He was born in St Austell, Cornwall, into a very poor background, his parents being virtually illiterate. Despite this handicap, he won a scholarship to Christ Church College, Oxford in 1921, eventually becoming a Fellow of All Souls'. Nevertheless, he remained proud of his working-class origins. His love for his native county inspired him to write poetry as well as the works on history and English literature for which he became famous. He developed a widespread reputation for irascibility.