christopher-dawsonOn October 12, 1889, Mary Louisa and Henry Philip Dawson gave birth to a son, Henry Christopher. Descended from a long line of Celtic aristocracy, Mr. Dawson was born in a Welsh castle, an immense structure believed in myth to have been built all in a single night.

His mother’s family had great standing in the region, and Mr. Dawson remembered it as “a sort of Anglican theocracy” as “the landowners were largely clergymen and the clergy were either landowners or brothers of landowners, so that there was a complete unification of political, religious, economic and social authority and influence.”[1] They also tended to be very high-church Anglo-Catholics.

At Hay Castle, Mr. Dawson felt “the immense age of everything, and in the house, the continuity of the present with the remote past, and the feeling was reinforced by the fact that nothing had changed since my mother had been a child in the same house and that all the family relations existed in duplicate, so that alongside of my parents, my nurse, and my uncles and aunts, I saw my mother’s parents and her nurse and her uncles and aunts.”[2]

His father’s side came from York, and most of the men had served in the military. His father was a relatively famous explorer, having traveled to South America when it was still a treacherous and undeveloped place and having served as the lead British officer in the famous 1882-1883 International Circum-Polar Expedition.[3]

From his mother’s side, he learned the significance of family, myth, the saints, and tradition (which seemed bound up as one thing to Mr. Dawson). “From the time that I was thirteen or fourteen, I had come to know the lives of the Catholic saints and the writings of the medieval Catholic mystics,” Mr. Dawson wrote, for example, “and they made so strong an impression on my mind that I felt that there must be something lacking in any theory of life which left no room for these higher types of character and experience.”[4]

From his father’s side, he learned a deeply-held patriotism for western civilization, especially as understood through Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Mr. Dawson was privately educated as a young boy and as a teenager. He devoured every book he could get his hands on.

Importantly, he also explored the Welsh countryside whenever possible. The vast rural landscapes and countryside—especially its churches and shrines—shaped Mr. Dawson as much as did his voluminous reading. Indeed, as a young boy, Mr. Dawson claimed to have learned more “during my school days from my visits to the Cathedral at Winchester than I did from the hours of religious instruction in school.”[5] The countryside came alive for him, as the mythic Celtic past seemed to weave itself through the land, the faith, and the books. “What David Jones called his ‘Celticity,’” Mr. Dawson’s close friend Harmon Grisewood remembered, “gave Christopher insights and a poetic appreciation both of nature and history which is often lacking in one whose ancestry is wholly English.”[6]

He credited all of this with his real education. “I got nothing from school, little from Oxford, and less than nothing from the new post-Victorian urban culture,” Mr. Dawson wrote in the 1920s. “All my ‘culture’ and my personal happiness came from that much-derided Victorian rural home life.”[7]

Mr. Dawson, already taken with much Roman Catholicism (the theology from the Anglo-Catholics and the poetry from Dante), had a profound religious experience while visiting Rome during Easter, 1909.  The visit served “as a revelation…to a whole new world of religion and culture,” his daughter Christina wrote.[8] On that day, Mr. Dawson stood at the Ara Coeli and had nothing less than a mystical revelation. There, his daughter wrote, “he first conceived the idea of writing a history of culture” and, further, he “had great light on the way it may be carried out,” he confided to his diary. “However unfit I may be,” Mr. Dawson wrote after his experience in Rome, “I believe it is God’s will I should attempt it.”[9]

As Mr. Dawson put it in his 1926 autobiographical reflections on conversion, “It opened out a new world of religion and culture. I realised for the first time that Catholic civilisation did not stop with the Middle Ages and that contemporary with our own national Protestant development there was the wonderful flowering of the Baroque culture.”[10]

In the fall of 1913, Mr. Dawson intellectually and spiritually assented to Catholicism. He entered the church formally on Epiphany, 1914, at St. Aloysius in Oxford.

The “doctrine of Sanctifying Grace” found in the New Testament and the writings of Sts. Augustine and Aquinas, Mr. Dawson admitted, “removed all my difficulties and uncertainties and carried complete conviction to my mind,” he explained twelve years after his conversion. “It was no longer possible to hesitate, difficult though it was to separate myself from earlier associations and traditional ties.”[11]

Equally important, Mr. Dawson “realised that the Incarnation, the Sacraments, the external order of the Church and the internal working of Sanctifying Grace were all parts of one organic unity, a living tree, whose roots are in the Divine Nature and whose fruit is the perfection of the saints.”[12]

Additionally, Mr. Dawson did not consider the saints as “a few highly gifted individuals.” [12] Instead, they are “the perfect manifestation of the supernatural life which exists in every individual Christian, the first fruits of that new humanity which is the world of the Church to create.”[13]

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[1]Dawson, Tradition and Inheritance, 11.

[2]Dawson, Tradition and Inheritance, 12.

[3] E.I. Watkin, Part I of “Christopher Dawson, 1889-1970,” Proceedings of the British Academy (1971): 439-40; and Christopher Dawson, Devonshire, to Mr. Sheward Hagerty, London, 30 April 1958, in Box 15, Folder 72, UST/CDC.

[4] Dawson, “Why I am a Catholic,” Catholic Times, 11.

[5] Dawson, “Education and the Crisis of Christian Cultures,” Lumen Vitae 1 (1946): 208.

[6] Harmon Grisewood, “Face to Faith: The Ideas of a Catholic Tiger,” London Guardian (October 16, 1989).

[7] Watkin, Part I of “Christopher Dawson, 1889-1970,” Proceedings, 440.

[8] Scott, A Historian and His World, 47.

[9] Christina Scott, A Historian and His World: A Life of Christopher Dawson (1984; New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1992), 49

[10] Dawson, “Why I am a Catholic,” Catholic Times, 11.

[11] Dawson, “Why I am a Catholic,” Catholic Times, 11.

[12] Dawson, “Why I am a Catholic,” Catholic Times, 11.

[13] Dawson, “Why I am a Catholic,” Catholic Times, 11.

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