Peter Allanson was born in London 11 June 1804 and came to Ampleforth in 1812, when he was eight years old. He finished his schooling and left Ampleforth. But then discovering a vocation, he returned to Ampleforth and was clothed 31 May 1820, and professed 2 June 1821. He received his Orders as follows:- Minor Orders 28 January 1819; Subdiaconate 11 July 1825; Diaconate 20 January 1827; Priesthood 27 June 1828.
His juniorate was marked by an awkward disagreement with Prior Burgess. When he came of age in 1825, Br Athanasius inherited a legacy of £1000. According to the rules of the time, this money would normally have been invested in three names and have been available for him as 'peculium' in his missionary career. But Prior Burgess called upon him in peremptory fashion to merge his legacy in the funds of the monastery and thus place it directly under his own administration. To this course Br Athanasius demurred, much to the indignation of the Prior, who behaving unreasonably practically excluded the recalcitrant junior from the Sacraments. Br Athanasius appealed to President Marsh, who referring the matter to the ensuing General Chapter, 1826, removed him from the jurisdiction of the Prior, allowing him to spend the interim partly at Douay and partly with his people in London. The General Chapter, while refraining from censuring Prior Burgess, supported the stand taken by Br Athanasius. The latter then returned to Ampleforth and informs us that he was treated with kindness by the Prior; but it is perhaps significant that he left Ampleforth for the Mission very soon after his ordination. [Regarding this incident in his career as one which involved a point of constitutional importance, the Annalist has given a full account of it in his History Vol 3 p25-31 and Appendix I, with some further documentation in his Records.]
He went in 1828 to St Peter's Liverpool, but before the end of that year was appointed to Swinburne, Northumberland, a chaplaincy to the Riddell family. He served Swinburne for the remaining forty-seven years of his life.
Fr Athanasius was of a studious temperament and at an early date conceived the ambition of doing some historical work of the sort that Dr Lingard was then producing. To this ambition of his the General Chapter of 1842 gave a precise direction by appointing him 'historiographer' of the English Benedictine Congregation. He himself, at a later date, regretted that his early aspirations had come to so little - that is, if we are to take the disparaging phrases of his Johnsonian prefaces at their face value. But the English Congregation may congratulate itself on having acquired so gifted and capable an Annalist.
Throwing himself into the work with great zeal and energy, he collected at Swinburne every available Congregational record and proceeded to compile a comprehensive and fully-documented history of the English Benedictines from the re-establishment of the Congregation in the early seventeenth century down to the year 1850. For the laborious work of transcription he engaged the services of a secretary, by name Glendinning, whose son Edward was admitted to Ampleforth as a church student but was not ultimately accepted for the Community. Fr Allanson's own handwriting is of such poor and shaky quality as to suggest that he had some nervous affection of the fingers; but his secretary achieved for him, in a very legible hand, a mass of transcription which is most impressive in its quality.
The first-fruits of the Annalist's labours were submitted to the General Chapter of 1854, which Chapter by acclamation made him a 'Preacher General', thus giving him a seat in its body. This first instalment of his work comprised the following items:
History of the English Benedictines Vols I and II
Biography of the English Benedictines Vol I
Records of the English Benedictines Vol I to IV
His complete achievement comprises History, 3 Vols; Biography, 2 Vols; Records, 5 Vols; Acts of General Chapter, 2 Vols; Constitutions, 1 Vol. But, besides these items of his main work as Annalist, there are several subsidiary volumes which deserve mention. Among these are his Account of the Missions and Chaplaincies of the North Province, his volume containing the General Chapter Accounts of the North Province, from 1850, and his transcript of Hewlett's History of St Edmund's. And he has left the mark of his careful historical methods on the various books which it fell to him to handle later in the course of his official duties, such as the Record Book and Council Book of the North Province. As a result of his labours, not only was the general history of the Congregation very fully and accurately narrated, but there was provided also a full account of the missionary centres which its members had served and the basic materials for a particular history, from 1850, of its York Province.
As an historian, 'Allanson' - as he is currently cited - takes pains to get to the original sources, and is generally very sane and reliable in his judgements. He takes up as a rule the attitude of plain common sense and judges both men and events from that standpoint. This is very well as a rule, but it does not always give the best results. Thus his final judgement on Fr Augustine Baker - a type with which he had few points of contact and little sympathy - is vitiated by his application of no higher standard than the unspiritual principles of the plain Englishman. Though certainly himself a zealous priest and faithful monk, yet he had in him something of the downright secularity of John Bull and almost an eighteenth-century suspicion of 'enthusiasm'. He had, too, a solid conservatism of outlook and was firmly attached to the old traditions and methods of the Congregation. As a consequence, he was out of sympathy with the ecclesiastical developments of nineteenth-century England, and not infrequently appears in the character of a 'die-hard', sternly stemming the tide of unwelcome change.
These characteristics of his appear in his work, but they do very little to impair its value, as of an honest, sober and thoroughly reliable record. The English Congregation owes a very great debt to this, its greatest Annalist.
Fr Allanson's qualities of character and judgement were recognized at an early date, as when Prior Cockshoot invited him to form one of that 'external Council' which he summoned to assist him in solving his acute financial problems. It is clear also, from the many letters that survive, that he came to be regarded as a sort of repository of the traditions of the Congregation and a final court of appeal in disputed matters. [See, for instance, MS 239, Nos 30 and 31; MS 262, Nos 66, 135, 142, 182]. His letters contain occasionally some references to his historical labours and throw light upon his methods [MS 239, No 193 is an instance]. They display him as a staunch upholder of English Benedictine rights and privileges, and as one disposed to be very jealous of what he regarded as the encroachments of the Bishops. Towards the same Bishops, especially when he became Provincial, he maintained an attitude of reserve and formality. He was, in fact, as has been said already, out of sympathy with the ecclesiastical developments of his period and disposed to see in them so many invasions of the rights and privileges of Regulars.
In the year 1858 Fr Athanasius became Provincial of York, an office which he held for the remaining eighteen years of his life. There is no question but that he was a good Provincial and that the Province prospered under his rule. For this important period of his life, we cannot do better than cite the judgement of a contemporary as it appears in the so-called Matricula of the North Province [Original MS at Downside; partial copy at Ampleforth].
His work as Provincial is illustrated under various aspects in many of his letters contained in the general volume of our archives; but we would draw special attention to MS 168, which is a transcript, made under his own direction, of a series of important letters which it fell to him to write as Provincial. This volume of 'Provincial Letters' throws a most valuable light on his provincialate. And it is characteristic of the man and his methods, and illustrates the sort of service that he performed for the records of his time, that he should have taken care to have these letters preserved.
Although he left Ampleforth at a very early date in his career, yet he maintained contact with his monastery and is able to declare in one of his letters: 'I have always loved my Alma Mater and shall undoubtedly love it to the end'. [MS 262, No 66] He displayed his affection practically in 1866 by sinking £1000 of his peculium in the funds of Ampleforth. Having started with that legacy of £1000 which brought him into conflict with Prior Burgess, the total amount of which he ultimately disposed was £5580.16.9. Of this total sum he assigned all but the £1000 already mentioned to the North Province; but of the money thus given to the Province, he earmarked £1789.11.0 as a fund for church students to be educated at Ampleforth. When the Province were dissolved, 1890, this money was handed over to St Laurence's so that his monastery received from him in all the sum of £2789.11.0.
He died at Swinburne. The contemporary writer of the Matricula says: 'For some years previous to his decease it was evident his health was failing. At last death came unexpectedly 13 January 1876. His body, at his earnest desire, was conveyed to St Laurence's Ampleforth.' His funeral was very largely attended by his brethren and the funeral sermon preached by Dom Norbert Sweeney, on the text 'This is a lover of his brethren' [2 Mach XV, 14]
A member of General Chapter from the year 1854, he became in 1862 Cathedral Prior of Norwich, and in 1874 Abbot of Glastonbury.
A portrait, made from an old photograph, hangs at Ampleforth near the bookcase which contains the numerous and massive volumes of his historical work.
Peter Athanasius ALLANSON 13 Jan 1876 1804 11 Jun Born 1820 31 May Clothed 1821 2 Jun Professed 1828 27 Jun Priest 1828-76 Swinburne 1854 PredicatorGeneralis 1858-76 Provincial of York 1862 Cathedral Prior Norwich 1874 Abbot Glastonbury Wrote comprehensive Annals of the EBC & Biographies to 1850