The history of Ham House

The north front of Ham House, Richmond-upon-Thames, Surrey. The house was built in 1610 with some alterations in 1672-4.

Ham House is one of the great Stuart houses situated only 10 miles from central London on the rural banks of the river Thames.

A gift from the king 

Originally built in 1610, Ham House is the creation of an enterprising courtier, William Murray, and his tenacious daughter Elizabeth. 

As a boy, William was educated with the young Charles I. Remaining friends as adults; William was given the lease of Ham House and its estate as a gift from the King in 1626. William, and later his daughter Elizabeth, transformed Ham into the house we see today; a rare 17th century survival of luxury and grandeur. 

An unfortunate turn of events 

From 1637-9, William embarked on a series of lavish decorative alterations to the house. These changes cemented his status as a man with style, a close friend to the king and an important member of his court. 

In an unfortunate turn of events for William, the English Civil War broke out under Charles I’s rule in 1642. As a royalist and close friend to the king, William had no choice but to help fight against the Parliamentarians, leaving his wife Katherine and their young family to hold the fort at Ham House. 

Elizabeth Murrary, Duchess of Lauderdale, and her husband the Duke of Lauderdale
Elizabeth Murrary, Duchess of Lauderdale, and her husband the Duke of Lauderdale
Elizabeth Murrary, Duchess of Lauderdale, and her husband the Duke of Lauderdale

Saved by a cunning family

The royalist cause lost the war and Charles was captured. He would later be tried for high treason and beheaded in 1649. Charles’ son came to an agreement with the Scots and was crowned Charles II of Scotland. However, his attempts to take back the throne of England would fail and he fled to the continent. 

In 1653, Cromwell was installed as 'lord protector' of the new Commonwealth, the next 5 years of his rule would be difficult for royalist families such as the Murrays.  

By her cunning, William's eldest daughter Elizabeth was able to steer Ham through Cromwell's rule by establishing good relations with the Protector. All the while she sent secret Royalist messages to the prince in exile in France.

When Charles II was restored to power in 1660, Ham once again became a place for entertaining and extravagance. This time it was under the ownership of Elizabeth Murray, a lady with rich taste. 

A powerful partnership

In 1672, aged 46, Elizabeth married for the second time, this time to the affluent Duke of Lauderdale. He was a key member of King Charles II's inner cabinet. Sharing a love of power and decadence, together they made a dynamic restoration court couple. The Duke and duchess had both travelled widely and employed craftsmen from across the continent and amassed exotic furniture from all over the world. They transformed Ham House into one of the grandest Stuart houses in England.

A sleeping beauty

Changing little after Elizabeth's death, Ham House was home to her descendants from her first marriage within the Tollemache family for nearly 300 years.

With only a few decorative alterations made during the 1740s and 1890s, Ham House passed to us in 1948. It's a rare survival of 17th-century luxury and taste.

Collection highlights at Ham

The collections are Ham House are exquisitely varied, with art and treasures that demonstrate the historic affluence of the families who lived there. From miniatures to furniture, the creativity and craftsmanship of a bygone era fill the house. 

A Man Consumed by Flames by Isaac Oliver

Blazing love: a portrait by Isaac Oliver at Ham House

Despite fitting neatly into the palm of one’s hand, Oliver’s portrait of a man shown burning with the fire of love is one of the most arresting objects at Ham. Dressed like a classical hero in an antique blue mantle, and wearing an earring of two linked gold hoops, the sitter gazes intently out as flames lick around him. Painted over 400 years ago, the presence of this long dead man nevertheless feels startling fresh.

Oak and cedar cabinet with ivory veneer, Ham House

Cabinet Secrets at Ham House

Join this rare opportunity to see inside our exquisite collection of seventeenth century cabinets. Behind the closed doors and drawers of these intriguing objects lies beautiful artwork and craftsmanship that usually remains hidden from view.