Court of Castle Chamber

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The Court of Castle Chamber was an Irish Court which operated in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

It was established by Queen Elizabeth I in 1571 to deal with cases of riot, offences against public order and offences which threatened the security of the Crown. It was explicitly modelled on the English Court of Star Chamber, and it was often referred to simply as Star Chamber.[1] Its own name was taken from the chamber (which no longer exists) which was specially built for it in Dublin Castle, over the main gate.

Like the Star Chamber, it was initially very popular with members of the public who, under the guise of complaining about cases of riot, brought their private lawsuits to Castle Chamber, which was often swamped with business of this kind as a result. Its jurisdiction to hear private cases was often questioned, and was not finally confirmed until 1634.

In the seventeenth century, like its English counterpart the Star Chamber, it was seen by the Stuart dynasty as an essential instrument for enforcing strong government, and it became highly unpopular as a result. Its use by Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford as a method of subduing his political opponents was one of the principal reasons for his downfall in 1641.[2] During the political upheaval caused by the Irish Rebellion of 1641, the Court simply ceased to operate, although there is no record that it was ever formally abolished.

Dublin Castle-the Record Tower

Origins, structure and procedure[edit]

While the Star Chamber developed gradually over time, Castle Chamber was established by a special commission under the privy seal of Queen Elizabeth I in June 1571. Due to the perceived ineffectiveness of the regular Irish courts in dealing with serious crimes, the establishment of a separate Star Chamber jurisdiction in Ireland was a key reform proposed by successive Lord Deputies, notably Sir Henry Sidney, (who in the months before his recall from Ireland helped to draw up the plans for the new court), and in time this project gained the support of William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, and of the Queen herself. In the Queen's own words:

to the intent that such pernicious evils and griefs shall not escape without just and due correction, we have thought it meet to appoint that a particular court for the hearing and determination of those detestable enormities faults and offences shall be holden within the castle of Dublin.[3]


The remit of the new Court was very wide: it had power to deal with cases of riot, kidnapping, perjury, forgery, recusancy, judicial corruption, correction of recalcitrant sheriffs and juries, libel and malicious attacks on the reputation of public figures. It did not deal with cases of treason[4] and was forbidden to deal with cases concerning the Plantation of Ulster.

Not all its cases fit neatly into any of these categories : in its early years the Chamber heard a petition against the levying of cess, the much resented military tax for the upkeep of the garrisons of the Pale, possibly because the issue concerned the royal prerogative. A celebrated probate case, Lady Digby v Lady Kildare, was referred to the Chamber because of an allegation of forgery; the Chamber agreed to hear the case, but later complained of the amount of time it had wasted on what was essentially a private family dispute. LIkewise it is unclear what power the Chamber had to hear a case of domestic cruelty against Lord Howth, although the pretext was an accusation of perjury against one of his servants.

Discipline of judges and juries[edit]

Castle Chamber dealt with a number of cases of judicial corruption: William Saxey, Chief Justice of Munster, was severely reprimanded for corrupt practices in 1597,[5] and Patrick Segrave, Baron of the Court of Exchequer (Ireland), was removed from office for similar practices in 1602.[6]

The control of juries was another major concern of Castle Chamber, at a time when the Crown, in cases of and treason and other serious crimes, still insisted that the jury must deliver the "right" (i.e. guilty) verdict. In 1586 a County Kildare jury was convicted of perjury, on the ground that, having taken an oath to deliver a true verdict, they had in flagrant disregard of the evidence acquitted two men who were obviously guilty of murder. For their "dangerous example" to other juries, they were convicted and fined, although "in consideration of their poverty" the fines were small .[7]

More severe penalties were imposed on a Youghal jury which in 1603 acquitted William Meade, Recorder of Cork, of treason. Meade, one of the few Roman Catholics on the Irish Bench, was charged with a litany of grave offences, including refusing to acknowledge the new King James I, inciting the citizens of Cork to demolish the fort at Haulbowline, killing or causing the killing of three Englishmen, and shutting the city gates in the face of troops sent by the Lord President of Munster.[8] An exceptionally strong Bench headed by the Lord President himself, had put great pressure on the jury to convict Meade of his "heinous treasons", but the jury refused, maintaining that Meade, who was extremely popular in County Cork, "had not intended in his heart to commit treason". For this conduct, which in the Crown's eyes was only a little less serious than the treason itself, the foreman of the jury was fined 1000 marks and the other jurors were fined £500, and they were ordered to appear before the next assize court wearing placards proclaiming their offence.[9]

This severe treatment reflects the Crown's attitude to treason trials generally. In England at this time, and for many years afterwards, the jury in a treason trial was expected to convict as a matter of course: as J.P. Kenyon remarks, treason was regarded as a crime so heinous that no person charged with it could be permitted any chance of escape.[10] Irish juries were less easily coerced: Fynes Moryson, secretary to the Lord Deputy of Ireland, remarked sourly, and with the wisdom of hindsight, of the Meade case that: "no man that knows Ireland did imagine that an Irish jury would condemn him."[11]

Of several accusations of corruption made against the Lord Chancellor, Adam Loftus, in the late 1630s, at least one, the petition of John Fitzgerald, was heard in Castle Chamber, apparently because Strafford, the Lord Deputy, wished to assert his power to override the ordinary judicial process.[12]


As already noted, much of the business of Castle Chamber consisted of private litigation, despite lingering doubts about its jurisdiction in such cases; in 1608 the Court complained that a single private case, Digby v Kildare, had taken up two entire law terms. As a court of equity it was open to women, and quite a large number of cases before it involved women as plainitffs, defendants or both: Jenet Sarsfield sued Margaret Howth for abduction and other offences, and in the long-running case of Digby v Kildare Lettice Digby sued her grandmother, the Dowager Countess of Kildare, for forgery.[13]

It became a popular forum for the aristocracy to air their grievances, but could also be used to discipline nobles like Christopher St Lawrence, 8th Baron Howth, who were suspected of disloyalty to the English or recusancy (although the actual charges against Lord Howth were of gross cruelty to his wife and daughter, who allegedly died as a result of his ill-treatment). It was also used to enforce the Penal Laws with unprecedented severity in the period 1605–22, a policy which aroused much public anger and political opposition.[14]


Castle Chamber was set up partly to curb the large number of petitions to the English Council dealing with Irish affairs, and also partly because the Irish Council, unlike its English counterpart, had not until then had a separate judicial identity.

Castle Chamber was explicitly created to be the judicial wing of the Irish Privy Council, but the two bodies were not always fully distinct, especially under rule of the Earl of Strafford, who tended to deal with judicial business informally. Its membership was identical to that of the Council but the judges had a predominant influence; later orders specified that the Lord Chancellor of Ireland, the Chief Justices of the courts of common law and the Master of the Rolls in Ireland should always attend. It was presided over by the Lord Deputy of Ireland but could act in his absence or when the office was vacant. The personality of the Lord Deputy and his degree of engagement with the Court inevitably affected its operation: under Lord Mountjoy (Lord Deputy 1600-1604) the Court almost ceased to operate.[15]


Our knowledge of its procedure is hampered by the Court's notoriously poor record-keeping: during the last twenty years of its operation no proper entry book of the cases it heard was kept. It seems to have followed the Star Chamber procedure: the plaintiff filed a bill of complaint, which was followed by an answer by the defendant, and a replication by the plaintiff. The Court soon became notorious for slow procedures, heavy fees, and ineffective remedies, although these weaknesses do not seem to have deterred litigants from bringing their suits there. The Court's procedure seems to have been rather informal: this was a feature of Irish Courts generally at the time, and in 1607, in an important recusancy case, the Attorney General urged that the Court show more solemnity than usual.[16]

In case of serious offences, such as riot and unlawful assembly, the Chamber gave a ruling in the case of Richard Talbot v Nicholas Nugent in 1576 that two eyewitnesses to the offence were required; since both parties to that action were High Court judges, the Court's reluctance to convict is perhaps understandable.[17]


Star Chamber was notorious for imposing savage penalties,[18] and Castle Chamber acquired the same reputation, although it was probably undeserved, since unlike Star Chamber it also gained a reputation for being quite ineffective. The normal penalty was a fine, and the collection of fines seems to have been rather inefficient: they were often remitted, reduced or simply not collected. Sir Thomas Crooke, having with difficulty obtained a verdict of riot against Sir Walter Coppinger, complained that no action was taken on foot of it, and tried without success to get the English Council to intervene. Robert Travers, Vicar General of the Diocese of Meath, was so notorious for corruption that in 1621 he was prosecuted in Castle Chamber for extortion and taking bribes. He was found guilty, fined £300 and ordered to be imprisoned at the Deputy's pleasure. Since Travers later became a judge, a knight and a member of the Irish House of Commons, it is unlikely that any part of the sentence was carried out.[19]

More severe penalties like the pillory and flogging were also imposed on occasion. The use of torture was rare, but a priest was put to the rack in 1627: this was apparently the last use of the rack in either England or Ireland,[20] (although the threat of the rack might still be used from time to time).[21] To show its authority, the Court could require litigants and witnesses to kneel before it; but the effectiveness of the penalty was lessened if the person ordered to kneel simply refused to do so, as Lord Chancellor Loftus on one memorable occasion did. As the Meade case shows, minor but humiliating penalties might also be imposed, such as being forced to wear a placard proclaiming one's offence in public.[22]


Early history[edit]

The beginnings of the Court have been described as slow and tentative.[23] No doubt there were many reasons for this, including the unfamiliarity of lawyers and litigants with the new Court, the speedy recall to England of successive Lord Deputies, the wish of many English-born judges to return home as quickly as possible, and the disruption caused by the Desmond Rebellions.

Under the second Deputyship of Sir Henry Sidney (1575–8), assisted by the reforming Lord Chancellor Sir William Gerard, the Chamber began to develop into a properly functioning court, but Sidney's recall and Gerard's death impeded progress, as did the outbreak of the Desmond Rebellions. For about three years Castle Chamber almost ceased to operate. When in 1583 the Court, in a move to improve efficiency, struck out all cases more than ten years old, it found itself left with virtually no business to transact.[24]

Under Sir John Perrot (Lord Deputy 1584–8) the Court was revived; but ironically one leading case, the conviction of his secretary Henry Bird for forgery, damaged his own career when the conviction was reversed. Under the second Deputyship of Sir William FitzWilliam (1588–94) the Court continued to operate smoothly enough, but in the disturbed political climate during the later stages of the Nine Years War it almost ceased to function. Under Lord Mountjoy (1600-1604) it was convened only once, to hear a charge of judicial corruption against Baron Segrave.[25]

Early Stuart period[edit]

James I and Charles I both issued commissions for the continuation of Castle Chamber which, like Star Chamber, was seen increasingly by the Crown as a suitable instrument for enforcing a strong authoritarian government.[26] Under Charles I, its powers were increased by the confirmation of its jurisdiction, which had long been in question, to hear cases brought by private litigants.

Under Sir Arthur Chichester (Lord Deputy 1605–1616) Castle Chamber instituted a campaign of persecution of Roman Catholics. All priests were ordered to leave the country at once, numerous fines for recusancy were imposed, and to the dismay of many the aged Bishop of Down and Connor, Conor O'Devany, was hanged.[27] Chichester's actions went well beyond what was thought desirable by the Irish Council, and met strong opposition from the Anglo-Irish gentry of the Pale, led by Sir Patrick Barnewall. On the other hand he had the strong support of the energetic and reforming Attorney General, Sir John Davies, who believed that Castle Chamber would be "the best school there was to teach the people obedience."

Even at the height of the campaign, recusancy cases occupied less than half the Chamber's time. There was a notable increase in private business, including cases which on the face of it were outside the Court's remit. Because a charge of forgery was involved, the Chamber became one of many courts to take up the protracted litigation in Digby v Kildare, a probate case between the heirs of Gerald FitzGerald, 11th Earl of Kildare, only to complain that the complexity of the case left it with no time to deal with anything else.[28]

Persecution of recusants continued intermittently under Oliver St John, 1st Viscount Grandison (Lord Deputy 1616–22) but ended under Henry Cary, 1st Viscount Falkland (Lord Deputy 1622–29). Falkland offered a program of religious toleration and increased participation by Catholics in public life, popularly known as the Graces, which operated between 1625 and 1634. Several of the Graces were designed to curb what was seen as the abuse of its powers by Castle Chamber, though at this stage there was no threat to its existence.[29]

Lord Falkland

Strafford's administration and the last years of Castle Chamber[edit]

Strafford (Lord Deputy 1632–41) was determined to impose a strong authoritarian rule in Ireland, and he believed that Castle Chamber was a suitable vehicle for this purpose.[30] He obtained confirmation from King Charles I that the Chamber was empowered to hear suits between private parties even where the Crown itself had no interest in the outcome of the case, apparently so as to encourage ordinary citizens to complain about abuses of authority by the rich and powerful.[31] Under Strafford the Chamber saw a considerable increase in business, sometimes sitting as often as four days a week.[32] However he was somewhat informal in his approach to business and some of the cases where he was alleged by his enemies to have acted in a tyrannical manner were heard by the full Privy Council; sometimes he would hold private sessions in his own rooms.

Whatever the venue for a judicial hearing, Strafford made full use of his powers against all those men, however powerful, whom he regarded as the King's opponents: they could no longer simply ignore the Court, as men like Sir Robert Travers and Sir Walter Coppinger had been able to in past decades. Sir Piers Crosby and Lord Esmonde were convicted of libelling Strafford by alleging that he had caused the death of a relative of Esmonde by ill-treatment. Lord Valentia was court-martialled and sentenced to death for mutiny, although in fact he had simply insulted Strafford personally. The powerful Earl of Cork was prosecuted for misappropriating the funds of Youghal College and humiliated by being ordered to take down his family monument in St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin. The Lord Chancellor, Lord Loftus was prosecuted for judicial corruption in the case of the farmer John Fitzgerald, and for improper conduct over his son's marriage settlement;[33] he was suspended from office and forced to give up the Great Seal. It is certain that the Fitzgerald case at least was heard by the Castle Chamber.

It has been argued that however unpopular Castle Chamber was with the ruling class, ordinary litigants under the regime of Strafford saw it as a court where they might receive impartial justice against the rich and powerful: Wedgwood points in particular to the case of John Fitzgerald, who successfully petitioned Castle Chamber to release him from custody and to hear his claim for judicial misconduct against Lord Chancellor Loftus.[34]

Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, painted by Van Dyck

Disappearance of Castle Chamber[edit]

Although it was principally the military disasters in Scotland which caused the impeachment of Strafford, his conduct of Irish affairs and, in particular, his administration of justice formed the basis for many of the articles of impeachment brought against him; and Irish witnesses like Crosby and Esmonde whom he had offended, testified against him.[35] At the same time the Irish Parliament led by the Catholic lawyer Patrick D'Arcy drew up a remonstrance the Privy Council called the Queries; this stopped short of demanding the abolition of Castle Chamber but raised grave questions about the legality of its proceedings. The Councillors, most of whom had been allies of Strafford, found themselves unable to answer the Queries. In 1641 Castle Chamber simply ceased to operate and although it still existed in theory after the Restoration, no serious effort was made to revive it.

Despite the unpopularity of Castle Chamber in its later years, the court soon vanished from public memory; perhaps because it was so easily confused with Star Chamber, its separate existence was quickly forgotten. While the term Star Chamber has the same pejorative meaning in Ireland as it does elsewhere, it is rarely recalled that an entirely separate Castle Chamber once existed in Ireland.[36]


  1. ^ Ball, F. Elrington The Judges in Ireland 1221–1921 John Murray London 1926 Vol.1 p.255
  2. ^ Wedgwood, C. V. Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford 1593-1641- a revaluation Phoenix Press reissue 2000 pp. 342–5
  3. ^ Crawford, Jon G. A Star Chamber Court in Ireland-the Court of Castle Chamber 1571–1641 Four Courts Press Dublin 2005 p.196
  4. ^ Crawford p.243
  5. ^ Crawford pp.55-6
  6. ^ Ball p.226
  7. ^ Crawford p.460
  8. ^ Calendar of State Papers (Ireland) 1603-1606
  9. ^ Crawford p.287
  10. ^ Kenyon, J.P. The Popish Plot Phoenix Press reissue 2000 p.132
  11. ^ Pawlisch, Hans ed. Sir John Davies and the Conquest of Ireland Cambridge University Press 1985 p.104
  12. ^ Wedgwood, C.V. The King's Peace Fontana edition 1966 p.193
  13. ^ Crawford p.148
  14. ^ Crawford p.302
  15. ^ Crawford pp.283–4
  16. ^ Crawford p.291
  17. ^ Crawford p.214
  18. ^ Kenyon, J.P. The Stuart Constitution 2nd Edition Cambridge University Press 1986 p. 105
  19. ^ Crawford pp.558-9
  20. ^ Crawford p.354
  21. ^ In England, as late as 1679:Kenyon, J.P. The Popish Plot Phoenix Press reissue 2000 p.153
  22. ^ Crawford p.287
  23. ^ Crawford p.196
  24. ^ Crawford p.241
  25. ^ Crawford p.109
  26. ^ Kenyon pp.104–6
  27. ^ Crawford p.302
  28. ^ Crawford p.310
  29. ^ Wegdwood p.130
  30. ^ Wedgwood pp.143–4
  31. ^ Wedgwood p.144
  32. ^ Wedgwood p.144
  33. ^ Ball p.255
  34. ^ Wedgwood The King's Peace p.193
  35. ^ Wedgwood pp.342–5
  36. ^ Crawford pp.419–20