Most of us will have heard of Ronald Knox, but what of the man behind the name and a Somerset connection?    Best known for his re-translation of the Latin Vulgate Bible - his most major work – over a period of 50 years his literary output as a writer was prodigious. His books and essays covered a range of religious and spiritual issues, whilst he also enjoyed writing satire and detective fiction.

Born in 1888 into a staunchly Anglican family and the youngest of six children, he had spent his childhood in rural Leicestershire, where his father, Rev. Edmund Arbuthnott Knox, had obtained the college living of Kibworth and its Rectory. Unfortunately, the children were often ill, and their mother, Ellen Penelope, who was in poor health, tragically died in 1892. Ronald, who was just four years old at the time, had been sent to live with his uncle, Lindsay Knox, a clergyman, who gave him instruction in French, Greek, Latin and the Bible, also in the catechism and mathematics. By the age of six he was said to have been reading Virgil.

Both of Ronald’s grandfathers had entered the Anglican Communion, later to become bishops, and in1895 his father continued the family tradition when he was appointed as Bishop of Coventry. In that same year Edmund had re-married, when Ronald was able to return home. All the children gradually came to love their stepmother, who, during their holidays, would read to them stories by such writers as Stevenson, Kipling and Lear.   

It could be said that Ronald had a privileged upbringing when, in 1900, he followed his brothers to Eton College, where he showed early promise as a writer. By 1906 he was co-editing The Outsider, an Etonian magazine, also publishing his first book, Signa Severa - a collection of English, Greek and Latin verses. Admittedly, it must have been of great advantage to him to receive tuition in the Classics from his uncle at such an early age during the four years that he lived with him at Creeton.

During that same year – his last at Eton - Ronald had decided that his vocation lay in the ministry and now, at seventeen, he vowed to himself that he would remain celibate. He also experienced a serious illness, when he received a visit from a prominent Anglo-Catholic vicar. Ironically, during the next 10 years he became increasingly interested in the Anglo-Catholic movement, at the same time that his father, who had become Bishop of Manchester in 1903, was becoming drawn to and later to lead, the Evangelical Party of the Church of England; this was eventually to cause a schism between them.

The following year, he won a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford, where he gained a succession of prizes and monetary awards, including the Latin Verse award in 1910, so that he was, largely, able to support himself. In the same year he became a Fellow of Trinity College. Since he was not able to start giving tutorials to students until1911, he applied, successfully, for the job of classics tutor to one Harold Macmillan. However, he was later to be fired by Nellie Macmillan for being a high-church Anglican! Neither pupil nor tutor could have possibly guessed that, decades later, their paths were to cross once more.

During his first three years at Oxford, he made a number of visits to the Anglo-Catholic Benedictine Monastery on Caldey Island, and twice to Belgium, a Catholic country, which he spoke of as, ‘a working religion that must be transplanted to English soil.’  But, in 1910, despite his growing Anglo-Catholic convictions, he accepted a Fellowship at Trinity College, becoming an Anglican clergyman and chaplain there two years later. 

In 1914, at the onset of the 1st World War, when many of his friends had volunteered to go to the Front, his offer to go to Germany in order to minister to Anglican prisoners had been approved by Bishop Bury and forwarded to the Foreign Office, who promptly rejected it. However, his wartime prayer book, An Hour at the Front,’ achieved a circulation of over 70,000 copies.’  

Whilst at Trinity, lecturing to his students on Logic, Homer and Virgil, Ronald had begun to acquire a taste for satire, which was soon reflected in his writings. Having read what have been described as ‘two highly controversial sermon collections,’ ‘Naboth’s Vineyard in Pawn’ (1913) and ‘Church in Bondage (1914), describing the present position of Anglicanism and pointing a future way forward, he couldn’t resist putting pen to paper in a satirical essay, ‘Reunion All  Round.’ (1914). The subjects of his wit and satire were those Anglicans whose belief it was that all Christian denominations should bury their differences and worship together, something we now call ecumenism!  He later commented that, ‘It won in cold print the commendation of my earliest master and model, G. K. Chesterton,’ who must have approved of his views.

However, it was not until 1922 that Chesterton, fourteen years his senior, converted to Roman Catholicism. Ronald, on the other hand, had already taken this step by 1917, which meant his resignation from Trinity College. It was suggested to him by Fr. John Talbot, an Oratorian, that he went on a retreat to the Benedictine Abbey of Farnborough, where he was Received into the church on the 22nd September 1917 by Father Abbot, Sir David Hunter-Blair.

His father was, apparently, horrified and must have been extremely angry, as he responded by cutting Ronald out of his Will. Stung by his father’s reaction, Ronald had written his apologia, A Spiritual Aeneid, (1918) in which he explained his search for religious truth and his rejection of the Anglican Church.

Following his ordination as a Roman Catholic priest in 1918, he taught at St, Edmund’s College, Hertfordshire, from 1919 to1926. Ronald had also been broadcasting programmes about aspects of Christianity and other subjects on BBC Radio, but, in January 1926, during one of his regular slots, his irrepressible sense of fun led him to perform a mischievous hoax on his listeners.

Ronald broadcast a pretended live report of revolution sweeping across London, entitled ‘Broadcasting from the Barricades.

‘ In addition to live reports of persons, including a government minister being lynched, his broadcast cleverly mixed supposed band music from the Savoy Hotel with the hotel’s purported destruction by trench mortars. The Houses of Parliament and the clock tower were also said to have been flattened.’

Because the broadcast occurred on a snowy weekend, much of the United Kingdom was unable to get the newspapers until days later – the lack of newspapers caused a minor panic, as it was believed that this was caused by the events in London.

A 2005 BBC report on the broadcast suggests that the innovative style of Knox’s programme may have influenced Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of War of the Worlds in 1938 and foreshadowed it in its consequences.

He was later to include Broadcasting from the Barricades as A Forgotten Interlude

in his Essays in Satire (Sheed,1928).

Ronald then returned to Oxford University as chaplain to the130 Catholic undergraduates – a post he held until 1939 – by which time the number of students had risen to 170. In 1936 he was also appointed as domestic prelate to Pope Pius XI. Running alongside these duties, he began to indulge in the light relief of writing classic detective fiction, his first novel being, The Viaduct Murder (1925), followed by Other Eyes Than Ours (1926), a satirical tale about a hoax played on a circle of spiritualists; many other titles were to follow.

However, on a more serious level, he had also written for his student audience The Belief of Catholics (1927), which was re-printed in Doubleday’s Image Books in 1958.  The book reflected his concerns about the ‘modern world view’ that appeared to criticise certain dogmas of the Christian church. He also raised the issue of falling church membership and questioned whether this could lead to a decline in religion altogether. With these thoughts in mind, Ronald was only too willing to take up a suggestion from Cardinal Bourne that he taught a continuous course in apologetics to his students, in which they would learn to present clear, coherent arguments in defence of Christianity. In 1936, the value of his work for the Catholic Church was recognised when he was invested with the honour of Domestic Prelate to Pope Pius X1.

In 1938, before Ronald had left Oxford, Cardinal Hinsley offered him the presidency of St. Edmund’s, but his close friend and Jesuit priest, Fr. Martin D’Arcy, persuaded him that his talents lay more in preaching, lecturing and writing. The more daunting task suggested to him, which he accepted, was that he made a new English translation of the Bible.  

During those last two years he spent the greater part of his vacations at the home of Lord and Lady Acton at Aldenham, in Shropshire, and on his resignation from Oxford in 1939 he was delighted when asked to become their private chaplain. He had first met Daphne Acton at the home of her Catholic husband’s sister, Mia Woodruff, and her husband, Douglas, since she had expressed an interest in receiving instruction in the Catholic faith. Ronnie, as he was then known, was impressed by both her charm and intellect and a warm friendship had developed between them. Furthermore, he now had an invaluable opportunity both to continue his translation of the New Testament, which was paramount in his mind, and to prepare Daphne for being received into the Catholic Church.

Throughout the Second World War the Actons took in, as their guests, fifteen Assumptionist nuns from London, three lay teachers and fifty-five Convent schoolgirls.  Ronald said Mass for them, heard their confessions and gave them instruction every Sunday after Benediction. Whilst this was an extra, unlooked for responsibility, Daphne ensured that when in the vicinity of his study the girls maintained a zone of silence, so that he was able to continue with his task, unhampered. Finally, in 1944, Ronald Knox’s version of the New Testament was published.

In 1946 the Assumptionists left Aldenham, and in the following year, Lord Acton had sold the estate, when the family moved out to Southern Rhodesia. Ronald then took up a chaplaincy with another aristocratic family, the Asquiths, at Mells, not far from Downside Abbey. He had already begun work on his translation of the Old Testament during the previous two years, and succeeded in completing the task in1950. During this time he had also re-visited a book he had been working on at intervals since1918, and one which had given him great pleasure to write - ‘Enthusiasm: a chapter in the history of religion with special reference to the 17th & 18th centuries.’(Oxford University Press, 1950).   

Ronald had been working on the Vulgate since1939; it had been a monumental task to translate both the Old and New Testaments, but they had been well received. His disappointment then can easily be imagined when, after publication of the complete text in 1955 and following numerous revisions, it was decided by the Church to return to the original Greek and Hebrew.

In 1953 he visited the Actons in Rhodesia, when he began his translation of the Imitation of Christ, and on his return to Mells he embarked on a further translation of St. Therese’s Autobiography of a Soul. But early in1957 he suddenly became seriously ill. His old friend, Harold Macmillan, deeply concerned, invited him to stay at 10, Downing Street, in order to consult a specialist in London; he was diagnosed with incurable cancer. 

Ronald became increasingly weak and by early summer it seemed highly unlikely that he would be able to deliver his scheduled Ronanes lecture at the Sheldonian on the 11th June.  It was his friend and confessor, Dom Hubert van Zeller, from Downside, who came to his rescue by driving him up to Oxford. When he took the podium, every student and don in the hall must have known that this was his final goodbye. Yet, once he began to speak, he had seemed to gather new strength and animation, launching into his lecture with his old fervour. However, this proved to be only a temporary reprieve, as the following morning he had been utterly exhausted.    

For the final two months of his life Ronald was nursed by Katherine Asquith and, just four days before he died, Lady Eldon came to stay and offer her support.

Ronald Arbuthnott Knox died on the 24th August 1957. His body was taken to Westminster Cathedral, and at the Requiem Mass his old friend, Fr. Martin D’Arcy, preached the panegyric. He was buried, as he had wished, in the Parish churchyard at Mells. Ten years later, another good friend, the poet Sigfried Sassoon, was laid to rest alongside him.


For further reading about the life and work of Ronald Knox:

The Life of Ronald Knox by Evelyn Waugh.  Published by Little, Brown. 1959   

The Knox Brothers (1977) by Penelope Fitzgerald,  (niece of Ronald Knox)  Re-published by Harper Collins (2002).