His poetry encompassed comic verses for children and religious poetry. 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 burnt to death". He also collaborated with G. K. Chesterton on a number of works.
Belloc was born in La Celle-Saint-Cloud, France to a French father and an English mother. His sister Marie Adelaide Belloc Lowndes also grew up to be a writer.
His mother Bessie Rayner Parkes (1829–1925) was a woman of many talents, both as a writer and as an activist. She was a major force in efforts to gain greater equality for women, being a co-founder of the English Woman's Journal and the Langham Place Group. Belloc himself campaigned against women's suffrage; he was a member of the Women's National Anti-Suffrage League. Her father was Joseph Parkes (1796–1865), a prosperous solicitor and a liberal with Radical sympathies. Her mother, Elizabeth Rayner Priestley (1797–1877), was born in the United States, a granddaughter of the polymath Joseph Priestley. In 1867, Bessie married attorney Louis Belloc, son of the French painter 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.
Hilaire Belloc grew up in England, and indeed spent most of his life there. His boyhood was spent in Slindon, West Sussex, for which he often felt homesick in later life, as evidenced in poems such as "West Sussex Drinking Song", "The South Country", and even the more melancholy, "Ha'nacker Mill". After being educated at John Henry Newman's Oratory School in Edgbaston, Birmingham, Belloc served his term of military service, as a French citizen, with an artillery regiment near Toul in 1891. Belloc proceeded to Balliol College, Oxford, as a history scholar. He went on to obtain first-class honours, and never lost his love for Balliol, as is illustrated by his verse, "Balliol made me, Balliol fed me/ Whatever I had she gave me again".
He was powerfully built, with great stamina, and walked extensively in Britain and Europe. While courting his future wife Elodie Hogan, an American whom he first met in 1890, the impecunious Belloc walked a good part of the way from the midwest of the United States to her home in northern California, "paying" for lodging at remote farm houses and ranches by sketching the owners and reciting poetry. The couple married in 1896.
In 1906, he purchased land and a house called King's Land at Shipley, West Sussex, where he brought up his family and lived until shortly before his death. Elodie and Belloc had five children before her 1914 death from influenza. After her death, Belloc wore mourning for the remainder of his life, keeping her room exactly 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 noted icon Our Lady of Cambrai.
In 1937, Belloc was invited to be a visiting professor at Fordham University 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.
Belloc suffered a stroke in 1941 and never recovered from its effects. He died on 16 July 1953 at Mount Alvernia Nursing Home in Guildford, Surrey, from burns and shock following a fall he had while placing a log into a fireplace at King's Land. He is buried at the Shrine of Our Lady of Consolation of West Grinstead, where he had regularly attended Mass as a parishioner. At his funeral Mass, homilist Monsignor Ronald Knox observed, "No man of his time fought so hard for the good things."
Recent biographies of Belloc have been written by A. N. Wilson and Joseph Pearce, and Jesuit political philosopher James Schall's Remembering Belloc was published by St. Augustine Press in September 2013.
An 1895 graduate of Balliol College, Oxford, Belloc was a noted figure within the University, being President of the Oxford Union, the undergraduate debating society. 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 he 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, "Sir, so far as possible I hear Mass each day and I go to my knees and tell these beads each night. If that offends you, then I pray God may spare me the indignity of representing you in Parliament." The crowd cheered and Belloc won the election.
His only period of steady employment was from 1914 to 1920 as editor of Land and Water, a journal devoted to the progress of the war. Otherwise he lived by his writing and was often impecunious.
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.
He was at his most effective in the 1920s, on the attack against H. G. Wells's The Outline of History, in which he criticised Wells' 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 famously observed that Wells' 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, a keen and persistent opponent, wrote on 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.
His 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, he 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 Jersey pilot cutter, called Jersey. He sailed this for some years around the coasts of England, with the help of younger men. One of them, Dermod MacCarthy, wrote a book about his time on the water with Belloc, called Sailing with Mr Belloc.
The prolific author of more than 150 books, Belloc wrote on myriad subjects, 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. He was co-editor with Cecil Chesterton of the literary periodical the Eye Witness, published until 1912 by Charles Granville's Stephen Swift Ltd. The paper was later called the New Witness, and still later, G. K.'s Weekly.
Asked once why he wrote so much, he 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."
His best travel writing has secured a permanent following. The Path to Rome (1902), an account of a walking pilgrimage he made from central France across the Alps and down to Rome, has remained continuously in print. More than a mere travelogue, "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, and the reflections of a large mind turned to the events of his time as he marches along his solitary way. His book The Pyrenees, published in 1909, shows a depth of detailed knowledge of that region such as would only be gained from personal experience. At every turn, Belloc shows himself to be profoundly in love with Europe and with the Faith that he claims has produced it.
As an essayist he was one of a small, admired and dominant group (with Chesterton, E. V. Lucas and Robert Lynd) of popular writers.
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".
Another one of his famous poems was Matilda, the story of a young girl who died because of her own lies. The tale of "Matilda who told lies and was burnt 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 are Belloc's Sonnets and Verses, 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.
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. But original corporatism, sometimes called "paleo-corporatism", was a system that predates capitalism and fascism. Paleo-corporatism was based around the guilds of the Middle Ages and served to appoint legislators. Neo-corporatism is a fascist system that merges the socialistic state with the capitalistic corporations and the corporations then are directed by the state, under nominal private ownership. The owners are thus effectively disappropriated, and become mere managers in the service of the State, and those who control it. Belloc's views fit medieval paleo-corporatism rather than neo-corporatist fascism.
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.
He wrote also substantial amounts of military history. In alternative history, he contributed to the 1931 collection If It Had Happened Otherwise edited by Sir John Squire.
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.
One of Belloc's most famous statements was "the faith is Europe and Europe is the faith" this sums up his strongly held, orthodox Catholic views, and the cultural conclusions he drew from them. Those views were expressed at length in many of his works from the period 1920–40. 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 lost his faith. Then came a spiritual event, which he never discussed publicly, that returned him to Catholicism for the remainder of his life. Belloc alludes to this return to the faith 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's Catholicism was uncompromising. He 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." He 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 becomes quite strident, describing 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 argues that although "That Mohammedan 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."
At the time of his writing, the Islamic world was still largely under the rule of the European colonial powers and the threat to Britain was from Fascism and Nazism. Belloc, however, 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 cited the many beliefs and theological principles Islam shares with Catholicism. For Belloc, the common ground includes the unity and the omnipotence, personal nature, all-goodness, timelessness and providence of God, His creative power as the origin of all things, and His sustenance of all things by His power alone, the world of good spirits and angels and of evil spirits in war against God, with a chief evil spirit, the immortality of the soul and its responsibility for actions in this life, coupled with the doctrine of reward and punishment after death, the Day of Judgment with Christ as Judge, and the Lady Miriam (Mary) as the first among womenkind—and exactly which, in Belloc's view, identify it as a heresy: where Islam decisively diverges from Catholicism is the "denial of the Incarnation and all the sacramental life of the Church that followed from it"—with Islam regarding Jesus as a merely human Prophet.For fuller discussion, see section in G. K.'s Weekly
Belloc's attitude towards Judaism has been a subject of controversy.
Belloc took a leading role in denouncing the Marconi scandal of 1912, in which government ministers were caught insider trading. Belloc emphasize that key players in both the government and the Marconi corporation had been Jewish. Jewish historian Todd Edelman 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.
Some deem Belloc antisemitic and not concerned to conceal his views. A. N. Wilson's biography expresses the belief that Belloc tended to allude to Jews in conversation, sometimes obsessively. Anthony Powell mentions in his review of that biography that in his view Belloc was thoroughly antisemitic, at all but a personal level.
From his days in politics onwards, Belloc repeatedly demonstrated a belief that Jewish people had significant control over society and the world of finance. 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 pilloried Nesta Webster because of her accusations against "the Jews". In February 1924, Belloc wrote to an American Jewish friend regarding an antisemitic book by Webster. Webster had rejected Christianity, studied Eastern religions, accepted the 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 antisemitism in practice—as at elitist country clubs in the United States before World War II—he voiced his disapproval. Belloc condemned Nazi antisemitism 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 to the point of idolatry as the place where he was brought up and as his 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 in the far east to Harting in the far west. The work has influenced others including Sussex folk 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.Stephen Fry has recorded an audio collection of Belloc's children's poetry.
A notable admirer of Belloc was the composer Peter Warlock, who set many of his poems to music.
A well-known parody of Belloc by Sir John Squire, intended as a tribute, is Mr. Belloc's Fancy.
Syd Barrett, a founder of Pink Floyd, was a fan. His song "Matilda Mother" was drawn directly from verses in Cautionary Tales, and was rewritten when Belloc's estate refused permission to record them. The Belloc version has been released on a 40th anniversary reissue of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.
King's Mill, Shipley, owned by Belloc, was used in Jonathan Creek.
On the second episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus,in the sketch "The Mouse Problem", a list of famous people who secretly were mice is concluded with "and, of course, Hilaire Belloc".
James Anthony Froude, Essays in Literature and History, with an introduction by Hilaire Belloc, J.M. Dent & Sons, 1906.
Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution: A History, with an introduction by Hilaire Belloc, J.M. Dent & Sons, 1906.
Johannes Jörgensen, Lourdes, with a preface by Hilaire Belloc, Longmans, Green & Co., 1914.
Hoffman Nickerson, The Inquisition, with a preface by Hilaire Belloc, John Bale, Sons & Danielsson Ltd., 1923.
P. G. Wodehouse, (ed.), "On Conversations in Trains." In A Century of Humour, Hutchinson & Co., 1934.
Brian Magee, The English Recusants, with an introduction by Hilaire Belloc, Burns Oates & Washbourne Ltd., 1938.
C. John McCloskey, (ed.), The Essential Belloc: A Prophet for Our Times, Saint Benedict Press, 2010.