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The history of Ham House

The north front of Ham House, London, constructed of brown-coloured brick, with a central block and wing on either side
The north front of Ham House | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

Leased by William Murray from King Charles I in 1626, Ham House was transformed by William and later his daughter Elizabeth. Surviving the English Civil War and Parliamentary rule and home to Elizabeth’s descendants for almost three centuries, the house you see today is a rare example of one of the great Stuart houses.

A gift from King Charles I

Originally built in 1610, the interiors of Ham House as you see them today are the creation of an enterprising courtier, William Murray, and his tenacious daughter Elizabeth, later Duchess of Lauderdale.

As a boy, William was educated with the young Charles I, and they remained friends as adults. William was given the lease of Ham House and its estate as a gift from the King in 1626.

From 1637-39, 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.

The English Civil War

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 Catherine and their young family to hold the fort at Ham House.

The Royalist cause lost the war and Charles was captured. He would later be tried for high treason and beheaded in 1649. Charles’s 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 five years of his rule were difficult for Royalist families such as the Murrays.

Painting of John Maitland, Duke of Lauderdale (1616-1682) and Elizabeth Murray, Countess of Dysart and Duchess of Lauderdale (1626-1698) by Sir Peter Lely, at Ham House, London
The Duke and Duchess of Lauderdale by Sir Peter Lely, at Ham House, London | © National Trust Images/John Bethell

Saved by a favoured family

By maintaining good relations with Cromwell during his rule, William's eldest daughter Elizabeth was able to keep Ham during the interregnum period. After the Restoration, Elizabeth was granted a pension of £800 per annum by Charles II (around £160,000 today) and was confirmed as Countess of Dysart in her own right, suggesting she may have secretly helped the king while he was in exile.

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.

Remaining relatively unchanged

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.

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

Family on a wooden staircase with oil paintings on the walls, at Ham House and Garden, London

Ham House and Garden's collections

Explore the objects and works of art we care for at Ham House and Garden on the National Trust Collections website.

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