For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Hilaire Belloc on Milton

Hilaire Belloc's historical studies are remarkable works, particularly his works on English authors and historical personages, because he combines a very rare combination of qualities that he brings to his criticism. I think it comes from his being raised in England and having a French father. I am prompted to say this by his study on John Milton, as Man and Poet (that there is a distinction between these two is the foundation of Belloc's book) which I found free on the World Wide Web. These qualities are:

(1) a kind of Gallic savage truthfulness that leads him to "out with it" in the most brutally unforgiving delineation of people's faults, but without malice. This leads some to call him misanthropic - witness his poem Carpe Diem for justification of this claim - but I think it is in fact the ironic French enjoyment of naked and uncomfortable truths that is coming out here.

(2) a love and understanding of the English language and the national character it embodies, not just as a great and economical prose writer, but as a critic.

(3) a detached and highly idiosyncratic political mind which combines a love of monarchy, the rights of peasantry founded on property and the ownership of the tools by which they earn their bread, and hatred of tyrannical oligarchy and the machinery of capitalism (he sees the two as tied together).

(4) this latter political understanding founded in a kind of fusion of the tradition of Anglo-Saxon liberty (which he loved) with Catholic principle and medieval political theory - and he finds justification for both in Catholic theology.

This is an unusual set of political and personal loyalties and loves hits one in the face quite dramatically when one reads his historical and biographical work. He doesn't see history in the usual English tradition (one gets to the heart of this tradition from the phrase in 1066 And All That, that Henry VIII was "a Good Thing but a Bad Man"), or see his characters through the accepted phrases about them. He seems to be utterly free of other people's accumulated mistakes and muddied thoughts: instead of talking about constitutional settlements and compromises, Belloc thinks in what he avers to be the concrete and enduring categories: Land, the Free Peasantry, the King and the Catholic Faith.

And in his book on Milton, instead of talking abstractly about his "high seriousness", he points simply to his lack of humour, and monumental selfishness. Like all of Belloc's insights, it is a shock, a jolt: always before one has heard people talk of Milton's pride, his great defect - but Belloc seems to stand outside all that talk about his pride as a defect in his character (which is otherwise left rather vague), and gets to the heart of what his character was like. It is painful, not least because all the little things one has heard about Milton but not quite imagined in a living personality suddenly fall into place, one is struck by the horrible plausibility of it, and it seems inescapable because of Belloc's unvarnished way of saying it.

Having grown up with a kind of hagiography of Cranmer and his martyrdom, I experienced the shock of Belloc's approach for the first time in full when I read Belloc's biography of Henry VIII's Archbishop. I am still not sure if Belloc's Cranmer is a wholly fair portrait, but it certainly makes me reconsider.

Which reminds me of an idea for a brief historical study that I once mentioned to a friend and which I wish someone competent would carry out. I think that the statesmen and martyrs of sixteenth century are usually badly paired off and compared. St Thomas More, for example, gets contrasted with William Tyndale (probably because they exchanged polemic). It seems more apt to me to compare More with Cranmer, and Tyndale with the Jesuit martyr Campion, a double character study of four executed men worth writing, I think. The first two were statesmen who tried to work within the corridors of power to bring about their ends and to stretch their duty of loyalty as far as they could allow; the second pair were "undercover agents", labouring and striving while hunted.


  1. Belloc is great fun to read, especially his hatchet jobs on those of differing theological sympathies. But you are quite right to be sceptical of their historical value. I don't know much about Milton, but consider his account of Cranmer. Belloc's charge is that the man was cowardly. It is true that martyrdom is sometimes the unavoidable Christian path, and the heroism of a Stephen or Polycarp or Latimer is certainly inspiring. But there are also the Peters. Belloc's sneering at an old man - isolated, forced to watch his friends being executed - for succumbing at the prospect of being burned alive - seems almost inhuman. But that, I suppose, is a matter of taste.

    In terms of Belloc's factual reliability, take this example, and draw your own conclusions. Here are two accounts of the same episode in Cranmer's life. The first is from Belloc, the second is from Diarmaid MacCulloch's Thomas Cranmer: A Life.

    Belloc says:

    "His name comes first in the list of those of proposed to make Lady Jane Grey Queen in order to keep out the legitimate heiress, Mary; then when Mary was triumphantly brought into power on a wave of popular enthusiasm for her and for the Church, he makes abject apology in order to save his life.

    But at that moment he was stung into the single action - the only one in his career - which shows but slight and hesitating courage. He strongly denied in private that he had ever said Mass at the Queen's orders. Men, knowing his wretched character, had taken it for granted that he would veer round once again; the report annoyed him, and he therefore wrote this private protest. But he had not the courage to publish it; it was published in spite of him. He was thrown into prison, tried for heresy, convicted and deposed." (Characters of the Reformation)

    Now compare Diarmaid McCulloch's report:

    "The Primate of All England now launched on studied defiance of the new religious policy: a public repudiation of the mass. it was this same first week in September when the official revival of the mass throughout the country seems to have reached a critical point, with the former major feast the nativity of the Blessed Virgin on 8 September approaching and stimulating a moment of decision. Cranmer's suffragan Bishop of Dover, Richard Thornden, who was resident in the Palace at Canterbury, resumed the mass in the Cathedral, thus giving rise to rumours that the Archbishop himself had given way on this central issue of the Edwardian Reformation. Cranmer first expressed his fury in a private letter to a friend about this insult to the cause of the eucharist with which by now he was particularly associated: this letter must have been accompanying a proposed draft of a public declaration, judging by what happened next. On that busy 5 September the text of this declaration was distributed in Cheapside as a solemn protest against the mass, apparently copied by a friend and published before Cranmer himself was ready to go public with it: Foxe names the friend as the Archbishop's old protege, Bishop Scory of Chicester.

    Cranmer was at first annoyed; he had intended both to elaborate his declaration and also to give it more weight as his public manifesto by ordering it to be affixed to every church door in London with his official seal. However, he made the best of a bad job, and was soon himself promoting the further distribution of the text through the capital." (pg551)

    [Cranmer is arrested and examined]

    "One of the commissioners, apparently Nicholas Heath, offered him a lifeline about his declaration on the mass, trying to get him to say that it was a private paper only: 'We do not doubt but you are sorry that it has gone abroad', the commissioner said meaningfully. Cranmer brushed aside the temptation: he spelt out the fact that even if the distribution of the declaration had been complicated by Scory, his only regret was that it had not received the more solemn official promulgation which he was planning for it." (Pg 553)

    1. Point taken. I suppose one can't say to what extent Belloc was guilty of looking just as far as he needed to find out the details that suited his story, or whether he was more unscrupulous. I read somewhere recently (I can't remember where) that he was once accused by someone to his face of telling lies in a journalistic piece, and Belloc replied to the effect that he enjoyed the outraged reaction too much. But one can't imagine Chesterton playing fast and loose with the truth in the same way, which is one reason why I could be an enthusiastic supporter of a cause for GKC's beatification, but am very unlikely to get involved in a cause for HB.


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