“The Benedictine school, with its roots in recusancy, had determined on an ambitious strategy to reintroduce Catholicism to the heart of the English Establishment. Ampleforth was to be transformed from a modest provincial private school, to a national public school for the Catholic elite.”
So wrote Madeleine Bunting in her book The Plot, which was published a decade ago. It’s taken that long for me to get round to reading it, and in many respects it was worth the wait. The Plot is an unusually clear-eyed meditation on what it was like growing up as one of the five children of the Catholic artist, John Bunting. He was a colourful, if tortured soul, whose obsession was an acre of North Yorkshire moorland. On it, he built his own chapel and populated it with some of the sculptures which nearly made him famous.
He became an art teacher. Among his pupils was Anthony Gormley, who later gave us The Angel of the North. At Ampleforth College he also taught a friend of mine who, though talentless at art, had other aptitudes. Last week, through the long arm of Amazon, I sent this friend a copy of The Plot. And, at the weekend, he wrote his thanks from the foreign capital where he’s long lived, along with news that he’d been given a gong in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List.
Isn’t my friend’s official recognition proof that Catholics can be injected into the bloodstream of the English Establishment?
“Whenever a friend succeeds, a little bit of me dies.” Well maybe that’s how Gore Vidal felt. But I was just chuffed. My friend, who’s godfather to my youngest child, is a deserving recipient and his award feels like a shared blessing. It reminded me too that he and I are now in that generational sweet spot where the state is ready to officially recognise public service. It’s our fifty something cohort, where careers have not ended but have often reached maturity, which begins to catch the eye of those who administer the honours system.
And it put me in mind of what Madeleine Bunting had written about Ampleforth. Isn’t my friend’s official recognition proof that Catholics can be injected into the bloodstream of the English Establishment? That the task Ampleforth set itself is still being met?
It’s an interesting question and one I’m not equipped, as a state schoolboy, to answer. Certainly the broader point about influential alumni has rarely been so vexed. Ampleforth was dubbed “The Catholic Eton”. And, in that phrase we are reminded, at least in the popular imagination, of how a single school can still have a disproportionate number of friends in high places.
Eton may not be a Catholic school, but plenty of Catholics studied there. Some of them, notably Jacob Rees-Mogg, are publicly devout. Others less so. Last year Boris Johnson became the first baptised Catholic to become Britain’s prime minister; a point we were reminded of when he and his fiancee Carrie Symonds had their son, Wilfred, baptised in a private ceremony at Westminster Cathedral last month.
Eton may not be a Catholic school, but plenty of Catholics studied there. Some of them, notably Jacob Rees-Mogg, are publicly devout.
Eton’s pre-eminence is, in some ways, surprising. We live in a country where academic performance is a national obsession and in which some schools care about nothing else. And, frankly, where Eton’s famous playing fields would be seen as a needless distraction from the serious business of passing exams.
But for parents ambitious for their children’s prospects, this matters not. There’s no shortage of families willing to pay a lot of money so that their kids can enjoy the dubious privilege of being labelled an Old Etonian. I wonder, though, if things would be different if Eton’s nearest palace wasn’t Windsor, but Bishopthorpe in York. If Eton wasn’t in Berkshire, a short hop from London, but – like Ampleforth – in the wilds of North Yorkshire, a five hour drive away.
Many parents whose children board weekly do not want to have a long drive to pick them up and drop them off at the weekend. This is a relatively new fashion and it clearly can’t be helpful for schools, like Ampleforth, which are a long way from London, far north of the Watford Gap.
So the north-south divide can’t be helpful for those who want to attract the next generation of influencers to Ampleforth. But then, as Madeleine Bunting’s book reminds us, the north-south divide is nothing new, and certainly didn’t hinder the school’s glory days.
Indeed, in The Plot, Bunting points to the claims of historians who argue that the north fell irrevocably behind the south nearly a thousand years ago. It was William the Conqueror’s campaign of terror and annihilation in 1070, when wells were poisoned, crops torched and tens of thousands left dead from starvation. What became known as the Harrying of the North. It was the work of the great Cistercian abbeys which helped revive the fortunes of North Yorkshire and laid the foundations for the school there which – successfully – sought to synthesise monastic and scholastic life.
Colin Brazier is the author of Sticking Up For Siblings: Who’s Deciding the Size of Britain’s Families? (Civitas)
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.