David Knowles (scholar)

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Dom David Knowles, O.S.B., DLitt, FRHistS (1896–1974), was an English Benedictine monk, Catholic priest and historian. He became Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge in 1954, retiring in 1963. His works on monasticism in England, through to the Dissolution of the monasteries, are taken as authoritative.


He was born Michael Clive Knowles on 29 September 1896 in Studley, Warwickshire, England.[1] He was educated at Downside School, operated by the monks of Downside Abbey, then attended Christ's College, Cambridge. In 1923 he 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]

In 1944 Knowles came to be elected a Fellow in Medieval Studies of Peterhouse College, part of the University of Cambridge. He went on to spend the rest of his academic career in residence at this school.[4] He served as president of the Royal Historical Society from 1957-61.[5] He was eventually exclaustrated from the abbey and finally released from his vows. Before his death in November 1974, however, he was re-admitted to the Order.[6]

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).


  • 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) (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. ^ 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), pgs. 1086-1090
Academic offices
Preceded by
Hugh Hale Bellot
President of the Royal Historical Society
Succeeded by
Goronwy Edwards