Elphinstone, James, first Baron Balmerino 1553?-1612, the third son of Robert, third lord Elphinstone, by Margaret, daughter of Sir John Drummond of Innerpeffray, was born about 1553. By religion he was a Roman catholic. He was appointed a lord of session 4 March 1586, and in 1595 was one of the powerful commissioners of the treasury known as the Octavians. In 1598 he became secretary of state, and for the next five years was a member of all the more important commissions of the privy council. He was a great favourite with James, whom in 1603 he accompanied to London. On 20 Feb. 1604 he was created a peer, with the title of Lord Balmerino, the estates of the Cistercian abbey of Balmerino in Fifeshire being converted into a temporal lordship in favour of him and his heirs male. In the same year he was nominated one of the Scotch commissioners to treat about the union with England, and when the negotiations were at an end he was chosen by the privy council of Scotland to convey their thanks to James, 2,000l. being allowed him for the expenses of the journey. In March 1605 he was made president of the court of session, and while holding that office successfully opposed Dunbar. As a catholic Balmerino used his influence to persecute the presbyterians, and his zeal for his religion led to his disgrace. In 1599 a letter signed by James had been sent to Pope Clement VIII, requesting him to give a cardinal's hat to Drummond, bishop of Vaizon (a kinsman of Balmerino), and expressing high regard for the pope and the catholic faith. The Master of Gray sent a copy of this letter to Elizabeth, who asked James for an explanation. He asserted that the letter must be a forgery, and Balmerino, as secretary of state, also repudiated its authorship. When in 1607 James published his Triplici nodo triplex cuneus, Cardinal Bellarmine quoted in his reply the letter written in 1599 as a proof of James's former favour to catholicism. In Oct. 1608 Balmerino had an interview with James respecting the condition of the Scottish catholics. James had just seen Bellarmine's reply and interrogated Balmerino on the subject anew. Balmerino confessed that he had written the letter, and had surreptitiously passed it in among papers awaiting the king's signature. He fully acknowledged that the king had not known what he was about when he signed it. He was accordingly put on his trial, when he refused to plead, but he acquitted the king of any knowledge of the letter written to the pope, which he said had been sent by himself as a matter of policy. The king confirming the verdict of guilty which the jury found, Balmerino was in March 1609 sentenced to be beheaded, quartered, and demeaned as a traitor (Gardiner, Hist. of England, ii. 31-34). The sentence, however, was not carried out, because, according to a detailed account of the affair now drawn up by Balmerino, James was aware of the contents of the letter, and had signed it without hesitation. Severe pressure was put by Dunbar and Cecil on Balmerino to induce him finally to assume the whole blame, and on the promise that his life and estates should be secured to him he once more exculpated the king. He remained imprisoned at Falkland till October 1609, when, on finding security in 40,000l., he was allowed free ward in the town and a mile round. Afterwards he was permitted to retire to his own estate at Balmerino, where he died in July 1612. He married, first, Sarah, daughter of Sir John Menteith, by whom he had one son, John, second baron Balmerino; secondly, Marjory, daughter of Hugh Maxwell of Tealing, by whom he had a son James, created in 1607 Lord Coupar, and two daughters, Anne and Mary.

     Douglas and Wood's Peerage of Scotland, i. 182, 538
     Anderson's Scottish Nation, i. 228
     Burton's Hist. of Scotland to 1688, vi. 138
     Laing's Hist. of Scotland, iii. 59-61
     Calderwood's Hist. of Church of Scotland, pp. 312, 364, 427
     Chron. of Kings of Scotland (Maitland Club), p. 176
     Reg. of Privy Council of Scotland, vi. 276, vii. 340, passim
     Cal. State Papers (Dom. Ser. 1603-14), pp. 466, 497, (1611-18) 137
     Gardiner's History.

Contributor: A. V. [Alsager Vian]

Published: 1888