David Knowles (scholar)

David Knowles
Born (1896-09-29)29 September 1896
Studley, Warwickshire, England
Died 21 November 1974(1974-11-21) (aged 78)
Other names Michel Clive Knowles (before monastic profession)
Nationality British
Fields History
Institutions Peterhouse, Cambridge
Alma mater Christ's College, Cambridge
Known for English monasticism

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 from the times of Dunstan (909–988) through the Dissolution of the monasteries are considered 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, where he took a first in both philosophy and classics.


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

In 1944 Knowles was elected into a research fellowship in Medieval Studies at Peterhouse 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 Downside Abbey and finally released from his vows. Before his death on 21 November 1974 from a heart attack,[6][7] however, he was readmitted to the order.[8]

Knowles is best-known for his history of early English monasticism, The Monastic Order in England: A History of Its Development from the Times of St. Dunstan to the Fourth Lateran Council, 940-1216 (1940). His three-volume work, The Religious Orders in England (1948-1959), is also highly regarded. In 1962 he published a textbook, The Evolution of Medieval Thought (2nd ed. 1988) that "dominated medieval history courses in U. S. colleges for a quarter of a century."[9] A splendid stylist and a perceptive biographer, many scholars consider him the leading Catholic historian of his day.



  1. Christopher Brooke, David Knowles Remembered (Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 2.
  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. David Knowles Remembered by Christopher Brooke, p. 24
  8. Morey, Adrian, Dom (1979). David Knowles. A Memoir. London: Darton, Longman & Todd. p. viii. JSTOR 25021547.
  9. Norman F. Cantor, Inventing the Middle Ages: The Lives, Works, and Ideas of the Great Medievalists of the Twentieth Century. New York: William Morrow and Co., 1991, p. 322.


External links

Academic offices
Preceded by
Zachary Nugent Brooke
Professor of Medieval History, University of Cambridge
Succeeded by
C. R. Cheney
Preceded by
Hugh Hale Bellot
President of the Royal Historical Society
Succeeded by
Goronwy Edwards
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