How to look for Court of Star Chamber records 1485-1642

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1. Introduction

Star Chamber, named after the star-spangled ceiling of the room where it met in the old palace of Westminster, was effectively the judicial arm of the King’s Council. It became a separate court of law after 1485, but was abolished in 1641. Its judges were normally privy councillors and the judges of the common law courts: they were responsible for administering justice directly and supervising other courts. Its business expanded significantly under the Tudors; in the 1530s Star Chamber dealt with about 150 cases a year but by 1600, over 700. Many Star Chamber cases, which frequently allege public disorder, riot, forcible entry and assault, were really private disputes about property rights. The court also investigated corruption in administration by officials and in the administration of justice, including corruption of juries, municipal and trade disputes, fraud, and disputes over the enclosure of land.

2. Finding cases in the Court of Star Chamber

Star Chamber cases can be easily searched for in Discovery, our catalogue. All descriptions give the title of the suit (Smith v James) but the subject of the dispute is not given for all series. The case papers, or proceedings, which are in English, are the pleadings made by the plaintiffs and defendants – the plaintiff’s bill of complaint, or in an official prosecution, the information of the attorney-general; the defendant’s answer; the plaintiff’s reply (replication) and the defendant’s rejoinder – often with supporting evidence in the form of interrogatories (lists of questions put to witnesses) and depositions and examinations. They are arranged chronologically by reign. More pleadings, which were written on parchment, have survived than proofs of evidence, which were on paper. Some cases which are now only represented by a surviving bill of complaint or initial pleadings, may have been swiftly settled out of court before the case got any further. Documents relating to a particular case may also be scattered among several bundles. Those relatively few cases now bound into volumes represent a 19th century attempt to bring together everything relating to a particular case into a single alphabetical series arranged by surname of the principal plaintiff.

Assigned reign Actual date range Series Size Online searching
Henry VII 1485-1509 STAC 1 2 vols. By plaintiff, defendant, subject, place and county
Henry VIII c1450-1625 STAC 2 16 vols,19 bundles As above
Edward VI Hen VII-Eliz I STAC 3 9 bundles As above
Mary Hen VII-Eliz I STAC 4 11 bundles As above
Elizabeth I 1558-1601 STAC 5 982 bundles By plaintiff and defendant only. There is no descriptive list of this series, except for Wales: see below
STAC 7 31 portfolios Manuscript list giving parties, subject and county
James I 1601-1625 STAC 8 314 bundles [1] By plaintiff, defendant and country
[2] See also the descriptive list at TNA, which is indexed by the Barnes index for subjects
Charles I 1625-1641 STAC 9 2 bundles By plaintiff, defendant subject, place and county

STAC 2 contains cases from other reigns (Edward IV to James I) and from the courts of Chancery and Requests. See Public Record Office Handbook No 21 The Court of Star Chamber and its records to the reign of Elizabeth I by JA Guy (HMSO, 1984), which also assigns STAC 10 cases to the correct reign.

For cases having any connection with Wales see I Edwards A Catalogue of Star Chamber Proceedings Relating to Wales (Cardiff, 1929). This is the only detailed list of Star Chamber suits for the reign of Elizabeth I.

3. The Barnes index

For STAC 8 (James I), TG Barnes has produced 3 volumes of indexes, indexing parties, places, offence, and counties in considerable detail, using a numeric code system which is explained in each volume. These indexes are quite difficult to get used to, but very helpful for local history, or for the history of offences. You will need to read the introductory material, explaining the codes used, and you have to identify which index and which column to look in.

4. Judicial and administrative records of Star Chamber

Guy estimates that ‘one-half of the former archive of the Court of Star Chamber is missing’: proceedings exist in large numbers, but few of the administrative and judicial records of the court. The most significant loss is that of the decree and order books, giving final judgements by the court: none has survived. Extracts may sometimes may be found in collections of private papers of court officials and suitors; for example, the British Library holds two volumes of extracts covering the reigns of Henry VIII to Charles I (Lansdowne MS 639) and of Edward VI to James I (Harleian MS 2143) and, mainly for the period 1618-1638, selected cases appear in Rushworth’s Historical Collections (London, 1680-1692). Decrees and orders (in Latin) may (rarely) be endorsed on the proceedings.

Bonds, given by defendants to bind them to appear before the court, are in STAC 13: most are form the reign of Elizabeth. Filed (returned) writs, designed to ensure the appearance of defendants and witnesses, are in STAC 11 for 1554-1593. Writ and commission books for 1580-1632 are in PRO 30/38.

The procedure of the court is considered in William Hudson’s ‘Treatise of the Court’, a copy of which is in STAC 12.

5. Fines in Star Chamber 1596-1641

Barnes has argued that every Star Chamber case in which at least one defendant was convicted resulted in a fine and that notes of these fines were recorded on the Exchequer memoranda rolls in the record series E 159. Another computer print out lists these for the period 1596-1641. The record series E 101 and E 137 also contain some accounts of fines.

6. Star Chamber miscellanea

STAC 10 contains proceedings, administrative material, council proceedings and much more.

7. Further reading

A full introduction is given in Public Record Office Handbook No 21 The Court of Star Chamber and its records to the reign of Elizabeth I by JA Guy (HMSO, 1984), supplemented by TG Barnes ‘The Archives and Archival Problems of the Elizabethan and Early Stuart Star Chamber’, Journal of the Society of Archivists, ii (1963), 345-360.

The series description to the STAC 1 and STAC 2 series lists are essential to understand the court’s procedure. Privy council registers (PC 2) and state papers (SP series) may also contain references to Star Chamber cases.

Other relevant publications include:

CG Bayne and WH Dunham (eds), Select cases in the council of Henry VII (Selden Society, 1958)

IS Leadam (ed), Select Cases… in Star Chamber (Selden Society, 1903)

GR Elton, Star Chamber Stories (Methuen, 1958)

ELC Mullins, Texts and Calendars (1958, 1983) – for publications of Star Chamber cases by local record societies

JA Guy The Cardinal’s Court: the impact of Thomas Wolsey in Star Chamber (Harvester, 1977)

Guide reference: Legal Records Information 3