Ronald Arbuthnott Knox was born in 1888, the youngest of a family of four sons and two daughters. He was descended from Anglican bishops through his mother as well as through his father, who himself would become bishop of Manchester in 1903. His mother died when he was four years old, and between the ages of five and eight, Knox spent most of his time in a country rectory under the care of his father’s mother, brother, and sisters, who impressed him with their strict Protestant piety. After a private school education during which his precociousness manifested itself in his skill in composing verses in English, Latin, and Greek, he won a scholarship to Eton College. There he participated in the catholicizing movement within the Church of England. At the age of seventeen, to be able to serve God without impediment, he vowed himself to celibacy. Yet he was not a dour, repressed youth; rather, his high spirits made him attractive to his fellows. This same playful spirit can be seen in his writings for the Eton College Chronicle.
In 1906, after a distinguished career at Eton, Knox went to Balliol College, Oxford University, where he was a brilliant student, winning several scholarships and prizes and acquiring the reputation of a nimble-witted debater and writer. In 1910 he was graduated with a first in “Greats” (studies in the Greek and Latin classics) and was elected a Fellow of Trinity College. Following his ordination as a priest in the Church of England in 1912, he was appointed chaplain of Trinity College. He believed that the Church of England was a branch of the Roman Catholic Church, and his introduction of Roman practices into his services brought him into conflict with some Anglican bishops. He responded by satirizing the liberal views of his opponents in parodies of Swiftian bite. Increasingly dissatisfied with his Anglicanism, he converted to Roman Catholicism in 1917. He described the evolution of his beliefs in A Spiritual Aeneid (1918).
After theological studies at St. Edmund’s College, Knox was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1919. He never had a parish, but he had an active apostolate via his teaching and writing. He taught at St. Edmund’s until 1926, when he was appointed chaplain of the Catholic students at Oxford University, a post he held for thirteen years. In the summer of 1939, at the request of the English hierarchy, he withdrew from his chaplaincy to devote himself to a modern translation of the Bible from the Latin Vulgate. Though much criticized, his translation has an individuality and unity that no other possesses. He completed the New Testament in 1945 and the Old Testament in 1950. Prominent among his later works was Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion, with Special Reference to the XVII and XVIII Centuries (1950), which, like his translation of the Bible, represented a summation of his life. This study of religious leaders who assert that they have had a special revelation of God’s will was the product of thirty years of research.
In 1946 Knox moved to Mells, Somerset, where he resided for the rest of his life. In 1950, he was made a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and in 1956 he was elected to the Pontifical Academy. In his last public appearance, he delivered the Romanes Lecture at Oxford in June, 1957. Many in the audience knew that he was dying of cancer, and the lecture was both a brilliant success and a poignant occasion. Knox died at Mells on August 24, 1957. Following a requiem mass in Westminster Cathedral, he was buried in the churchyard at Mells, with a small group of friends as witnesses.