Ham House was built on land owned by King James I in 1610. The lease of the house transferred between several royal courtiers until it was granted to William Murray in 1626 – during the reign of King Charles I. Murray was granted the freehold ten years later. Murray, a Scotsman, was a close friend of the king – having originally been his whipping boy (i.e. taking the king’s punishments during their childhood). He won that unappealing position as a result of being the nephew of Charles I’s tutor.
William Murray married Elizabeth, Countess of Dysart and had a daughter, also called Elizabeth of the same title. She inherited the housed in 1655 and shortly after married John Maitland. Both were created the Duke and Duchess of Lauderdale by King Charles II in recognition for their (underground) support to Charles II in exile, during the eleven years ‘interregnum’ (1649-60) that followed the English Civil War. The pair were wealthy, highly ambitious and spent lavishly on Ham House– much of what we see today dates from this time, making Ham House unique in Europe.
However, by 1681, the couple had fallen out with King and the Duke died a year later, leaving Elizabeth to spend her long final years alone in the house. For nearly the next three centuries her descendants kept the house as it was – right up until 1948 when it was given to the National Trust.
The ‘free flow’ tour takes you to the Entrance Hall, Chapel, Great Stairs, the Long Gallery and private apartments. After that, there are extensive gardens to wander around, including a kitchen garden, the oldest orangery in Britain (housing the café) an ice house and a dairy.
It was a delightful visit, further enhanced by having the extensive gardens nearly to ourselves.