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Significant Scots
Sir James Balfour


BALFOUR, (Sir) JAMES, an eminent lawyer and public character of the sixteenth century, was the son of Balfour of Monquhanny, in Fife, a very ancient family. In youth, being designed for the church, he made considerable proficiency, not only in ordinary literature, but in the study of divinity and law: which were all alike necessary in those times for an ecclesiastic, on account of the mixed character which the age admitted to be assumed by such individuals. Balfour, while still a young man, was so unfortunate as to join with the conspirators who, after assassinating Cardinal Beaton, held out the castle of St. Andrews against the governor Arran. He seems, however, not to have been a very cordial partisan of the conspirators. John Knox, in his own vigorous and plain-spoken manner, styled him the Blasphemous Balfour, on account of his having refused to communicate along with his reforming associates. Balfour shared the fate of his companions in being sent to the French galleys [The following anecdote of Balfour in connexion with Knox is related by Dr M’Crie. "The galleys returned to Scotland in summer 1548, as near as I can collect, and continued for a considerable time on the east coast, to watch for English vessels. Knox’s health was now greatly impaired by the severity of his confinement, and he was seized with a fever, during which his life was despaired of by all in the ship. But even in this state, his fortitude of mind remained unsubdued, and he comforted his fellow-prisoners with hopes of release. To their anxious desponding inquiries, natural to men in their situation, "If he thought they would ever obtain their liberty," his uniform answer was, ‘God will deliver us to his glory, even in this life.’ While they lay on the coast between Dundee and St. Andrews, Mr. (afterwards Sir) James Balfour, who was confined in the same ship, desired him to look at the land and see if he knew it. Though at that time very sick, he replied, ‘Yes; I know it well, for I see the steeple of that place where God first opened my mouth in public to his glory; and I am fully persuaded, how weak soever I now appear, that I shall not depart this life till that my tongue shall glorify his godly name in the same place.’ This striking reply Sir James repeated in the presence of many witnesses, a number of years before Knox returned to Scotland, and when there was very little prospect of his words being verified." Life of Knox, 1st Edit. p. 53.] and was confined in the same vessel along with Knox, from which he escaped in 1550, along with the rest, by the tacit permission of the French government.

Balfour seems to have afterwards joined in the proceedings of the Reformers, but only with courtier-like temperance, and without exhibiting much zeal in the Protestant cause. He was preferred to the ecclesiastical appointment of official of Lothian, and afterwards became rector of Flisk, a parish in his native county. In 1563, he was appointed by Queen Mary to be a Lord of Session, the court then being composed partly of churchmen, and partly of laics. In 1564, when the Commissary court was instituted in place of the ecclesiastical tribunal, which had been dissolved at the Reformation, Balfour became one of the four commissaries, with a salary of four hundred merks, while the others had only three hundred. In July, 1565, the Queen extended the further favour of admitting him into her privy council.

Balfour was one of those servants of the state, who, being advanced rather on account of merit than birth, used at all times to give great offence to the Scottish nobility. It seems to have never been supposed by this haughty class, that there was the least necessity for ingenious or faithful service in the officials employed by majesty; birth and following were the only qualifications allowed by them to be of any value. Accordingly, it is not surprising to find that the same conspiracy which overthrew the "kinless" adventurer Rizzio, contemplated the destruction of Balfour. He was so fortunate, however, as to escape, and even derived some advantage from the event, being promoted to the office of clerk-register, in room of Mr James Macgill, who was concerned in the conspiracy. He was also about this time made a knight, and appointed to be one of the commissioners for revising, correcting, and publishing the ancient laws and statutes of the kingdom.

In the beginning of the year 1567, Sir James Balfour was appointed governor of Edinburgh castle. In this important situation, he naturally became an object of great solicitude to the confederate lords, who, in the ensuing May, commenced a successful rebellion against Queen Mary. It would appear that Sir James was not now more loyal than many other persons who had experienced the favour of Mary. He is said to have even been the means of throwing into the hands of the confederates that celebrated box of letters, upon which they endeavoured to ground the proof of her guilt. There can be no doubt that he was at this time in the way of receiving high favours from the Earl of Murray, who was the chief man opposed to the dethroned queen. He was, in September, 1567, admitted by Murray a lord of his privy council, and made commendator of the priory of Pittenweem; and in December, a bargain was accomplished, by which he agreed to accept a pension of L.500 and the presidency of the Court of Session, in lieu of the clerk-registry, which Murray wished to be restored to his friend Macgill. Sir James continued faithful to the party which opposed Queen Mary, till the death of Murray, January, 1569-70, when he was in some measure compelled to revert to the Queen’s side, on account of a charge preferred against him by the succeeding Regent, Lennox, who taxed him with a share in the murder of Darnley. For this accusation no proof was ever adduced, but even allowing Sir James to have been guilty, it will only add another to the list of great men concerned in the transaction, and show the more dearly how neither learning, rank, official dignity, nor any other ennobling qualification, prevented a man in those days from staining his hands with blood. Balfour outlived Lennox, and was serviceable in bringing about the pacification between the King’s and Queen’s party, under Morton, in 1573. He would appear to have been encouraged by Morton in the task of revising the laws of the country, which he at length completed in a style allowed at that time to be most masterly. Morton afterwards thought proper to revive the charge brought by Lennox against Sir James, who was consequently obliged to retire to France, where he lived for some years. He returned in 1580, and revenged the persecution of Morton, by producing against him, on his trial, a deed to which he had acceded, in common with others of the Scottish nobility, alleging Bothwell’s innocence of the King’s murder, and recommending him to the Queen as a husband. Sir James died before the 14th of January, 1583-4.

The Practicks of Scots Law, compiled by Sir James Balfour of Pittendreich, president of the Court of Session, continued to be used and consulted in manuscript, both by students and practitioners, till nearly a century after his decease, when it was for the first time supplanted by the Institutes of Lord Stair. Even after that event, it was held as a curious repertory of the old practices of Scottish law, besides fulfilling certain uses not answered by the work of Lord Stair. It was therefore printed in 1754, by the Ruddimans, along with an accurate biographical preface by Walter Goodal. The work was of considerable service to Dr Jamieson in his Dictionary of the Scottish language.


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