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National Observer, Australia, No. 83 (June - August 2010)National Observer, Australia No. 83 (June - August 2010)


In search of Sir Charles Petrie

by R. J. Stove

National Observer
Australia's independent current affairs online journal
No. 83 (June - August 2010).

Two quotes to start with: the first from Cicero, the second from Chesterton:

• “Not to know what happened before you were born is to be a child forever.” (Cicero, Orator ad M. Brutum, 46 BC)

• “A man without history is almost in the literal sense half-witted. He is only in command of a part even of his own mind. He does not know what half his own words mean, or what half his own actions signify.” (Chesterton, “The Passing of Queen Alexandra”, Illustrated London News, November 28, 1925)

These passages seem an appropriate introduction to this very brief account concerning one of Britain’s finest, and yet most completely forgotten, modern historians: Sir Charles Petrie. Although Petrie died only in 1977, he appears retrospectively to have inhabited a much earlier age, so totally has he faded from view. Even the amazingly comprehensive Dictionary of National Biography omits him altogether. Meanwhile other men who called themselves historians, and lacked even one tenth of Petrie’s learning, received honours piled on honours, such as Petrie never enjoyed. This was the case even when they consciously and deliberately betrayed Britain itself, by siding with civilisation’s enemies. More of them later on.

First of all, Petrie belonged to a very different social class, and a very different geographical background, from the average British academic. He was born in 1895 in Liverpool, where his father was Mayor; but his family derived from the Irish Catholic aristocracy, and his father had been educated in Dublin. Through his father he met, at an early age, a great many notabilities, both British and, in particular, foreign.

Liverpool was, and is, largely Hibernian-Catholic in its population; and during Petrie’s youth it was mostly despised in Oxford, Cambridge and London. The days when the Beatles would make Liverpool’s public image not merely interesting but fashionable lay unimaginably far ahead. As a consequence of this background, Petrie, while he did go to Oxford, was separated from most of his fellow Oxford students by his creed and his city of origin. This separation marked his whole life. For all his conviviality of temperament, he had what was very much a Latin outlook, a European outlook, retaining little patience for English parochialism. It was not at all that he wore his Catholicism on his sleeve. Indeed he seldom discussed religion overtly in any context. (When he helped establish the Military History Society of Ireland, he insisted on the complete avoidance of sectarian disputes; to this end, he successfully offered society membership to Lord Rathcavan — Protestant Speaker of the Ulster Parliament at the time — and De Valera.) Nevertheless Petrie’s Catholicism did give him a habit of mind which he would not have harboured if he had sprung from the agnostic or atheist upper-middle-class environment which has produced most recent British scholars.

Near the end of his life, in 1972, he wrote an autobiography called A Historian Looks at his World. A single extract from it will give the flavour of his family. His father, the Mayor, when conversing with a ferocious Ulsterman in about 1912, asked the Ulsterman how he would react if the Asquith Government tried granting (as it seemed likely to grant) Home Rule to Northern, as well as Southern, Ireland. The Ulsterman made the astonishing reply: “Appeal to the Kaiser for help. One William [William III in 1688-90] saved us, and so will another. A couple of good German divisions would go through the British Army like a knife through butter.” Of course, if anyone had dared to question in public this Ulsterman’s loyalty to England, he would have screamed with rage.

Young Charles Petrie afterwards expressed surprise at what the Ulsterman had said, whereupon his father answered: “That’s nothing: when I was at [Dublin’s] Wesley College in the sixties, the boys from the North always talked about kicking the Queen’s crown into the Boyne if the British Government did something Ulster didn’t like.” So whilst Sir Charles Petrie (in his case the “Sir” was an inherited baronetcy, not an acquired knighthood) championed monarchism all his life, and wrote several studies of monarchy, he had no illusions whatsoever either about individual monarchs or about those of his countrymen who called themselves conservatives.

One effect of Petrie’s European perspective was that he knew a great deal about Spain, and wrote copiously about that land’s annals. By his scholarship and his assiduity — he learned Spanish only as an adult, but he soon acquired the knack for speaking it like a native — he did even more than Chesterton and Belloc to demolish the “black legend” of Spanish administrators as uniformly slime-exuding fiends in human guise. After World War II he became a member of Madrid’s Royal History Academy, one of extremely few foreigners (and, it would seem, the only Englishman) ever to obtain this privilege.

His Spanish-related publications included books on King Philip II; on Philip’s half-brother Don John of Austria, the hero of Lepanto; on King Alfonso XIII, forced off his throne in 1931; and on King Charles III, who died in 1788. As even the briefest glance at these volumes’ footnotes will indicate, they all drew heavily on Spanish-language primary sources, with which not one in 5,000 of British historians would have been familiar. Petrie knew Alfonso XIII personally, and he harboured toward the exiled King something approaching the ideal outlook for a biographer, being at once sympathetic and unillusioned. Writing as he was in 1963, when Alfonso’s widow Ena remained alive, Petrie could not reveal all that he must have realised about the late sovereign’s erotomania; but he struck an admirable balance between praise for Alfonso’s worthwhile initiatives and regret at the errors of judgement which Alfonso repeatedly committed, both in domestic affairs and in his dealings with the Vatican, from 1923 onwards.

As for Petrie’s prose style, one of its most appealing features is the formal elegance with which he could trash his opponents. A few instances will serve. Here, from A Historian Looks at his World, is Petrie’s agreeably catty verdict (one can almost hear him emitting a satisfied “Meeeeeeeeeow!”) on Stanley Baldwin:

“Baldwin also possessed the supreme merit of being able to learn from experience; indeed, it may be said to have been the only way in which he did learn.”

And here is Petrie delivering the coup de grâce to Mussolini’s Foreign Minister:

“Whereas Edda [the Duce’s daughter] was very good company indeed, with her diverting stories of Shanghai, where she and her husband had lived for a time, Count Ciano seemed to me to be one of those people of whom it could be said that if one bought him at one’s own price and sold him at his there would be a considerable profit on the transaction.”

Last in this bracket of three excerpts is the neo-Gibbonian tour de force by which Petrie describes that unhappiest of eighteenth-century monarchs, Philip V, who died in 1746 after years of profound mental unrest:

“The character of Philip V is not easy to determine.... The continual physical possession of a woman was a necessity to him, but, unlike Louis XIV, he combined with a character incredibly sensuous a conscience abnormally scrupulous. His conscience was unconvinced by his grandfather’s example that the strictest principles may be mitigated by a somewhat easy practice, and he refused to take a mistress, with the result that the first separation from his wife ... put a severe strain on both his physical and his mental health. This meant that he must be married early, and that he must remain married; if one wife died, another would have to be found with as little delay as possible. Such uxuriousness could only have one result, namely that Philip was at the same time the tyrant and the slave of the woman he married. However many wives had died, he would have married more, and he would have been a model of troublesome attachment to all of them. He was at once the most affectionate and the least considerate of husbands.”

Such paragraphs show that whatever else accounts for Petrie’s current neglect, it certainly is not any shortage of literary skill. Why, then, is he now largely unknown?

The answer is a simple one: the Spanish Civil War. When the Reds took over Spain in February 1936, Petrie firmly condemned from the start their homicidal, blasphemous despotism. Once serious opposition developed to the Reds in the shape of the July 1936 military uprising, Petrie joined his friend, fellow periodical editor, and fellow-Catholic Douglas Jerrold (whose DNB notice Petrie would later write) in supporting Franco as Spain’s legitimate ruler. He had no particular love for Franco the man; he would rather have abetted an explicit monarchical restoration, if not with the discredited Alfonso XIII at its head, at any rate with Alfonso’s 23-year-old son Don Juan as beneficiary. Alas, the Spanish events of 1936 did not allow sincere religious believers anywhere in the West to indulge in whims of personal preference. They knew, and Petrie knew (even if most British “conservatives” remain, to this hour, abysmally ignorant of the fact),[1] that the survival of Christendom in any recognisable form depended on the Spanish Reds’ murder-machine — and Stalin’s resultant control of the Mediterranean — being ended, by peaceful methods if possible, and by imposing a Carthaginian peace if not.

Of course, for this insight, Petrie and Jerrold had to pay a severe penalty, in terms of a premature end to their hopes of exalted literary careers. After 1936, Petrie was increasingly marginalised. Literary marginalisation was a far more dignified, less menacing business in Petrie’s time than it is now. Petrie continued all his life to have his books accepted by prosperous commercial firms, for example, and sometimes to earn royalties on a scale about which Australia’s samizdat writers of 2010 can only fantasise. Still, it meant that professorial success and direct political influence were forever closed to him. In 1923’s more spacious days, he had contested the parliamentary seat of North Cornwall (previously a rock-solid Liberal electorate) as a Conservative, and had done respectably, scoring 9,853 votes to the Liberal incumbent’s 12,434. Afterwards such a reward for him could not even be contemplated, as he found out when being considered for another House of Commons seat — South Dorset on this occasion — in 1943: “What sealed my fate was my reply in the negative to the [preselection officers’] question, was I prepared to pay my own election expenses and contribute £300 a year to the funds of the local Conservative Association?”. (Looking back, he decided in A Historian Looks at his World, “I have never been more thankful for anything in my life than for the fact that none of my parliamentary yearnings came to anything.”)

His educational work giving public lectures during the Second World War, though these lectures achieved considerable popularity with his Service audiences, proved — as he admitted — to be a cause for frustration, both in terms of the minuscule monetary reward he got, and in terms of his abject failure to steer the increasingly Russophile Churchill cabinet towards a moderately sane foreign policy. Sometimes he might well have been tempted to curse himself for having sided with the Franquistas, when he could have lived beyond the dreams of avarice by bellowing the praises of such Marxist luminaries as Prime Minister Francisco Largo Caballero, who well before the civil war had promised an interviewer with complete sincerity and considerable accuracy: “I shall be the second Lenin.”[2]

As for those who made themselves into local Lenins on British rather than Spanish soil, it is worth alluding to the antics of one for whom World War II represented not frustration but the purest bliss: Christopher Hill. In the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s Hill was easily the most influential living historian Britain possessed, with an equally vast fan-base within what purported to be Australian arts departments. Hill’s notions of intellectual decency may be gauged not just from his 1947 book Lenin and the Russian Revolution (a masterpiece of Stalinist eyewash which manages to omit from its pages all mention of Trotsky’s existence) but from the remarkable words with which he greeted, six years later, the news of Stalin’s demise: “He was a very great and penetrating thinker. Humanity not only in Russia but in all countries will always be deeply in his debt.” Was this the mere babbling of some decadent upper-class undergraduate? Like hell it was. Let former Times Literary Supplement editor Ferdinand Mount recount the story of Hill’s resistible (but, modern Britain being modern Britain, never actually resisted) rise:[3]

“[T]he historian Anthony Glees of Brunel University has unearthed some interesting material about Hill’s wartime service in charge of the Russian desk in the Foreign Office. Hill, it seems, had not declared his membership of the Communist party when being recruited. Did the FO think to ask? Please, Hill was a Balliol man — and had been recommended by another former master of Balliol.

“While in this key post Hill used his formidable energies to the full. He urged the government to sack all White Russian émigrés working in British schools and universities and replace them with Soviet-approved staff. He set up a Committee for Russian Studies including other Communists, notably the Soviet agent Peter Smollett (alias Smolka), to make it easier for Soviet citizens to come to Britain and to exchange intelligence with the USSR. Meanwhile Smollett at the Ministry of Information was busy persuading British publishers not to print George Orwell’s Animal Farm. And in face of all the evidence to the contrary, the Foreign Office remained strangely convinced that Stalin’s intentions towards eastern Europe were strictly benign.

“I would scarcely dignify Hill by the name of mole, that charming and resourceful mammal. After all, his activities were scarcely subterranean. Anyone who had read a line of his would know which way his political proclivities lay.... Still, even if all this had been known when Hill popped off at the ripe age of 91, I doubt that it would have altered the dignified and elegiac tone of his obituaries....

“Hill would not have had a hope of being elected master of Balliol if he had recently resigned from the National Front (he only packed in his party card when Khrushchev sent the tanks into Hungary). Yet surely someone who could stomach Stalin’s purges, his terror famines and his subjugation of half a continent was no more suited to guide young minds than a recently convicted paedophile....

“Long after Hill had gone back to Balliol, the Foreign Office refused to admit that it was Stalin, not Hitler, who had ordered the massacre of Poland’s officer corps in Katyn forest and obstructed every effort by the Polish community in Britain to put up a monument. Revisionist historians to this day claim that ‘only’ a few hundred thousand perished in the purges and the camps and denounce Robert Conquest’s figure of 20 million as grossly inaccurate, although Soviet sources now suggest that if anything Conquest had underestimated.

“Have we at long last discarded these illusions, I wonder? It is so easy to forget how deeply they penetrated into British life and thought. In English history, for example, the three most revered practitioners bestriding the modern era were convinced Marxists: Hill (17th century), E.P. Thompson (18th-19th) and Eric Hobsbawm (19th-20th). Hobsbawm, who didn’t even leave the party after Hungary, was appointed a Companion of Honour under New Labour.”

Unfortunately the situation was still worse than Mount here implies, both because of the purpose behind the Companion of Honour’s establishment, and because of Hobsbawm’s own attitude. The Companion of Honour (CH) had been devised by George V in 1917, on the clear understanding that no more than forty-five Britons would be eligible for it at any one time (the award also enforces an upper limit of seven simultaneous Australians, two simultaneous New Zealanders, and eleven simultaneous recipients from other countries in the former Empire). It is thus incomparably more prestigious than any peerage, let alone any knighthood. Traditionally those granted it have demonstrated conspicuous distinction of intellect and achievement. Previous CH members include Jan Smuts; two Governors-General, Canada’s John Buchan (alias Lord Tweedsmuir) and Australia’s Lord Casey; former Malayan viceroy Sir Frank Swettenham; Nobel-Prize-winning physicist Sir William Lawrence Bragg; poet Walter de la Mare; two conductors, Sir Thomas Beecham and the recently-deceased Sir Charles Mackerras; and NATO Secretary-General Sir Hastings Ismay. Current CH members include, obscenely, Hobsbawm.

For specifics of Hobsbawm’s unfitness to receive this or any token of merit, we need only consult a BBC interview which Hobsbawm — an unrepentant card-carrier, be it emphasised — gave in 1994 to political analyst Michael Ignatieff, now serving as Canadian Opposition Leader. Ignatieff had asked: “What your view [of Stalin’s rule] comes down to is saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of 15, 20 million people might have been justified?” To which Hobsbawm responded: “Yes.”[4]

Now we know. Hill and Hobsbawm, who spent their long and evil adult lives (Hobsbawm remains in our midst) as drooling apologists for communist democide, are to be rewarded with every kind of professorship, every kind of literary prize, and every kind of political trophy; but Petrie, who refused to become a drooling apologist for communism even when almost all around him had done so, needed to be airbrushed — with authentic Stalinist completeness — out of public recollection. This tells us everything some of us had always suspected about the liceity of modern secular academe, at least in its humanities subdivision.

Yet there is no indication in Petrie’s own writings that he minded his disgrace overmuch in the long term, however it might have inconvenienced him in the short term. His philosophical, not to say stoic, view of mortality and profane treasures is best summarised in the paragraphs by which he brings A Historian Looks at his World to a touchingly poetic conclusion. Only someone who had the love of history in his very bones, and who combined this love with a calm tolerance of human foibles, could have written them:

“What is resignation [regarding life’s end] in the seventies appears from the evidence to become a wish in the eighties. On the last day of his life Tennyson at eighty-three said, ‘Death? That’s well.’ John Wesley came of a long-lived family, and until he was eighty-four he enjoyed perfect health which he attributed to continual exercise, change of air and the will of God. Soon afterwards his strength began to fail, and this prompted him to comment, ‘I feel no pain from head to foot; only it seems nature is exhausted.’ Finally, when someone assured Gladstone, at the age of eighty-eight, that he would live for another ten years, he replied, ‘I hope God in His mercy will spare me that.’

“A more recent example of this resignation of the old at the approach of death was the attitude of the late Sir George Arthur who died at the age of eighty-five. I had recently succeeded him as editor of the Household Brigade Magazine, and almost the last letter he wrote, or rather signed, for he was by then unable to write, was one of good wishes for the future: in it he told me that he knew he had not long to live, but that he was quite ready to go. He was a sincere Christian, and death held no terrors for him.

“To me it has always seemed that life is like a visit to the theatre, when one has arrived after the raising of the curtain. By taking a little trouble and using a certain amount of intelligence it is possible to get the gist of what has happened before one arrived; by diligence it is not too difficult to find out what is taking place on the stage at the moment, though admittedly this is not so simple a task as it used to be; but one always has to leave before the end.”

R.J. Stove lives in Melbourne and is a writer and commentator on public affairs. He has had numerous articles published in Quadrant, National Observer and Chronicles. He is a contributing editor at The American Conservative. This article is based on a speech he gave to the Australian Catholic Students’ Association (ACSA) at Albury, New South Wales, in July 2010.


[1] As lately as June 19, 2010, journalist William Waldegrave in The Spectator — not, be it noted, New Internationalist or Marxism Today, but The Spectator — attempted to rehabilitate Edward Heath by describing him as having been, in 1936-39, “right on Spain”. Heath, it is perhaps necessary to point out, spent part of the civil war as an honoured guest of the Reds in Barcelona (analogous to the toadying roles which Sydney and Beatrice Webb had assumed in Moscow shortly before); and when President of the Oxford University Conservative Association in 1937, Heath specifically demanded that the Tory government come to the Reds’ aid. Neither during his ministerial career nor in retirement did Heath ever express the smallest regret for those acts, or for his even more grotesque sycophancy towards Mao and Tito. Pace Waldegrave, if this counts as conservatism, what, pray, is leftism?.

[2] William Foss and Cecil Gerahty, The Spanish Arena (London: Robert Hale, 1938), p.189.

[3] Ferdinand Mount, “Stalin’s ghost sits too easily among us”, The Sunday Times, (London), March 9, 2003.

[4] Oliver Kamm, “It takes an intellectual to find excuses for Stalinism”, The Times (London), July 23, 2004.

National Observer, Australia, No. 83 (June - August 2010)