IT IS HARD to judge how Adrian Fortescue is regarded these days. He is difficult to classify and I suspect he would be ill-at-ease in the company of those who venerate him. As a man he had a broad mind, drive and humour but, despite his brilliant gifts, he was hardly recognised by his ecclesiastical superiors. "I went to Westminster yesterday," he told a friend, "but smelt bishops and fled away." Fortescue's name has become inseparably associated with The Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described, published in 1918. This was an indispensable work that raised the celebration of Mass in these islands to a standard of perfection and accuracy hitherto unachieved. Fortescue brought scholarship and professionalism to the liturgical reforms of his time. Its present-day successor is Mgr Peter Elliott's Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite.
Fortescue was a polymath: a scholar and orientalist, an historical writer, a lecturer, a controversialist, a calligrapher and draughtsman, a musician, a painter in water colours, and a linguist who spoke and lectured in 11 languages. Skilled in heraldry, and in the form and cut of vestments, he delighted in architecture. He was born at Stratford-on-Avon on 14 January 1874, the son of Edward Fortescue of Alverstone Manor. His parents were well-connected converts who were received into the Church in 1872. Edward Fortescue was a leading ritualist, Provost of St Ninian's Cathedral, Perth, brotherin-law of Archibald Campbell Tait, Archbishop of Canterbury. The Fortescues were an old Warwickshire family with recusant blood that traced their ancestry to Henry, Chief Justice of Ireland, who was born in 1390.
Fortescue's father died in 1877, when he was three, and his mother moved to Haverstock Hill, London. The family worshipped at the Dominican church, and erected a memorial chapel with the Fortescue arms and a fine inscription. Gertrude Fortescue died in 1886, when he was 12, and thereafter he and his sisters were brought up by Katherine Robins, a convert aunt, who lived in Wimbledon. After an early education with the Jesuits at Boulogne-sur-Mer, he broke the family tradition of being educated at Winchester, and went on to St Charles' College, Bayswater. He entered the Scots' College, Rome, in 1891, and obtained a Doctorate of Philosophy in 1894. This was followed by study at Innsbruck where he completed further Doctorates in Divinity and Literature. Fortescue was ordained priest in 1898 and sang his first Mass on Easter Sunday in the Sacred Heart, Wimbledon.
Despite his doctorates, Fortescue was largely self-educated. In his free time he learnt languages. He studied calligraphy under Edward Johnston, the leading calligrapher of the day, and wrote in an Italianate script of the 15th century of singular beauty.
He travelled through western Europe, Greece, the Middle East (disguised as,an Arab), Turkey and Dalmatia. Between 1899 and 1907 he briefly occupied six curacies in the Archdiocese of Westminster, none of which suited him, until he was appointed to Letchworth where he established a mission. St Hugh's was built in 1908 and the blessing of the new church was followed by the Byzantine Liturgy, celebrated by the Archimandrite Arsenius Atiyeh, with Fortescue singing the responses. It was a plain, arts and crafts Gothic building of red brick, with an exquisitely austere altar standing beneath an early Christian ciborium and it became a centre of liturgical life. He would vehemently claim of St Hugh's: "It is the only church worth looking at west of Constantinople." His ideal was Westminster Cathedral. When he needed a hymn book he made his own translations from Latin and supervised the printing. He composed plainsong settings of the Proper of the Mass for his choir and Russian settings for the Reponseries at Christmas Matins.
Fortescue's literary achievement was prodigious. His three volumes on the history of the Orthodox Easter Church, his books on the Mass and the early Papacy were acknowledged classics in his own lifetime. His many pamphlets are of lasting value. In his study there were four desks and he would flit from one to another as the_moDd took him, writing a separate book on each. He wrote and read standing, except on sleepless nights when he would drug his mind "with the slow poison of cheap and nasty novels, dosing himself to the measure of three a night". "There's nothing wrong with it," Fortescue told Reginald Hine, "It's dull to sleep with the Fathers, and you can't go to bed with saints. The fact is, one simply has to relax and unbend on something lighter, or else one's brain would burst."
As a controversialist he was formidable. A single shot from one of his big guns blew his opponent to pieces One after another they went down like ninepins and after a few withering words from him, there was little spirit left in them. He instructed many converts. As a man he was catholic in the wider sense of the word. His years of travel in the Middle East had broadened his sympathies and there were many non-Catholics whose company he enjoyed. At St Hugh's you would find "a Babel of tongues and a flock of infidels". He loved to shock and, as a Jacobite, would drink a toast: "I give you 'Confusion to the Bloody Usurper'," and would rejoice in the bafflement of his guests who did not regard the mild, harmless, popular King George V in such terms.
Above all Fortescue was a priest "Those who saw him say Mass," recalled John Vance, "gathered at once from his recollected demeanour with what awe and reverence he stood in the presence of God." Despite his arrogance, it revealed the man. In 1922 he was diagnosed with cancer. He bade good-bye to his little church, and silently kissed the altar stone on which daily he had offered Mass. His last sermon was on "Christ our friend and comforter".
Adrian Fortescue belonged to the Church of his time and served it well, but Cardinal Bourne did not use him as he deserved. I wish we still had the same rare spirit of dedication, scholarship, professionalism, breadth, magnetism, style and wit that he embodied.