On the bank of the Thames in Richmond, a short distance from Central London is Ham House, one of the most unique and atmospheric houses in England. This rare gem is widely recognized as the most intact and “original” 17th century building in Europe. And as is the case with buildings left to their own devices for hundreds of years, some think this house has fallen under the spell of some previous inhabitants, that it is haunted. But lets not veer off into lore, let’s look at the history.
Ham House was built in 1610 by Sir Thomas Vavsour, Knight Marshal to James I. For those uninitiated, James I succeeded Elizabeth I, the last of the Tudor rulers, and star of the movie “Elizabeth”. And we also know of James I through his “King James Bible” fame.
After King James’ passing the house went to his son Charles I, who leased it to his good friend and former whipping boy, William Murray, 1st Earl of Dysart.
And what, pray tell, is a whipping boy? Because kings were understood to be appointed by God and therefore divine, no one other than the king was worthy to administer punishment to a prince. And since kings played no role in a prince’s upbringing, dealing with any wayward behavior fell to a prince’s tutor for whom it could be potentially perilous to deal out punishment.
So, the ever-practical monarchy developed a workaround. A young lad of high rank was picked to grow up with a prince, to be his playmate and confidant, and to take his punishment. Having forged a strong emotional bond with his playmate, a prince would have found it hard to endure his best friend taking his punishment, and, hopefully, would behave well in order to avoid the emotional trauma.
Charles and William were so close that Ham House was given to William and his descendants for life, a rare event, as after death, property given by a king is supposed to revert back to the Crown.
Later during the Civil War, William, in a shrewd move, transferred the house’s title to his wife Catherine in order to save it from being later sequestrated by Cromwell’s new government. After spending some time locked up in the Tower of London, William joined the court in Exile in Paris. Catherine, however stayed in London, and being quite the political operator herself, managed to maintain ownership of the house.
After Catherine’s death, the beheading of Charles I, and Cromwell taking power, the house was claimed by Parliament and sold. It seemed that Ham House’s luck had finally run out.
Catherine and William’s eldest daughter Elizabeth was, like her mother, a shrewd and independent woman. At the insistence of her father, she received the best of educations in mathematics, languages and science. Education for a woman at the time was extremely uncommon and learning of this caliber unheard of. But this allowed Elizabeth to hold her own in the tumultuous political landscape of the day. Not willing to let Ham House go she secretly commissioned a third party to act on her behalf, and thus managed to buy the house from Parliament and move back in.
In an extraordinary display of her brilliant political maneuvering, Elizabeth entertained Cromwell at Ham House while she was secretly advancing the Royalist cause of Cromwell’s enemies with her husband, Lionel Tollemache. They were members of a secret society plotting to restore Britain’s monarchy, called the Sealed Knot. And it eventually happened. Monarchy was restored and Charles II became king. For Elizabeth’s loyal service Charles bestowed her with a lifetime pension.
So you can see that it’s a miracle the house stands today essentially unchanged. Without all these small quirks in history and the individuals who drove them, Ham House would certainly be an empty shell or worse, and not the special looking glass reflecting back to 17th century Britain that it is today.
There are several magnificent aspects to the house.
Upon entering the Great Hall check out the distinctive black and white checkered marble floor. But don’t linger there. Head up the grand wooden staircase which was commissioned by Catherine and William when they took ownership. Here from the upper floor gallery you will see the Great Hall to best effect.
Without all these small quirks in history and the individuals who drove them, Ham House would certainly be an empty shell or worse …
On the second floor don’t miss the miniature collection in the “Green closet”. The green closet is actually a small room wrapped in green fabric off the “Long hall”. The miniature collection is the largest accumulation of miniatures of one family, and is largely intact. Usually you will find a volunteer on duty in the room so have your questions ready. They really know their stuff.
Stroll leisurely through the upper rooms and then make your way downstairs again. In a small cozy room at the far end of the house there is a lovely small white crackled teapot on display. A fine example of Chinese Dongkhe ware and it is thought to have belonged to the Duchess.
The kitchen and Still House below stairs are especially interesting. Elizabeth was a talented and knowledgeable herbalist producing many ointments for herself and family members, remedies which might have contributed to her unusually old age of 72. She also brewed her own ale, which she supplied to staff, heading off sickness due to water-borne bacteria common in the day.
Also downstairs you will find one of the oldest purpose-built bathrooms in England.
Once outside, look for the wall containing a gallery of busts of Roman emperors, and just around the corner from that you will find the entrance to the Duchess’ private Cherry Garden. Here amongst the domes of lavender and santolina focusing on a statue of Bacchus, the god of wine, the Duchess and her private guests would have “taken the air” away from the bustling activities of the house.
Near the house are the “working” gardens where the estate grew its own produce. The National Trust, which has maintained the house since the 1950s, has restored the original beds with plants dating back to the 17th century. The day of our visit I met one of the several gardeners who told me that they use seed from a few select purveyors who specialize in heritage seeds, and are diligent in maintaining the gardens in their original state.
The Orangery boarders the working gardens and Ham House has converted this building into a cafe serving a great selection of soup, sandwiches and cakes all made on the premises and using produce from the gardens. Of all the National Trust food establishments I have visited this was by far the best, so count on enjoying a great lunch at Ham House.
On the way out we were saying goodbye to one of the volunteers. It was about closing time and just before we left she said “let me show you something”. She produced a large ornate key. Amazingly, it’s the original key and there is only one copy. This is a fitting wrap up for our great day at Ham House. Seldom will you find a place so complete in its architecture and all the bits and pieces that fill a space when it is lived in, right down to the key that has locked the door every night since 1610.
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