintiff's replication. [Cheyney 738]


A further reply of the plaintiff to the defendant's rejoinder. [Stuckey 153] Very rarely if ever used. [Stuckey 153]


The defendants reply to the Surrejoinder. [Stuckey 153] Very rarely if ever used. [Stuckey 153]

Witness Examination

Witnesses were put forward by either the plaintiff or the defendant, and were questioned by the court's examiners or commissioners under oath in private. The procedure was very similar to the interrogatory. Witnesses were not allowed access to counsel or the questions beforehand, and the record was preserved in writing. [Cheyney 738]

Secundum Allegata el Probata

The standard hearing before the council where all of written testimony was presented to the judges for their consideration. [Scofield 75] The proceeding were held in public, and counsel was allowed to speak in favor of the defense or the prosecution, as well as answer questions put forward by the judges. The judges would reach their final verdict at the end of the hearing. [Cheyney 739]

Super Confessionem

Hearing called by plaintiff if he believed the defendant had sufficiently confessed to the crime in his answer. At the hearing the only evidence introduced was the defendant's answer. The defendant was allowed counsel to provide for his defense and rebut the claims against him. [Scofield 75-6]

Pro Confesso

Procedure used when defendant failed to file an answer to the plaintiff's bill of complaint or interrogatory. The court would treat the defendant as if he had confessed to the crime, summarily find him guilty and sentence him. [Scofield 75-6]

Ore Tenus

A relatively uncommon procedure used when the defendant was apprehended by a government official and confessed to the crime without the administration of an oath. The defendant was allowed to appear before the court in person without counsel and put himself at the mercy of the court for summary justice and punishment. [Cheyney 740]


The sentencing procedure for the Star Chamber. Each member of the court would have the opportunity to voice their opinion of the verdict and propose a punishment going from most junior judge to the Lord Chancellor. A majority vote would decide the sentence, and in the case of a tie, the Lord Chancellor would cast the deciding vote. [Scofield 76] Punishment could be divided into four general types: imprisonment, fines, public acknowledgment of offense and public humiliation. Punishment was not determined by statute or common law conception of damages, and could range from nailing the defendant's ear to a pillory to forcing him to wear a piece of paper on his hat describing his crime. [Cheyney 741-3] The most common punishment was a fine with imprisonment until the fine had been repaid. [Boyd 17] The court, however, did not have the power to sentence the defendant to death or forfeit his estate. [Cheyney 729]

Comparison to Canon Law

Star Chamber procedure is often associated with the procedure of the civil law. This might be due to the fact that like man civil law systems today, Star Chamber procedure was primarily written not oral. However, the procedure of the Star Chamber differed from the more heavily romanized courts, such as the canon law courts, in several key respects.

For one the canon law courts had a clearly defined burden of proof to convict a witness known as plena probatio (full proof) that required either a confession or two witnesses. [Brundage 142-143] Star Chamber did not appear to have such a clearly defined burden of proof, and it was certainly less exacting than "full proof." The fact that Star Chamber did not need a confession in order to convict could be why, unlike the Inquisition, it did not regularly employ torture to exact a confession.

Canon courts also allowed proceedings against a defendant to be initiated by a judge per inquisitionem, and it would be the judge than who would conduct the investigation including questioning the defendant and witnesses. [Brundage 147-148] In Star Chamber proceeding were initiated either by private parties or by the king's attorneys on behalf of the king. [Newell 12] The Chamber's judges played no role in the investigation of the claim and the parties only appeared before the judges during the trial itself. [Chenyey 739]

In addition, during the per inquisitionem the defendant had no access to counsel and was not allowed to see the charges against him until after the judge had achieved plena probatio. [Brundage 149] In Star Chamber the defendant was given notice of the charges against him right after he appeared before the court under his subpoena, and had access to a lawyer from the beginning of the proceedings. Although the lawyer was not allowed to be present when the defendant was being examined.

Punishment in canon law was very similar to Star Chamber. Like Star Chamber, the were no clear limitations on what punishments for certain crimes were expected to be and canon judges were given wide latitude and flexibility in ensuring that the punishment fit the crime. [Brundage 155] Like Star Chamber, punishment in canon law consisted usually of a mix of fines, imprisonment and some form of public humiliation. [Brundage 152]. In addition, acts penance such as pilgrimage were often seen as an important component of a sentence which was not the case in Star Chamber. [Brundage 152] Also like Star Chamber, canon law courts were forbidden from issuing the death sentence but unlike the Chamber the canon law courts were also forbidden from branding, ear cutting or the pillory. [Brundage 152]

In many ways the procedure of the Star Chamber can be seen as a hybrid of the common law and civil law systems that sought to achieve the speed, efficiency and relative simplicity of roman law procedure with many of the due process protections of the common law. The Chamber, however, failed to live up to this ideal.


It is hard to see from the procedure alone what caused the Star Chamber to gain such an infamous reputation for abuse of power and injustice. Nowadays, Star Chamber has often been equated with secrecy, torture and summary justice. But, this was far from the case. In many way the procedure of the Star Chamber more closely resembles modern day legal procedure with its emphasis on written depositions, interrogatories, claims and counter-claims than the procedure of the early modern common law courts, with their complex system of oral pleadings.

Many of the basic elements of due process such as the right to an attorney, notice of the charges against you, and the right to a public trial were all present in the procedure of Star Chamber. For most of its existence Star Chamber was regarded as one of the most just,efficient and least corrupt court in England. Even Lord Coke once described Star Chamber as "The most honourable court (Our Parliament excepted)that is in the Christian world. Both in respect of the judges in the court and its honourable proceeding." [Cheyney 745] However, the Star Chamber's gruesome reputation was well earned and eventually the flaws in the structure of the Court led to its downfall.

The main flaw in the Star Chamber lay not in its procedure but rather in the court's lack of independence. While the common law courts were composed of a judiciary that was somewhat independent of the executive branch and an almost completely independent jury, the Star Chamber was instead composed of the leading civil servants of the monarchy. This fact made the Star Chamber uniquely susceptible to royal control and biased against those who dared criticize the government.

Under Charles I the Court was increasingly used as a tool of royalist suppression. One individual was imprisoned for spreading rumors that the King attended Catholic mass with his wife and sheriffs were punished by Star Chamber for failing to adequately collect enough ship-money. [Cheyney 747] Individuals were often tried and sentenced by the same people they had been accused of slandering, and punishments became increasingly severe.

In perhaps the most notorious case before Star Chamber, William Prynne and two co-conspirators were sentenced to the pillory, life imprisonment and had their ears cut off for publishing a book that condemned dances, plays and hunting. The argument here was that this was a direct attack on the king who hunted and also attended balls. [Newell pg. 117] By the time the Long Parliament came to power in 1640 the Star Chamber had become so associated with King Charles's abuses of power that it had lost all support of the people and the legal profession who had once held it in high esteem, and was abolished by the Long Parliament in 1641. [Newell 130]

Wikipedia Plans

Below is a summary of what I added to the Star Chamber Wikipedia page:


Court sessions were held in public although witnesses and defendants were examined in secret. [Cheyney 738] Defendants were given prior notice of the charges against them and had the right to be represented by an attorney. [Cheyney 737-739]

Under the Plantagenet and Tudors

[Initially well regarded because of its speed and flexibility,] Star Chamber was regarded as one of the most just and efficient courts of the Tudor era. Lord Coke once described Star Chamber as "The most honourable court (Our Parliament excepted)that is in the Christian world. Both in respect of the judges in the court and its honourable proceeding." [Cheyney 745]

Also deleted references that the court sessions were held in secret which I don't believe is true.


Cora Louise Scofield. A Study of the Court of Star Chamber. University of Chicago Press, 1900

Edward P. Cheyney. The Court of Star Chamber. The American Historical Review, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Jul., 1913), pp. 727-750

Michael Stukey. A Consideration of the Emergence and Exercise of Judicial Authority in the Star Chamber. Monash University Law Review 19 (1993) 117-164.

Newell Dalton Boyd II. The Final Years of the Court of the Star Chamber 1558-1641. Thesis submitted to Graduate Faculty of Texas Tech, 1971.

Susan Agee. The Court of Star Chamber. University of Richmond UR Scholarship Repository: Honors Theses 1969.

James Brundage. Medieval Canon Law. Taylor & Francis. New York: 1996.

-- MichaelCoburn - 20 Oct 2014



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r7 - 20 Jan 2015 - 00:09:59 - MichaelCoburn
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