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Significant Scots
Henry Balnaves


BALNAVES, HENRY, of Halbill, an eminent lay reformer, and also a prose-writer of some eminence, was born of poor parents in the town of Kirkaldy. After an academical course at St Andrews, he traveled to the continent, and, hearing of a free school in Cologne, procured admission to it, and received a liberal education, together with instruction in protestant principles. Returning to his native country, he applied himself to the study of law, and acted for some time as a procurator at St Andrews. In the year 1538, he was appointed by James V. as senator of the college of Justice, a court only instituted five years before. Notwithstanding the jealousy of the clergy, who hated him on account of his religious sentiments, he was employed on important embassies by James V., and subsequently by the governor Arran, during the first part of whose regency he acted as secretary of state. Having at length made an open profession of the Protestant religion, he was, at the instigation of Arran’s brother, the Abbot of Paisley, dismissed from that situation. He now appears to have entered into the interests of the English party against the governor, and accordingly, with the Earl of Rothes and Lord Gray, was thrown into Blackness Castle (November 1543), where he probably remained till relieved next year, on the appearance of the English fleet in the Firth of Forth. There is much reason to believe that this sincere and pious man was privy to the conspiracy formed against the life of Cardinal Beaton; an action certainly not the brightest in the page of Scottish history, but of which it is not too much to say, that it might have been less defensible if its motive had not been an irregular kind of patriotism. Balnaves, though he did not appear among the actual perpetrators of the assassination, soon after joined them in the castle of St Andrews, which they held out against the governor. He was consequently declared a traitor and excommunicated. His principal employment in the service of the conspirators seems to have been that of an ambassador to the English court. In February 1546-7, he obtained from Henry VIII. a subsidy of 1180, besides a quantity of provisions, for his compatriots, and a pension of 125 to himself, which was to run from the 25th of March. On the 15th of this latter month, he had become bound along with his friends, to deliver up Queen Mary, and also the castle of St Andrews, into the hands of the English; and, in May, he obtained a further sum of 300. While residing in the castle, he was instrumental, along with Mr John Rough and Sir David Lindsay of the Mount, in prevailing upon John Knox to preach publicly in St Andrews—the first regular ministration in the reformed religion in Scotland.

When the defenders of the castle surrendered in August, Balnaves shared in their fate, along with Knox, and many other eminent persons. He was conveyed to the castle of Rouen in France, and there committed to close confinement. Yet he still found occasional opportunities to communicate with his friend Knox. Having employed himself, during his solitary hours, in composing a Treatise on Justification, he conveyed it to the reformer, who was so much pleased with it, that he divided it into chapters, added some marginal notes and a concise epitome of its contents, and prefixed a commendatory dedication, intending that it should be published in Scotland as soon as opportunity offered. This work fell aside for some years, but, after Knox’s death, was discovered in the house of Ormiston by Richard Bannatyne, and was published at Edinburgh, in 1584, under the title of "The Confession of Faith, containing, how the troubled man should seek refuge at his God, thereto led by Faith; &c., Compiled by M. Henrie Balnaves of Halhill, one of the Lords of Session and counsell of Scotland, being as prisoner within the old pallaice of Roane, in the year of our Lord, 1548. Direct to his faithful brethren being in like trouble or more, and to all true professors and favourers of the syncere worde of God." Dr M’Crie has given some extracts from this work in his Life of John Knox. After his return from banishment, Balnaves took a bold and conspicuous part in the contest carried on by the lords of the congregation against the Regent Mary. He was one of the commissioners, who, in February, 1559-60, settled the treaty at Berwick, between the former insurgent body and the Queen of England, in consequence of which the Scottish reformation was finally established, through aid from a country always heretofore the bitterest enemy of Scotland. In 1563, he was re-appointed to the bench, and also nominated as one of the commissioners for revising the Book of Discipline. He acted some years later, along with Buchanan and others, as counsellors to the Earl of Murray, in the celebrated inquiry by English and Scottish commissioners into the alleged guilt of Queen Mary. He died, according to Mackenzie, in 1579.

"In his Treatise upon Justification," says the latter authority, "he affirms that the justification spoken of by St James is different from that spoken of by St Paul: For the justification by good works, which St James speaks of, only justifies us before man; but the justification by faith, which St Paul speaks of, justifies us before God: And that all, yea even the best of our good works, are but sins before God."

"And," adds Mackenzie, with true Jacobite sarcasm, "whatever may be in this doctrine of our author’s, I think we may grant to him that the most of all his actions which he valued himself upon, and reckoned good works, were really great and heinous sins before God, for no good man will justify rebellion and murder."

Without entering into the controversies involved by this proposition, either as to the death of Cardinal Beaton, or the accusations against Queen Mary, we may content ourselves with quoting the opinion entertained of Balnaves by the good and moderate Melville; he was, according to this writer, "a godly, learned, wise, and long experimented counsellor." ‘A poem’ by Balnaves, entitled, "An advice to headstrong Youth," is selected from Bannatyne’s manuscript into the Evergreen.


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