All Souls Stories by AL Rowse

by Lady Ottoline Morrell, vintage snapshot print, June 1926

A L Rowse (centre), Roger Makins and Evelyn Baring  photographed in 1926 by Lady Ottoline Morrell,

We found some pages cut out from an undated issue of The Contemporary Reviewin the Jot 101 archive the other day. These seven pages contain an article by A. L. Rowse entitled ‘All Souls Stories’, and like so many of the historian’s writings on his old college, mix amusing gossip with valuable reflections on academic bad behaviour.


All Souls, as Rowse admits, has always aroused curiosity and astonishment from outsiders, including those from the University itself.  Why are some graduate contenders elected and others rejected? Is success in a formal examination the sole route to a life fellowship? What part did the legendary cherry stone problem play in the process? If fellows are the crème de la crème of academic excellence at the University and beyond it, why is it that some Fellows are evidently not of this calibre ?

Rowse gives an example of one particular Fellow whose behaviour suggested that he was not up to the job, Sir ( later Viscount) John Simon. For some reason this nitwit managed to be appointed Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Lord Chancellor, while being ‘ not much good’ in any of these posts, according to Rowse, who obviously knew the man well enough to make this judgment. Rowse recalls him addressing the Junior Fellows in an attempt at bonhomie, while managing to get their names all wrong. Then there was the time that the newly married Simon and his wife arrived at what they thought was the home of Lord Courtney, a pro-Boer politician, only to find that they had come to the home of W.L.Courtney, then editor of The Fortnightly Review. There was also the time that Simon found himself talking in ‘ labourious’ French to the French Ambassador, who turned out to be Frederick Kenyon, Director of the British Museum. Simon, according to Rowse, also made a mess of handling Hitler and Mussolini. Rowse charitably called this incompetence examples of Simon being   ‘ accident prone ‘.Most non-All Souls men would see them as acts of blithering idiocy.


Rowse also reveals that while tutoring the Prince of Wales in history the future Edward VIII asked  Grant Robinson to explain the difference between the Jacobins and the Jacobites, though Rowse confesses that he didn’t believe this anecdote.  Sir Charles Oman was good value, according to Rowse. Still examining in his eighties, and wanting to be asked more often to examine, this historian, who had actually seen Napoleon III in the gardens of the Tuileries, probably examined the popular historian and versifier Hilaire Belloc for a Fellowship, only to be the victim of a squib from the writer when he was failed.


Rowse is very amusing on the rivalry between two All Souls prelates, Cosmo Lang, later Archbishop of Canterbury, and Hensley Henson of Durham. To Henson, Lang while at All Souls was ‘a man of second-rate ability and first-rate gifts’, a nice distinction. Lang, we discover, intended to focus his research at All Souls on Tudor history and to write a biography of the great Thomas Cromwell. Instead, he published ‘ a novel of romantic Jacobite tushery in the vein of Little Lord Fauntleroy’was Rowse’s  withering verdict. Rowse, a devoted opponent of appeasement,  also condemned Lang for expressing fond memories of the Kaiser during the First World War and for not condemning strongly enough the pro-Hitler entourage of Edward VIII. In both these failings, Rowse declared, Lang was not en rapport‘ with the ordinary normal Englishman’. Nonetheless, Rowse preferred Lang’s High Church romanticism and leftish leanings to the ‘ rational Whiggery ‘ that he recognised as the presiding ethos of All Souls. After all, Rowse was a Cornishman and therefore a Celt, as he never stopped telling us.

Rowse (centre), Roger Makins and Evelyn Baring  photographed in 1926 by Lady Ottoline Morrell












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