Sunday, March 19, 2017

Hilaire Belloc’s Characters of the Reformation

Hilaire Belloc’s Characters of the Reformation, published in 1936, makes no attempt to offer us a connected narrative of the events it described, no does it offer biographies in the usual sense of the term of the major participants. It is a collection of brief character sketches, each one illuminating one aspect of the personality of the person concerned and one aspect of the Reformation itself.

Belloc’s major concern is to provide a counterweight to what he describes as English official history of the period. That official history, even when written by historians who considered themselves to be fair-minded, was marked by a very high degree of anti-Catholic bias. Even English historians who were not by any means personally anti-Catholic  could hardly avoid taking an overall view of the Reformation as a positive thing. Belloc on the other hand regards it as the greatest calamity ever to befall western civilisation.

It is a common mistake to assume that any historical event that does take place must therefore have been inevitable and this is another sometimes unconscious source of bias - since the Reformation did happen and since it left Europe divided into Catholic and Protestant camps it is easy to assume that such results were inevitable.

Belloc’s view is not based merely on anti-Protestant prejudice. In this and other books he argues his case against the Reformation logically and convincingly. The Reformation ended the unity of Christendom, in fact it ended the very idea of Christendom. Protestantism also, by undermining authority, led eventually and inevitably to scepticism and atheism. It also gave rise to Puritanism, a heresy that Belloc abhors.

Interestingly, Belloc sees England as the key to the success of the Reformation. He believes that if England had not been lost to the Catholic Church then the whole of Europe would have been reconquered by Catholicism. There is therefore a major emphasis on those who played key roles in events in England although events on the Continent are by no means neglected.

In Belloc’s view much of the support for the break with Rome came from wealthy landowners who seized the opportunity to loot the wealth of the Church. It was a political rebellion, but it was a rebellion of the rich against the poor. The Reformation encouraged the rise of nationalism but it also encouraged the rise of plutocracy.

The fact that Belloc has little time for Henry VIII is hardly surprising. Even the most enthusiastic of Protestant partisans finds it difficult to portray King Henry sympathetically. Belloc believes that Henry, for all his blustering, was a rather ineffectual figure and that it was Anne Boleyn who was really the prime mover behind the beginning of the English Reformation. He also is at pains to point out that it was most emphatically not Henry’s intention to challenge Catholic doctrine in any way, except in the one small matter of Papal authority (which of course was not a small matter at all).

Belloc demolishes the myth of the greatness of Elizabeth I, seeing her as a sad ill woman manipulated by others. 

It’s intriguing to get perspectives on so many of the major figures of the time that are so spectacularly at variance with the generally accepted views. King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden for example is so often portrayed as a hero but to Belloc he is merely an unprincipled mercenary.

Whether you’re a Catholic or not it’s difficult to deny that Belloc has a point when he argues that the collapse of the ideal of Christendom had malign long-term consequences. It’s also hard to disagree that the fragmentation of Christianity into a multiplicity of sects played a major role in encouraging the growth of scepticism and paved the way for the horrors of liberalism, modernism and atheism.

Belloc is always stimulating and thought-provoking and one can’t help suspecting that often he is being willfully provocative but it is certainly refreshing to read history written by someone who utterly rejects the dogmas of liberalism and modernism. Highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. "Belloc demolishes the myth of the greatness of Elizabeth I, seeing her as a sad ill woman manipulated by others. "

    A point I've also made and been shouted down.