Home » Blog » Ham House: a great example of a seventeenth century house and garden
Sir Thomas Vavasour built Ham House in 1610 on land belonging to the Crown. A plan drawn up by Robert Smythson for Vavasour in 1609, shows an H-shaped building surrounded by formal gardens. Although it is not known how many of Smythson’s ideas were implemented, the design shows each garden enclosed by walls with an orchard and vegetable garden. Vavasour died in 1620 and the lease of the property passed to John Ramsay, 1st Earl of Holderness.
Holderness had no children so on his death in 1626, Ham was given by Charles I to his childhood friend, William Murray, 1st Earl of Dysart. Dysart and his wife Katherine began an extravagant refurbishment of the house extending the Great Hall and remodelling the Long Gallery. But with his close allegiance to the King and the threat of Civil War, Dysart signed the house over to his wife and four daughters and escaped to France. In 1643, Ham House was sequestrated but after several appeals by Katherine and the payment of a fine, the estate was returned.
After Lady Dysart’s death in 1649 and the execution of the King in the same year, the Parliamentarians sold off much of the Crown estate including Ham House. The house was bought by the Dysart’s eldest daughter Elizabeth and her husband Lionel Tollemache, 3rd Baronet of Helmingham Hall in Suffolk.
In 1672, Elizabeth married her second husband, the Duke of Lauderdale, a close friend of Charles II. They continued remodelling the house, employing craftsmen from all over Europe. They also developed the gardens with many of the features they introduced still visible today. This includes the Orangery, the Wilderness and the grass plats on the south side of the house. John Evelyn wrote in his diary on 27th August, 1678: ‘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.’
On Lauderdale’s death, Ham House was inherited by his step-daughter Elizabeth and remained in the Tollemache family until 1948 when Sir Lyonel Tollemache and his son Mr Cecil Tollemache gave the property to the National Trust.
The restoration of the gardens began in 1975 and continues today.
On your visit, make sure you eat in the Orangery as most of the produce has been grown in the Kitchen Garden.