Benson was born on 24 April 1862 at Wellington College, Berkshire, the son of Edward White Benson (1829–1896), first headmaster of the college. He was one of six children of Edward White Benson (Archbishop of Canterbury, 1882–96) and his wife Mary Sidgwick Benson, sister of the philosopher Henry Sidgwick.
Benson was born into a literary family; his brothers included Edward Frederic Benson, best remembered for his Mapp and Lucia novels, and Robert Hugh Benson, a priest of the Church of England before converting to Roman Catholicism, who wrote many popular novels. Their sister, Margaret Benson, was an artist, author, and amateur Egyptologist.
The Benson family was exceptionally accomplished, but their history was somewhat tragic; a son and daughter died young; and another daughter, as well as Arthur himself, suffered from a mental condition that was possibly bipolar disorder or manic-depressive psychosis, which they had inherited from their father. None of the children married. Despite his illness, Arthur was a distinguished academic and a prolific author.
From the ages of 10 to 21, he lived in cathedral closes, first at Lincoln where his father was Chancellor of Lincoln Cathedral, and then at Truro where his father was the first Bishop of Truro. He retained a love of church music and ceremony.
During 1874 he won a scholarship to Eton from Temple Grove School, a preparatory school in East Sheen. He became a student of King's College, Cambridge during 1881, where he was a scholar and scored first for the Classical tripos during 1884.
From 1885 to 1903 he taught at Eton, returning to Cambridge in 1904 as a Fellow of Magdalene College to lecture in English Literature. He became president of the college in 1912 and Master of Magdalene in December 1915, a post he held until his death in 1925. From 1906, he was a governor of Gresham's School.
The modern development of Magdalene was shaped by Benson. He was a generous benefactor to the college with a significant impact on the modern appearance of the college grounds; at least twenty inscriptions around the college refer to him. In 1930, Benson Court was constructed and named after him.
He collaborated with Lord Esher in editing the correspondence of Queen Victoria (1907). His poems and volumes of essays, such as From a College Window, and The Upton Letters (essays in the form of letters) were famous during his time; and he left one of the longest diaries ever written, some four million words. Extracts from the diaries are printed in Edwardian Excursions. From the Diaries of A. C. Benson, 1898–1904, ed. David Newsome, London: John Murray, 1981. His literary criticisms of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward FitzGerald, Walter Pater and John Ruskin, rank among his best work. Today, he is best remembered as the author of the words of one of Britain's best-known patriotic songs, Land of Hope and Glory, written for the coronation of King Edward VII.
Like his brothers Edward Frederic (E. F.) and Robert Hugh (R. H.), A. C. Benson was noted as an author of ghost stories. The bulk of his published ghost stories in the two volumes The Hill of Trouble and Other Stories (1903) and The Isles of Sunset (1904) were written as moral allegories for his pupils. After Arthur's death, Fred Benson found a collection of unpublished ghost stories. He included two of them in a book, Basil Netherby (1927); the title story was renamed "House at Treheale" and the volume was completed by the long "The Uttermost Farthing"; the fate of the rest of the stories is unknown. The collection Paul the Minstrel and Other Stories (1911; reprint 1977, collects the contents of The Hill of Trouble and Other Stories and The Isles of Sunset. Nine of Arthur's ghost stories are included in David Stuart Davies (ed), The Temple of Death: The Ghost Stories of A. C. & R. H. Benson (Wordsworth, 2007), together with seven by his brother R. H. Benson, while nine of Arthur's and ten of Robert's are included in Ghosts in the House (Ash-Tree, 1996); the contents of the joint collections are similar but not identical.
In The Schoolmaster, Benson summarised his views on education based on his 18-year experience at Eton. He criticised the tendency, which he wrote was prevalent in English public schools at the time, to "make the boys good and to make them healthy" to the detriment of their intellectual development.
A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, he founded the Benson Medal in 1916, to be awarded "in respect of meritorious works in poetry, fiction, history and belles lettres".
He died, unmarried, at the Master's Lodge of Magdalene and was buried at St Giles's Cemetery in Cambridge. A cousin James Bethune-Baker is also buried in the cemetery.Men of Might: Studies of Great Characters (with H. F. W. Tatham, 1892).
Le Cahier Jaune: Poems (1892).
Genealogy of the Family of Benson of Banger House and Northwoods, in the Parish of Ripon and Chapelry of Pateley Bridge (1894).
Lord Vyet & Other Poems (1898).
Ode in Memory of the Rt. Honble. William Ewart Gladstone (1898).
Thomas Gray (1895).
Fasti Etonenses: A Biographical History of Eton (1899)
The Professor: and Other Poems (1900).
The Schoolmaster (1902).
Monnow: An Ode (1906).
The Hill of Trouble and Other Stories (1903).
The Isles of Sunset (1904).
Peace: and Other Poems (1905).
The Gate of Death: A Diary (1906).
From a College Window (1906).
Walter Pater (1906).
The Thread of Gold (1907)
Memoirs of Arthur Hamilton (1907).
The House of Quiet: An Autobiography (1907).
The Altar Fire (1907).
The Letters of One, a Study in Limitations (1907).
Beside Still Waters (1908).
At Large (1908).
The Upton Letters (1908).
Until the Evening (1909).
The Poems of A. C. Benson (1909).
The Child of the Dawn (1911).
Paul the Minstrel and Other Stories (1911).
The Leaves of the Tree: Studies in Biography (1911).
Ruskin: A Study in Personality (1911).
The Letters of Queen Victoria (1907).
Thy Rod and Thy Staff (1912).
The Beauty of Life: Being Selections from the Writings of Arthur Christopher Benson (1912).
Joyous Gard (1913).
The Silent Isle (1913).
Along the Road (1913).
Where No Fear Was: A Book About Fear (1914).
The Orchard Pavilion (1914).
Escape and Other Essays (1916).
Meanwhile; A Packet of War Letters (1916).
Father Payne (1917).
Life and Letters of Maggie Benson (1920).
Hugh: Memoirs of a Brother (1920).
The Reed of Pan; English Renderings of Greek Epigrams and Lyrics (1922).
Magdalene College, Cambridge: A Little View of Its Buildings and History (1923).
Selected Poems (1924).
Chris Gascoyne; An Experiment in Solitude, from the Diaries of John Trevor (1924).
Everybody's Book of the Queen's Dolls' House (1924).
Memories and Friends (1924).
Edward Fitzgerald (1925).
The House of Menerdue (1925).
Rambles and Reflections (1926).
Basil Netherby (1926).
The Diary of Arthur Christopher Benson (1926).
"The Poetry of Mr. A. C. Benson" in the Sewanee Review, Volume 14 (Sewanee: University of the South, 1906), 110-111, 405-421.
"Poets All" in The Speaker, Volume 15, 13 February 1897 (London), 196.
"Mr. Benson’s Poems" in The Literary World, Volume 48, 3 November 1893 (London: James Clarke & Co.), 329.
"Selected Poetry of Arthur Christopher Benson" (1862–1925).
"A Literary Causerie" in The Speaker, Volume 15, 13 March 1897 (London), 299.