The Very Image of Justice? Star Chamber Records and the Art of Punishment

Posted by Krista J. Kesselring, 11 January 2019.

Records of cases heard in the early modern English Court of Star Chamber offer us rich insight into everyday life, and sometimes into the downright odd and extraordinary. What we typically lack, though, are records of judgement: all the court’s own order and decree books disappeared some time after parliament abolished the court shortly before the onset of civil war in the 1640s. So, as we pore over the pleadings and proofs left in the court’s own archive, we’re very often left wondering what the judges decided. What narrative prevailed? Who was punished, and how?

lis volLuckily, observers in the court sometimes left notes of the trials they witnessed and people affiliated with the tribunal occasionally compiled summaries of notable cases from the now-lost order and decree books. One such compilation of notes, focused on cases heard in the reigns of Queen Elizabeth and King James, is now in the Harley manuscripts collection at the British Library (Harley MS 2143). With the help of Shannon Payne (an outstanding student research assistant), I’ve done up a transcription of the volume that the List and Index Society has now published.[1] Lots can be learned from this gem of a manuscript, not least about the punishments imposed by this infamous court.

Star Chamber judges could not sentence people to death, but otherwise felt free to craft sentences they deemed best suited to the particular offences and offenders before them. In the reign of King Charles I, the court became notorious, in part, for the horrific concoctions of pain and humiliation its judges prescribed—particularly when they ordered such indignities for reasonably ‘respectable’ defendants or for offences that weren’t clearly crimes as understood by common law. In the earlier cases summarized in Harley MS 2143 we see the privy councilors and high court justices who adjudicated cases in Star Chamber ordering some people to the pillory or stocks, along with the brandings, nose-slittings, and other such physical mutilations and markings that eventually provoked opposition to the court. Directives that people apologize or submit publicly also proved common in these entries. Some lawyers and misbehaving officials were ordered to give up their posts and never to practice again. Others had to take out bonds for their future good behavior. The sentences recorded in Harley MS 2143 also confirm, once again, that imprisonment was used for punitive ends in the early modern era, not just to hold people awaiting trial or to compel them to pay fines or debts. Many gaols in and around London appear in these entries, but the Star Chamber judges relied most heavily on the Fleet: ‘fine and Fleet’ is a frequent refrain in these notes. And indeed, fines, costs, and damages, perhaps accompanied by a spell in gaol, served as the most common responses to offences recorded here.

One case stands out for its exceptionally unusual sentence, unusual enough to prompt a bit of digging around its edges. From the note in Harley MS 2143 we can work back to the surviving trial records at the National Archives through the name indexes.[2] Read together, the documents tell us that in the early 1590s, Edward Owen was brought before Star Chamber for having attacked his grandfather—with a ‘crabtree cudgel’, the note specifies—in a manner thought to have contributed to the 84-year-old man’s death.[3] The victim, Piers Holland, had been a powerful figure in Denbighshire, having previously served as sheriff; his son David later served in that office. As Piers had died over a year after the beating, though, his death did not count as criminal homicide at common law. Instead, David Holland approached the Queen’s attorney general, who took the complaint against Edward Owen to Star Chamber.

In the trial records in Star Chamber’s own archive, we find competing claims and depositions. One set maintained that Edward had brought with him a group of his friends and followers and purposefully sought out his grandfather when the elderly man walked alone in his own pastures. There, Edward beat Piers mercilessly, calling his grandfather ‘old churl and by other foul and opprobrious names’, and reaching for a second weapon after his staff broke. When a woman saw the beating and cried out in alarm, two labourers working in the field ran to help Piers, but Edward’s men reportedly chased them off with gunfire. In contrast, Edward insisted that he’d had no prior malice against his grandfather and had only chanced across him when out for a stroll. He had merely defended himself when the old man attacked him first, he said, and had brought no posse or weapons with him beyond a foot boy and just ‘a small dagger and a little wand’.

Star Chamber’s own records end there, but thanks to the case notes in Harley MS 2143, we learn that the Star Chamber judges agreed that Edward Owen had committed an egregious offence, and one for which the common law offered no suitable punishment. They imposed heavy fines and imprisonment upon Edward and his men. Strikingly, they also ordered that Edward be taken back to the scene of the crime and ‘at a fair time there to be severely whipped, being stripped stark naked before the picture of his dead grandfather, which must be as like him as may be’.

That’s…unexpected, to say the least. In early modern Europe, officials occasionally punished images or effigies of offenders when they could not find the wrong-doers themselves.[4] The use of an image of the victim has faint echoes, perhaps, of the ‘revenge portraits’ more familiar from Scotland, where kin seeking vengeance sometimes used depictions of the dead with all their wounds on grisly show to stiffen their resolve and justify their actions.[5]


The Bonnie Earl of Moray,  via Wikimedia Commons

At least one example of something similar can be found from nearer at hand, when in the 1570s Bridget Crocket had a painting done of her slain husband and paraded it about Nantwich, Cheshire, in an effort to secure arrests of the men she thought responsible.[6] But the Holland/Owen case is the only one I’m aware of in which judges thought to use an image of the victim as part of the ritual of punishment. (If readers know of others, I’d love to hear of them in the comments.) Perhaps one even gets hints here of the same sorts of beliefs about efficacious images that partook, somehow, in the nature of their subjects and which led to the ‘image magic’ that Elizabethan authorities concerned themselves with in other contexts, or to the kissing, stabbing, and haranguing of portraits on the Renaissance stage.[7]

In the event, though, this rather creative punishment was not performed. Edward and his wife Anne both petitioned Queen Elizabeth’s chief minister, William Cecil, and eventually secured a pardon of the remaining imprisonment and the corporal punishment. While Anne received some relief during Edward’s imprisonment, the fines remained (and seemed to have led to David Holland acquiring control of Edward’s land, which prompted more legal action in turn from Anne, then from David against Anne for her slanders that his wife had left him, and so on and so forth.)[8]

So, the unusual part of this particular punishment wasn’t, in the end, carried out. And most punishments described in Harley MS 2143 were much more mundane than this, anyway. But I still find it interesting that a group of Elizabeth’s privy councilors and high court judges came up with this plan as a possible sanction. The inventiveness usually associated with the Star Chamber of King Charles’s reign evidently had some precedent. And there’s much more to be found in Harley MS 2143: I suspect that others with an interest in the Court of Star Chamber or the sorts of issues and behaviours that came before the court will find more of note in the manuscript or, now, its published transcription. Much like the portraits thought to preserve something of their subjects’ nature, the Star Chamber archive can offer us lively pictures of early modern life, especially when illuminated through reports and notes on the trials’ outcomes like those in Harley MS 2143.


Feature image: Cover of the Star Chamber Reports: BL Harley MS 2143, using an image taken from John Case’s Sphaera Civitatis (Oxford, 1588), and used with permission of Sarin Images via the Granger Historical Picture Archive.


[1] K.J. Kesselring, ed., Star Chamber Reports: Harley MS 2143 (London: List & Index Society, 2018).

[2] The name indexes to the Elizabethan Star Chamber files have recently become searchable through The National Archives’ online catalogue, and are nicely supplemented by the indexes Helen Good has created at the Elizabethan Star Chamber Project site. Helen is also posting entries from the transcription of Harley 2143 to the site, identifying where possible the matching STAC files.

[3] Ibid, no. 905 [British Library (BL), Harley MS 2143, f. 60r.] For the corresponding Star Chamber file, see The National Archives [TNA], STAC 5/A21/40.

[4] See, e.g., Allie Terry-Fritsch, ‘Execution by Image: Visual Spectacularism and Iconoclasm in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe’, in Death, Torture and the Broken Body in European Art, 1300-1650, ed. John R. Decker and Mitzi Kirkland-Ives (London, 2015), pp. 191-206.

[5] Mentioned in Robert Tittler, ‘Portraiture, Politics, and Society’, in A Companion to Tudor Britain, ed. Robert Tittler and Norman L. Jones (Malden, MA., 2004), p. 461. See also the fascinating series of blog posts on the Scottish ‘vendetta picture’ by Wil Pinfold.

[6] Another Star Chamber case, and one known in fuller detail thanks to records surviving outside the Star Chamber archive: TNA, STAC 5/W4/27 and STAC A7/16/10, but more particularly the substantial volume of depositions from over 100 people now in the Cheshire Record Office, DDX 196. Steve Hindle has written up the case in ‘”Bleeding Afreshe”? The Affray and Murder at Nantwich, 19 December 1572’, in The Extraordinary and the Everyday in Early Modern England, ed. Garthine Walker and Angela McShane (Basingstoke, 2010), pp. 224-245.

[7] See Yolana Wassersug’s discussion of portraiture on stage in ‘”My Picture, I enjoin thee to keep”: The Function of Portraits in English Drama, 1558-1642’, University of Birmingham PhD dissertation, 2014. [See, too, Emanuel Stelzer’s post at the Many Headed Monster, which notes that some 70 Renaissance plays included a portrait as a prop.]

For image magic, see, e.g., Alexandra Walsham, ‘”Frantick Hacket”: Prophecy, Sorcery, Insanity, and the Elizabethan Puritan Movement’, Historical Journal 41.1 (1998), 43.

[8] See TNA, SP 12/263, no. 101; SP 46/40, ff. 170, 203; BL, Lansdowne MS 78, f. 107; and Calendar of the Manuscripts of the Most Hon. the Marquis of Salisbury, Preserved at Hatfield House, vol. 5 (1591-1595), p. 521. [Added 1 May 2019: According to a later accusation against the clerk of the court, it seems that Owen may have bribed the clerk five pounds to stay the attachment against him, to give him time to get away and to petition for the pardon. See BL Lansdowne MS 86, no. 42.]

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