French Blood, Sussex Heart: Who Was Hilaire Belloc?

ON July 27th, 1870, at La Celle-Saint-Cloud, in the Île-de-France region of north-central France, Joseph Hilaire Pierre René Belloc was born to a French father and an English mother. Entering the world in the midst of a huge thunderstorm, Belloc spent his childhood in the Sussex town of Slindon and went on to praise the innumerable merits of his adopted county in a devoted outpouring of witty verse, colourful prose, opinionated travelogues and raucous drinking songs. He relinquished his French citizenship in 1902 and accepted naturalisation. This meant that England, and not France, inherited one of northern Europe’s finest men of letters.

Belloc’s mother, Elizabeth Rayner Parkes (1829–1925), also known as ‘Bessie’, was a prominent campaigner for the rights of women and one of the founder-members of the English Womans Journal. It seems fairly obvious, therefore, where the young Hilaire Belloc acquired his defiant and outspoken attitude, both in public debate and as the prolific author of more than one hundred books on history, theology, philosophy, travel, geography, poetry and fiction.

In 1867, his mother had married a French attorney by the name of Louis Belloc (d. 1872), the shy and introverted son of the talented painter, Jean-Hilaire Belloc (1786-1866):

As their daughter, Marie Belloc-Lowndes, tells the tale in her delightful memoirs, it sounds like an inauspicious beginning for nuptial bliss; but they were happy. Louis Belloc, who was so totally silent and withdrawn in almost all other society, blossomed with Bessie. They were not only very fond of each other. They fell in love. [1]

Prior to his death, in 1872, Belloc’s father had lost his entire fortune in a stock market crash, something that may well have contributed to the later development of Belloc’s own forthright views on the gross injustice of finance and capitalist economics in general. At the tender age of two, therefore, Belloc and his sister, Marie Adelaide (1868-1947), were taken by their mother to England.

One example in which have a chance to savour some of the young Hilaire Belloc’s startling precociousness, comes down to us from his older sister, Marie, who recounts the very first letter that he wrote to his mother:

Maman – I am four years old. I’ve been given a drum, but I’m not allowed to beat it in the house, only in the garden, or out in the road. I have also been given some little wooden animals. I kiss you. [2]

After his education at the prestigious Oratory School of Birmingham, which, in turn, had been founded by the famous Catholic convert, John Henry Newman (1801-1890), Belloc went on to join the French artillery at Toul in 1891. Subsequently, following his national service – which, as a French citizen by birth was required, but not actually compulsory – he attended Baliol College in Oxford and, naturally, studied History. He graduated with first class honours, in 1895, but not before he had risen to become President of the Oxford Union debating society.

In the year following his graduation, Belloc – at St. John the Baptist’s Church in Napa – married a Californian pen-friend by the name of Elodie Hogan (1868-1914), who was two years his senior. He had sailed to New York, walked across much of the American continent and, once he had finally made Elodie’s acquaintance, dissuaded her from becoming a nun. One decade later, in 1906, the couple bought land at Shipley, in Sussex, and moved into the old King’s Land house beside the local windmill. Hilary (as he was known) and Elodie had five children together, although his young American wife sadly died of influenza in 1914. Belloc, who had loved Elodie with a deep and enduring passion, subsequently made the decision to wear black at all times and continued in this state of mourning for the remaining forty-one years of his life.

Tragedy struck again when his son, Louis, was killed in 1918 whilst serving with the Royal Flying Corps in northern France. His memory is preserved on a stone tablet at Cambrai Cathedral.

In 1895, after failing to secure a fellowship with All Souls College, Oxford, Belloc had decided to enter the political arena and, between 1906 and 1910, served as a Liberal Party MP for the parliamentary constituency of Salford South in the Greater Manchester area. It has been said of Belloc that, during one particularly fiery speech on the campaign trail, a heckler demanded to know whether he was a ‘papist’ and Belloc replied

that as far as possible, he attended the sacrifice of the Mass daily. The good people of Salford South not only elected him, against all the odds, but at the next election, in which he stood as an independent candidate, they returned him again to Parliament. [3]

Belloc soon became disillusioned with parliamentary politics, however, and between 1914 and 1920 was forced to seek employment and eventually managed to secure an editorial position with Land and Water, a popular war journal.

As the 1920s wore on, Belloc’s literary standing was increased somewhat with his damning critique of The Outline of History (1921), which had been produced by the famous science-fiction novelist and social commentator, H.G. Wells (1866-1946). Belloc’s 1926 retort was entitled Mr. Belloc Objects to the Outline of History. Elsewhere, he was criticised by the British historian, George Gordon Coulton (1858-1947), for his forthright views on Medieval History and subsequently replied with a 1938 booklet, The Case of Dr. Coulton.

Belloc, therefore, was certainly not shy of courting controversy and was always prepared to defend his strong and uncompromising outlook, something that soon earned him the nickname “Old Thunder”. In his preface to The Cruise of the Nona (1925), Belloc’s friend, Arthur Stanley, 5th Baron of Sheffield, explained that

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.” [4]

Belloc’s rapid rise through the ranks of the twentieth-century literary world led to him being included among the ‘big four’ of Edwardian letters, the other contenders being his close friend and fellow Catholic author, G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936), playwright and politico-economic sparring partner, George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) and the aforementioned H. G. Wells.

His association with Chesterton led to him forming one-half of what became known as ‘the Chesterbelloc’, a double-edged sword of religious apologetics that was committed to the intellectual defence of Christendom. Together with Cecil Chesterton (1879-1918), his friend’s younger brother, Belloc edited a periodical called the Eye Witness, originally started in 1912 and later relaunched as the New Witness and, from 1925 onwards, G. K.’s Weekly. Due to the fact that the journal was more than prepared to apportion blame where blame was due, so to speak, by highlighting the great social injustices and financial swindles of the time, the publication was often accused of “Anti-Semitism,” although it had also featured leading socialist writers from the Left such as George Orwell (1903-1950) and George Bernard Shaw.

In order to understand the mental and psychological processes that led Belloc to become one of the most defiant and outspoken writers of his age, we must take into consideration the fact that everything he did was infused with a devout commitment to the Catholic faith. Even as a child, Belloc had known Henry Edward Manning (1808-1892), a leading figure in the Anglican church who, in April 1851, had controversially become one of the most prominent converts to Catholicism. More interestingly, however, Manning later became one of the cardinals who elected Leo XIII (1810-1903) at a papal enclave in 1878. And this is precisely where the relational circle finally attains its completion, because the development of Belloc and Chesterton’s radical economic doctrine, known as Distributism, was itself inspired by Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum (‘Of Revolutionary Change’). The document was intended to counter the rise of socialist ideas and, in particular, the seductive influence that communism was beginning to have on workers throughout Europe.

Manning had participated in the 1889 London Dock Strike and it was this event which led Belloc to consider what he came to perceive as the inextricable relationship between politics and the Catholic religion. Belloc’s gradual politicisation and eventual belief that fundamental Catholic values must be applied to the socio-economic sphere, led him to question the nature of the status quo. As Raymond Williams contends:

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. [5]

Despite losing his faith as a young man, although he never rebelled against it, Belloc’s admiration for Cardinal Manning was such that it set into motion a gradual rapprochment between himself and the Catholic religion. However, whilst Belloc could write at great length about the colourful history of the Church itself, he liked to keep the precise details of his personal relationship with the faith a lot more confidential. Indeed, apart from two fleeting references in both The Path to Rome (1902) and The Cruise of the Nona (1925), we know very little about the exact nature of his long-anticipated return to the spiritual fold.

Thus far, we have examined Belloc’s personal background and explained both how and why he developed many of his political and economic ideas, concluding that they were strongly rooted in Catholicism. It naturally follows, therefore, that if one is putting forward a well-defined and well thought-out set of alternative values in the face of a system that was (and remains) thoroughly rotten to the core, one must rightly apportion blame for the political and economic failings of the day. Without examining the state of Edwardian England in great detail, it is fair to say that many of the culprits were Jewish.

The profession that the Jews had made their own is known as usury. This term, which, in many respects, has fallen out of use, may be defined as follows:

It is usury to exchange a given amount of a particular commodity for any more or less that exactly the same amount of that same commodity, whether any delay is involved or not. It is usury to acquire gain from a thing not in itself fruitful without there being any labour, expense or risk on the part of the lender. It is usury to take back more than the principal in repayment of a loan. It is usury to make money directly out of money. It is a characteristic property of usury that the gain from it is certain and automatic. All of this can be loosely summed up by the phrase “obtaining something for nothing”. [6]

The reason the issue of usury was so important to a man like Belloc, who, as we have seen, was a devout Christian who devoted much of his life to the defence of the Catholic faith, is because this inexcusable practice is rightly condemned in the Bible. Here are a few choice extracts from both the Old and New testaments:

If thou lend money to any of My people, even to the poor with thee, thou shalt not be to him as a creditor; neither shall ye lay upon him interest. (Exodus 22:24)

Take thou no interest of him or increase; but fear thy God; that thy brother may live with thee. (Leviticus 25:36)

Thou shalt not give him thy money upon interest, nor give him thy victuals for increase. (Leviticus 25:37)

Thou shalt not lend upon interest to thy brother: interest of money, interest of victuals, interest of any thing that is lent upon interest. (Deuteronomy 23:20)

Unto a foreigner thou mayest lend upon interest; but unto thy brother thou shalt not lend upon interest; that the Lord thy God may bless thee in all that thou puttest thy hand unto, in the land whither thou goest in to possess it. (Deuteronomy 23:21)

That hath withdrawn his hand from the poor, that hath not received interest nor increase, hath executed Mine ordinances, hath walked in My statutes; he shall not die for the iniquity of his father, he shall surely live. (Ezekiel 18:17)

He that putteth not out his money on interest, nor taketh a bribe against the innocent. He that doeth these things shall never be moved. (Psalm 15:5)

Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest. (Matthew 25:27)

Out of thine own mouth will I judge thee, thou wicked servant. Thou knewest that I was an austere man, taking up that I laid not down, and reaping that I did not sow. Wherefore then gavest not thou my money into the bank, that at my coming I might have required mine own with usury? (Luke 19:22-23)

Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (Matthew 5:42)

And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. (Luke 6:34-35)

Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. (Luke 6:38)

Belloc’s uncompromising attitude towards the political and economic corruption which engulfed England and much of the European continent, therefore, inevitably brought him into conflict with the friends and allies of Organised Jewry and he was often wrongly portrayed as an “Anti-Semite”. This calculated demonisation still continues today, with certain sections of the literary establishment determined to destroy his reputation and, thus, deter future generations from reviving his more radical and dangerous theories.

In 1941, Belloc suffered a stroke and the debilitating after-effects continued until his death at Guildford, Surrey, on July 16th, 1953, shortly after suffering a nasty fall at his home. He is buried at the Shrine of Our Lady of Consolation, in West Grinstead, where he had regularly attended the Tridentine Mass.

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