Born 30 July 1844 in Barrow upon Soar, Leicestershire, Henry Melvill Gwatkin excelled in his early academic studies. The second son of Revd Richard Gwatkin and Ann Middleton studied for seven years at Shrewsbury School. Overcoming a childhood bout of scarlet fever, Gwatkin excelled in his studies. His academic prowess earned him a scholarship to St John’s College, Cambridge, in 1863, where he received three first classes in 1867. The following year he received the only first in theology and was duly elected a fellow of the college. In 1874, Gwatkin married Lucy de Lisle Brock, daughter of Revd Thomas Brock, vicar of St John’s, Guernsey, and received the newly established position of lecturer in theology at St John’s College.
For the next seventeen years he lectured in the faculties of theology and history, through which he encouraged the importance of ecclesiastical history as a valuable field of study. His advocacy of ecclesiastical history did not go unnoticed. Narrowly missing out on the Dixie Professorship in Ecclesiastical History in 1884, he succeeded Mandell Creighton in that chair in 1891, after the publication of his work The Meaning of Ecclesiastical History (1891). Following ordination, Gwatkin took up the post and became a fellow of Emmanuel College. Over the course of his career, he overcame hearing and speech difficulties resulting from his bout with scarlet fever, as well as rapidly deteriorating sight, to become a popular lecturer and preacher in Cambridge who actively participated in the life of the university.
Gwatkin published on a variety of subjects. His works on ecclesiastical history focused primarily on early and medieval Christianity and included Studies of Arianism (1882) and Early Church History (1909), which drew heavily upon his Gifford Lecture series of 1903. In addition, he contributed to and served as editor of Cambridge Medieval History (1911). Two other works published posthumously received significant public attention: The Sacrifice of Thankfulness (1917), a collection of his sermons edited by his wife, which exhibited the radicalization of his theology later in life, and Britain’s Case against Germany (1917), which provided an anti-German justification for Britain’s involvement in the First World War. Gwatkin’s insatiable energies extended beyond history and theology, however; he gained international attention for papers on the radulae of snails. His extensive collection of radulae is now held in the British Museum.
Henry Melville Gwatkin died of a seizure at home in Cambridge on 14 November 1916.