Joseph Hilaire Pierre René Belloc (/hɪˈlɛərˈbɛlək/, French: [ilɛːʁ bɛlɔk]; 27 July 1870 – 16 July 1953) was a Franco-English writer and historian of the early twentieth century. Belloc was also an orator, poet, sailor, satirist, writer of letters, soldier, and political activist. His Catholic faith had a strong effect on his works.
Belloc became a naturalised British subject in 1902 while retaining his French citizenship. He served as President of the Oxford Union and later MP for Salford South from 1906 to 1910. Belloc was a noted disputant, with a number of long-running feuds.
Belloc's writings encompassed religious poetry and comic verse for children. His widely sold Cautionary Tales for Children included "Jim, who ran away from his nurse, and was eaten by a lion" and "Matilda, who told lies and was burned to death". He wrote historical biographies and numerous travel works, including The Path to Rome (1902). He also collaborated with G. K. Chesterton on a number of works.
Belloc's maternal grandfather was Joseph Parkes (1796–1865). Belloc's grandmother, Elizabeth Rayner Priestley (1797–1877), was born in the United States, a granddaughter of Joseph Priestley.
In 1867, Bessie Rayner Parkes married attorney Louis Belloc, son of Jean-Hilaire Belloc. In 1872, five years after they wed, Louis died but not before being wiped out financially in a stock market crash. The young widow then brought her children back to England.
Belloc grew up in England; his boyhood was spent in Slindon, Sussex. He wrote about his home in poems such as "West Sussex Drinking Song", "The South Country", and "Ha'nacker Mill". After graduating from John Henry Newman's Oratory School in Edgbaston, Birmingham, In 1890, Belloc met Elodie Hogan, an American living in Northern California. The couple married in 1896.
Belloc served his term of military service, as a French citizen, with an artillery regiment near Toul in 1891. He proceeded to Balliol College, Oxford, as a history scholar, securing a first-class honours degree in 1895. Belloc would later write in a poem "Balliol made me, Balliol fed me/ Whatever I had she gave me again".
Belloc travelled to the United States to visit Hogan. An athletic man who walked extensively in Britain and Europe, Belloc walked a significant part of the distance from the American Midwest to Hogan's home in California. While walking, he paid for lodging at remote farm houses and ranches by sketching the owners and reciting poetry.
In 1906, Belloc purchased land and a house called King's Land at Shipley in the United Kingdom. The couple had five children before Hogan's death in 1914 from influenza. Belloc wore mourning garb for the rest of his life and kept her room as she had left it. His son Louis was killed in 1918 while serving in the Royal Flying Corps in northern France. Belloc placed a memorial tablet at the nearby Cambrai Cathedral. It is in the same side chapel as the icon Our Lady of Cambrai.
On 2 April 1941, Belloc's son Peter Gilbert Marie Sebastian Belloc died at age 36 of pneumonia. He fell ill while on active service with the 5th Battalion, Royal Marines in Scotland. He is buried in West Grinstead at Our Lady of Consolation and St. Francis churchyard.
In 1937, Belloc was invited to be a visiting professor at Fordham University in New York City by university president Robert Gannon. Belloc delivered a series of lectures at Fordham which he completed in May of that year. While pleased to accept the invitation, the experience left him physically exhausted and he considered stopping the lectures early.
Death and legacy
In 1941, Belloc suffered a stroke and never recovered from its effects. In the same year, he also suffered burns and shock after falling on his fireplace. He died on 16 July 1953 at Mount Alvernia Nursing Home in Guildford, Surrey.
At Balliol College, Belloc served as President of the Oxford Union. He went into politics after he became a naturalised British subject. A great disappointment in his life was his failure to gain a fellowship of All Souls College, Oxford in 1895. This failure may have been caused in part by his producing a small statue of the Virgin and placing it before him on the table during the interview for the fellowship.
From 1906 to 1910, Belloc was a Liberal Party Member of Parliament for Salford South. During one campaign speech, he was asked by a heckler if he was a "papist." Retrieving his rosary from his pocket, he responded:
"Gentlemen, I am a Catholic. As far as possible, I go to Mass every day. This [taking a rosary out of his pocket] is a rosary. As far as possible, I kneel down and tell these beads every day. If you reject me on account of my religion, I shall thank God that He has spared me the indignity of being your representative."
The crowd cheered and Belloc won the election.
Belloc's only period of steady employment after that was from 1914 to 1920 as editor of Land and Water. Otherwise he lived by his writing and was often financially insecure.
In controversy and debate
Belloc first came to public attention shortly after arriving at Balliol College, Oxford as a recent French army veteran. Attending his first debate of the Oxford Union Debating Society, he saw that the affirmative position was wretchedly and half-heartedly defended. As the debate drew to its conclusion and the division of the house was called, he rose from his seat in the audience, and delivered a vigorous, impromptu defence of the proposition. Belloc won that debate from the audience, as the division of the house then showed, and his reputation as a debater was established. He was later elected president of the Union. He held his own in debates there with F. E. Smith and John Buchan, the latter a friend.
In the 1920s, Belloc attacked H. G. Wells's The Outline of History. Belloc criticised what he termed Wells‘s secular bias and his belief in evolution by means of natural selection, a theory that Belloc asserted had been completely discredited. Wells remarked that "Debating Mr. Belloc is like arguing with a hailstorm". Belloc's review of Outline of History observed that Wells's book was a powerful and well-written volume, "up until the appearance of Man, that is, somewhere around page seven". Wells responded with a small book, Mr. Belloc Objects. Not to be outdone, Belloc followed with, "Mr. Belloc Still Objects".
G. G. Coulton wrote Mr. Belloc on Medieval History in a 1920 article. After a long simmering feud, Belloc replied with a booklet, The Case of Dr. Coulton, in 1938.
Belloc's style during later life fulfilled the nickname he received in childhood, Old Thunder. Belloc's friend, Lord Sheffield, described his provocative personality in a preface to The Cruise of the Nona.
During his later years, Belloc would sail when he could afford to do so and became a well-known yachtsman. He won many races and was on the French sailing team.
In the early 1930s, he was given an old pilot cutter called Jersey. He sailed this for some years around the coasts of England, with the help of younger men. One sailor, Dermod MacCarthy, wrote a book about it, called Sailing with Mr Belloc.
Belloc wrote over 150 books, the subjects ranging from warfare to poetry to the many current topics of his day. He has been called one of the Big Four of Edwardian Letters, along with H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and G. K. Chesterton, all of whom debated with each other into the 1930s. Belloc was closely associated with Chesterton, and Shaw coined the term "Chesterbelloc" for their partnership. Belloc was co-editor with Cecil Chesterton of the literary periodical the Eye-Witness,
Asked once why he wrote so much, Belloc responded, "Because my children are howling for pearls and caviar." Belloc observed that "The first job of letters is to get a canon," that is, to identify those works a writer sees as exemplary of the best of prose and verse. For his own prose style, he claimed to aspire to be as clear and concise as "Mary had a little lamb."
Essays and travel writing
In 1902, Belloc published The Path to Rome, an account of a walking pilgrimage from Central France across the Alps to Rome. The Path to Rome contains descriptions of the people and places he encountered, his drawings in pencil and in ink of the route, humour, poesy. In 1909, Belloc published The Pyrenees, providing many details of that region.
Original cover for Cautionary Tales for Children, illustrated by Basil T. Blackwood
His Cautionary Tales for Children, humorous poems with an implausible moral, illustrated by Basil Temple Blackwood (signing as "B.T.B.") and later by Edward Gorey, are the most widely known of his writings. Supposedly for children, they, like Lewis Carroll's works, are more to adult and satirical tastes: "Henry King, Who chewed bits of string and was early cut off in dreadful agonies". A similar poem tells the story of "Rebecca, who slammed doors for fun and perished miserably".
The tale of "Matilda who told lies and was burned to death" was adapted into the play Matilda Liar! by Debbie Isitt. Quentin Blake, the illustrator, described Belloc as at one and the same time the overbearing adult and mischievous child. Roald Dahl was a follower. But Belloc has broader if sourer scope. For example, with Lord Lundy (who was "far too freely moved to Tears"):
It happened to Lord Lundy then
as happens to so many men
about the age of 26
they shoved him into politics ...
leading up to
"we had intended you to be
the next Prime Minister but three...
instead, Lundy is condemned to the ultimate political wilderness:
...The stocks were sold; the Press was squared:
The Middle Class was quite prepared.
But as it is! . . . My language fails!
Go out and govern New South Wales!"
The Aged Patriot groaned and died:
And gracious! how Lord Lundy cried!
Of more weight is Belloc's Sonnets and Verse, a volume that deploys the same singing and rhyming techniques of his children's verses. Belloc's poetry is often religious, often romantic; throughout The Path to Rome he writes in spontaneous song.
History, politics, economics
Hilaire Belloc portrait by Emil Otto Hoppé, 1915
Three of his best-known non-fiction works are The Servile State (1912), Europe and Faith (1920) and The Jews (1922).
From an early age Belloc knew Cardinal Henry Edward Manning, who was responsible for the conversion of his mother to Roman Catholicism. In The Cruise of the "Nona" (1925), he mentions a "profound thing" that Manning said to him when he was just twenty years old: "All human conflict is ultimately theological." What Manning meant, Belloc explains, is "that all wars and revolutions, and all decisive struggles between parties of men arise from a difference in moral and transcendental doctrine." Belloc adds that he never met any man, "arguing for what should be among men, but took for granted as he argued that the doctrine he consciously or unconsciously accepted was or should be a similar foundation for all mankind. Hence battle." Manning's involvement in the 1889 London Dock Strike made a major impression on Belloc and his view of politics, according to biographer Robert Speaight. He became a trenchant critic both of capitalism and of many aspects of socialism.
With others (G. K. Chesterton, Cecil Chesterton, Arthur Penty) Belloc had envisioned the socioeconomic system of distributism. In The Servile State, written after his party-political career had come to an end, and other works, he criticised the modern economic order and parliamentary system, advocating distributism in opposition to both capitalism and socialism. Belloc made the historical argument that distributism was not a fresh perspective or program of economics but rather a proposed return to the economics that prevailed in Europe for the thousand years when it was Catholic. He called for the dissolution of Parliament and its replacement with committees of representatives for the various sectors of society, an idea that was also popular among Fascists, under the name of corporatism.
Belloc held republican views, but became increasingly sympathetic to monarchism as he grew older. In his youth, Belloc had initially been loyal to the nature of French republicanism, seeing it as a patriotic duty. Michael Hennessy, Chairman of the Hilaire Belloc Society, wrote that "In some respects, Belloc remained a republican until his death, but increasingly realized that there were not enough republicans to make a republic function effectively. Belloc thus felt that monarchy was the most practicable, superior form of government." Belloc explores some of these ideas in his work Monarchy: A Study of Louis XIV. Within it, Belloc also wrote that democracy "is possible only in small states, and even these must enjoy exceptional defences, moral or material, if they are to survive."
With these linked themes in the background, he wrote a long series of contentious biographies of historical figures, including Oliver Cromwell, James II, and Napoleon. They show him as an ardent proponent of orthodox Catholicism and a critic of many elements of the modern world.
Outside academe, Belloc was impatient with what he considered axe-grinding histories, especially what he called "official history." Joseph Pearce notes also Belloc's attack on the secularism of H. G. Wells's popular Outline of History:
Belloc objected to his adversary's tacitly anti-Christian stance, epitomized by the fact that Wells had devoted more space in his "history" to the Persian campaign against the Greeks than he had given to the figure of Christ.
Ignatius Press of California and IHS Press of Virginia have reissued Belloc. TAN Books of Charlotte, North Carolina, publishes a number of Belloc's works, particularly his historical writings.
Hilaire Belloc portrait, 1910
One of Belloc's most famous statements was "the faith is Europe and Europe is the faith"; those views were expressed in many of his works from the period 1920 to 1940. These are still cited as exemplary of Catholic apologetics. They have also been criticised, for instance by comparison with the work of Christopher Dawson during the same period.
As a young man, Belloc moved away from Catholicism. However, he later stated that a spiritual event, which he never discussed publicly, prompted his return to it. Belloc alludes to this return to Catholicism in a passage in The Cruise of the Nona.
According to his biographer A. N. Wilson (Hilaire Belloc, Hamish Hamilton), Belloc never wholly apostatised from the faith (ibid p. 105). The momentous event is fully described by Belloc in The Path to Rome (pp. 158–61). It took place in the French village of Undervelier at the time of Vespers. Belloc said of it, "not without tears", "I considered the nature of Belief" and "it is a good thing not to have to return to the Faith". (See Hilaire Belloc by Wilson at pp. 105–06.) Belloc believed that the Catholic Church provided hearth and home for the human spirit. More humorously, his tribute to Catholic culture can be understood from his well-known saying, "Wherever the Catholic sun does shine, there's always laughter and good red wine."
Belloc had a disparaging view of the Church of England, and used sharp words to describe heretics, such as, "Heretics all, whoever you may be/ In Tarbes or Nimes or over the sea/ You never shall have good words from me/ Caritas non-conturbat me". Indeed, in his "Song of the Pelagian Heresy" he described how the Bishop of Auxerre, "with his stout Episcopal staff/ So thoroughly thwacked and banged/ The heretics all, both short and tall/ They rather had been hanged".
Belloc sent his son Louis to Downside School (1911–1915). Louis's biography and death in August 1918 is recorded in "Downside and the War".
Belloc's 1937 book The Crusades: the World's Debate, he wrote,
The story must not be neglected by any modern, who may think in error that the East has finally fallen before the West, that Islam is now enslaved – to our political and economic power at any rate if not to our philosophy. It is not so. Islam essentially survives, and Islam would not have survived had the Crusade made good its hold upon the essential point of Damascus. Islam survives. Its religion is intact; therefore its material strength may return. Our religion is in peril, and who can be confident in the continued skill, let alone the continued obedience, of those who make and work our machines? ... There is with us a complete chaos in religious doctrine.... We worship ourselves, we worship the nation; or we worship (some few of us) a particular economic arrangement believed to be the satisfaction of social justice.... Islam has not suffered this spiritual decline; and in the contrast between [our religious chaos and Islam's] religious certitudes still strong throughout the Mohammedan world lies our peril.
In The Great Heresies (1938), Belloc argued that although "Muslim culture happens to have fallen back in material applications; there is no reason whatever why it should not learn its new lesson and become our equal in all those temporal things which now alone give us our superiority over it—whereas in Faith we have fallen inferior to it."
It has always seemed to me possible, and even probable, that there would be a resurrection of Islam and that our sons or our grandsons would see the renewal of that tremendous struggle between the Christian culture and what has been for more than a thousand years its greatest opponent.
"There is no reason why its recent inferiority in mechanical construction, whether military or civilian, should continue indefinitely. Even a slight accession of material power would make the further control of Islam by an alien culture difficult. A little more and there will cease that which our time has taken for granted, the physical domination of Islam by the disintegrated Christendom we know."
Belloc considered that Islam was permanently intent on destroying the Christian Faith, as well as the West, which Christendom had built. In The Great Heresies, Belloc grouped the Protestant Reformation together with Islam as one of the major heresies threatening the "Universal Church".
Belloc's writings were at times supportive of anti-Semitism and other times condemnatory of it.
Belloc took a leading role in denouncing the Marconi scandal of 1912. Belloc emphasized that key players in both the government and the Marconi corporation had been Jewish. American historian Todd Endelman identifies Catholic writers as central critics. In his opinion:
The most virulent attacks in the Marconi affair were launched by Hilaire Belloc and the brothers Cecil and G.K. Chesterton, whose hostility to Jews was linked to their opposition to liberalism, their backward-looking Catholicism, and the nostalgia for a medieval Catholic Europe that they imagined was ordered, harmonious, and homogeneous. The Jew baiting at the time of the Boer War and the Marconi scandal was linked to a broader protest, mounted in the main by the Radical wing of the Liberal Party, against the growing visibility of successful businessmen in national life and their challenges to what were seen as traditional English values.
A. N. Wilson's biography expresses the belief that Belloc tended to allude to Jews negatively in conversation, sometimes obsessively. Anthony Powell mentions in his review of that biography that in his view Belloc was thoroughly anti-Semitic, at all but a personal level.
In The Cruise of the Nona, Belloc reflected equivocally on the Dreyfus Affair after thirty years. Norman Rose's book The Cliveden Set (2000) asserts that Belloc 'was moved by a deep vein of hysterical anti-semitism'.
In his 1922 book, The Jews, Belloc argued that "the continued presence of the Jewish nation intermixed with other nations alien to it presents a permanent problem of the gravest character," and that the "Catholic Church is the conservator of an age-long European tradition, and that tradition will never compromise with the fiction that a Jew can be other than a Jew. Wherever the Catholic Church has power, and in proportion to its power, the Jewish problem will be recognized to the full."
Robert Speaight cited a letter by Belloc in which he condemned Nesta Webster because of her accusations against "the Jews". In February 1924, Belloc wrote to an American Jewish friend regarding an anti-Semitic book by Webster. Webster had rejected Christianity, studied Eastern religions, accepted the supposed Hindu concept of the equality of all religions and was fascinated by theories of reincarnation and ancestral memory. Speaight also points out that when faced with anti-Semitism in practice—as at elitist country clubs in the United States before World War II—he voiced his disapproval. Belloc also condemned Nazi anti-Semitism in The Catholic and the War (1940).
Belloc grew up in Slindon and spent most of his life in West Sussex. He always wrote of Sussex as if it were the crown of England and the western Sussex Downs the jewel in that crown. He loved Sussex as the place where he was brought up, considering it his earthly "spiritual home".
Belloc wrote several works about Sussex including Ha'nacker Mill, The South Country, the travel guide Sussex (1906) and The County of Sussex (1936). One of his best-known works relating to Sussex is The Four Men: a Farrago (1911), in which the four characters, each aspects of Belloc's personality, travel on a pilgrimage across the county from Robertsbridge to Harting. The work has influenced others including musician Bob Copper, who retraced Belloc's steps in the 1980s.
Belloc was also a lover of Sussex songs and wrote lyrics for some songs which have since been put to music. Belloc is remembered in an annual celebration in Sussex, known as Belloc Night, that takes place on the writer's birthday, 27 July, in the manner of Burns Night in Scotland. The celebration includes reading from Belloc's work and partaking of a bread and cheese supper with pickles.
In the media
Stephen Fry has recorded an audio collection of Belloc's children's poetry.
"The Geography of the War," The Geographical Journal, Vol. 45, No. 1, Jan. 1915.
"High Lights of the French Revolution," The Century Magazine, Vol. LXXXVIII, No. 5, September 1914; Part II, No. 6, October 1914; Part III, Vol. LXXXIX, No. 2, December 1914; Part IV, N°. 4, February 1915; Part V, N°. 6, April 1915.
^"My Memory of Hilaire Belloc," The Irish Monthly, Vol. 81, No. 962, Oct. 1953
^Hilaire Belloc: Speech to voters of South Salford (1906), quoted in Robert Speaight, The Life of Hilaire Belloc (London: Hollis & Carter, 1957), p. 204
^Sir John Simon, who was a contemporary at Oxford, described his "...resonant, deep pitched voice..." as making an "...unforgettable impression".
^Francis West, Gilbert Murray, p. 107, describes Murray's impression on an occasion in 1899: In July [...] [Murray] attended a meeting on the principles of Liberalism, at which Hilaire Belloc spoke brilliantly although Murray could not afterwards remember a word that he had said.
^Wells, H. G., Mr. Belloc Objects, to the Outline of History, Watts & Company, London, 1926.
^Time and again I have seen him throw out a sufficiently outrageous theory in order to stimulate his company, and, be it said, for the pleasure of seeing how slowly he might be dislodged from a position he had purposely taken up knowing it to be untenable.... Of course Belloc was prejudiced, but there were few who knew him who did not love his prejudices, who did not love to hear him fight for them, and who did not honor him for the sincerity and passion with which he held to them. Once the battle was joined all his armoury was marshalled and flung into the fray. Dialectic, Scorn, Quip, Epigram, Sarcasm, Historical Evidence, Massive Argument, and Moral Teaching --of all these weapons he was a past master and each was mobilised and made to play its proper part in the attack. Yet he was a courteous and a chivalrous man. A deeply sensitive man, his was the kindest and most understanding nature I have ever known. In spite of a rollicking and bombastic side he was as incapable of the least cruelty as he was capable of the most delicate sympathy with other people's feelings. As he himself used to say of others in a curiously quiet and simple way, "He is a good man. He will go to Heaven".
^Sailing with Mr Belloc by Dermod MacCarthy : Vintage/Ebury (A Division of Random House Group), 20 October 1986 (reprint) : ISBN9780002727754 / 0002727757
^Michael H. Markel, Hilaire Belloc, Twayne Publishers (1975), p. 34
^David Perkins, A History of Modern Poetry: From the 1890s to the High Modernist Mode, Harvard University Press (1976), p. 192
The Chief Defect of Henry King
Was chewing little bits of String.
At last he swallowed some which tied
Itself in ugly Knots inside.
Physicians of the Utmost Fame
Were called at once; but when they came
They answered, as they took their Fees,
"There is no Cure for this Disease.
Henry will very soon be dead."
His Parents stood about his Bed
Lamenting his Untimely Death,
When Henry, with his Latest Breath,
Cried – "Oh, my Friends, be warned by me,
That Breakfast, Dinner, Lunch and Tea
Are all the Human Frame Requires..."
With that the Wretched Child expires.
^The Cruise of the "Nona". Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1958, p. 48.
^The Cruise of the "Nona". Harmondsworth: Penguin, p. 49.
^Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, p. 186: Belloc's argument is that capitalism as a system is breaking down, and that this is to be welcomed. A society in which a minority owns and controls the means of production, while the majority are reduced to proletarian status, is not only wrong but unstable. Belloc sees it breaking down in two ways – on the one hand into State action for welfare (which pure capitalism cannot embody); on the other hand into monopoly and the restraint of trade. There are only two alternatives to this system: socialism, which Belloc calls collectivism; and the redistribution of property on a significant scale, which Belloc calls distributivism.
^There is an enormous book called volume 1 of A Cambridge History of the Middle Ages. It is 759 pages in length of close print.... It does not mention the Mass once. That is as though you were to write a history of the Jewish dispersion without mentioning the synagogue or of the British empire without mentioning the city of London or the Navy (Letters from Hilaire Belloc, Hollis and Carter, 75).
^I, for my part, pretend to no certain conclusion in the matter… Of my own intimate acquaintance who were on the spot [at Dreyfus' trial] and competent to judge, most were for the innocence of Dreyfus: but the rest, fully competent also, were and are, convinced of his guilt… There are in England to-day two Englishmen whose wide knowledge of Europe and especially of Paris, and the French tongue and society, enable them to judge. They are both close friends of mine. One is for, the other against… I believe that, when the passions have died down, the Dreyfus case will remain for history very much what the Diamond Necklace has remained, or the Tichborne case; that is, there will be a popular legend, intellectually worth nothing; and, for the historian, the task of criticising that legend, but hardly of solving the problem.
^Belloc, Hilaire, The Jews, London: Constable, 1922, 3–5, 209–210.
^Nesta Webster, Spacious Days, London and Bombay, 1950, pp. 103 and 172–5.
In my opinion it is a lunatic book. She is one of those people who have got one cause on the brain. It is the good old 'Jewish revolutionary' bogey. But there is a type of unstable mind which cannot rest without morbid imaginings, and the conception of a single cause simplifies thought. With this good woman it is the Jews, with some people it is the Jesuits, with others Freemasons and so on. The world is more complex than that. R. Speaight, The Life Of Hilaire Belloc, 1957, pp. 456–8.
The Third Reich has treated its Jewish subjects with a contempt for Justice which even if there had been no other action of the kind in other departments would be a sufficient warranty for determining its elimination from Europe.... Cruelty to a Jew is as odious as cruelty to any human being, whether that cruelty be moral in the form of insult, or physical.... You may hear men saying on every side, 'However, there is one thing I do agree with and that is the way they (The Nazis) have settled the Jews'. Now that attitude is directly immoral. The more danger there is that it will grow the more necessity there is for denouncing it. The action of the enemy toward the Jewish race has been in morals intolerable. Contracts have been broken on all sides, careers destroyed by the hundred and the thousand, individuals have been treated with the most hideous and disgusting cruelty.... If no price is paid for such excesses, our civilisation will certainly suffer and suffer permanently. If the men who have committed them go unpunished (and only defeat in war can punish them) then the decline of Europe, already advanced, will proceed to catastrophe. (pp. 29ff.)