A CLASSICAL EDUCATION?
In this, the first in a series of five articles on the merits of Catholic schools as seen by distinguished old boys, Kasia Giedroyc looks at the colourful life of Cuthbert Fitzherbert
"MY TIME at school was a good preparation for the war: 1 did not feel unduly anxious when I joined the battalion."
Cuthbert Fitzherbert was not referring to the Falklands or even the second world war. His days at the Oratory School, Edgbaston, ended in 1917 when he was called up — "two months earlier than expected, due to a clerical error" — and sent to the Household Brigade Cadet Battalion.
Cuthbert's father, who delivered his small son to the Oratory in 1910, had himself been one of the first pupils at the school, founded by Cardinal Newman in the 1880s.
"Two of my elder brothers were at the Oratory before me," Cuthbert explained. "It was natural that I should follow."
His penetrating gaze clouded for a second. "I've had an extraordinary life," he resumed. "I was pretty idle at first; my early reports said that I was apt to play the clown! But as time went on, I grew more serious about my studies and went on to win the Senior Norfolk Prize for Classics. I received £25, donated to the school by the Duke of Norfolk of the day, and I remember spending the money on complete sets of Scott, Dickens and Jane Austen."
It was the classics master, Fr Henry Tristram (one of the two Oratorian priests working in the school), who stood out most vividly in Cuthbert's memory.
STILL in essence a mediaeval fortress, but with many alterations, some of them of the 1920s and 1930s, Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire is, for several reasons, outstandingly historic, and is of added interest in that it has, for some years now, been in Catholic ownership, with Sunday Mass said in the renovated chapel in its late Norman keep.
Like all mediaeval castles Berkeley was a Catholic house before the religious changes set in train by Henry VIII. Since around 1150 it had belonged to the Fitzharding family.
Robert Fitzharding was an important townsman of Bristol and a friend of Henry II, who made him the first baron of Berkeley; he had already founded the Augustinian Abbey of St. Augustine (of Canterbury) in Bristol whose church later became the cathedral of Henry VIII's new Bristol bishopric.
The castle, whose late Norman shell keep, with its shallow buttresses and a fine Romanesque entrance doorway, still stands for the most part, dates from the first baron's time.
Till the early years of the fourteenth century the story of Berkeley Castle was comparatively uneventful. Its most dramatic, and tragic episode was the murder, in September, 1327, of the abdicated and captive King Edward II. The then Baron Berkeley seems not to have been personally responsible, the cruel deed being committed by the agents of Queen Isabella and her lover-confederate Mortimer.
But Baron Berkeley was certainly in favour with the new regime, and he was soon able to make important alterations to the castle, notably in the great hall whose outer wall is still basically Norman, but whose inner side, with windows of an unusual design, was rebuilt soon after 1327.
Near it, a large chapel, with an apse at one end, has attractive cusping of the fourteenth century over the heads of its outer windows; it is now a morning room. "He taught me Latin and Greek for my last two years, and we became tremendous friends. The lessons, which I had by myself, gave me a love for Greek plays and poetry which I have never lost."
Lessons lower down the school took place in one large hall where several subjects were often taught simultaneously, in different corners of the room. "I don't remember ever being disturbed by the noise. In fact the Oratory had a reputation for high academic standards and excellent examination results."
After the war, Cuthbert went on to Oxford to study forestry. "After two terms, I decided I couldn't see the wood for the trees, so I changed to history."
Religious education was certainly an important part of the curriculum but Cuthbert was never subjected to the religious fanaticism or the eternal lists of petty rules and observances that haunted generations of Catholic schoolchildren.
Quite simply, the young man found at school the same atmosphere of profound but uncluttered and unobsessive loyalty to Catholicism as at home — a commitment which he has sustained ever since.
(When I arrived at St Wilfrid's, Tite Street, for our interview, Cuthbert was just emerging from the chapel. "I was praying to Our Lady of Lourdes to help me give you a good interview. She looks after me all the time.") In the army, Cuthbert always made sure that the men who were Catholics were able to get to Mass. "This was not drummed into me at school or at home. It just seemed the natural way to behave."
A broad smile engulfed the fine old face. "Although we had a chapel in the school building, we always went to the parish church on Sundays, where a large gallery was reserved for the boys.
"During Mass on Sunday, to my great surprise, I found a book about deer stalking on the shelf in front of my pew. How it got there, God only knows. But I'm afraid to say I read it there and then! That was the beginning of a life-long passion."
Cuthbert, who later wrote a collection of stalking memoirs The Prince and the Pedlar, shot his last stag at the age of 82. One aspect of his school career which the headmaster, Fr Edward Pareira, always regretted — and said so — was Cuthbert's lack of interest in other sports. "I had no time for cricket or football, but I enjoyed tennis and walking. We were allowed to go out for walks in groups of three."
In 1913, the Oratory introduced the Officer Training Corps (OTC) under the charge of the history master, Gerald Headlam, former prize fellow at All Souls, Oxford, who had left the college on becoming a Catholic.
Mr Headlam perhaps never anticipated the horrific experiences that awaited those young cadets, but Cuthbert — himself severely wounded in 1918 — is convinced that his OTC background prepared him well for what lay ahead.
Perhaps unusually for its time, the school itself was not run like a barracks. The boys *ere beaten. ("But of course we were beaten — regularly") but there were no school uniforms, no barrages of do's and don'ts, no nights of terror as some erstwhile Catholic Flashman ruled the roost.
For one thing, the captain of the school was not appointed by the headmaster but elected by the boys. "Before I left, to my great surprise (and that of the headmaster!) the boys elected me as their captain," Cuthbert explained, almost apologetically.
But looking back at the life of a man whose distinguished record as an officer " in the Coldstream Guards, to which he returned for four years in the second world war, was followed by an equally successful career in Barclays Bank (he became a vice chairman), and who is surrounded by an ever increasing circle of devoted friends — most of them much younger than himself — it is perhaps not so surprising that his schooldays ended on such a high note.
After his time at the Oratory (during which he made lasting and valued friendships with masters as well as contemporaries) did Cuthbert Fitzherbert ever have any doubts about giving his children a Catholic education?
"Oh, none whatsoever. Of course, there are always exceptions and it is important to take into account each individual child's character. But as far as my own children were concerned, I was never in any shadow of doubt that a Catholic education was called for."