Hilaire Belloc

Annie Lee | Jun 20, 2023

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Joseph Hilaire Pierre René Belloc (born in La Celle-Saint-Cloud on July 27, 1870 and died in Guildford on July 16, 1953) was an Anglo-French writer and historian, naturalized as a British subject but retaining his French nationality in 1902. He is one of the most prolific British writers of the 1920s. He devoted himself as much to satire and polemic as to poetry and the novel. He was also very involved in politics and was a stubborn Catholic activist, alongside G. K. Chesterton. First president of the Oxford Union Society, he was then Member of Parliament for Salford from 1906 to 1910. A representative of social Catholicism, he proposed an alternative to socialism in his book The Slavic State.

Belloc is remembered for his poetic writings, especially his moral tales and religious poems. The best known are: Jim, who ran away from his nurse, and was eaten by a lion and Matilda, who told lies and was burnt to death.

An atypical student

His mother, Bessie Rayner Parkes (1829-1925), granddaughter of the famous chemist Joseph Priestley, was herself a writer. She had married in 1867 the French lawyer Louis Belloc, son of the painter Jean-Hilaire Belloc and Louise Swanton Belloc. Louis Belloc, ruined by stock market speculation, died in 1872, and his young widow took her two children, Hilaire and Marie-Adélaïde to England. Belloc, whose father was French and whose mother was English, spent his childhood in England at Slindon, a village of which he was to be nostalgic all his life: one finds echoes of this in some of his poems, such as West Sussex Drinking Song, The South Country, and the most melancholy of all, Ha'nacker Mill. His sister, Marie Belloc Lowndes, became a novelist.

After studying with John Henry Newman at the Oratorians in Edgbaston, Birmingham, Belloc chose to do his military service in France, and was posted to the Toul Artillery Regiment in 1891. He then went on to study history at Balliol College (these were exhilarating years for him, again celebrated in his poems: "Balliol made me, Balliol fed me

Gifted with an excellent constitution and uncommon energy, he was a keen walker and devoted himself to it all his life, whether in Great Britain or on the continent. To reach the home of his future wife, the American Elodie Hogan, whom he had met in 1890, Belloc did not hesitate to walk through a good part of the Midwest to reach northern California, paying the farmers who hosted him with sketches and declamations of his own poems. He finally married Elodie in 1896, and in 1906 bought the King's Land estate in Shipley, West Sussex, where he spent most of the rest of his life. Elodie Hogan had five children before she died of influenza in 1914. Belloc never recovered from this death, and kept his wife's room intact.

Political career

Belloc, who graduated from Balliol College (Oxford) in 1895, was a prominent figure in the university and was even elected president of the debating society known as the Oxford Union Society. Bitterly disappointed by the rejection of his application for the Fellowship of All Souls College (1895), he opted for British nationality in order to enter politics.

Between 1906 and 1910, he sat as the Liberal member of Parliament for Salford South. During a campaign speech, as a man challenged him to justify not being a "papist," he grabbed the rosary beads in his pocket and replied, "Dear Sir, I make a point of going to mass every day and praying on my knees, and I pray with this every night; if it offends you, then I pray God to spare me the indignity of representing you in the House." Whereupon the crowd cheered, and Belloc won the election.

His son Louis, who served in the Royal Flying Corps, was killed in action in northern France in 1918. Belloc had an ex-voto placed in Cambrai Cathedral, in the side chapel where the famous icon of Our Lady of Cambrai is located.

In the 1930s, he sailed as much as he could afford and became a famous yachtsman, winning several races. He was given a cutter, the Jersey, with which, with the help of younger crew members, he sailed around the coast of England for several years. One of his companions, Dermod MacCarthy, wrote an account of his sailing experiences: "Sailing with Mr Belloc".

Belloc suffered a stroke in 1941 from which he never fully recovered. Following a fall at his King's Land estate, he was committed to Guildford Hospital where he died on July 16, 1953. He is buried in the choir of Our Lady of Consolation in West Grinstead, of which he was a regular parishioner. In his homily, Bishop Ronald Knox said of him, "No man of his time fought so hard for the good things."

The polemicist

Living essentially from his writing, Belloc was only employed during the Great War, as a correspondent for the newspaper Land and Water. His income was always modest.

His activity as a pamphleteer reached its peak in the 1920s with his vehement criticism of H. G. Wells's historical essay Outline of History: he reproached the author in particular for his atheistic bias and denounced evolutionism and the theory of natural selection, which he considered deeply discredited. Wells complained that "debating with Mr. Belloc is like fighting a storm." Belloc's critical tip about Outline of History has remained famous: he concedes that Wells's book is "inspired and very well written up to the appearance of Man, that is, around page seven." Wells replied with a brief footnote entitled "Mr. Belloc's Objections" (to which Belloc, to keep his hand in, replied with a "Mr. Belloc Still Objects").

The British medievalist G. G. Coulton criticized his views in an article entitled Mr. Belloc on Medieval History (1920). After a long literary battle, Belloc in turn published a pamphlet, The Case of Dr. Coulton (1938).

Belloc's middle-aged style is consistent with the nickname "Old Thunder" given him in his youth. His friend, Lord Sheffield, recalled his impetuous temperament in a preface he wrote for "The Nona Cruise"

In one of his travel novels, "The Four Men," Belloc seems to endow the main characters with different facets of his personality. One of them improvises a drinking song for Christmas, of which the following is an excerpt:

But the other characters find these verses awkward and shaky: thus, while the lyrics reflect Belloc's state of mind, he knows how to be critical of himself.

An eclectic author, Belloc wrote on a multitude of subjects ranging from armaments to poetry and all the topics of the day: he has been counted among the "Big Four" of Edwardian literature along with H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw and G. K. Chesterton, the leading lights of the 1930s. Belloc was close to Chesterton, and Bernard Shaw referred to their collaboration as Chesterbelloc.

When asked why he wrote so much, he replied, "Because my children love pearls and caviar." Belloc believed that literature must first and foremost establish the canons of style, that is, distinguish the works that a writer should consider as models of good prose or versification. As for his own prose style, he aspired to be as clear and concise as the nursery rhyme "Mary had a little lamb."

Essays and travel literature

Belloc's best travelogues have maintained an audience decade after decade. The most famous of these, The Path to Rome (1922), offers an account of the author's post-Armistice pilgrimage on foot from Toul through the Alps to Rome. Much more than a travel diary, it contains portraits, imaginary scholarly conversations, short poems inspired by the countries he crossed, and above all Belloc's pencil and pen sketches of landscapes. On every page, the writer's love for Europe and for Christianity, which, according to him, has shaped it, shines through.

Along with Chesterton, E. V. Lucas and Robert Lynd, he was one of the most popular essayists of the 1930s.

In a passage from The Nona Cruise, Belloc, sitting at the helm of his sailboat under the starry sky, reveals the depths of his thoughts on Religion and Man, singing "that golden light spread throughout the Earth by the beating of the wings of Faith."


His Cautionary tales, fables full of second-degree humor with an implausible ending ("King Henry, who chewed on bits of string and died a terrible death", or "Rebecca, who slammed doors for fun and perished miserably"), illustrated by Basil T. Blackwood (who signed "B.T.B." and later by Edward Gorey, are very famous across the Channel. Blackwood (who signed "B.T.B.") and later by Edward Gorey, are very famous in the UK. In spite of the choice of the genre (from the register of children's literature), their satirical content destined them, like Lewis Carroll's tales, to an adult audience.

The fable of Matilda the Liar who perished in the flames was brought to the stage by Debbie Isitt under the title Matilda Liar! Illustrator Quentin Blake described Belloc as an overbearing adult and a rambunctious child. Roald Dahl continued in the same vein as Belloc, but the latter is more serious and also more bitter:

which concludes with :

More serious are his Sonnets and Verses: in this collection, Belloc deploys the same art of rhythm and alliteration as in his rhymes. His themes are mostly religious, sometimes romantic; his story The Path to Rome is a long prose poem.

Economic and political essays

His three most famous essays are "The Servile State" (1912), "Europe and Faith" (1920), and The Jews (1922).

Belloc had made the acquaintance of Cardinal Henry Edward Manning, who had converted his mother to Catholicism, at an early age. He was deeply impressed by the prelate's involvement in the great London dockers' strike of 1889, alluded to in The Cruise of the Nona (1925), and according to his biographer Robert Speaight, this was one of the reasons for his hatred of unbridled capitalism, as well as of many aspects of socialism.

Along with other Christian thinkers (Cecil and G. K. Chesterton, Arthur Penty) Belloc had imagined a kind of third socio-economic way, distributionism. In The Servile State, which he wrote at the end of his political career, and in other essays, his criticism of the modern economic order and parliamentarianism led him to propose this new doctrine, not as an innovative economic perspective or program, but rather as a return to the old order, that of traditional European Catholic societies. He calls for the dissolution of parliaments and their replacement by syndics of the different sectors of civil society, an idea that is found among other thinkers of the conservative revolution under the name of corporatism; However, it must be said that Belloc's ideal, like that of the social Christians of the interwar period, is much more a reminiscence of Old Regime corporatism ("paleo-corporatism"), a reference to an idealized Middle Ages, than corporatism in the sense of the fascist ideologues, which is a synthesis of state productivism and paternalistic capitalism.

In light of this doctrine, Belloc produced a series of controversial biographies of great men, including Oliver Cromwell, King James II and Napoleon Bonaparte. These essays are all pretexts to praise Catholic orthodoxy and to criticize various aspects of modernism.

Outside the academic field, Belloc was annoyed with what he called "official history," in his view a real sham. Joseph Pearce also notes Belloc's attacks on the secularism of H.G. Wells's essay Outline of History:

"Belloc objected to the tacitly anti-Christian stance, which was particularly evident in the fact that he had devoted more pages in his History to the Persian campaign against the Greeks than to the birth of Christianity."

He also wrote often on military history and did not disdain even uchrony: in this genre, he contributed to a collection by John Squire, If It Had Happened Otherwise (1931).


"Faith is Europe, and Europe is Faith": with these words, Belloc shows the identity and cultural value that Catholicism has in his eyes. He developed this point of view repeatedly in his writings of the period 1920-1940, which in the English-speaking world are still cited as exemplary of Catholic apologetics, and opposed to the ideas of Christopher Dawson, his contemporary.

As a teenager, Belloc had lost his faith; but a spiritual crisis, about which he never spoke, yet which is alluded to in The Nona Cruise, reconciled him to Catholicism for good. According to his biographer A.N. Wilson, Belloc never completely turned away from the faith. The spiritual crisis is described in detail in The Path to Rome (pp. 158-161): it took place in the village of Undervelier at the hour of vespers: "Not without tears, I considered the nature of belief (...) it is a good thing not to have to return to faith."

Belloc's Catholicism was uncompromising: for him, the Church was the home and abode of the Spirit of Man. In a lighter vein, Belloc's words, "Wherever the sun of Catholicism shines, there is love, laughter and good wine," sum up his apology for Catholic culture. He had only contemptuous words for Anglicanism, and did not mince words when describing heretics:

In his "Complainte sur l'hérésie pélagienne" (Complaint about the Pelagian heresy), he is even more scathing, describing how the bishop of Auxerre,


  1. Hilaire Belloc
  2. Hilaire Belloc
  3. ^ Toulmin, Priestley (1 June 1994), "The Descendants of Joseph Priestley, LL.D., F.R.S.", The Northumberland County Historical Society Proceedings, Sunbury, Pennsylvania: The Society, vol. XXXII, p. 21
  4. ^ Lynd, Robert. "Mr. G. K. Chesterton and Mr. Hilaire Belloc." In Old and New Masters, T. Fisher Unwin Ltd., 1919.
  5. ^ Norwich, John Julius (1985–1993). Oxford illustrated encyclopedia. Judge, Harry George., Toyne, Anthony. Oxford [England]: Oxford University Press. p. 43. ISBN 0-19-869129-7. OCLC 11814265.
  6. ^ a b c d e Pearce, Joseph (2015). Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc. Charlotte, NC: TAN Books. ISBN 978-1-61890-656-4.
  7. ^ Brickel, Alfred G. "Hilaire Belloc and Cardinal Newman," The American Catholic Quarterly Review, Vol. XLVII, N°. 185, 1922.
  8. « https://norman.hrc.utexas.edu/fasearch/findingAid.cfm?eadid=01090 » (consulté le 1er septembre 2021)
  9. Сэр Джон Саймон, который в то же время был в Оксфорде вспоминает о «…звучном, глубоком голосе…», который производил «…незабываемое впечатление».
  10. ^ Belloc, il viaggio senza fine - Davide Gorga, su liberopensiero.eu. URL consultato il 12 maggio 2015 (archiviato dall'url originale il 18 maggio 2015).

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