Winston Churchill and the Old Cause

Forty years ago, on January 25, 1965, at the age of 91, Winston Churchill died at his home in Kensington. At his state funeral, one of the grandest ever mounted, 300,000 people passed by his bier in Westminster Hall. For many, like Clement Atlee, he was simply “the greatest citizen of the world of our time.” Harold MacMillan spoke for most of his political colleagues when he said, Our finest hour and our greatest moment came from our work with him.” Isaiah Berlin spoke for many more when he described him as “a man larger than life, composed of bigger and simpler elements than ordinary men…superhumanly bold, strong and imaginative…the saviour of his country.”

Part and parcel of the heroic stature of the man was the range of his pursuits. As an impecunious aristocrat, he had to earn his living by his pen, and by the time he was in his 20s he was one of the highest-paid writers in Britain—though ducal extravagance always kept his finances precarious. After entering Parliament, he took to heart Samuel Johnson’s dictum that “a decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization” by providing unemployment insurance to working men. When Asquith made him First Sea Lord, the Navy took all his attention: Lloyd George complained that he could not get his friend to debate politics because Churchill would “only talk of boilers.” As secretary of state for the colonies, he helped reapportion the former territories of the Ottoman Empire, which included mapping out the political boundaries of Iraq. Then he took up munitions, then painting, then bricklaying. When Baldwin made him chancellor of the exchequer, he even immersed himself in what Chesterton called “the horrible mysticism of money,” only to admit later that “the biggest blunder in his life” had been returning Britain to the gold standard. This cursory list does not include what Lord Ismay, his chief of staff, called his “encyclopaedic” knowledge of military history or his “unrivalled” grasp of strategy. Or the years he spent working to rid the world of totalitarian evil.

Considering his truly catholic interests, it is remarkable that the matter on which he should have given least thought was religion. Yet his indifference was rooted in his upbringing. Neither his father, Lord Randolph—a brilliant, unstable, reckless man whose political failure and early death haunted his son—nor his mother, Jenny Jerome, an American heiress, had any faith of their own to instill in their son. Although Lord Randolph would toy with the idea of becoming the mouthpiece of Ulster Protestantism—he coined the slogan, “Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right”—his view of religion remained resolutely superficial. Religion could only be a tool of political expedience or a nuisance. As his son would later write, describing the prevailing view: “Too much religion of any kind…was a bad thing. Among natives especially, fanaticism was highly dangerous and roused them to murder, mutiny or rebellion.”

Winston’s religion, such as it was, was formed by reading Winwood Reade’s The Martyrdom of Man (1872) , one of the first general histories in English, when he was a 21-year¬old subaltern in Bangalore. Among the book’s many admirers was H. G. Wells, who based his own Outline of History (1920) on its exuberant anti-Christianity. Here is a representative passage:

At the time of the Romans and the Greeks the Christian faith was the highest to which the common people could attain…. But now knowledge, freedom, and prosperity are covering the earth; for three centuries past, human virtue has been steadily increasing, and mankind is prepared to receive a higher faith. But in order to build we must destroy. Not only the Syrian superstition must be attacked, but also the belief in a personal God, which engenders a slavish and oriental condition of the mind; and the belief in a posthumous reward which engenders a selfish and solitary condition of the heart…. A season of mental anguish is at hand…. The soul must be sacrificed; the hope in immortality must die. A sweet and charming illusion must be taken from the human race, as youth and beauty vanish never to return.

Sandhurst might have given Churchill an excellent grounding in tactics, drill, gymnastics, and riding, but it passed over even the rudiments of what the ineffable Lloyd George once called “the old cause that saved our fathers.” After finishing the book, Churchill revealed how persuasive he found Reade’s impious ramblings. “One of these days,” he wrote his mother, “the cold bright light of science & reason will shine through the cathedral windows & we shall go out into the fields to seek God for ourselves. The great laws of Nature will be understood—our destiny and our past will be clear. We shall then be able to dispense with the religious toys that have agreeably fostered the development of mankind.”

This belief in progress, formed by his reading of the Whig historians Hallam and Macaulay, and never abandoned, even in the trenches of France, became characteristic, as did an attitude toward Christianity that often amounted to little more than benign condescension. In a letter to his cousin Ivor Guest, written when he was 24, Churchill wrote: “I deprecate all Romish practices and prefer those of Protestantism, because I believe that the Reformed Church is less deeply sunk in the mire of dogma than the Oriental Establishment.” The aristocrat in Churchill was particularly patronizing about the faith of the working classes: “I can see a poor parish—working men living their lives in ugly white-washed factories, toiling day after day amid scenes & surroundings destitute of the element of beauty. I can sympathize with them for their aching longing for something not infected by the general squalor & something to gratify their love of the mystic, something a little nearer to the ‘all-beautiful’—and I find it hard to rob their lives of this one ennobling aspiration—even though it finds expression in the burning of incense, the wearing of certain robes and other superstitious practices.” This echoes the decidedly un-Churchillian Walter Pater, who once wrote that “the religious, the Catholic ideal is the only mode of poetry realizable by the poor.”

Churchill got at the heart of what he found irksome about religion when he wrote “that people who think much of the next world rarely prosper in this: that men must use their minds and not kill their doubts by sensuous pleasures: that superstitious faith in nations rarely promotes their industry, that, in a phrase, Catholicism—all religion if you like, but particularly Catholicism—is a delicious narcotic. It may soothe our pains and chase our worries, but it checks our growth and saps our strength.”

One might say that these were the attitudes of youth and unrepresentative of the mature man. Yet in his autobiography, My Early Life: A Roving Commission (1930), written when he was 56, Churchill still regarded Reade’s book as “a concise and well-written universal history of mankind,” proving that “we simply go out like candles.” He admitted that this was a “depressing conclusion,” but reading Gibbon, “who evidently held the same view,” confirmed him of its truth. Later, “frequent contact with danger” impelled him “to ask for special protection” from enemy fire or for lesser things, and when he found that “throughout my life, I got what I wanted,” he “adopted…a system of believing whatever I wanted to believe….” With his fellow officers in Ban-galore, he recalled, he found himself subscribing to what he called “the Religion of Healthy Mindedness.” In other words, “if you tried your best to live an honorable life and did your duty and were faithful to friends and not unkind to the weak and poor, it did not matter what you believed or disbelieved. All would come out right.” Nominal Christianity has never been more succinctly defined.

Belief in this philanthropic religion never stopped Churchill from affecting a certain heroic nihilism. When his wife, Clementine, lost her mother in 1925, Churchill offered this chilly condolence: “An old & failing life, going out on the tide after the allotted span has been spent and after most joys have faded is not a cause for human pity. It is only a part of the immense tragedy of our existence here below against which both our hope and faith have rebelled. It is only what we all expect & await.” In 1938, writing of the death of his ancestor, John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, Churchill borrowed the cadences of Gibbon to reiterate this puerile view of created life:

The span of mortals is short, the end universal; and the tinge of melancholy which accompanies decline and retirement is in itself an anodyne. It is foolish to waste lamentation upon the closing phase of human life. Noble spirits yield themselves willingly to the successively falling shades which carry them to a better world or oblivion.

Once Churchill put away “the religious toys” that had “agreeably fostered the development of mankind,” he was open to alternatives. In a 1937 letter to his wife, he wrote:

The most remarkable thing happened on Saturday last. I was sitting at lunch, drinking my port, smoking my cigar. I found myself thinking, quite subconsciously, about the sheep Friendly and how I would like to give him some bread. But I knew he was too far away, right on the opposite side of the valley beyond the Gains- borough Road…. I looked up[,] and down the opposite hill Friendly was marching. At first he walked and then he trotted and finally he cantered, until he came to the little gate on the middle dam…. It was an amazing case of thought transference and this most intelligent animal realized my intention to give him bread. Needless to say I gathered up whatever bread there was on the table and hastened down to the lake where I rewarded him for his occult intelligence.

Clemmie replied from Davos, “What you tell me about Friendly is extraordinary. You must show him at the circus at Olympia next year as your occult sheep.”

If Churchill found it difficult to believe in religion as a spiritual reality, he enjoyed making fun of it. In February 1945 he invited King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia to dinner in the desert. The king’s emissary told Churchill that the king would be honored to attend but could permit no smoking or drinking. Churchill replied that it was he who was giving the dinner, and if the king’s religion forbade such things, “my religion prescribed as an absolute sacred rite smoking cigars and drinking alcohol before, after, and if need be during all meals and the intervals between them.”

In his six-volume history of the Second World War, Churchill recalled an unexploded bomb detachment consisting of “the Earl of Suffolk, his lady private secretary, and his rather aged chauffeur. They called themselves ‘the Holy Trinity.’ Their prowess and continued existence got around among all who knew. Thirty-four unexploded bombs did they tackle with urbane and smiling efficiency. But the thirty-fifth claimed its forfeit. Up went the Earl of Suffolk in his Holy Trinity. But we may be sure that, as for Mr. Valiant-for-truth, ‘all the trumpets sounded for them on the other side.’

Churchill’s flippant attitude to religion was common in a society where religious philistinism was de rigueur. “We have the highest authority for believing that the meek shall inherit the earth,” Churchill’s boon companion, F E. Smith, later Lord Birkenhead, wrote in an essay on Lord Curzon, the viceroy of India, “though I have never found any particular corroboration of this aphorism in the record of Somerset House.” One has to remember that in the years leading up to Churchill’s arrival at 10 Downing Street, the most celebrated cleric in England was not Ronald Knox or David Knowles but Harold Davidson, the rector of Stiffkey, who met his untimely end, after a lifetime chasing girls, in a lion’s cage at Skegness. It was not a devout age.

Considering his prejudices against the Faith—which were the traditional prejudices of the post-Reformation English, equating Rome with superstition, backwardness, and the ungovernable Irish—it is interesting that Churchill should have been as fascinated as he was by the historical character of the Church. His physician, Lord Moran, recalls him reciting on three separate occasions (by heart) the famous passage from Macaulay’s review of Ranke’s History of the Popes, in which the Whig historian descanted on the staying power of the Church:

She saw the commencement of all the governments and of all the ecclesiastical establishments that now exist in the world; and we feel no assurance that she is not destined to see the end of them all. She was great and respected before the Saxon had set foot on Britain, before the Frank had passed the Rhine, when Grecian eloquence still flourished at Antioch, when idols were still worshipped in the temple of Mecca. And she may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveler from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s.

“I had a feeling,” Moran concluded, “that he wanted desperately to believe in something, but from what he said he did not find it easy.” Churchill had the same ambivalent feelings toward war. While attending German army maneuvers in 1909, he wrote his wife: “Much as war attracts me & fascinates my mind with its tremendous situations—I feel more deeply every year—and can measure the feeling here in the midst of arms—what vile & wicked folly & barbarism it is.” Later, he would regret allowing Sir Arthur Harris to raze Dresden and in his memoirs never mentioned the retaliatory raids that killed tens of thousands of civilians.

Such compunction shows that Churchill was not without natural virtue. All who worked with him confirmed that his good points were very good indeed. For Sir Ian Jacob, military assistant secretary to the war cabinet in the crucial years from 1939 to 1945, Churchill “had tremendous fibre and toughness…. He more than anyone could ‘meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same.’ For Jock Colville, his private secretary from 1941 to 1955, “His charm, his energy, the simplicity of his purpose, his unfailing sense of fun and his complete absence of personal vanity—so rare in successful men—were the Secret Weapons which outmatched any that Hitler could produce.” More importantly, despite Churchill’s often bullying manner, what struck Colville was his “humanity and [his] sympathy for those in distress which were the basis of his character. I never knew him to be spiteful. He once said to me, with reference to a disgraceful act which was alleged in Whitehall: ‘If there is one thing I abhor it is a manhunt.'”

This sympathy for people in distress grew out of his unhappiness as a child. Rebuffed by extraordinarily self- absorbed parents, Churchill found his own distress relieved by Mrs. Everest, his beloved nanny, whom he nicknamed “Woom” and even took once to Harrow, to the scandalized disgust of his more conventional contemporaries. When Churchill learned that she was to be discharged after 20 years of service, he wrote his mother pleading for her retention. When she was dying in 1897, Churchill, by then a Sandhurst cadet, rushed to her side, and afterwards arranged for her funeral and gravestone.

Many more examples of his fellow feeling could be cited. After being held captive by the Boers and making a characteristically dashing escape, he devoted much of his political capital to alleviating the lot of prisoners. In 1941, he even arranged for Oswald and Diana Mosley to share the same prison digs, thus making Oswald the first male prisoner ever enrolled in the records of Holloway. (They were interned under Regulation 18B, along with 1,769 other British subjects sympathetic to Hitler and Mussolini.) Atlee recalled “the tears coming down [Churchill’s] cheeks one day before the war in the House of Commons, when he was telling me what was being done to the Jews in Germany.” He felt profound empathy for his unfortunate father, who, for all his brilliance and mercurial charm, had deeply wounded his son. Dining once with his own son Randolph, Churchill remarked: “We have this evening had a longer period of continuous conversation together than the total which I ever had with my father in the whole course of his life.” Shane Leslie thought Churchill’s two-volume life of Lord Randolph “perhaps the greatest filial tribute in the English language…. Few sons have done more for their fathers….”

When all England reviled Neville Chamberlain, after the policy of appeasement came to smash, Churchill alone showed him kindness and respect. In 1940, in Church House, to which the members of Parliament had moved to evade the German bombers, Churchill bid his old opponent farewell in one of his most moving speeches.

It is not given to human beings, happily for them, for otherwise life would be intolerable, to forsee or predict to any large extent the unfolding of events…. History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days. What is the worth of all this? The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions….

It fell to Neville Chamberlain in one of the supreme crises of the world to be contradicted by events, to be disappointed in his hopes, and to be deceived and cheated by a wicked man. But what were these hopes in which he was disappointed? What were these wishes in which he was frustrated? What was that faith that was abused? They were surely among the most noble and benevolent instincts of the human heart—the love of peace, the toil for peace, the strife for peace, even at great peril and certainly to the utter disdain of popularity….

Lord Chandos, president of the board of trade during the Second World War, once said of Churchill that “perhaps not enough has been made of his magnanimity. He saw man as a noble, not as a mean creature. The only people he never forgave were those who, in words he so often used, ‘fell beneath the level of events.”‘ But this was not true: Churchill forgave Chamberlain and Baldwin readily enough, and certainly neither of them rose to the level of events, No, Churchill was magnanimous, period.

Recently, in the Tablet, the English historian John Rams- den claimed that “what Churchill believed in was: himself…. He was indeed burdened with an almost megalomaniacal self-belief….”  This ignores the humility of the man. About the impact of his oratorical skills, he once turned to an aide in fallen France and said, “If words counted, we should win this war.” When his butler Sawyer brought him the news that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor, Churchill exclaimed: “So we had won after all!  Once again in our long Island history we should emerge, however mauled and mutilated, safe and victorious.  We should not be wiped out.” He made no mention of his oratory in that calculus.  When Lord Boothby, who had been Churchill’s private secretary until 1929, asked him in 1951 what he thought his legacy would be, Churchill replied: “Historians are apt to judge war ministries less by the victories achieved under their direction than by the political results which flowed from them.  Judged by that standard, I am not sure I shall be held to have done very well.”  There was nothing megalomaniacal about that.  Nor about this—a letter he wrote to his darling Clementine from the trenches in 1916: “Sometimes I think I would not mind stopping living very much—I am so devoured by egoism that I would like to have another soul in another world & meet you in another setting & pay you all the love & honour of the great romances….” Fortunately, before he finally did go, Clementine was sensible enough to fetch a priest.

Churchill had many of the virtues of the natural man. He lacked the cardinal virtues, in the sense in which St. Augustine understood them when he wrote (to quote from the admirable new Catechism):

To live well is nothing other than to love God with all one’s heart, with all one’s soul and with all one’s efforts; from this it comes about that love is kept whole and uncorrupted (through temperance). No misfortune can disturb it (and this is fortitude). It obeys only [God] (and this is justice), and is careful in discerning things, so as not to be surprised by deceit or trickery (and this is prudence).

To judge Churchill, as Evelyn Waugh did when he heard of his death, as “always in the wrong, always surrounded by crooks, a most unsuccessful father—simply a ‘Radio Personality’ who had outlived his prime,” is surely harsh. Though one can understand why Waugh should refuse to join his contemporaries in treating a flawed man as though he had been infallible. After Churchill’s field marshal Viscount Alanbrooke published his highly critical diaries, Clementine said to Lord Moran, “You know, Charles, I am not really angry with Alanbrooke. We must get used to criticism of Winston. I realize the poor darling cannot be a demi-god forever.”

In his “finest hour” speech of June 18, 1940, Churchill famously said that the Battle of France was over and the Battle of Britain had begun, and “upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization.” Churchill helped that civilization survive by reacquainting the Allies with the power of evil and rousing them to take up arms to combat it. What he could not have foreseen is that the Christian civilization he successfully defended against Hitler should now be even more radically threatened by a European political class intent on denying the reality of Hilaire Belloc’s great truism, that “Europe is the Faith, and the Faith is Europe.” Churchill’s historical mind would have marveled at the irony of that. As far back as 1946, at Zurich University, he had urged Europeans “to build a kind of United States of Europe.” In the spectacle of contemporary Europe unifying only to repudiate its Christian heritage, he would have seen a defeatism far more debilitating than any that gripped the proponents of appeasement—and implications for Europe’s ability to eradicate the evil of terrorist Islam that are not reassuring. One can scarcely eradicate what one refuses to acknowledge.

Mary Soames, the youngest of the Churchill children, told her father in 1951 that “it is hardly in the nature of things that your descendants should inherit your genius— but I earnestly hope they may share in some way the qualities of your heart.” For Catholics, Churchill exemplifies more than a brave heart. He is a reminder of the insufficiency of natural virtue. That a man with so many gifts— with so much courage, magnanimity, loyalty, wit, inventiveness, foresight—should have ended his days convinced, as he told his good friend Violet Bonham-Carter, that “death meant extinction” and that “eternity…was a nightmare possibility” was tragic proof of that insufficiency. The virtues of the natural man, even the most extraordinary natural man, are poor things without sanctifying grace.


  • Edward Short

    Edward Short is the author of Newman and His Contemporaries, Newman and His Family, and of Culture and Abortion. He lives with his wife and daughter in New York.

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