Knox, Robert Bent- (1808–93), protestant bishop of Down and Connor and archbishop of Armagh, was born 25 September 1808 in Dungannon, Co. Tyrone, second son of Charles Knox (c.1771–1825), archdeacon of Armagh and sixth son of the 1st Viscount Northland, and his wife Hannah, daughter of Robert Bent, MP for Aylesbury. He entered TCD 3 January 1825, graduating BA (1829), and MA (1834), having been ordained deacon of the diocese of Kilmore in 1832. Later he graduated DD (1849) and DD (h.c.) (1858), both at TCD. On 7 May 1834 he was collated by his uncle, Edmund Knox, bishop of Limerick, to the chancellorship of the derelict cathedral of Ardfert, Co. Kerry, apparently as a sinecure. Briefly occupying the post of diocesan treasurer (March–October 1841) he resigned to be prebend of St Munchin's cathedral, Limerick city (1841–9). Though his vocational aptitude seemed academic and he was given his head to follow up wide-ranging studies, he published curiously little in an age of voluminous religious writing. Having turned out an index to the clergy and officeholders of the Church of Ireland in 1839 – his reputation was principally for ‘the work of organising and collecting statistics’ (Ir. Times, 26 Oct. 1893) – he was unexpectedly chosen by Lord John Russell (prime minister, 1846–52) for the bishopric of Down and Connor in March 1849.
Consecrated at Armagh (1 May 1849), he attended initially to practical matters of church renovation and parish reorganisation during the 1850s. About 1852 he founded the Belfast Church Extension and Endowment Society, which gathered and distributed funds for church repair. He showed unflagging administrative energy and little sign of cloistered aversion to committee work. Of sober (and aristocratic) evangelical upbringing, he took at first a cautious view of the protestant movement of revival in Ulster during 1858–9, which was particularly exuberant in his own diocese. However, by the summer of 1859, having been reassured by the measured response to popular spiritual excitement advised by the report of a conference of diocesan clergy he had convened earlier that year, and by the confidence of peers in the hierarchy, he concluded that ‘God was shedding abroad . . . fear of the Lord’, with the qualification that the delirium of crowd repentance only carried spiritual weight in the presence of a ‘strong conviction of sin . . . and the testimony of a reformed life’ (Acheson, 193). He was, however, comfortably of a mind with the evangelical wing of the church in his unwavering rejection of the non-denominational educational policy of the national school system.
In February 1862 he forwarded a diocesan petition to the 7th earl of Carlisle (qv), the lord lieutenant, proposing that the schools of the poorly funded Church Education Society would co-operate with the commissioners of national education if only scriptural references could spontaneously be used in teaching outside hours of doctrinal instruction. It was not sensible of the petitioners to demand financial assistance while wilfully failing to accept the dimension of controversy attached to Bible reading or quotation (a contemporary protestant missionary practice in Ireland), and they were accordingly denied. Knox later (at the general synod of 1873) advocated the establishment of a new Church of Ireland teacher-training college rather than submit to state regulation, despite the hard fact of church financial weakness. By contrast, he was one of the few senior churchmen in the later 1860s pragmatically to favour negotiation with government in respect of the looming measure of disestablishment. As late as 3 February 1869 he stood alone at a conference of bishops in calling for an end to unavailing refusal to compromise in face of the inevitable. At a diocesan conference in Belfast on 16 March 1869 his own clergy and lay congregation loudly hissed his speech on the issue and resolved against his position. It was unfortunate for Gladstone, the prime minister, in his search for inside help with his bill, that Knox was regarded as ‘worse than nobody’ (Akenson, Church of Ireland, 252) in the corridors of church politics.
That his diocesan clergy felt they could get away with unruly noises of displeasure during his contribution to conference in 1869 suggests a temperament more equable and unassertive than many of his colleagues in the hierarchy. Holding an annual conference of diocesan clergy for debate of church matters from the early 1860s (unusual in itself and exceptional in encouraging the participation of some of the laity) seems an index of a capacity for intellectual detachment and openness. Of old-fashioned whig inclinations, he had few political wiles. He was recognised to have a talent for tranquil chairmanship of discussion, whatever the issue. At first glance this might seem insufficient to earn him further promotion within the church, but he was enthroned archbishop of Armagh on 1 June 1886; the first incumbent, incidentally, to have been educated wholly in Ireland. During late 1888 he uncharacteristically locked horns with J. A. Galbraith (qv) on the executive committee of the representative church body. The next year he oversaw the church purchase of the episcopal palace at Armagh, formal ownership of which had been alienated under disestablishment. Though increasingly gloomy about the Irish political landscape he showed withering scorn for the machinations of extremist anti-ritualist bodies, such as the Protestant Defence Society (dubbed by him the ‘Protestant Disturbance Society’), active within the late nineteenth-century church. In November 1892 he was in the minority at the court of general synod that adjudicated against setting a cross near the altar of St Bartholomew's, Dublin, having been inclined to dismiss the controversial anti-ritualist prosecution. At the general synod of October 1893 he denounced the second home rule bill as ‘bristling with dangers’, winning back some ultra-protestant sympathy. He died suddenly of a heart attack at the Armagh palace on 23 October 1893. He was buried in the family plot in Holywood, Co. Down.
He married (5 October 1842) Catherine Delia, daughter of Thomas Gibbon Fitzgibbon of Ballyseeda, Co. Limerick; they had three sons and two daughters.