Biography:Robert Hugh Benson

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Short description: British writer and Catholic priest (1871–1914)

Robert Hugh Benson
Monsignor R. H. Benson in Oct. 1912, Aged 40.jpg
Photo of Monsignor Benson by G. Jerrard, 1912
Personal details
Birth nameRobert Hugh Benson
BornBerkshire, United Kingdom
Died19 October 1914(1914-10-19) (aged 42)
Salford, United Kingdom
DenominationCatholic Church
ParentsEdward White Benson and Mary Sidgwick Benson
Alma materTrinity College, Cambridge
SignatureRobert Hugh Benson's signature

Robert Hugh Monsignor Benson AFSC KC*SG KGCHS (18 November 1871 – 19 October 1914) was an English Catholic priest and writer. First an Anglican priest, he was received into the Catholic Church in 1903 and ordained therein the next year. He was also a prolific writer of fiction, writing the notable dystopian novel Lord of the World, as well as Come Rack! Come Rope!.

His output encompassed historical, horror and science fiction, contemporary fiction, children's stories, plays, apologetics, devotional works and articles. He continued his writing career at the same time as he progressed through the hierarchy to become a Chamberlain to Pope Pius X in 1911, and gain the title of Monsignor before his death a few years later.

Early life

Benson was the youngest son of Edward White Benson, the Archbishop of Canterbury and his wife, Mary; Benson was the younger brother of E. F. Benson, A. C. Benson and Margaret Benson.[1][2]

Benson was educated at Eton College and then studied classics and theology at Trinity College, Cambridge, from 1890 to 1893.[3]

In 1895, Benson was ordained a priest in the Church of England by his father, who was the then Archbishop of Canterbury.


Robert Hugh Benson in 1907

After his father died suddenly in 1896, Benson was sent on a trip to the Middle East to recover his own health. While there he began to question the status of the Church of England and to consider the claims of the Catholic Church. His own piety began to tend toward the High Church tradition, and he started exploring religious life in various Anglican communities, eventually obtaining permission to join the Community of the Resurrection.

Benson made his profession as a member of the community in 1901, at which time he had no thoughts of leaving the Church of England. As he continued his studies and began writing, however, he became more and more uneasy with his own doctrinal position and, on 11 September 1903, he was received into the Catholic Church. Benson was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1904. As the son of the late Archbishop of Canterbury, his conversion, and his subsequent ordination, caused a sensation.[4]

His first assignment was as a college chaplain. He had a stutter and is said to have had a 'reedy' voice. Benson was a popular preacher, attracting large audiences wherever he spoke. In 1914, he visited the University of Notre Dame and gave an address on the papacy. Both Confessions of a Convert (1913) and Lourdes (1914) were serialized in Notre Dame's Ave Maria magazine, before appearing as books.[5]

He was awarded the Dignitary of Honour of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre.


Benson continued his writing career along with his ministry as a priest. Like both his brothers, Edward Frederic Benson ("Fred") and Arthur Christopher Benson, Robert wrote many ghost and horror stories, as well as children's stories and historical fiction. His horror and ghost fiction are collected in The Light Invisible (1903) and A Mirror of Shallott (1907).[1]

His novel, Lord of the World (1907), is generally regarded as one of the first modern dystopian novels.[1] In the speculative 2007 he predicted there, the Anglican Church and other Protestant denominations have crumbled and disappeared under a rising tide of secularism and atheism, leaving an embattled Catholic Church as the sole champion of Christian truth. Nations are armed with weapons which can destroy a whole city from the air within minutes, and euthanasia is widely practiced and considered as a moral advance. The Antichrist is depicted as a charismatic secular liberal who organizes an international body devoted to world peace and love under his direction.

In his next novel The Dawn of All (1911), Benson imagined an opposite future 1973 in which the Catholic Church has emerged victorious in England and worldwide after Germany and Austria won the "Emperor War" of 1914; this book is also notable in its fairly accurate prediction of a global network of a passenger air travel.[6][7] Come Rack! Come Rope! (1912) is a historical novel describing the persecution of English Catholics during the Elizabethan era.[8] The bibliography below reveals a prodigious output.

Among his historical novels is the Reformation Trilogy: By What Authority (1905), The King’s Achievement (1905), and The Queen’s Tragedy (1907).[9]

Vatican chaplaincy

Benson was appointed a supernumerary private chamberlain to the Pope (Pius X) in 1911 and consequently styled as Monsignor.[10]

Private life

As a young man, Benson recalled, he had rejected the idea of marriage as "quite inconceivable".[11] He had a close friendship with "Baron Corvo," the alias of the novelist Frederick Rolfe, with whom he had hoped to write a book on St Thomas Becket, until Benson decided that he should not be associated (according to writer Brian Masters) "with a Venetian pimp and procurer of boys". Nevertheless, he maintained his friendship with Lord Alfred Douglas, the friend and lover of Oscar Wilde, and when an acquaintance protested that the connection with Douglas was inappropriate for him, he replied: "Lord Alfred Douglas is my friend, and he'll come down when he likes!"[12]

Death and legacy

Monsignor Benson died of pneumonia in 1914 in Salford, where he had been preaching a mission; he was 42. As he had requested, he was buried in the orchard of Hare Street House, his house in the Hertfordshire village of Hare Street.[13] A chapel, dedicated to St Hugh, was built over the site. Benson bequeathed the house to the Catholic Church as a country retreat for the Archbishop of Westminster. The Catholic church in the nearby town of Buntingford, which he helped finance, is dedicated to St Richard of Chichester, but also known as the Benson Memorial Church.[14]

In 2019, the house was put up for sale. Benson's body was exhumed and moved to the crypt of St Edmund's College in Old Hall Green.[10]

The Benson Club is a Catholic reading group named in his honour at Fisher House, Cambridge.



Science fiction

Historical fiction

Contemporary fiction

Children's books

  • Alphabet of Saints, with Reginald Balfour and Charles Ritchie, illustraded by L. D. Symington, Oates & Washbourne, 1905.
  • A Child's Rule of Life, illustrated by Gabriel Pippet, digitized by Richard Mammana.
  • Old Testament Rhymes, illustrated by Gabriel Pippet.

Devotional works

Apologetic works


Selected articles


See also


  • Beesley, Thomas Quinn (1916). "The Poetry of Robert Hugh Benson," The Catholic Educational Review, Vol. XII, pp. 122–134.
  • Benson, Arthur C. (1915). Hugh: Memoirs of a Brother. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
  • Bleiler, Everett (1948). The Checklist of Fantastic Literature. Chicago: Shasta Publishers.
  • Bour'his, Jean Morris le (1980). Robert Hugh Benson, Homme de Foi et Artiste. Atelier Reproduction de Thèses, Université de Lille III.
  • Braybrooke, Patrick (1931). "Robert Hugh Benson; Novelist and Philosopher." In: Some Catholic Novelists. London: Burns, Oates & Washbourne.
  • Brown, Stephen J.M. & Thomas McDermott (1945). A Survey of Catholic Literature. Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company.
  • Concannon, Helena (1914). "Robert Hugh Benson, Novelist," Part II, The Catholic World, Vol. XCIX, pp. 487–498, 635–645.
  • Gorce, Agnès de La (1928). Robert Hugh Benson: Prêtre et Romancier, 1871-1914. Paris: Plon.
  • Grayson, Janet (1998). Robert Hugh Benson: Life and Works. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America.
  • Marshall, George. "Two Autobiographical Narratives of Conversion: Robert Hugh Benson and Ronald Knox." British Catholic History 24.2 (1998): 237–253.
  • Martindale, C.C. (1916). The Life of Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson, Vol. 2. London: Longmans, Green & Co.
  • McMahon, Joseph H. (1915). "The Late Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson," Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, Vol. XXVI, pp. 55–63.
  • McMahon, Joseph H. (1915). "Robert Hugh Benson: A Personal Memory," The Bookman, Vol. XLI, pp. 160–169.
  • Monaghan, Sister Mary Saint Rita (1985). Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson: His Apostolate and Its Message for Our Time. Brisbane, Qld.: Boolarong Publications.
  • Parr, Olive Katherine (1915). Robert Hugh Benson: An Appreciation. London: Hutchinson & Co.
  • Ross, Allan (1915). Monsignor Hugh Benson (1871-1914). The Catholic Truth Society.
  • Shadurski, Maxim (2020). The Nationality of Utopia: H. G. Wells, England, and the World State. London; New York: Routledge. ISBN:9780367330491. (Chapter 3 features an in-depth discussion of The Dawn of All.)
  • Shuster, Norman (1922). "Robert Hugh Benson and the Aging Novel." In: The Catholic Spirit in Modern English Literature. New York: The Macmillan Company, pp. 208–228.
  • Warre Cornish, Blanche (1914). Memorials of Robert Hugh Benson. New York: P.J. Kenedy & Sons.
  • Watt, Reginald J.J. (1918). Robert Hugh Benson: Captain in God's Army. London: Burns & Oates Ltd.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Mike Ashley (May–June 1984). "The Essential Writers: Blood Brothers (Profile of E.F., A.C. and R. H. Benson)". Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone Magazine: 63–70. 
  2. Martin, Jessica (2004). "Benson, Margaret (1865–1916), Egyptologist and religious philosopher" (in en). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/56291.  (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  3. "Benson, Robert Hugh (BN890RH)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  4. Joseph Pearce. "R.H. Benson: Unsung Genius". 
  5. "Robert Hugh Benson". 
  6. Maxim Shadurski (June 2013). "Religion and Science in Robert Hugh Benson's The Dawn of All - see online abstract". English Studies 94 (4). 
  7. The volor aircraft achieve lift by means of aerolite, an extremely "volatile" gas.
  8. Richard Griffiths (2010). Pen and the Cross: Catholicism and English Literature 1850 - 2000. London: A&C Black. pp. 83–85. ISBN 9780826496973. 
  9. Ann Applegarth. "The Fiction of Robert Hugh Benson". 
  10. 10.0 10.1 Bridget Stice. "Save Hare Street House". "Hi All, I apologise for the lack of posts and for the delay in this one, I've been moving house and it's chaotic. Back on 26 Sept I had a second article published in the Hertfordshire Mercury about HSH. This one focuses on past residents. There should also be something in the Buntingford Journal October edition. I hope you enjoy it" 
  11. Benson, Robert Hugh (1913). Confessions of a Convert. Longmans, Green and Co.. 
  12. Howse, Christopher (3 February 2007). "Sacred mysteries". The Daily Telegraph. 
  13. Benson, A.C. (July 2007). Hugh: Memoirs of a Brother. Dodo Press. p. 210. ISBN 978-1406548198. 
  14. "Benson Memorial Church". 
  15. "The Dawn of All," The Bookman, September 1911.
  16. "By What Authority? (Benson)" (in en). 
  17. "The King's Achievement (Benson)" (in en). 
  18. Miner, Brad (July 5, 2022). "What England Lost: Benson's 'The King's Achievement'". 
  19. Pollen, J. H. (July 21, 1906). "Review of The Queen's Tragedy by Robert Hugh Benson". The Academy 71 (1785): 63–64. 
  20. Cooper, Frederick Taber. "The Accustomed Manner and Some Recent Novels," The Bookman, May 1914.
  21. "None Other Gods" (in en). 
  22. "The Friendship of Christ (Benson)" (in en). 
  23. "Papers of a Pariah (Benson)" (in en). 
  24. "Christ in the Church: A Volume of Religious Essays (Benson)" (in en). 
  25. "Confessions of a Convert (Benson)" (in en). 

External links

Online editions