A. L. Rowse

A. L. Rowse

Alfred Leslie Rowse, CH FBA (December 4, 1903 – October 3, 1997), known professionally as A. L. Rowse and to his friends and family as Leslie, was a prolific Cornish historian. He is perhaps best known for his poetry about Cornwall and his work on Elizabethan England. He was also a Shakespearean scholar and biographer. He developed a widespread reputation for irascibility and intellectual arrogance.


Alfred Leslie Rowse was born in Tregonissey near St Austell, Cornwall, the son of Richard Rowse, a china clay worker, and Annie (née Vanson). His parents were poor and semi-illiterate but despite his humble origins, he won a place at St. Austell Grammar School (now Poltair School - who have named part of their 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 fellow Cornish man of letters Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863-1944) who recognised his ability from an early age.

Rowse had planned to study English literature, having developed an early love of poetry, but was persuaded to read history. Although he had the reputation of a "swatopotumus", he was a popular under-graduate 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. In 1931, he contested the parliamentary seat of Penryn and Falmouth for the Labour Party, but was unsuccessful and became a lecturer at the London School of Economics.

In the general election of 1935 he again proved unsuccessful, and 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 Sparrow (1906-92) 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 (D. Litt.) 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 in 1958. Despite his academic and social success, he 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.


Rowse published around 100 books. He became a celebrated author and lecturer from the 1940s and travelled widely, 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 A. L. Rowse's life-long 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".


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 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.

His 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, that has gone on to sell nearly half a million copies worldwide. It describes his hard struggle to get to the bright lights of Oxford and his love/hate relationship with Cornwall. Highly readable, it contains some of his best prose.

hakespearian scholarship

Rowse's early works focus on sixteenth century England and his first full-length historical monograph, "Sir Richard Grenville of the Revenge" (1937), was a biography of a sixteenth 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 sixteenth 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 Danvers 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.

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 also 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.

Rowse, who was openly gay, also wrote on the subject of human sexuality in his controversial book "Homosexuals In History" (1977).citation |title= A. L. Rowse, Masterly Shakespeare Scholar, Dies at 93 |first=Robert |last=Thomas Jr |url=http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9900E6DB103DF935A35753C1A961958260 |date=October 6, 1997 |periodical=The New York Times |accessdate=2007-10-27 ]

Other subjects

He wrote other biographies of English historical and literary figures and many other histories. Among his biographies are ones of Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Southampton, the major players in the sonnets. 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"."


Rowse was a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He was awarded an honorary D.Litt by the University of Exeter in 1960 and a D.C.L. by the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, Canada, the same year. He was elected to the Athenaeum under Rule II in 1972, received the Benson Medal of the Royal Society of Literature in 1982 and was made a Companion of Honour (somewhat belatedly) in the 1997 New Years' Honours List. 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 did not receive the Order of Merit that he once coveted or the knighthood that many thought he deserved.

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 à la Boswell or Horace Walpole. The full force of this industry has yet to get under way: 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 - see Biography below.

In media

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", re-broadcast 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 unshakeable confidence that he had discovered the identity of the Dark Lady of the Sonnets. It was broadcast yet again on July 9th 2008.

"A Cornish Childhood" has also been adapted for voices (in the style of "Under Milk Wood") by Judith Cook, and is available from Plumstone Productions. [http://www.ConnectCornwall.com]

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)
*"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 & Nicholson, 1974)
*"Simon Forman: Sex and Society in Shakespeare's Age" (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1974)
*"Discoveries and Reviews: From Renaissance to Restoration" (London: Macmillan, 1975)
*"Oxford: In the History of the Nation" (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 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 & Nicholson, 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 & Nicholson, 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 & Nicholson, 1988)
*"Friends and Contemporaries" (London: Methuen, 1989)
*"The Controversial Colensos" (Redruth: Dyllansow Truran, 1989)
*Discovering Shakespeare: A Chapter in Literary History" (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 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 (Posthumous Commemorative Volume begun by the author)" (Tiverton: Cornwall Books, 1997)

External links

*worldcat id|lccn-n78-95577

Biography and bibliography

*Tony Capstick, "A. L. Rowse: An Illustrated Bibliography" (Wokingham: Hare's Ear Publication, 1997) ISBN 0-9515686-5-5
*Sydney Cauveren, "A. L. Rowse: A Bibliophile's Extensive Bibliography", (Maryland: The Scarcrow Press, 2000)
*Valerie Jacob, "Tregonissey to Trenarren: A. L. Rowse - The Cornish Years", (St. Austell: Valerie Jacob, 2001) ISBN 0-9541505-0-3
*Richard Ollard, "A Man of Contradictions: A Life of A. L. Rowse", (London: Allen Lane, 1999) ISBN 0-7139-9353-7
*Richard Ollard, "The Diaries of A. L. Rowse", (London: Allen Lane, 2003) ISBN 0-71399-572-6
*James Whetter, "Dr. A. L. Rowse: Poet, Historian, Lover of Cornwall", (Gorran, St. Austell: Lyfrow Trelyspen, 2003) ISBN 0-9539972-1-9
*Philip Payton, "A. L. Rowse and Cornwall" (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2005) ISBN 0-85989-744-3
*A further book about A. L. Rowse is promised from Donald Adamson (2007).

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