Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) is not as well-known as he and his talent deserve. From the last years of the reign of Queen Victoria until the first years of World War II, when ill health silenced his Muse, he was one of the true giants of English culture. As a poet, he had few worthy to be considered his peers. His verse, such as “Tarantella,” “The End of the Road,” and “Ha’nacker Mill,” is amongst the finest written in the twentieth century, and his whimsically mischievous Cautionary Tales for Children (1907) continue to delight parents and children alike, more than a century after they were first published. He was a novelist, excelling in acerbically witty satires of the politics of his day, inspired by his experience as a Member of Parliament, and was one of the finest essayists and prose stylists in a golden age of stylistic prose and essay writing, a giant among giants.
Apart from the poetry, novels and essays, Belloc’s literary reputation rests on the writing of what might be called travel farragoes, a genre which he made his own and could be said to have invented, or at least to have popularized and to have taken to new levels of genius. The Path to Rome (1902), The Four Men (1912), and The Cruise of the “Nona” (1925) interweave the horizontal spatial observations of the physical traveler with the vertical metaphysical musings of the spiritual pilgrim, connecting the former to the latter with the brilliance of a mind fully alive to the reality of the Incarnation.
As well as being one of the finest writers of his generation, Belloc was also one of the most important historians. Beginning with biographies of Danton (1899) and Robespierre (1901), key figures in the French Revolution, he would remain fascinated by the history of his native France, publishing biographical studies of Marie Antoinette (1909), Richelieu (1930), Napoleon (1932), and Louis XIV (1938), as well as general studies of the French Revolution (1911) and Napoleon’s Campaign of 1812 (1924). The other main centre of focus of Belloc’s historical research was the Protestant Reformation in general and the English Reformation in particular, publishing How the Reformation Happened (1928) and Characters of the Reformation (1936), as well as studies of key figures of the Reformation, such as Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas Cranmer, Charles I, Oliver Cromwell, John Milton, and James II. His intention was to counter the anti-Catholic bias of the official “Whig History” of England, endeavouring to restore balance to the understanding of England’s past, which successive generations of Protestant propagandists had distorted. With this same goal in mind, he published a four-volume History of England between 1925 and 1931, and A Shorter History of England in 1934. Moving further back in time, Belloc also published lives of two mediaeval saints, St. Joan of Arc (1929) and St. Thomas Becket (1933).
A further forte in Belloc’s historical repertoire was his grasp of intellectual history, displayed with vigorous brilliance in such works as Survival and New Arrivals (1929) and The Great Heresies (1938). He also countered the chronological snobbery and secular progressivism of H.G. Wells’ Outline of History by publishing his own “companion” to it, a broadside against Wells’ historical provincialism which led to a vituperative war of words between the two men, prompting Wells to publish Mr. Belloc Objects and Belloc to respond with a further book, Mr. Belloc Still Objects.
For many modern admirers of Belloc, it is his political writing, rather than his literary or historical work, which is most worth celebrating. Inspired by the social teaching of the Catholic Church, and especially by Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), Belloc championed a political and economic creed which became known as Distributism. The most important of Belloc’s political and economic works are An Examination of Socialism (1908), The Church and Socialism (1909), The Party System (1911), Socialism and the Servile State (1911), The Servile State (1912), The Catholic Church and the Principle of Private Property (1920), Catholic Social Reform versus Socialism (1922), Economics for Helen (1924), and An Essay on the Restoration of Property (1936).
As a resolute and irrepressible champion of the Catholic Church in an age of secularism, Hilaire Belloc made many enemies. Earning the nickname of “old thunder” that he’d been given as a child, Belloc thundered against the heresies of his age and defied the storms of war and secularism with which his life and times were vexed. Born in 1870, the year of the Franco-Prussian War, he lived through two World Wars, losing his eldest son in the First and his youngest in the Second. Through it all, he remained a crusader for the Europe of the Faith against its manifold enemies. As a friend of Christendom he is a friend of all who remain civilized in our age of decadence and barbarism. Hilaire Belloc, defender of the faith and hammer of the heretics, we salute you!
The editors highly recommend Mr. Pearce’s biography Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc. This essay originally appeared at the St. Austin Review (November/December 2015) and is republished with gracious permission.