Yorkshire Star Chamber Stories

This week, Collections Manager Rhian Isaac explores the importance and the usefulness of stories from the Yorkshire Star Chamber in the Tudor era…

The lives and exploits of the Tudor monarchs and nobility are well known and are often the subjects of films and TV shows but finding out about how every day people lived during this period can be a bit more difficult. Legal records can be a good source of information and the Yorkshire Star Chamber documents are particularly fascinating.

‘Exaggerated’, ‘fabricated’ and ‘distorted’ are some words that have been used to describe the cases we find in the Star Chamber records but scathing as that might seem it doesn’t mean that they don’t contain stories that show us a bit of what life was like in Tudor England.

The original documents from the Court of the Star Chamber are notoriously difficult for researchers to navigate, the sheer volume is enough to put many people off as well as the fact that much of the content is missing. We are fortunate though to have copies of the edited versions produced by the Yorkshire Archaeological Society which contain the cases from petitioners from Yorkshire up until the reign of Henry VIII.

The Court of the Star Chamber was named after the Camera Stellata, a room in the palace of Westminster that was decorated with stars of gold leaf, and was where the King’s Council sat from 1485 until it was abolished in 1641. The preamble to the famous act Pro Camera Stellata of 1487 act provides a vivid picture of the types of trouble it was trying to address. “Wheras…by unlawful maintenances, giving out of liveries, signs and tokens…by taking of money by juries, by great riots and assemblies, the policy and good order of this realm is almost subdued…to the increase of robberies, perjuries and unsurety of all men living and losses of their lands and goods”.[1]

In the time of Henry VIII the court was under the control of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey.

Under the Tudors, the Star Chamber was very popular because it offered a solution for grievances that the common law courts could not sort out. It was an important alternative because it was impartial and could not be easily intimidated by the strong or bribed by the rich. These were issues that the common law courts often struggled with, leaving the poor and powerless unprotected. This is not to say that there were not costs involved in bringing a case to the Star Chamber but from the records it can be seen that ordinary people were able to challenge instances of corruption and abuses of power.

Saxton’s Yorkshire. This is what Yorkshire looked like at this time.

The Star Chamber mainly covered cases relating to riots but also other offences against law enforcement such as false jury verdicts, perjury and contempt of court were heard. It was easy to turn any dispute into an alleged riot therefore we see examples of alleged violence throughout the records when in reality property disputes appeared to be the basis of many disagreements. However, beneath the frivolous suits and claims of riots there are a wide grievances recorded in the accounts that provide a valuable insight into the lives of people in Yorkshire at this time. These include disputes between families and about property, even murders and abductions are found amongst the records.

Anne Cresacre painted by Hans Holbein the Younger

Abducted women in the Star Chamber records were often wealthy wards who had inherited property which others wanted for themselves, such as in the case of nine year old Anne Cresacre, the heiress of Edward Cresacre of Barnborough, who was abducted and forced to marry twice, before her wardship finally passed to Sir Thomas More. There are also examples of children from more humble backgrounds who suffered similar fates. Robert Dyon claims that he was betrothed to be married to Margaret Normanton but in his absence she was taken by Guy Sotheby with ‘malicious and devylysshe puposse’ and married to his son ‘without any baynes of matrimony in any churche’ where he had ‘carnall knawlege of the said Margaret, she beynge not over xiij yeres of age, which is not onely against Godes lawes but also to the most perilous example of all other’.[2] These cases are shocking in highlighting the vulnerability of girls in England at this time.

Although rarely portrayed in active roles there are occasions where women are featured as plaintiffs. One of the situations in which a woman had a strong legal voice was when an appeal involved the murder of her husband, like Isabell Jepson who claimed her husband’s assailant was ‘hyred to kylle and merdre hym’ by Sir Thomas Tempest (iii, 53). Another interesting case involves Dame Bridget Gascoigne who accuses Sir William Gascoigne, her late husband’s heir, of stealing ‘parcels of corne and grayne’ from her (iii, 93).

Gascoigne crest from the Visitations of Yorkshire, 1585. This copy is held at the Central Library. 

Through other cases such as ones relating to forced entry of property we can see the types of goods that people owned. For example, James Burrowe, claims that his cousin Agnes was murdered by Robert Whitefield and he ‘brake the howse that the saide Agnes in her life dwellyde in, and felonysly toke iij gownes…iij kertilles, a peticott of carsey, vj paire of schetes’ (44) and the list goes on to include items of jewellery, houseware and clothing. This type of information is of interest to social historians trying to build a picture of what life might have been like for everyday people living in Yorkshire.

There was great religious upheaval during the time the Star Chamber court was in existence and as most of the cases in the Yorkshire volumes cover the period before 1540, researchers can find out more about what the last days of monastic life were like.  For example we can see that the monasteries had moved away from farming their own lands and were now in the position of renters. The relationship between the monasteries and their neighbours can be observed in a case from Whitby where there appeared to be a long running feud. It had been customary to hold Midsummer celebrations where the mariners would ‘syng throught the strettes…and drynke and make mery’ but which was apparently disrupted by servants of the abott who threw stones and ‘beate them with staffs, swerdes and billes’ (iii, 131).

Whitby Abbey

The records are also useful for family historians as most of the suits concern disputes over landed property, often between people related to each other. Witness statements often contained the age of the person, where they lived and other incidental pieces of biographical information, such as whose service they were in. However, there is always the possibility of exaggeration and inaccuracies in the disputes and researchers are advised to carefully scrutinise any information gleaned from Star Chamber records.

The edited publication of the Star Chamber proceedings for Yorkshire are such an interesting source of information for people wanting to find out more about Tudor society. The cases demonstrate what was really important to people living in Yorkshire, such as changes to agricultural systems, the rights of tenants and perceived corruption in the legal system. The records contain information about many different people in Yorkshire society, we see famous names such as Gascoigne, Fairfax and Chomley, alongside people of more obscure backgrounds. There is perhaps no other kind of record that gives a more complete overview of life at this time and gives a voice to people who we often do not hear.

[1] F. W. Brooks, Yorkshire and the Star Chamber (The East Yorkshire Local History Society: 1954), p. 4.

[2] Yorkshire Star Chamber Proceedings, edited by William Brown (Leeds: YAS, 1909), p. 118. Further references to the Yorkshire Star Chamber Proceedings are given after quotations in the text.

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