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  (Alfred) Leslie Rowse (1903–1997), by Denys Dawnay, 1942 (Alfred) Leslie Rowse (1903–1997), by Denys Dawnay, 1942
Rowse, (Alfred) Leslie (1903–1997), historian, was born on 4 December 1903 at Tregonissey, near St Austell, Cornwall, the youngest child of Richard Rowse (d. 1934), china clay worker and shopkeeper, and his wife, Annie, née Vanson (d. 1953). In 1907 he joined Carclaze elementary school, and in 1915 he won a scholarship to St Austell grammar school. The first volume of his autobiography, A Cornish Childhood (1942), was perhaps his best book, combining vividness of perception with sensitive evocation of the landscapes and spirit of his native county.

At school Rowse set his sights on Oxford. In 1921 he was elected Douglas Jerrold scholar in English literature at Christ Church. There he changed to the honour school of modern history. He made friendships with Harold Acton and Lord David Cecil, wrote poetry, and became secretary of the university Labour Club. In 1925 he obtained the second best history first of the year; shortly afterwards he was elected to a prize fellowship at All Souls College. This period of his life was covered in A Cornishman at Oxford (1965).

Rowse's fellowship enabled him to travel, especially in Germany, and to take time before deciding on his career. In 1931 he published Politics and the Younger Generation. He was adopted as Labour candidate for Penryn and Falmouth and unsuccessfully contested the seat in 1931 and 1935. His political views changed in later years but some Marxist influence was always detectable in his writings, and he remained implacably hostile to the National Government. His friendship with the Rhodes scholar Adam von Trott, later executed for involvement in the 1944 officers' plot, gave him an insight into what he regarded as the Germanic mind, and he became a notable opponent of appeasement, clashing with senior fellows of All Souls, such as Sir John Simon, Lord Halifax, and Geoffrey Dawson, on this issue. Despite some factual errors his All Souls and Appeasement (1961) later provided a stimulating analysis of the social and psychological roots of appeasement. He resigned as parliamentary candidate for Penryn and Falmouth in 1943; a supporter of the Suez campaign, he left the Labour Party in 1956.

Neither involvement in politics nor an undiagnosed duodenal ulcer, requiring surgery in 1938, deflected Rowse from academic and literary pursuits. He taught at the London School of Economics, worked in the Public Record Office and the British Museum, and continued to write poetry. The first of his many books on the sixteenth century, Sir Richard Grenville of the Revenge, appeared in 1937. Increasingly his thoughts turned to Cornwall, where he acquired a house in 1940. In 1941 he published Tudor Cornwall; its theme was the impact of the Reformation on the county. Above all it investigated the transformation of a remote, Celtic-speaking province into the front line of the sea struggle with Spain. His approach anticipated the post-war Annales school in France. The book was welcomed by scholars and placed Rowse in the front rank of English historians. Some of the themes of Tudor Cornwall were developed in his later works, including The England of Elizabeth (1950), The Expansion of Elizabethan England (1955), and The Elizabethan Renaissance (1971 and 1972). Other works included The Early Churchills (1956) and The Later Churchills (1958).

During the war years Rowse became general editor for the English Universities Press of the successful Teach Yourself History series, based on the idea of using a biography of a great man or woman to open up a significant historical theme. Rowse sometimes persuaded authors to take on figures outside their normal areas of expertise; Christopher Hill wrote on Lenin, and Basil Williams on Smuts and Botha. The results were impressive and the series prepared the way for the phenomenon of professional historians writing for mass audiences, so characteristic of the 1950s and 1960s.

In 1952 All Souls chose John Sparrow as warden in preference to Rowse, who felt a sense of rejection, a recurrent motif in his life. In later years, however, he concluded that he had had a lucky escape. He now spent more time in Cornwall and America. In 1953 he secured a lease on Trenarren, the house by the sea that he had coveted in childhood. He found life in the United States congenial and he developed a special affection for California and the Huntington Library, Pasadena. He was a successful visiting professor at numerous American universities and was prompted to write The Cornish in America (1969).

Rowse used several important sources hitherto unknown or neglected by historians. The diary of Arthur Throckmorton provided the basis of Raleigh and the Throckmortons (1961). In the 1960s, however, he embarked upon a project that dominated the rest of his life. His William Shakespeare: a Biography (1963) placed literary themes in the context of the political, social, and cultural life of Elizabethan England. His most controversial works concerned the sonnets. Many traditional Shakespearian scholars regarded these as literary exercises, whereas Rowse believed that they were autobiographical. In a series of books, including editions of the sonnets (1964 and 1973), Shakespeare the Man (1973), and Simon Forman: Sex and Society in Shakespeare's Age (1974), Rowse claimed to have found answers to problems that had perplexed generations of scholars. He insisted that the earlier sonnets had been addressed to the earl of Southampton, not to the earl of Pembroke. Their dedication, to ‘Mr W H’, was not Shakespeare's at all; the sonnets' publisher, Thomas Thorp, had dedicated them to Sir William Harvey. Most controversially Rowse claimed that the casebooks of Simon Forman had enabled him to identify the Dark Lady of the later sonnets as Aemilia Bassano, wife of William Lanier, a court musician. Rowse's claims were regarded as plausible, although doubts remained, especially about the Dark Lady. Nevertheless he was angered when some scholars denied that his evidence was incontrovertible. Longstanding friendships, such as that with his former pupil Dame Veronica Wedgwood, were broken, and the tone of Rowse's subsequent defence of his position, as in Discovering Shakespeare: a Chapter in Literary History (1989), became strident.

Rowse's fellowship at All Souls expired in 1974; between 1975 and 1996 he published thirty-six books. While several were devoted to Shakespeare others ranged from Homosexuals in History (1977) to The Little Land of Cornwall (1986) and The Regicides (1994). Some of these works indicated that his powers were undiminished. Though he was best known as a historian perhaps the finest work of his old age was his volume of poems, A Life (1981). One of his closest and most enduring friendships was with John Betjeman. In later years Rowse's judgements could be harsh but his generous acknowledgement of the achievements of another controversial historian, in Froude the Historian (1987), showed his continuing insight and sensitivity. Appropriately his last book was My View of Shakespeare (1996).

Rowse insisted that his many publications represented only ‘the tip of the iceberg’ of his writing. He was alluding primarily to the diary that he kept for most of his adult life. At breakfast in All Souls he would often tell colleagues, especially any who had displeased him, that they had been included in the entry written the night before: ‘You're in it and you're in it’ (personal knowledge). He made clear that his diaries contained views even more trenchant than those in his published works. He incorporated material from the diaries into his various volumes of autobiography but much remained unused. He believed that when his diaries were published he would be ranked alongside Pepys; in any event, he contended, the project would make the Yale editions of Johnson and Boswell look like a minor cottage industry. The diaries remained unpublished at his death, and those colleagues who read them agreed that full publication would require both courage and good legal advice.

In 1960 Rowse was awarded an honorary doctorate at Exeter University. He was elected to the Athenaeum, under rule 2, in 1972 and received the Benson medal of the Royal Society of Literature. In July 1996 he suffered a major stroke. He had long felt that his achievements had not received sufficient recognition but he was made a Companion of Honour in January 1997. In June the prince of Wales visited him at Trenarren, St Austell, Cornwall. He died there on 3 October 1997. It was typical of him that when his nurse smoothed his pillow and announced that her name was Shirley, not Valerie, as he supposed, he replied, ‘Don't contradict ME’ (private information).

Rowse could be both terrifying and charming but most people found him more agreeable than they had been led to expect. His work ranged from the lyrical to the banal. It is impossible to imagine him without either his dark or his good side; the one was necessary to the other. He was a vain man but he had few illusions about himself; Richard Ollard's biography, A Man of Contradictions (1999), was admirably titled.

Nowhere was the contradiction more striking than in Rowse's attitudes to sex. Despite his denunciations of the modern world he admitted that he could now acknowledge and even flaunt his homosexuality. He claimed that homosexuals are naturally more sensitive, more intuitive, and more creative than ‘earth-bound’ heterosexuals. Yet in old age he said, ‘Of course, I used to be a homo; but now, when it doesn't matter, if anything I'm a hetero’ (The Independent). His known opinions and general demeanour sometimes led unwary visitors to suppose that he subscribed to the view that Shakespeare himself had had homosexual leanings. Rowse would respond with fury: ‘Only silly idiots believe rubbish like that; Shakespeare was two hundred per cent hetero’ (personal knowledge).

John Clarke


A. L. Rowse, A Cornish childhood (1942) · A. L. Rowse, All Souls and appeasement (1961) · A. L. Rowse, A Cornishman at Oxford (1965) · A. L. Rowse, A Cornishman abroad (1976) · A. L. Rowse, Portraits and views (1979) · A. L. Rowse, Memories of men and women (1980) · A. L. Rowse, Glimpses of the great (1985) · A. L. Rowse, Friends and contemporaries (1989) · A. L. Rowse, All Souls in my time (1993) · R. Ollard, A man of contradictions: a life of A. L. Rowse (1999) · The Times (6 Oct 1997) · The Independent (6 Oct 1997) · Daily Telegraph (6 Oct 1997) · The Guardian (6 Oct 1997) · The Scotsman (6 Oct 1997) · WWW · personal knowledge (2004) · private information (2004)


BL, annotated copy of Shakespeare's Sonnets · University of Exeter Library, papers |  King's Lond., Liddell Hart C., corresp. with Sir B. H. Liddell Hart · Shakespeare Birthplace Trust RO, Stratford upon Avon, letters and cards to Dorothy Withey · U. Sussex Library, letters to J. G. Crowther · Wightwick Manor, Wolverhampton, Lady Mander papers


D. Dawnay, oils, 1942, NPG [see illus.] · photograph, 1962, repro. in Daily Telegraph · B. Marsden, photograph, 1993, NPG · J. Redman, photograph, repro. in The Guardian · photograph, repro. in The Times · photograph, repro. in The Independent · photograph, repro. in The Scotsman

Wealth at death  

£704,104: probate, 9 Dec 1997, CGPLA Eng. & Wales