A. L. Rowse

From Infogalactic: the planetary knowledge core
Jump to: navigation, search
A. L. Rowse
File:Makins, Rowse and Baring.jpg
Rowse (centre), Roger Makins and Evelyn Baring photographed in 1926 by Lady Ottoline Morrell
Born Alfred Leslie Rowse
4 December 1903
Tregonissey, St Austell, Cornwall
Died 3 October 1997(1997-10-03) (aged 93)
Cornwall, UK
Occupation Poet, academic and Elizabethan historian
Notable awards CH, FBA, FRSL, FRHistS
Insignia of C.H.

Dr. Alfred Leslie Rowse CH FBA (4 December 1903 – 3 October 1997), known publicly as A. L. Rowse but to friends and family as Leslie, was a British author and historian from Cornwall, England, UK.

Rowse is best known for his work on Elizabethan England and his poetry about Cornwall. He was also a Shakespearean scholar and biographer.

Life and politics

Rowse was born at Tregonissey,[1] near St Austell, Cornwall, the son of Richard Rowse, a china clay worker, and Annie (née Vanson). Despite his parents being poor and semi-illiterate, he won a place at St Austell County Grammar School (now Poltair School – which has named part of its curriculum the Rowse Pathway) and then a scholarship to Christ Church, Oxford in 1921. He was encouraged in his pursuit of an academic career by a fellow Cornish man of letters, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, of Polperro, who recognised his ability from an early age. Rowse endured doubting comments about his paternity, thus he paid particular attention to his mother's association with a local farmer and butcher from Polgooth, near St Austell, Frederick William May (1872–1953).[2] Nonetheless any such frustrations were channelled into academia, which reaped him dividends later in life.

Rowse had planned to study English literature, having developed an early love of poetry, but was persuaded to read history. He was a popular undergraduate and made many friendships that lasted for life. He graduated with first class honours in 1925 and was elected a Fellow of All Souls College the same year. In 1929, he was awarded his Master of Arts degree, and in 1927 was appointed Lecturer at Merton College, where he stayed until 1930. He became a Lecturer at the London School of Economics.

In 1931, he contested the parliamentary seat of Penryn and Falmouth for the Labour Party, but was unsuccessful, finishing third behind the Liberals. In the general election of 1935 he again proved unsuccessful, however, managed to finish ahead of the Liberal in second place. In both the 1931 and 1935 elections, Maurice Petherick, was returned as Conservative MP to Parliament, albeit with a minority of the vote. Rowse became a supporter of calls made by the likes of Sir Stafford Cripps for a "Popular Front" whereby Labour and Liberals should unite at election time to defeat the National Government. While Cripps was expelled for his views, Rowse worked on getting "local arrangements" agreed by Labour and Liberal parties in Devon and Cornwall, making a common cause with the Liberal MP Sir Richard Acland. A general election was expected to take place in 1939, and Rowse, who was again Labour's candidate for Penryn & Falmouth, was not expected to have a Liberal opponent which would make his chances of winning much greater. However, due to outbreak of war, the election did not take place and effectively ended his political career.

Undeterred, he chose to continue his career at Oxford becoming Sub-Warden of All Souls College. In 1952, he failed in his candidacy for election as Warden against John Hanbury-Sparrow and shortly afterwards began his regular trips to The Huntington Library in California where for many years he was a Senior Research Fellow. He received a doctorate (DLitt) from Oxford University in 1953. After delivering the British Academy's 1957 Raleigh Lecture on History about Sir Richard Grenville's place in English history he became a Fellow of the Academy (FBA) in 1958.

Rowse published about 100 books. He also became a celebrated author and much-travelled lecturer in the mid-20th century, especially in the United States. He also published many popular articles in newspapers and magazines in Great Britain and the United States. His brilliance was widely recognised, and his knack for the sensational, as well as his academic boldness (which some considered to be irresponsible carelessness), sustained his reputation. His opinions on rival popular historians, such as Hugh Trevor-Roper and A. J. P. Taylor, were expressed sometimes in very ripe terms. In his later years, Rowse moved increasingly towards the political right, and many considered him to be part of the Tory tradition by the time he died. One of Rowse's lifelong themes in his books and articles was his condemnation of the National Government's policy of appeasement in the 1930s and the economic and political consequences for Great Britain of fighting a second war with Germany. Another was his horror at the degradation of standards in modern society. He is reported as saying: "this filthy twentieth century. I hate its guts".

Despite international academic success, Rowse remained proud of his Cornish roots. He retired from Oxford in 1973 to Trenarren House, his Cornish home, from where he remained active as writer, reviewer and conversationalist until immobilised by a stroke the year before his death. His ashes are buried in the Campdowns Cemetery, Charlestown near St Austell. There is a commemorative plaque to him in Truro Cathedral and a memorial stone on Black Head, overlooking St Austell Bay almost within sight of Trenarren.

Personal attitudes

The diary excerpts published in 2003 reveal that "he was an overt even rather proud homosexual in a pre-Wolfenden age, fascinated by young policemen and sailors, obsessively speculating on the sexual proclivities of everyone he meets".[3] Much later, following retirement, he also stated, ‘of course, I used to be a homo; but now, when it doesn't matter, if anything I'm a hetero’[4]

He was aware of his own brilliance from earliest childhood; obsessed that others either did not accept this fact, or not quickly enough, the diaries describe “a series of often inane jealousies.”[3] Rather than reflections on his successes, they concentrate on the negative, describing his inability to cope with ordinary disappointments.

Although clearly a socialist while he was active with the Labour party, by the 1960s his attitude was somewhat misanthropic, with contempt for humans generally.

He described a "Slacker State". "I don't want to have my money scalped off me to maintain other people's children. I don't like other people; I particularly don't like their children; I deeply disapprove of their proliferation making the globe uninhabitable. The fucking idiots - I don't want to pay for their fucking."[3]

Elizabethan and Shakespearean scholarship

Rowse's early works focus on 16th-century England and his first full-length historical monograph, Sir Richard Grenville of the Revenge (1937), was a biography of a 16th-century sailor. His next was Tudor Cornwall (1941), a lively detailed account of Cornish society in the 16th century. He consolidated his reputation with a one-volume general history of England, The Spirit of English History (1943), but his most important work was the historical trilogy The Elizabethan Age: The England of Elizabeth (1950), The Expansion of Elizabethan England (1955), and The Elizabethan Renaissance (1971–72), respectively examine the society, overseas exploration, and culture of late 16th-century England.

In 1963 Rowse began to concentrate on Shakespeare, starting with a biography in which he claimed to have dated all the sonnets, identified Christopher Marlowe as the suitor's rival and solved all but one of the other problems posed by the sonnets. His failure to acknowledge his reliance upon the work of other scholars alienated some of his peers, but he won popular acclaim. In 1973 he published Shakespeare the Man, in which he claimed to have solved the final problem – the identity of the 'Dark Lady': from a close reading of the sonnets and the diaries of Simon Forman, he asserted that she must have been Emilia Lanier, whose poems he would later collect. He suggested that Shakespeare had been influenced by the feud between the Danvers and Long families in Wiltshire, when he wrote Romeo and Juliet. The Danverses were friends of the 3rd Earl of Southampton.

Rowse's "discoveries" about Shakespeare's sonnets amount to the following:

  1. The Fair Youth was the 19-year-old Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, extremely handsome and bisexual.
  2. The sonnets were written 1592–1594/5.
  3. The "rival poet" was the famously homosexual Christopher Marlowe.
  4. The "Dark Lady" was Emilia Lanier. His use of the diaries of Simon Forman, which contained material about her, influenced other scholars.
  5. Christopher Marlowe's death is recorded in the sonnets.
  6. Shakespeare was a heterosexual man, who was faced with an unusual situation when the handsome, young, bisexual Earl of Southampton fell in love with him.

Rowse was dismissive of those who rejected his views, but he did not make such assertions without supplying reasons. In the case of Shakespeare, he emphasised heterosexual inclinations by noting that Shakespeare had managed to get an older woman pregnant by the time he was 18, and was consequently obliged to marry her. Moreover, he had saddled himself with three children by the time he was 21. In the sonnets, Shakespeare's explicit erotic interest lies with the Dark Lady; he obsesses about her. Shakespeare was still married and therefore carrying on an extramarital affair.

Literary career

Rowse's first book was On History, a Study of Present Tendencies published in 1927 as the seventh volume of Kegan Paul's Psyche Miniature General Series. In 1931 he contributed to T. S. Eliot's quarterly review The Criterion. In 1935 he co-edited Charles Henderson's Essays in Cornish History for the Clarendon Press. His best-seller was his first volume of autobiography, A Cornish Childhood, first published by Jonathan Cape in 1942, which has gone on to sell nearly half a million copies worldwide. It describes his hard struggle to get to the University of Oxford and his love/hate relationship with Cornwall. It contains some of his best prose, as does his book on Tudor Cornwall.

His most controversial book (at the time of publication) was on the subject of human sexuality: Homosexuals In History (1977).

Rowse wrote poetry all his life. He contributed poems to Public School Verse whilst at St Austell Grammar School. He also had verse published in Oxford 1923, Oxford 1924, and Oxford 1925. His collected poems A Life were published in 1981. The poetry is mainly autobiographical, descriptive of place (especially Cornwall) and people he knew and cared for, e.g. The Progress of Love, which describes his platonic love for Adam von Trott, a handsome and aristocratic German youth who studied at Oxford in the 1930s and who was later executed for his part in the July Plot of 1944 to kill Hitler. Unusually for a British poet, Rowse wrote a great number of poems inspired by American scenery. He maintained that in writing poetry one could get to the truth of a matter rather more than in prose.


He wrote other biographies of English historical and literary figures, and many other historical works. His biographies include studies of Shakespeare, Marlowe, and the Earl of Southampton, the major players in the sonnets, as well as later luminaries of English literature such as Milton, Swift and Matthew Arnold. A devoted cat-lover, he also wrote the biographies of several cats who came to live with him at Trenarren, claiming that it was as much a challenge to write the biography of a favourite cat as it was a Queen of England. He also published a number of short stories, mainly about Cornwall, of interest more for their thinly veiled autobiographical resonances than their literary merit. His last book, My View of Shakespeare, published in 1996, summed up his life-time's appreciation of The Bard of Stratford. The book was dedicated "To HRH The Prince of Wales in common devotion to William Shakespeare".


One of Rowse's great enthusiasms was collecting books, and he owned many first editions, many of them bearing his acerbic annotations. For example, his copy of the January 1924 edition of The Adelphi magazine edited by John Middleton Murry bears a pencilled note after Murry's poem In Memory of Katherine Mansfield: 'Sentimental gush on the part of JMM. And a bad poem. A.L.R.'

Upon his death in 1997 he bequeathed his book collection to the University of Exeter, and his personal archive of manuscripts, diaries, and correspondence. In 1998 the University Librarian selected about sixty books from Rowse’s own working library and a complete set of his published books. The Royal Institution of Cornwall selected some of the remaining books and the rest were sold to dealers.


Rowse was elected a Fellow of the British Academy (FBA), of the Royal Historical Society (FRHistS) and of the Royal Society of Literature (FRSL).

In addition to his DLitt (Oxon) degree (1953), Rowse received the honorary degrees of DLitt from the University of Exeter in 1960 and DCL from the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, Canada, the same year.

In 1968 he was made a Bard of Gorseth Kernow, taking the bardic name Lef A Gernow ('Voice of Cornwall'), reflecting his high standing in the Cornish community.

He was elected to the Athenaeum Club under Rule II in 1972, and received the Benson Medal of the Royal Society of Literature in 1982.

Rowse was appointed a Companion of Honour (CH) in the 1997 New Year Honours.

Posthumous reputation

Rowse was a hoarder and boasted that his unpublished diaries, journals, letters and pocket books would keep a Rowse industry going long after his death, in the manner of Boswell or Horace Walpole. The full force of this industry has taken time to get up steam: extracts chosen from his diaries for posthumous publication in 2003 proved disappointing, as it appeared that most of the more interesting material had already been quarried by Rowse himself for publication in his lifetime and the remainder seemed somewhat banal. It remains to be seen whether there is scope for a more lively (and possibly controversial) edition of diary extracts. A collected edition of Rowse's many letters has yet to be undertaken. Meanwhile, his posthumous academic reputation is on the rise. In books such as Tudor Cornwall and The Expansion of Elizabethan England he can be seen as a pioneer of the new British historiography that recognises the cultural differences of the constituent parts of the British Isles. Several of his best books remain in print or have been reprinted, and various authors have attempted analysis of his notoriously complex personality. A chapter of a forthcoming biography of Rowse by Donald Adamson appeared in the Cornish magazine An Baner Kernewek February 2012 – see Biography below.

In the mass media

Memorial to Rowse at Black Head, near Trenarren

As well as his own appearances on radio and television, Rowse has been depicted in various TV drama documentaries about British politics in the 1930s and appeasement.

Christopher William Hill's radio play Accolades, rebroadcast on BBC Radio 4 in March 2007 as a tribute to its star, Ian Richardson, who had died the previous month, covers the period leading up to the publication of Shakespeare the Man in 1973 and publicity surrounding Rowse's unshakable confidence that he had discovered the identity of the Dark Lady of the Sonnets. It was broadcast again on 9 July 2008.

A Cornish Childhood has also been adapted for voices (in the style of Under Milk Wood) by Judith Cook.

Mentioned in the parody "Diary by Isaiah Berlin as told to Craig Brown", Private Eye no 1239, 9 July 2009, in which Rowse plans a dinner for Princess Margaret at All Souls College.[5]

Selected works

  • On History: a Study of Present Tendencies, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1927
  • Science and History: a New View of History, London: W. W. Norton, 1928
  • Politics and the Younger Generation, London: Faber & Faber, 1931
  • The Question of the House of Lords, London: Hogarth Press, 1934
  • Queen Elizabeth and Her Subjects (with G. B. Harrison), London: Allen & Unwin, 1935
  • Mr. Keynes and the Labour Movement, London: Macmillan, 1936
  • Sir Richard Grenville of the "Revenge", London: Jonathan Cape, 1937
  • Tudor Cornwall, London: Jonathan Cape, 1941
  • A Cornish Childhood, London: Jonathan Cape, 1942
  • The Spirit of English History, London: Jonathan Cape, 1943
  • The English Spirit: Essays in History and Literature, London: Macmillan, 1944
  • West-Country Stories, London: Macmillan, 1945
  • The Use of History (key volume in the "Teach Yourself History" series), London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1946
  • The End of an Epoch: Reflections on Contemporary History, London: Macmillan, 1947
  • The England of Elizabeth: the Structure of Society. London: Macmillan, 1950
  • The English Past: Evocation of Persons and Places, London: Macmillan, 1951
  • An Elizabethan Garland, London: Macmillan, 1953
  • The Expansion of Elizabethan England, London: Macmillan, 1955
  • The Early Churchills, London: Macmillan, 1956
  • The Later Churchills, London: Macmillan, 1958
  • The Elizabethans and America: The Trevelyan Lectures at Cambridge, 1958, London, Macmillan, 1959
  • St Austell: Church, Town, Parish, St Austell: H. E. Warne, 1960
  • All Souls and Appeasement: a Contribution to Contemporary History, London: Macmillan, 1961
  • Ralegh and the Throckmortons, London: Macmillan, 1962
  • William Shakespeare: a Biography, London: Macmillan, 1963
  • Christopher Marlowe: a biography, London: Macmillan, 1964
  • Shakespeare's Sonnets, London: Macmillan, 1964
  • A Cornishman at Oxford, London: Jonathan Cape, 1965
  • Shakespeare's Southampton: Patron of Virginia, London: Macmillan, 1965
  • Bosworth Field and the Wars of the Roses, London: Macmillan, 1966
  • Cornish Stories, London: Macmillan, 1967
  • A Cornish Anthology, London: Macmillan, 1968
  • The Cornish in America, London: Macmillan, 1969
  • The Elizabethan Renaissance: the Life of Society, London: Macmillan, 1971
  • The Elizabethan Renaissance: the Cultural Achievement, London: Macmillan, 1972
  • The Tower of London in the History of the Nation, London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1972
  • Shakespeare The Man, London: Macmillan, 1973
  • Windsor Castle In the History of the Nation, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1974
  • Victorian and Edwardian Cornwall from old photographs, London: Batsford, 1974 (Introduction and commentaries by Rowse; ten extracts from Betjeman)
  • Simon Forman: Sex and Society in Shakespeare's Age, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1974
  • Discoveries and Reviews: from Renaissance to Restoration, London: Macmillan, 1975
  • Oxford: In the History of the Nation, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1975
  • Jonathan Swift: Major Prophet, London, Thames & Hudson, 1975
  • A Cornishman Abroad, London: Jonathan Cape, 1976
  • Matthew Arnold: Poet and Prophet, London: Thames & Hudson, 1976
  • Homosexuals In History, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1977
  • Shakespeare the Elizabethan, London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1977
  • Milton the Puritan: Portrait of a Mind (London: Macmillan, 1977
  • The Byrons and the Trevanions, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1978)
  • A Man of the Thirties, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1979
  • Memories of Men and Women, London: Eyre Methuen, 1980
  • Shakespeare's Globe: his Intellectual and Moral Outlook, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1981
  • A Life: Collected Poems, Edinburgh: William Blackwood, 1981
  • Eminent Elizabethans, London: Macmillan, 1983
  • Night at the Carn and Other Stories, London: William Kimber, 1984
  • Shakespeare's Characters: a Complete Guide, London: Methuen, 1984
  • Glimpses of the Great, London: Methuen, 1985
  • The Little Land of Cornwall, Gloucester: Alan Sutton, 1986
  • A Quartet of Cornish Cats, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1986
  • Stories From Trenarren, London: William Kimber, 1986
  • Reflections on the Puritan Revolution, London: Methuen, 1986
  • The Poet Auden: a Personal Memoir, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1987
  • Court and Country: Studies in Tudor Social History, Brighton: Harvester Press, 1987
  • Froude the Historian: Victorian Man of Letters, Gloucester: Alan Sutton, 1987
  • Quiller-Couch: a Portrait of "Q", London: Methuen, 1988
  • A. L. Rowse's Cornwall: a Journey through Cornwall's Past and Present, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988
  • Friends and Contemporaries, London: Methuen, 1989
  • The Controversial Colensos, Redruth: Dyllansow Truran, 1989
  • Discovering Shakespeare: a Chapter in Literary History, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989
  • Four Caroline Portraits, London: Duckworth, 1993
  • All Souls in My Time, London: Duckworth, 1993
  • The Regicides and the Puritan Revolution, London: Duckworth, 1994
  • Historians I Have Known, London: Duckworth, 1995
  • My View of Shakespeare, London: Duckworth, 1996
  • Cornish Place Rhymes, Tiverton: Cornwall Books, 1997 (Posthumous commemorative volume begun by the author; preface by the editor, S Butler)
  • The Elizabethan Age (a 4-volume set composed of The England of Elizabeth; The Expansion of Elizabethan England; The Elizabethan Renaissance: The Life of the Society; The Elizabethan Renaissance: The Cultural Achievement), London: Folio Society, 2012

Biography and bibliography


External links