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

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1. Why use this guide?

This guide provides advice on how to find records created by and related to the Court of Star Chamber.

The records, from 1485-1642, cover the whole life of the court, which was abolished in 1641. They are a useful resource for studying the social and economic conditions of the time.

This guide and our online catalogue will help you get started but for any serious research into Star Chamber records and to view the records themselves you will need to visit us.

2. What was the Court of Star Chamber?

Before it became a separate court of law in its own right the Star Chamber had effectively been the judicial arm of the King’s Council. It was named after the star-spangled ceiling of the room where it met in the old Palace of Westminster.

The court presided over criminal cases for the most part but did exercise some civil jurisdiction. The kinds of cases brought before the court included the following, though as every case needed to allege violence for the court to hear the case, there is a reasonable chance that some allegations were fabricated:

  • public disorder and riots
  • corruption by officials
  • corruption of juries
  • sedition and libel
  • robbery
  • illegal hunting
  • murder and witchcraft
  • forcible entry
  • assault
  • fraud
  • municipal and trade disputes
  • disputes over the enclosure of land

For more examples and a little more detail on the court, read the series descriptions for STAC 1 and STAC 2.

3. How the court worked and the records it produced

In the 1530s Star Chamber dealt with about 150 cases a year but its business expanded significantly over the following decades so that by 1600 it was presiding over nearly 700 a year.

Its judges were normally privy counsellors and the judges of the common law courts. They were responsible for administering justice directly and supervising other courts.

A case would proceed as follows, with each stage of the process recorded in official documents, usually rolls of parchment:

3.1 Proceedings

The proceedings, recorded in English, gathered together the details of a case as presented by plaintiff and defendant. Each of the following stages in the proceedings was officially recorded:

  • A petition or bill (also known as a pleading) from the plaintiff would be submitted to the court laying out their grievance
  • A response from the defendant, known as an ‘answer’
  • A response from the plaintiff, known as a ‘replication’
  • A further response from the defendant, known as a ‘rejoinder’
  • Interrogatories – a set of questions that could be put to the witnesses of either party – in some cases interrogatories seem to have started off the procedure
  • Sworn testimony, known as ‘depositions’, in answer to the questions in the interrogatories

See Volume 3 of Kent at Law, edited by Louis A Knafla, for a fuller description of proceedings.

3.2 Judgements and other orders

When the court passed a judgement this was recorded as a Decree or Final Order but these records have not survived for the Court of Star Chamber.

3.3 Records of fines ordered by the court

T G Barnes (see further reading) has argued that every Star Chamber case in which at least one defendant was convicted resulted in a fine. Notes of these fines were recorded on the Exchequer memoranda rolls.

4. How to search for records of proceedings

4.1 The records

The original records of proceedings are arranged by reign. More pleadings, which were written on parchment, have survived than proofs of evidence, which were on paper.

Some cases, often those that were settled out of court, are now only represented by a surviving bill of complaint or initial pleadings. Documents relating to a particular case may also be scattered among several bundles of documents. Those relatively few cases now bound into volumes represent an abandoned 19th century attempt to bring together everything relating to a particular case into a single alphabetical series arranged by surname of the principal plaintiff.

The department code for the records of the court is STAC. Records are spread across multiple series, from STAC 1 to STAC 10 (STAC 10 contains Star Chamber miscellanea but includes some stray records of proceedings).

Although these series represent different reigns, documents from a single case can be split between reigns and therefore between series.

4.2 Indexes to the records: our catalogue

Discovery, our catalogue, contains short descriptions of Star Chamber cases. Each description consists of the title of the case in the form of the surnames of the plaintiff and defendant, in that order (for example, Smith v James), and sometimes the subject of the dispute, though this is not given in all series.

Click on the series references below to search for records within the respective date range by the criteria indicated in the final column.

Assigned reign Actual date range Series Size Search by
Henry VII 1485-1509 STAC 1 2 vols. Plaintiff, defendant, subject, place and county
Henry VIII c1450-1625 STAC 2 16 vols,19 bundles Plaintiff, defendant, subject, place and county
Edward VI Hen VII-Eliz I STAC 3 9 bundles Plaintiff, defendant, subject, place and county
Mary Hen VII-Eliz I STAC 4 11 bundles Plaintiff, defendant, subject, place and county
Elizabeth I 1558-1601 STAC 5 982 bundles First plaintiff and first defendant only. There is no descriptive list of this series (though work is in progress to address this), except for Wales: see 4.3
Elizabeth I 1558-1601 STAC 7 31 portfolios Plaintiff, defendant, subject, place and county
James I 1601-1625 STAC 8 314 bundles [1] Plaintiff, defendant, subject and county
[2] See also the descriptive list at The National Archives, which is indexed by the Barnes index for subjects: see 4.4
Charles I 1625-1641 STAC 9 2 bundles Plaintiff, defendant subject, place and county

4.3 Indexes to the records: Welsh and Kent cases

For cases having any connection with Wales see A Catalogue of Star Chamber Proceedings Relating to Wales (Cardiff, 1929), compiled by Ifan Edwards. For cases in Kent see Volume 3 of Kent at Law, edited by Louis A Knafla. These are the only detailed indexes of Star Chamber suits for the reign of Elizabeth I.

4.4 Indexes to records from the reign of James I (the Barnes Index)

For records of proceedings from the reign of James I, held in STAC 8, there are three volumes of indexes, compiled by T G Barnes, allowing you to search by parties, places, offence, and counties. They are very helpful for local history or for the history of offences.

The indexes are held exclusively here at The National Archives in Kew, in the Map and Large Document Reading Room. They are quite difficult to get used to, based on a system of codes, but the codes and how to use the indexes are all explained in the volumes themselves.

4.5 Other resources for finding records

See The Court of Star Chamber and its records to the reign of Elizabeth I by J A Guy (Public Record Office Handbook No 21, HMSO, 1984), which also assigns STAC 10 cases to the correct reign.

5. How to search for judicial and administrative records

It is estimated that ‘one-half of the former archive of the Court of Star Chamber is missing’ (see J A Guy in Further reading) and very few of the administrative and judicial records of the court have survived.

Most significantly, none of the decree and order books, giving final judgements by the court, have survived. In some rare cases decrees and orders (in Latin) may be endorsed on the proceedings (see section 4) and extracts may sometimes be found in collections of private papers of court officials and suitors (see section 8). Among published sources, Rushworth’s Historical Collections contains extracts of selected cases, mainly for the period 1618-1638.

There are, however, some other records that may be worth consulting:

  • There is administrative material and council proceedings, as well as court proceedings and much more, in STAC 10
  • In William Hudson’s ‘A Treatise of the Court of Star Chamber’, a manuscript copy of which is in STAC 12, there are citations from over five hundred Star Chamber cases
  • Bonds, given by defendants to bind them to appear before the court, are in STAC 13 – most are from 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

6. How to search for records of court fines

Fines issued by the court were recorded on the Exchequer memoranda rolls, held in record series E 159.

For the period 1596-1641 there is an unpublished index to these records, listing the names of those fined, held at The National Archives building in Kew, compiled by T G Barnes called ‘Fines in the Court of Star Chamber 1596-1641′. It’s located in the Map and Large Document Reading Room.

The record series E 101 and E 137 also contain some accounts of fines.

References to Star Chamber cases may also appear in:

See our State Papers guides and section 5 of our guide to Privy Council records for advice on searching within these records.

8. Records held elsewhere

There are extracts from the court’s records within the Lansdowne Manuscripts held at the British Library covering the reigns of Henry VIII to Charles I (British Library reference: Lansdowne MS 639).

Also at the British Library, within the Harley manuscripts, are extracts of Star Chamber records from the reigns of Edward VI to James I (British Library reference: Harleian MS 2143 or Harley MS 2143).

9. Further reading

A full introduction to the court is given in The Court of Star Chamber and its records to the reign of Elizabeth I by J A Guy (Public Record Office Handbook No 21, HMSO, 1984), supplemented by T G Barnes ‘The Archives and Archival Problems of the Elizabethan and Early Stuart Star Chamber’, Journal of the Society of Archivists, ii (1963), 345-360.

Other relevant publications include:

C G Bayne and W H Dunham (eds), Select cases in the council of Henry VII (Vol. 75 for 1956, Selden Society). See Publications of the Selden Society for more details.

IS Leadam (ed), Select Cases before the King’s Council in the Star Chamber, commonly called the Court of Star Chamber (Selden Society, 1903)

G R Elton, Star Chamber Stories (Methuen, 1958)

For publications of Star Chamber cases as compiled by local record societies see E L C Mullins, Texts and Calendars: An analytical guide to serial publications (1958) and Part 2 (1983) of the same publication.

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

Guide reference: Legal Records Information 3