Revisiting Belloc’s “Characters of the Reformation”

The study, published 80 years ago, demonstrates how history is shaped and marked by the character of men and women.

In these days of confusion, when good is lambasted and evil celebrated, the past is being rewritten. Nowhere is this more marked than in the recent inversion of English Reformation history with Thomas More now villain to Thomas Cromwell’s hero. 

Confronted by this, and with next year being the 500th anniversary of Luther’s Ninety-five Theses, it seems timely to pick up and read Hilaire Belloc’s Characters of the Reformation.

Belloc will need little introduction to many CWR readers. Only the breadth of his subject matter matched his prodigious output. Like his contemporary and friend, G.K. Chesterton, Belloc produced, year on year, poetry, prose, novels, essays, biographies, histories, polemics, with subjects ranging from politics to economic theories; from walking tours to cruises upon the high seas; from the history of the Church to detailed military histories. This was a Catholic writer as active creatively as he was engaged in the debates and controversies of his time. 

Needless to say, Belloc was a gifted writer, something even his critics had to admit. He had a way of writing that appeared as effortless as it was compelling. In the best writing one encounters a mind and a personality; in Belloc’s case this was one with intelligence and force, pace and incisiveness. 

Characters of the Reformation was published 80 years ago, in 1936. (Also, today is the anniversary of Belloc’s death—July 16, 1953—and the 146th anniversary of his birth will be celebrated on July 27th.) It consists of 23 portraits and an introductory essay.  From Henry VIII to Louis XIV, the figures span the twilight of the 15th century to the harsh new reality of 18th. At the start of the book, Europe—barring parts of the East, either Orthodox or under the sword of the Turk—was united in one Faith with the Bishop of Rome at its head. As we know all too well, this unity was to shatter. By the death of Louis in 1715, Europe was still predominately Catholic but divided, with a settlement of sorts that had been achieved after nearly two hundred years of bloodletting across Christian lands.

From then on, the weaker—politically, militarily, and numerically—Protestant Europe was to expand in a way that could not have been foreseen: largely through the seafaring prowess of some its nations and the subsequent empires and riches that flowed from and to them. Belloc was adept at referencing such grand movements of history, and, while doing so, leaves the reader sensing that those same movements are still quite relevant in the 20th century. 

The genius of this book is not, however, in that analysis. It is rather in the use made of the personal history of these 23 men and women—lives, for better or worse, thrown into the whirlpool of the times they lived through. Significantly, Belloc sees history as flowing from character. It is from this source decisions are made that, given the times and the prominence of the characters in this book, result in profound consequences. If you like history told through the personalities that shaped it, then look no further. Not simply a historian, Belloc is also an expert judge of character. He sees straight through the various machinations to the self-deception lying behind them. To the lives of these 23 characters of the Reformation, he unites many other lives and livelihoods, before opening the whole narrative out to the great sweep of history. In this process, one sees how small things, often intensely personal ones, have repercussions that still affect us to this day. 

In this book there are the usual figures one would expect: Tudor & Stuart, kings & queens, Queen Katherine of Aragon & Anne Boleyn, Cromwell and more, but there are others less well-known to the general reader. And some are the true architects of the Reformation in England: Cecil, most notably, as well as Cranmer and Laud, whilst others are the power brokers who used the Reformation as an excuse to shape Europe as much for political ends as religious ones. In this regard, Richelieu comes off badly, putting France before the Faith; James I fares less so, surprisingly. There are other surprises. Descartes and Pascal are here too. They are not so much characters of the Reformation, however, as figures representing what grew from it. Belloc’s canvas is broad. Starting with the Tudors we end with the coming of William of Orange—someone Belloc particularly loathed, almost as much as Oliver Cromwell. 

This leads us to that figure’s ancestor, Thomas Cromwell. Given the recent re-writing of who and what that earlier Cromwell was, one wonders what Belloc thinks of him? Interestingly, he would appear to agree with the revisionists in one important conclusion: namely, that Cromwell was a man of genius. Belloc portrays him as a man with no past but a man determined to grab a future, fuelled only by a native cunning sharpened with readings of Machiavelli. Belloc has the measure of him. He thinks that Cromwell’s part is underrated in the then history books. One wonders what Belloc would feel about the current vogue to lionise Thomas Cromwell? Perhaps, he might be relieved that, in the history of the English break with Rome, its chief architect is finally being acknowledged.    

Such historical truth-seeking demands simplicity. Belloc has a way of de-cluttering even the most complicated histories, particularly dynastic ones, and, by so doing, making them not only understandable narratives but also compellingly different ones from those which his contemporaries had been led to believe.

Take for example, the House of Orange and its much-vaunted ‘Protestantism’.  In point of fact, its religion had more to do with English pirates who waylaid Spanish ships laden with treasures from the New World and, by so doing, precipitated an economic crisis within the Spanish Empire. This resulted in taxes being levied in the Spanish Netherlands that, in turn gave fuel, or cover, to the developing war between native Reformers and their Catholic overlords, changing the religious course of the Dutch nation and, eventually, the British Isles as well. This is a much grubbier version of history, I grant you, and one based on economics and power—or more simply stated, avarice and pride—rather than theology. Belloc has no time for any version of what was then ‘received history’: the Whig version of history. This was the national story invented by the English oligarchy that had triumphed. Instead, he recounts facts, and it is these alone that exonerate or condemn. 

The linking of the 16th-century Protestant revolt with the accumulation of personal wealth is one of the most striking features of the book. Belloc turns on its head the then accepted myth of a popular turning away from Rome. The English Reformation for many, if not most, was no principled theological dispute. Instead, it was for the powerful and the already ennobled a means to become yet more powerful still both politically and economically. This was at the expense of the vast majority of the populace and their age-old faith, now only an inconvenience to be dispensed with through State-sponsored lies and by force if necessary. 

In 1930s England, Belloc’s thinking on the events of the 16th century was far from the accepted view.  If not quite a formal ‘heresy’ for the then Establishment, at the very least Belloc’s was an interpretation they would have preferred not to see propagated. Nevertheless, throughout the text, Belloc is like a skilled hunter that has ‘Whig history’ constantly in his sights.

During his 1906 campaign to become Member of Parliament for Salford South, Belloc was heckled for being a ‘papist’.  Taking 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.”  He was elected. His later disillusionment with politics—he was to leave Parliament after only one term—was to have at least one positive outcome: it left more time for his literary career. 

On account of that early exit, we must be grateful, not least for books such as Characters of the Reformation. In this and his other writings, Belloc wielded the sword of truth, cutting through a thicket of lies that had, in the intervening centuries, been erected around those earlier historical events. In this way, he helped bring about a true revision of that whole period. Today’s revisionists would do well to remember that no matter how widely lies are spoken, in the end, they only conjure up unreality. With Hilaire Belloc, we have not just a good and brave companion but also an honest one. 

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About K. V. Turley 61 Articles
K.V. Turley writes from London.

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  1. Only the breadth of his subject matter matched his prodigious output | London Catholic Writers' Circle
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