Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Knolles, Richard
KNOLLES, RICHARD (1550?–1610), historian of the Turks, born about 1550, probably at Cold Ashby, Northamptonshire, seems to have been son of the Francis Knolles or Knowlis of Cold Ashby who married Frances Holmeby, his second wife, on 17 June 1560 (Bridges, Northamptonshire, i. 553, note 4). He graduated B.A. from Lincoln College, Oxford, on 26 Jan. 1564–5, and M.A. in July 1570. He was elected a fellow of his college, and was still in residence in 1571 (Oxford Univ. Reg., Oxford Hist. Soc., ii. ii. 36). Sir Peter Manwood, son of Sir Roger Manwood [q. v.], hearing of Knolles's abilities, ‘called him from the university,’ and obtained for him the mastership of the grammar school at Sandwich, Kent, a town to which Sir Peter and his father had proved liberal benefactors. According to Wood ‘he did much good in his profession, and sent many young men to the universities,’ although he lived ‘in a world of trouble and cares.’ He died at Sandwich in 1610, and was buried on 2 July in St. Mary's Church there, ‘leaving behind him the character of an industrious, learned, and religious person.’
Sir Peter Manwood was fully justified in his estimate of Knolles's abilities. Owing to his persuasion and encouragement Knolles completed his ‘Generall Historie of the Turkes from the first beginning of that Nation,’ a specimen of carefully elaborated English prose, although its historical value is small. The book, which occupied Knolles about twelve years, was published in 1603 by Adam Islip in London, in a folio of nearly 1,200 pages, with a dedication to James I, and engraved portraits of the sultans by Lawrence Johnson [q. v.] A long list of Byzantine historians and other authorities is given, but Knolles seems to have largely followed Boissard's ‘Vitæ et Icones Sultanorum Turcicorum’ (Frankfort, 1596). Knolles's volume concludes with ‘a brief discourse of the greatness of the Turkish Empire, and where the greatest strength thereof consisteth.’ A second edition, with ‘the lives of the Ottoman emperors and kings’ continued to the date of publication, appeared in 1610, and third and fourth editions, with further continuations, were issued in 1621 and 1631 respectively. The fifth edition, 1638, included ‘a new continuation’ collected out of the despatches of Sir P. Wyche and others by T[homas] Nabbes [q. v.] A later edition, revised by Paul Rycaut, is dated 1679, and the same editor, then Sir Paul Rycaut, brought out a final and extended edition, in three folio volumes, between 1687 and 1700, under the title of ‘The General History of the Turks, with a Continuation by Sir Paul Rycaut.’ An abridgment by John Savage appeared in 1701 in 2 vols. 8vo.
Dr. Johnson lavished somewhat excessive praise on Knolles's style. ‘None of our writers,’ he asserted in the ‘Rambler,’ No. 122, ‘can in my opinion justly contest the superiority of Knolles, who in his “History of the Turks” has displayed all the excellencies that narration can admit. His style, though somewhat obscured by time, and sometimes vitiated by false wit, is pure, nervous, elevated, and clear. A wonderful multiplicity of events is so artfully arranged and so distinctly explained that each facilitates the knowledge of the next.’ Only in the orations which Knolles places in the mouths of his leading personages does Johnson detect aught that is tedious or languid; and Knolles's limited reputation he attributes to his choice of a subject ‘of which none desires to be informed.’ Hallam commends Johnson's verdict: ‘Knolles's descriptions are vivid and animated—circumstantial, but not to feebleness; his characters are drawn with a strong pencil.’ Horace Walpole, on the other hand, found the style tiresome; but Southey was an ardent admirer, and recommended Coleridge, when setting out for Malta, to ‘look in old Knolles and read the siege of Malta before you go.’ Byron acknowledged deep indebtedness to Knolles. Shortly before his death at Missolonghi, he wrote: ‘Old Knolles was one of the first books that gave me pleasure when a child; and I believe it had much influence on my future wishes to visit the Levant, and gave perhaps the oriental colouring which is observed in my poetry’ (BYRON, Works, ix. 141; cf. Don Juan, bk. v. c. cxlvii. 7).
Knolles also published a translation: ‘The Six Bookes of a Common Weale written by J. Bodin, a famous Lawyer … out of the French and Latin copies, done into English,’ London, 1606 (by Adam Islip), dedicated to Sir Peter Manwood (cf. Brydges, Censura Literaria, i. 349 sq.) Wood wrongly ascribes to Knolles ‘Grammatica Latina, Græca et Hebr.’ (1665), which is by Hanserd Knollys [q. v.] (Athenæum, 6 Aug. 1881, p. 176).
A manuscript English translation of Camden's ‘Britannia’ is among Ashmolean MSS. at the Bodleian Library, Oxford. A note describes this copy as once Camden's property, which was ‘founde in his own library, lock't in a cupbord, as a treasure he much esteemed and since his death suffered to see light.’ It has not been printed.
[Wood's Athenæ Oxon. ed. Bliss, ii. 79–82; Knolles's Works; Brit. Mus. Cat.]