Sir William Balfour, d.1660

Scottish veteran of the Dutch service and a distinguished cavalry commander for Parliament during the English Civil War

Portrait of SIr William BalfourWilliam Balfour was the son of Colonel Henry Balfour (d.1580) of Pitcullo in Fifeshire. The date of his birth is unknown. Like his father, he became a soldier and led a distinguished career as an officer in the Scottish Brigade of the Dutch army, fighting against the Spanish in the Netherlands. Balfour was knighted by King James I around 1605.

In 1627, at the request of King Charles I, Balfour was released from the Dutch army to serve on the Duke of Buckingham's ill-fated expedition to relieve the Huguenots of La Rochelle. He became a loyal servant of the Crown throughout the period of the Personal Rule, gaining a number of important and lucrative offices. In October 1630, Balfour succeeded Sir Allen Apsley as lieutenant of the Tower of London.

After the Bishops' Wars and the summoning of the Long Parliament, Balfour began to support the opposition to King Charles. As a devout Presbyterian, his motivation was primarily religious. Like most Protestants in England and Scotland, he came to regard the King's policies as dangerously pro-Catholic. During the spring of 1641, Balfour was responsible for guarding the King's chief adviser the Earl of Strafford in the Tower. The House of Commons declared Strafford to be a traitor and condemned him to death. On 2 May, Balfour refused to admit Captain Billingsley and a company of soldiers into the Tower, correctly suspecting that they had come on the King's orders to rescue Strafford. A few days later, he refused to accept a substantial bribe to allow Strafford to escape. To the alarm of the House of Commons, the King dismissed Balfour from the lieutenancy of the Tower in December 1641 and appointed Colonel Lunsford in his place.

Balfour rides outBalfour rides out

In the spring of 1642, Balfour was commissioned colonel of a cavalry regiment intended for service in Ulster. Before he embarked for Ireland, however, civil war broke out in England. Parliament appointed Balfour lieutenant-general to the Earl of Bedford, nominal commander of cavalry in the Earl of Essex's army. At the battle of Edgehill in October 1642, Balfour led a reserve regiment of cuirassiers which played a major role in preventing the collapse of the Parliamentarian position after Prince Rupert and General Wilmot had routed both wings of cavalry.

Owing to ill-health, Balfour was not present during Essex's relief march to Gloucester and the battle of Newbury in 1643. Early in 1644, he was detached to Sir William Waller's Southern Association army with four regiments of horse, and participated in Waller's decisive defeat of Hopton and Forth at the battle of Cheriton.

Balfour returned to Essex's army in April 1644. In June, Essex set out on his disastrous south-western campaign. After successfully relieving the siege of Lyme, Essex advanced into Cornwall where he became trapped at Lostwithiel by the King's army. During the early hours of 31 August 1644, Balfour broke out of Lostwithiel with the Parliamentarian cavalry and succeeded in escaping to Plymouth for the loss of around 100 men. Balfour's last major military action was the second battle of Newbury in October 1644, where he commanded the right wing of Parliamentarian horse. He retired from active military service early in 1645, though suspicions regarding his loyalty to the English Parliament delayed payment of the arrears of pay owed to him until 1655.

Balfour lived quietly in Westminster during the 1650s and died there in July 1660. He was buried in St Margaret's, Westminster. He was twice married, having four daughters and three sons, two of whom were killed fighting in the civil wars.


C.H. Firth, Sir William Balfour (d.1660), DNB 1885

Edward M. Furgol, Sir William Balfour (d.1660), Oxford DNB, 2004