Star Chamber

Star Chamber

Britain’s William Laud had spies listen to pastors’ sermon to see if they said anything against the king’s ordinances. If they did, the pastors were arrested.

Decisions to punish political enemies of the king were made in the secret “Star Chamber.” No witnesses were allowed in these arbitrary and oppressive inquisitions. Though started with the intention to cut through the red tape of bureaucracy, Britain’s Court of Star Chamber usurped power and became a political weapon for auditing, intimidating and punishing opponents to the King’s policies.

Individuals were subject to hostile questioning, and if they gave unsatisfactory answers, they were charged with perjury. If they did not answer for fear of self-incrimination, they were held in contempt of court.

The abuses of England’s Star Chamber led America’s founders to include the Fifth Amendment in the U.S. Constitution. Notoriously biased in favor of the king, the Star Chamber was used in 1637 by William Laud to punish religious dissenter William Prynne who objected to the state’s control over religious matters.

William Prynne was tied to a pillory – a public pillar – where he had his ears cut off and was branded on the cheeks with the letters “S.L.” for seditious libel, which Prynne called the “Sign of Laud.”

William Laud approved of the Star Chamber’s sentence of dissenting Pastor Henry Burton for his “seditious” sermons, resulting in his ears cut off and imprisonment.

When John Bastwick published religious opinions which opposed government ordinances, he was brought before the Star Chamber and had his ears cut off then thrown in prison.

Dr. Marshall Foster of the World History Institute and co-producer of Kirk Cameron’s 2012 film “Monumental: In Search of America’s National Treasure,” wrote in “A Shining City on a Hill” (Feb. 27, 2013): “When King James died in 1625, his son Charles I ascended to the throne with the arrogance of a Roman emperor. He was the quintessential ‘divine right’ monarch. He declared martial law and suspended the rights of the individual. … The king’s inquisitors at his ‘Star Chamber’ in the tower of London used torture techniques to ‘discover the taxpayer’s assets.’ …”

Dr. Foster continued: “A turning point in public opinion took place on January 30, 1637. Three prisoners were locked down in the pillory in London before a huge crowd. … These men included a Puritan minister, a Christian writer and Dr. John Bastwick, a physician. What was their crime? They had written pamphlets disagreeing with the king’s religious views. The sheriff began by branding the men with red hot irons on the forehead with an SL for seditious libel. …”

The Star Chamber forced similar fates on religious dissenter Alexander Leighton, and John Lilburn, who had coined the term “freeborn rights,” a term often cited by Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black.

American biographer Edgar Lee Masters (1868-1950) wrote: “In the Star Chamber the council could inflict any punishment short of death, and frequently sentenced objects of its wrath to the pillory, to whipping and to the cutting off of ears. … With each embarrassment to arbitrary power the Star Chamber became emboldened to undertake further usurpation. … The Star Chamber finally summoned juries before it for verdicts disagreeable to the government, and fined and imprisoned them. It spread terrorism among those who were called to do constitutional acts. It imposed ruinous fines.”

Dr. Marshal Foster concluded: “The tyranny of the king … finally aroused the Christian sensibilities of the people. They would no longer tolerate burnings or mutilations for matters of conscience on religious views. … The persecutions drove tens of thousands of liberty loving believers to follow the Pilgrims to New England where they laid the foundation for the world’s most biblically based nation.”

One of those thrown in prison by William Laud during this time was Edward Winslow, one of the Pilgrim settlers. Edward Winslow was the agent for the Pilgrim colony in America and would sail back and forth bringing supplies. Edward Winslow’s wife had died in the first winter of the Plymouth Colony and he remarried widow Susanna White, whose husband had died that same winter. On one of his trips back to England, Edward Winslow was thrown in jail for 17 weeks because he had performed marriages in the Plymouth colony without being ordained.

The Pilgrims had sought to return to the simplicity of the early church. Pilgrims believed that marriage was only between a man and a woman, being created by God for the benefit of their natural and spiritual life: procreation of children to increase Christ’s flock; and to avoid the sin of adultery.

The Pilgrims used the Geneva Bible, as portrayed in the painting “Embarkation of the Pilgrims” displayed in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. The Geneva Bible gives the words of Jesus in the Book of Matthew 19:4-6: “And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning, made them male and female, And said, For this cause, shall a man leave father and mother, and cleave unto his wife, and they twain, shall be one flesh. Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. Let not man therefore put asunder that, which God hath coupled together.”

Edward Winslow, born Oct. 18, 1595, was the only Pilgrim to have his portrait painted. A printer, Edward Winslow had joined a group of Christian Separatists who had fled to Holland in 1608 to escape religious persecution. During this period, known as the Dutch Golden Age, Holland was the center of the world’s foremost economic maritime power. Dutch Reformed was Holland’s predominant faith, but the country led the world in extending religious toleration to other Christian denominations.

Settling in 1609 in Leiden, Holland, Edward Winslow helped the Pilgrim Separatist leader William Brewster print illegal religious pamphlets which were smuggled back into England. William Brewster taught University of Leiden students. The University of Holland also taught Hebrew, as did England’s Universities of Cambridge and Oxford, since 1549 and 1575, respectively. The king of England sent spies and police to Holland, where they raided and confiscated the printing press used by Edward Winslow and William Brewster.

After years of hardship, Edward Winslow, at the age of 25,departed with 102 Pilgrims to the New World. In 1622, Edward Winslow cured Indian Chief Massasoit of an illness, resulting in the Indians and Pilgrims making a peace treaty which lasted over 50 years. If the chief had not recovered, the Indians would have killed Winslow.

Edward Winslow served three times as the Plymouth Colony’s governor. He kept the finances and often sailed back to England for business with the Colony’s adventurers (investors), bringing back the colony’s first cattle.

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On one trip to England in 1625, as described in Governor William Bradford’s History of the Plymouth Settlement, Edward Winslow encountered Turkish Muslim Pirates expanding the Islamic State on the sea: “The adventurers … sent over two fishing ships. … The pinnace was ordered to load with corfish … to bring home to England … and besides she had some 800 lbs. of beaver, as well as other furs, to a good value from the plantation. The captain seeing so much lading wished to put aboard the bigger ship for greater safety, but Mr. Edward Winslow, their agent in the business, was bound in a bond to send it to London in the small ship. …

“The captain of the big ship … towed the small ship at his stern all the way over. So they went joyfully home together and had such fine weather that he never cast her off till they were well within the England channel, almost in sight of Plymouth. But even there she was unhapply taken by a Turkish man-of-war and carried off to Saller (Morocco) where the captain and crew were made slaves. Thus all their hopes were dashed and the joyful news they meant to carry home was turned to heavy tidings. …”

William Bradford added: “In the big ship Captain Myles Standish … arrived … in London. … The friendly adventurers were so reduced by their losses … and now by the ship taken by the Turks … that all trade was dead.”

Edward Winslow sailed back to England after the English Civil War. He published pamphlets defending the New England colonies, such as:

  • “Hypocrisy Unmasked” (1646)
  • “New England’s Salamander Discovered” (1647)
  • “Introduction to Glorious Progress of the Gospel Amongst the Indians in New England” (1649)

Edward Winslow served in briefly in Oliver Cromwell’s army during England’s Civil War, 1642-51. He sailed with Admiral Sir William Penn, father of Pennsylvania’s founder, in an attempt to capture Santo Domingo, Hispaniola, from Spain. They were unsuccessful.

Admiral Sir William Penn then sailed to the island of Jamaica and captured it in 1655. On the way, Edward Winslow contracted the deadly disease of yellow fever and died.

In Andrew Young’s “Chronicles of the Pilgrim,” Edward Winslow wrote of the Pilgrims response during a time of crisis: “Drought and the like … moved not only every good man privately to enter into examination with his own estate between God … but also to humble ourselves together before the Lord by fasting.”

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