David Knowles (scholar)

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David Knowles OSB FRHistS (29 September 1896 – 21 November 1974) was an English Benedictine monk, Catholic priest and historian who became Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge from 1954 to 1963. His works on monasticism in England, through to the Dissolution of the monasteries, are taken as authoritative.


Born Michael Clive Knowles on 29 September 1896 in Studley, Warwickshire, England[1] Knowles was educated at Downside School, operated by the monks of Downside Abbey, and Christ's College, Cambridge.


In 1923 Knowles became a member of the monastic community at Downside, being given the religious name of David, by which he was always known thereafter. After completing the novitiate he was sent by the abbot to the Pontifical Athenaeum of St. Anselm in Rome for his theological studies. Returning to Downside, he was ordained a priest. His research into the early monastic history of England was assisted by the library built up at Downside by Dom Raymund Webster.[2]

Knowles became the leader of a faction of the younger monks of the abbey who wanted to resist the growing demands of the school on the pattern of monastic life at the abbey. They advocated a more contemplative life as the goal of their lives as monks. This effort led to a period of major conflict within the community and he was transferred to Ealing Abbey, another teaching establishment.[3]

Academic at Cambridge[edit]

In 1944 Knowles was elected into a research fellowship in Medieval Studies at Peterhouse College in the University of Cambridge, where he would remain for the duration of his academic career.[4]

In 1947 he was appointed as Professor of Medieval History and then, in 1954, he became the Regius Professor of Modern History, a post he held until his retirement in 1963.

He served as president of the Royal Historical Society from 1957-61.[5]

While pursuing his academic life at Cambridge Knowles was eventually, at the instigation of Abbott Butler, exclaustrated from the Downside abbey and finally released from his vows. Before his death on 21 November 1974,[6] however, he was readmitted to the order.[7]


  • The American Civil War: A Brief Sketch (1926)
  • The Monastic Order in England: a History of Its Development from the Times of St Dunstan to the Fourth Lateran Council, 943-1216 (1940, 2nd ed. 1963)
  • The Religious Houses of Medieval England (1940)
  • The Prospects of Medieval Studies (1947)
  • The Religious Orders in England (three volumes, forming a continuation after 1216 AD of The Monastic Order in England) (1948–59)
  • Archbishop Thomas Becket: a character study (1949)
  • Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc (1951) translator
  • Episcopal Colleagues of Archbishop Thomas Becket (1951) Ford Lectures 1949
  • Monastic Sites From The Air (1952) with J. S. K. St. Joseph
  • Medieval Religious Houses: England and Wales, with R. Neville Hadcock (1953, 2nd ed. 1971)
  • The Historian and Character (1954) Inaugural Lecture
  • Charterhouse: The Medieval Foundation in the Light of Recent Discoveries (1954) with W. F. Grimes
  • Cardinal Gasquet as an Historian (1957)
  • The English Mystical Tradition (1961)
  • The Evolution of Medieval Thought. (1962)
  • Saints and Scholars: Twenty-Five Medieval Portraits (1962)
  • The Benedictines: A Digest for Moderns (1962)
  • Great Historical Enterprises; Problems in Monastic History (1963)
  • The Historian and Character and Other Essays (1963) with others, presentation volume
  • Lord Macaulay, 1800 – 1859 (1963)
  • From Pachomius to Ignatius: A Study in the Constitutional History of the Religious Orders (1966)
  • The Nature of Mysticism (1966)
  • What is Mysticism? (1967)
  • Authority (1969)
  • Christian Monasticism (1969)
  • The Christian Centuries: The Middle Ages (volume 2) (1969) with Dimitri Obolensky
  • The Heads of Religious Houses: England and Wales, 940-1216 (1972) with C. N. L. Brooke, Vera C. M. London
  • Bare Ruined Choirs: The Dissolution of the English Monasteries (1976)
  • Thomas Becket (1977)


  1. ^ Evi.com "Obituary of Dom David Knowles"
  2. ^ "Obituary of Dom Daniel Rees". The Independent (London). 24 January 2007. 
  3. ^ Society of Antiquaries of London "Obituary of Dom Aelred Watkin, M.A., O.S.B.
  4. ^ Lovatt, Roger (1991). David Knowles Remembered: "David Knowles and Peterhouse". Cambridge, England: University Press. pp. 82–122. ISBN 978-0-521-37233-6. 
  5. ^ "List of Presidents". Royal Historical Society. Retrieved 20 December 2010. 
  6. ^ Obituary in The Times, 26 November 1974
  7. ^ Morey, Adrian, Dom (1979). David Knowles. A Memoir. London: Darton, Longman & Todd. p. viii. JSTOR 25021547. 


  • Obituary, The American Historical Review, Vol. 80, No. 4 (October 1975), pp. 1086–1090
  • An account of Knowles's personal life and conflicts, and an assessment of his four-volume magnum opusThe Monastic Order in England/The Religious Orders in England — can be found in Chapter 8 of Norman F. Cantor's book Inventing the Middle Ages (1991).
Academic offices
Preceded by
Hugh Hale Bellot
President of the Royal Historical Society
Succeeded by
Goronwy Edwards