Annie Mitchell and I will start a series this morning on the Son Rise Morning Show, discussing Hilaire Belloc's Characters of the Reformation, recently reissued by Ignatius Press. We'll start today a little after 6:45 a.m. Central/7:45 a.m. Eastern with some background on Belloc and the book. Listen live here and find podcasts there later, too. We'll continue going through the book, discussing Belloc's insights every two weeks. If you want to read along, you could join our book club!
Hilaire Belloc was born on July 27, 1870 and died on July 16, 1953. Belloc (Joseph Hilaire Pierre Rene) was born in France; his father was French, his mother English. After his father's death, his mother brought him and his sister Marie to England, where he attended the Oratory School in Birmingham founded by Blessed John Henry Newman. He then served in the French military as required and returned to attend Balliol College at Oxford. He was president of the Oxford Union Debating Society and hoped for a fellowship at All Souls. All Souls selects its Fellows by offering examinations. Hilaire Belloc took the examination and failed to earn a Fellowship after earning a First in History from Balliol College in 1895. This site suggests that he might have failed because he placed a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary on the desk before his examination. I can imagine Belloc being so demonstrative about his faith.
Belloc married Elodie Hogan in 1896 and they had five children before her death in 1914, one of whom, Louis, died in World War I. Belloc became British citizen in 1902. When he ran for Parliament in 1906, his campaign manager begged him not to mention his Catholicism--so Belloc proclaimed during one of his speeches (when heckled for being a "Papist"): "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." Of course, he was elected.
Frederick Wilhelmson, author of a study of Belloc titled Hilaire Belloc: No Alienated Man, A Study in Christian Integration, published by Sheed and Ward in 1953, commented on his energy and vigor in another essay:
At my last count, Hilaire Belloc wrote 153 books. The business has to do with vigor, an enormous lust for life, and a willingness to make mistakes. Belloc did not give a damn for what anybody thought of him. He wrote his life of King James II in a hotel on the edge of the Sahara in ten days: “It is full of howlers and is the fruit of liberty.” He walked to Rome as a young man, coming in upon the Appian Way on a mule drawn cart — but with his feet dragging on the road so his vow would not be broken.
His vigor was legendary, and I have mentioned as well his lust for life. Belloc — and this is a key to understanding his role as a Catholic apologist — was a man totally at home in this world, but one who knew it was an illusion to be so at home. There was not a trace of Manicheanism in him, and he called puritanism, in his biography of Louis XIV, an “evil out of the pit”, meaning the pit of hell. A mountain climber, he was even more a sailor. His Hills and the Sea and The Cruise of the Nona are classics. If The Path to Rome is the work of a young genius, rollicking and rolling his way over mountain and valley toward the Eternal City, The Four Men, on the contrary, called by its author “A Farrago”, was penned in solitude mixed with melancholy. Grizzlebeard, the Poet, and the Sailor are all extensions of Myself, and Myself is Belloc. Only when life is lived close to the senses, when the intelligence is engaged immediately on what is yielded to man through the body, is the paradox of sadness in created beauty brought home in all its delicacy and inexorableness. Page after page of Belloc’s writing is troubled by a deep and troubled gravity, heightened by his profound communion with the things of his world: English inns; old oak‑burnished and sturdy; rich Burgundy and other wines” that port of theirs” at the “George” drunk by the fire with which he began this book; the sea and ships that sail — but, please, “no abomination of an engine”; the smell of the tides. These loves run through Belloc’s essays, recurring themes testifying to a vision movingly poetic in its classic simplicity. His eyes are fixed on the primal things that always nourished the human spirit, on the things at hand.
In Characters of the Reformation, Belloc provides sketches of major figures in the English Reformation and some French leaders. He does not include Martin Luther, John Calvin, or any other Continental Reform leader in this collection. He does not narrate the history of the Reformation on the Continent or in England in this book. His How the Reformation Happened provides that narration.
As Wilhelmson said of Belloc and English Reformation history:
Time prohibits my detailing Belloc’s revolution in English historical writing. Suffice it to say — and this is said formally and altogether without rhetorical emphasis — that one man, Hilaire Belloc, turned the whole writing of British history around. Since Belloc, nobody can get away with understanding the Reformation as the work of high‑minded souls bent on liberty and democracy, noble souls who brought England out of the darkness of Catholic superstition and medieval obscurantism. Others footnoted Belloc and traded on his vision. They did well in doing so, but the vision was his — as was the persecution of silence that followed on his work.