The Right Reverend Alphonsus Joseph-Mary Augustus Montague Summers (1880-1948) was a fascinating character without whom demonological research would be very much the poorer. Throughout his life he was described by acquaintances as kind, courteous, generous and outrageously witty; but those who knew him well sensed an underlying discomfort and mystery. In appearance he was plump, round cheeked and generally smiling. His dress resembled that of an eighteenth century cleric, with a few added flourishes such as a silver-topped cane depicting Leda being ravished by Zeus in the form of a swan. He wore sweeping black capes crowned by a curious hairstyle of his own devising which led many to assume he wore a wig. His voice was high pitched, comical and often in complete contrast to the macabre tales he was in the habit of recounting. Throughout his life he astonished people with his knowledge of esoteric and unsettling occult lore. Many people later described him as the most extraordinary person they had ever known. I, like wise, began in the Church of England and converted to Roman Catholicism before entering holy orders in an autocephalous Catholic Church ~ as, of course, did Summers. We were both ordained within the context of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church and, as Catholic Bishops, led self-governing and independent jurisdictions which held authority in Great Britain. Summers entered the Old Catholic priesthood in 1913 and, towards the end of his life, was elevated to the episcopate by Hugh George de Willmott Newman, Archbishop of Glastonbury ~ an office and currently held by myself. Summers was episcopally consecrated for the Order of Corporate Reunion.
Despite his cherubic demeanour and affability some people found Montague Summers sinister, a view he delighted in encouraging. Although in everyday life he was kind and considerate, when engaged in academic debate Summers was furiously intolerant. There were also rumours that in his youth Summers had dabbled in the occult. If true, the only effect seems to have been to turn him completely against such meddling. Summers may have been fascinated, even obsessed by witches, vampires and the like but the tone of his writings is consistently hostile towards them.
Montague Summers grew up in a wealthy family living in Clifton, near Bristol. Religion always played a large part in his life. He was raised as an evangelical Anglican, but his love of ceremonial and sacraments drew him to Anglo-Catholicism. After graduating in Theology at Oxford he took the first steps towards holy orders at Lichfield Theological College and entered his apprenticeship as a curate in the diocese of Bitton near Bristol. A year or so later he converted to Roman Catholicism. He had been made a deacon within the Church of England in 1908, and was diaconated again within the Roman Catholic Church, but it was not until he embraced the Old Catholic Church that he was ordained into the priesthood. He celebrated Mass publicly when travelling abroad, but at home in England he only performed this sacrament in private. This was probably due to the fact that he was ordained into the priesthood outside the regular procedures of the Church. Old Catholic holy orders, albeit valid, are irregular in the eyes of Rome.
None of his close friends doubted the sincerity of his religious faith. Dame Sybil Thorndike wrote of him:
“I think that because of his profound belief in the tenets of orthodox Catholic Christianity he was able to be in a way almost frivolous in his approach to certain macabre heterodoxies. His humour, his ‘wicked humour’ as some people called it, was most refreshing, so different from the tiresome sentimentalism of so many convinced believers.”
For a living, Summers was able to draw on a modest legacy from his father, supplemented by spells of teaching at various schools, including Hertford Grammar, the Central School of Arts and Crafts in Holborn, and Brockley School in south London where he was senior English and Classics Master. He described teaching as:
“One of the most difficult and depressing of trades, and so in some measure it must have been even well-nigh three hundred years ago when boys were not nearly so stupid as they are today.”
In practice though, he was both entertaining and effective as a teacher once he had overcome initial problems with discipline, and was popular with both pupils and colleagues despite making it plain his real interests lay elsewhere.
From 1926, when he was in his mid-forties, Summers' writings and editing earned him the freedom to pursue full time his many enthusiasms and love of travel, particularly in Italy. The bulk of his activity then was related to English Restoration drama of the seventeenth century. Beginning in 1914 with the Shakespeare Head Press, Summers had edited a large number of Restoration plays for various publishers, accompanied by lengthy critical introductions that were highly praised in their own right, and did much to rescue that period of literature from oblivion.
Not content with editing and introducing these plays, Summers helped in 1919 to found the Phoenix Society whose aim was to present them on stage in London. The venture was an immediate success and Summers threw himself wholeheartedly and popularly into all aspects of the productions, which were staged at various theatres. This brought him a measure of fame in London society and invitations to the most select salons, which he dazzled with his wit and erudition. By 1926 he was recognized as the greatest living authority on Restoration drama. Some ten years later he crystallized his knowledge in The Restoration Theatre and The Playhouse of Pepys which examined almost every possible aspect of the London stage between 1660 and 1710. Summers' involvement with the theatre presents a curious parallel with his near contemporary Bram Stoker, who for most of his working life was business manager to Sir Henry Irving at the Lyceum Theatre in London. There is even a suggestion of some jealousy in the grudging praise Summers gives Bram Stoker's Dracula, leading to his conclusion that the novel's success owed more to Stoker’s choice of subject than any authorial skill. One cannot fail to suspect that Summers felt he might have written the definitive vampire novel himself, only better. Notwithstanding this conjecture, Stoker’s Gothic masterpiece remains a work of sheer genius. It was left to myself to tie up the lose ends left flapping about at Dracula’s conclusion in a sequel titled Carmel. The thought must have surely occurred to Summers, but it was to be Summers’ own successor who executed the deed.
Summers’ fame as an expert on the occult began in 1926 with the publication of his History of Demonology and Witchcraft followed by other studies of witches, vampires and werewolves; notably The Vampire: His Kith and Kin (1928) and The Vampire in Europe (1929). As an editor he also introduced to the public, along with many other works, a reprint of The Discovery of Witches by the infamous Matthew Hopkins and the first English translation of the classic fifteenth century treatise on witchcraft, Malleus Maleficarum. In later life he also wrote influential studies of the Gothic novel, another lifelong enthusiasm; notably The Gothic Quest: a History of the Gothic Novel (1938), and A Gothic Bibliography (1940). Much of Summers’ life remains in obscurity, many of his personal papers have been lost; yet he left an autobiography, The Galanty Show, that was published over thirty years after his death.
In his introduction to Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto Summers articulated the appeal of Gothic novels, and perhaps also the appeal of all the dark mysteries that fascinated him:
“There is in the Romantic revival a certain disquietude and a certain aspiration. It is this disquietude with earth and aspiration for heaven which inform the greatest Romance of all, Mysticism, the Romance of the Saints. The Classical writer set down fixed rules and precisely determined his boundaries. The Romantic spirit reaches out beyond these with an indefinite but very real longing to new and dimly guessed spheres of beauty. The Romantic writer fell in love with the Middle Ages, the vague years of long ago, the days of chivalry and strange adventure. He imagined and elaborated a mediaevalism for himself, he created a fresh world, a world which never was and never could have been, a domain which fancy built and fancy ruled. And in this land there will be mystery, because where there is mystery beauty may always lie hid. There will be wonder, because wonder always lurks where there is the unknown. And it is this longing for beauty intermingling with wonder and mystery that will express itself, perhaps exquisitely and passionately in the twilight moods of the romantic poets, perhaps a little crudely and even a little vulgarly in tales of horror and blood.”
Bishop Montague Summers died of a heart attack in 1948 and his mantle awaited the arrival of another. When Sandy Roberston launched The Summers Project in 1986 to raise money for a tombstone to be laid on Summers’ unmarked grave in Richmond Cemetery, known only as plot 10818, I was grateful it was to me he turned for support. The simple stone, bearing the legend “Tell me strange things,” was erected on 26 November 1988. Summers invariably opened his conversation with those words when people visited him. He yearned to hear strange things. In 1991 an updated and enlarged hardcover edition of my best selling The Highgate Vampire was dedicated to the memory of Montague Summers. This fitting tribute to that former vampirologist still remains in print and soon to be made into a major cinema film. Two years after his death, Summers’ longstanding friend, Hector Stuart-Forbes, joined him in the then unmarked plot at Richmond.