Robert Beddard shows how a sumptuous mansion by the Thames became a hive of intrigue and activity for its Stuart courtier owners.
Ham House, situated on the River Thames, outside Richmond, in Surrey, is a house with a tale to tell. For three centuries it was the home of the Tollemache earls of Dysart, a title in the Scottish peerage. Since 1948 the house has been in the safekeeping of the National Trust, which in co-operation with the Victoria and Albert Museum, the guardian of its contents, has restored it to its former splendour. Set in the midst of its level lawns and peaceful gardens, Ham House presents itself today as an oasis of calm surrounded by the noisy, westward sprawl of the metropolis. Yet, its present cosetted tranquility belies its bustling past, for it was once a hive of activity – political, social and cultural.
The house holds a special fascination for students of Stuart politics and culture, for it is the courtier's house par excellence. Built by a courtier in the reign of James I, it remained a courtier's house well into the reign of his grandson, Charles II. Better than any other furnished mansion that has survived from the seventeenth century it conveys a sense of what life was like for those who were industrious and fortunate enough to work their way to the top of Stuart government and society. Moreover, it does this, not merely for one particular period of the seventeenth century, but repeatedly for the major part of it.