Although I have frequently mentioned Ham House I have yet to describe its interior. Consequently, I resolved to pay the mansion a final visit on 31st October before it was put to bed, so to speak, for the winter months to allow vital conservation work to be carried out. There were demonstrations throughout the day of the type of form such conservation work would take. I came across two schoolgirls on the ground floor showing the correct way to dust and clean a Chinese vase before it was wrapped up and stored away again until next year. It seems the girls had volunteered to help as part of their efforts to win a Duke of Edinburgh Award so I doubt if they would have been given an especially valuable vase to work on. But even experts can be fooled when it comes to estimating the true value of antiques. In England this week a rare Chinese vase has just been sold for the phenomenal sum of £43 million, the owners having previously insured it for the princely sum of £800 on their household insurance. They had no idea that they possessed an item whose auction price would smash world records, the more so since their own circumstances, prior to the auction, were said to be modest. Even the profligate owners of Ham House would have been hard pressed to match such extravagance.
Getting to the riverside mansion had proved problematic in the past. The Catwoman and I once made our way along the Thames towpath from Richmond railway station to Ham House, passing by water meadows immortalised by the celebrated 18th century artist Turner. Our return journey was more like trekking across marsh land. Heavy rainfall had caused the river to overflow onto the meadowland whilst we were in the house and at one point it looked as if we might be obliged to swim back home. I now tend to approach the house from the main road, a less picturesque route but one not requiring the cautionary visitor to sport fishing waders.
Ham House was built for the Jacobean courtier, Sir Thomas Vavasour. He served as Knight Marshall at the court of King James I and arranged for the suitable loyal motto: vivat Rex and the date, 1610, to be carved into the front door. Thomas died 10 years later and the mansion passed into the hands of William Murray. The latter had been one of those Scots like Sir Adam Newton, the builder of Charlton House and tutor to the King’s eldest son Prince Henry Frederick, whose fortunes had prospered during the reign of their fellow countrymen, the Stuart kings. The son of a minister in the Scottish church William had secured the dubious distinction of being the literal “whipping boy” for the King’s youngest son, Prince Charles. Poor William would be punished for any misbehaviour on the part of the future king. I it was considered lèse majesté for a prince of the blood to endure physical chastisement at the hands of his social inferiors. Later, when Charles’s disastrous rule plunged the country into civil war, William loyally chose to throw his lot in with his boyhood friend. It was a decision that saw William created Earl of Dysart in 1643 but meant he was forced into exile for the rest of his adult life, dying five years before the Restoration of King Charles II.
Unlike with the Sackville family at Knole, William Murray had ensured that his titles and properties could pass down the female line in lieu of a legitimate male heir. Thus, his properties and title passed to Elizabeth Murray, his eldest daughter and the woman most closely identified with Ham House. In reality, with her father in political exile abroad and her mother dying a year after Elizabeth’s own marriage in 1648, Elizabeth came into her patrimony well before her father’s death in 1665. Her mother had not followed her husband into exile, hoping to save the family property from being sequestered by the Parliamentarians. After her mother’s death Elizabeth, with her new husband Lionel Tollemache, continued to play a double game of openly welcoming the Lord Chief Protector, Oliver Cromwell as a guest, whilst at the same time secretly sending messages to the royalist court-in exile. It was a successful ploy that saved the house from Parliamentarian depredations but made some question Elizabeth’s true loyalty to the throne. Others questioned her loyalty to her first husband, Lionel Tollemache, who was also father to 11 of her children; as she swiftly went on to marry John Maitland, 2nd Earl of Lauderdale in 1672 after Lionel’s death. Gossip had it that Elizabeth had not waited to don widow’s weeds before beginning a liaison with Lauderdale. Some claimed she had been his mistress long before his own estranged first wife had died. At the court of arch libertine Charles II, a lack of marital fidelity was no impediment to promotion and Maitland was created Duke of Lauderdale in addition to serving as one of the king’s principal ministers.
Posterity has not been generous to Elizabeth’s reputation. In her own lifetime she was accused of being Oliver Cromwell’s mistress and I heard one guide on a previous visit being particularly scathing about her character. Simply being a woman who had inherited titles and property in her own right would have marked her out for odium. The fact she had retained her fortune during the Civil War when many another royalist family were financially ruined would have been a source of contention, the more so given her outward friendliness towards the family of the Lord Protector during the Commonwealth. She was also said to be rapacious and coolly exploited her husband’s position at the court of King Charles II to secure their mutual fortunes through what would now be considered blatantly corrupt practises. Such questionable behaviour allowed the Lauderdales to turn Ham House into a mansion fit for royalty and as the collection of regal cast-offs at Knole demonstrated, the Stuart kings were far from parsimonious when it came to decorating and furnishing their own palaces.
In his “History Of My Own Time” the Scottish historian and Bishop, Gilbert Burnet, gave this pithy account of his contemporary, the Duchess of Lauderdale: “She was a woman of great beauty, but of far greater parts. She had a wonderful quickness of apprehension, and an amazing vivacity in conversation. She had studied not only divinity and history, but mathematics and philosophy. She was violent in every thing she set about, a violent friend, but a much more violent enemy. She had a restless ambition, lived at a vast expense, and was ravenously covetous; and would have stuck at nothing by which she might compass her ends. [She had blemishes of another kind, which she seemed to despise, and to take little care of the decencies of her sex.]
The result of the Lauderdales’ efforts certainly impressed the diarist John Evelyn. On the 27th August, 1678 he wrote “After dinner I walked to Ham, to see the house and garden of the Duke of Lauderdale, which is indeed inferior to few of the best villas in Italy itself; the house furnished like a great Prince's; the parterres, flower-gardens, orangeries, groves, avenues, courts, statues, perspectives, fountains, aviaries, and all this at the banks of the sweetest river in the world, must needs be admirable”.
That other celebrated 17th diarist, Samuel Pepys does not record a visit to Ham House. Although he was on good enough terms to visit the Earl of Lauderdale, as he then was, at Lauderdale House in Highgate and his description of Lauderdale’s personality is in stark contrast to that of Bishop Burnet’s damning indictment. But then given the date of the diary entry by Pepys, 28th July 1666, and the fact that Lionel Tollemach, the Duchess’s first husband did not die until 1669 it is unlikely that the couple would have been brazenly living together at that point and perhaps Elizabeth's alleged malign influence over Laudedale was not at its zenith. Therefore I must assume that the wife referred to in the diary entry is the Duke’s wronged first wife, Lady Anne Hume.
Lady Anne eventually became bitterly estranged from her husband when he openly flaunted his relationship with Elizabeth Murray, following the death of Lionel Tollemach. The Earl had only one child, a girl named Mary, by Lady Anne Hume. Did he entertain the faint hope that, despite being in her late 40s, his phenomenally fecund second wife, who had already had 11 children by her first husband, would give him a son and heir to pass the dukedom on to? If so it was a forlorn hope. There were to be no children from the Duke’s second marriage and the public scandal that was to engulf Lauderdale was in the future. Samuel Pepys, who liked nothing better than a salacious gossip, makes no mention of any prurient rumours concerning Elizabeth and her erstwhile lover when he paid a visit to the Earl of Lauderdale’s Highgate home. Pepys, who fancied himself as something of a musician and in a celebrated portrait is even shown holding a piece of music he had composed, was not impressed either by the calibre of the guests or their musical abilities. He wrote:
“ Thence with my Lord to his coach-house, and there put in his six horses into his coach, and he and I alone to Highgate. ….Being come thither we went to my Lord Lauderdale's house to speake with him, we find (him) and his lady and some Scotch people at supper. Pretty odd company; though my Lord Bruncker tells me, my Lord Lauderdale is a man of mighty good reason and judgement. But at supper there played one of their servants upon the viallin some Scotch tunes only; several, and the best of their country, as they seemed to esteem them, by their praising and admiring them: but, Lord! the strangest ayre that ever I heard in my life, and all of one cast. But strange to hear my Lord Lauderdale say himself that he had rather hear a cat mew, than the best musique in the world; and the better the musique, the more sicke it makes him; and that of all instruments, he hates the lute most, and next to that, the baggpipe.”
As Minister of State for Scotland, Lauderdale had been given a virtually free hand to rule the Caledonian kingdom in all but name. His high handed behaviour and campaign of repression against Scottish religious non-conformists made him many enemies both in Scotland and in the English Parliament. Nevertheless, because he was proving indispensable to King Charles, the latter doggedly shielded him from attack. Nature succeeded in ousting Lauderdale from high office where his enemies had singularly failed. An incapacitating stroke forced Lauderdale to resign as chief minister in 1680. It was around this time that he began to lose the support of the fickle king and suffered the humiliation of being stripped of his remaining posts in the months leading up to his death. His unexpected fall from grace and untimely death left Elizabeth his widow with huge debts she was never able to clear during the 18 years she survived him. It meant that her descendants did not have the money to substantially remodel the house to reflect changing tastes in architecture and domestic interiors. Thus, Ham House is an almost unique rarity in being a 17th century mansion which has little changed from its Restoration heyday.
Ham House is also reputed to be one of the most haunted stately homes in England. My choice of visiting it at Halloween was no mere coincidence.As well as describing the interior, I intend to relate some of the ghostly tales attributed to the place over the centuries anon.