Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Balfour, James (d.1583)

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BALFOUR, Sir JAMES (d. 1583), of Pittendreich, Scottish judge, was a son of Sir Michael Balfour, of Mountquhanny, in Fife. Educated for the priesthood, he adopted the legal branch of the clerical profession, as was common in Scotland at this period. Having taken part with his brothers, David and Gilbert, in the plot for the assassination of Cardinal Beaton, he shared the fate of the conspirators, who, on the surrender of the castle of St. Andrews, in June 1547, to the French, were allowed to save their lives by service in the galleys. John Knox, his fellow prisoner in the same galley, who looked upon Balfour as a renegade, and denounces him as a manifest blasphemer and the principal misguider of Scotland for his desertion from the party of the reformers, records his release in 1549, which, according to Spottiswoode, a less adverse authority, was due to his abjuring his profession. Soon after he became official of the archdeaconry of Lothian, and chief judge of the consistorial court of the archbishop of St. Andrews. He continued for some years to support the policy of Mary of Guise, then, passing over to that of the lords of the congregation, was admitted to their councils, and betrayed their secrets. He was rewarded by the preferment of the parsonage of Flick, in Fife. Soon after Queen Mary's return to Scotland, he was nominated an extraordinary lord, 12 Nov. 1561, and on 15 Nov. 1563 an ordinary lord, of the court of session. The abolition, in 1560, of the ecclesiastical consistorial jurisdiction, one of the first fruits of the Reformation, led to great confusion with reference to the important causes that had been referred to it. Besides others, all those relating to marriage, legitimacy, and wills, were in its control, and it was found necessary to institute a oommisary court at Edinburgh in its stead. Balfour was the chief of the four first commisaries, and the charter of their appointment, on 8 Feb. 1563, is printed in the treatise which has received the name of 'Balfour's Practicks.' With other partisans of Bothwell and Bothwell himself he is said to have escaped from Holyrood on the night of Rizzio's murder, but Macgill, the lord clerk register, having been deprived of that office for his share in the plot, Balfour succeeded to the vacancy. Common rumour, supported in this instance by probable evidence, assigned to Balfour the infamous part of having drawn the bond for Damley's murder, and provided the lodging, a house of one of his brothers, in the Kirk o' Field, where the deed was done. Though not present, according to the confessions of the perpetrators on, he was accused of complicity by the tickets or placards which appeared on the walls of Edinburgh immediately after the commission of the crime. His appointment, during the short period of Bothwell's power, to the incongruous post — for a lawyer — of governor of Edinburgh Castle; his acting as commissary in the divorce suit by Lady Bothwell against her husband, and as lord clerk register in the registration of Mary's consent to the contract of marriage with Bothwell, leave no doubt that he was a useful and ready instrument in the hands of the chief assassin, and received his reward. With an adroitness in changing sides in which, though not singular, he excelled the other politicians of the time, he forestalled the fall of Bothwell and made terms with Murray by the surrender of the castle, receiving in return a gift of the priory of Pittenweem, an annuity for his son out of the rents of the priory of St. Andrews, and a pardon for his share in Darnley's death. According to the journal ascribed to Mary's secretary, Nau, it was by the advice of Balfour, 'a traitor who offered himself first to the one party and then to the other,' that the queen left Dunbar and took the march to Edinburgh which led to her surrender at Carberry Hill. He was present at the battle of Langside, in the regent's army. Having surrendered the office of lord clerk register to allow of the reinstatement of Macgill, a friend of the regent Murray, Balfour received a pension of 500l. and the presidency of the court of session, from which William Baillie, Lord Provand, was removed on the ground that he was not, as the act instituting it required, of the clerical order—a mere pretence on the part of the leader of the protestant party. That he betrayed Bothwell by giving the information which led to the interception of the casket letters is doubted, not because such an act would be in the least inconsistent with his character, but because it is deemed by many a more probable solution of the mystery that the letters were fabrications. During the regency of Murray he was suspected of intriguing with the adherents of the queen while ostensibly belonging to the party of the regent, and he was deprived of the office of president in 1568. Shortly before the death of Murray, Balfour was imprisoned, on the accusation of Lennox, for his share in Darnley's murder; but a bribe to Wood, the regent's secretary, procured his release without trial, and though he lost the presidency of the court he retained the priory of Pittenweem. After the accession of Lennox to the regency, he was forfeited on 30 Aug. 1571, but he made terms with Morton in the following year by abandoning his associates on the queen's side, Maitland of Lethington and Kirkcaldy of Grange, and negotiating the pacification of Perth in 1573. Not unnaturally distrusted, even by those he pretended to serve, and doubting his own safety, he soon afterwards fled to France, where he appears to have remained till 1580, and in 1579 the forfeiture of 1571 was renewed by parliament. On his return he devoted himself to the overthrow of Morton, which he accomplished, it has been said, by the production of the bond for Darnley's murder which he had himself drawn, but more probably of the subsequent bond in support of Bothwell's marriage with Mary. The last certain appearance of Balfour in history is in a long letter by him to Mary, on 31 Jan. 1580, offering her his services: but he is believed to have lived till 1583, from an entry in the books of the privy council on 24 Jan. 1581, restoring his children, which refers to him as then dead. By his wife Margaret, the heiress of Michael Balfour, of Burleigh, he had three daughters and six sons, the eldest of whom was created by James Lord Balfour of Burleigh in 1606. Balfour appears to have been a learned lawyer, and is praised by his contemporary, Henryson, for the part he took in the commission issued in 1566 for the consolidation of the laws. Some parts of the compilation, published in 1774 from a manuscript in the Advocates' Library, were taken from the collection probably made bv him in connection with this commission. But the special references to the Book of Balfour (Liber de Balfour) and the fact that there was a subsequent commission issued by Morton in 1574, in which, although he was a member, his exile in France cannot have admitted of his taking a leading part, deprive him, in the opinion of the best authorities, of the claim to the authorship of the whole manuscript, which has unfortunately been published under his name, and is known as 'Balfour's Practicks,' the earliest text-book of Scottish law. The character drawn of him by an impartial historian is borne out by contemporary authority. 'He had served with all parties, had deserted all, yet had profited by all. He had been the partisan of every leader who rose into distinction amid the troubled elements of those times. Almost every one of these eminent statesmen or soldiers he had seen perish by a violent death—Murray assassinated, Lethington fell by his own hand, Grange by that of the common executioner, Lennox in the field, Morton on the scaffold. … Theirs was, upon the whole, consistent guilt. Balfour, on the other hand, acquired an acuteness in anticipating the changes of party and the probable event of political conspiracy which enabled him rarely to adventure too far, which taught him to avoid alike the determined boldness that brings ruin in the case of failure and that lukewarm inactivity which ought not to share in the rewards of success' (Tytler, Life of Craig, p. 105). Member of a house which had, in the words of Knox, 'neither fear of God nor love of virtue further than the present commodity persuaded them,' he was himself, in the briefer verdict of Robertson, 'the most corrupt man of his age.'

[Knox's History of the Reformation; Spottiswood's History of the Church of Scotland; Keith's History; Bannnatyne's Journal; Sir James Melville's Memoirs; Goodal's Preface to Balfour's Practicks.]

Æ. M.