Rowse was born at Tregonissey, near St Austell, Cornwall, the son of Richard Rowse, a china clayworker, 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). Nonetheless any such frustrations were channelled into academia, which reaped him dividend 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 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. 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 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, 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 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.
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 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.
Burial: Camptown Cemetery, Charlestown, Cornwall, England
Homosexuals in History by A. L. Rowse
Paperback: 386 pages
Publisher: Carroll & Graf; 2 edition (May 30, 1997)
Amazon: Homosexuals in History
Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Tchaikovsky, Oscar Wilde, Ernst Rohm, Noel Coward - these men shared a sexual orientation that ran counter to mainstream society and defied their eras' ideas of biology. This analysis of these influential historical figures explores not only the links between creativity and sexual desire, but also how their awareness of their own sexual mores lent itself to the shaping of their genius.