Friday, 2 November 2012

Heroine or Hoyden?

Ham House South Front
This post is more a nostalgic one as I haven't been able to get to Ham House recently, but it deserves as many mentions as I can make, being the home of Elizabeth Murray, the heroine of my next book.
My last visit there was after a heavy rainstorm in Autumn when the footpath along the Thames towpath from Richmond overflowed so I had to paddle part of the way.  I'll use the Petersham Road next time!

It's interesting, well to me at any rate, that the original builder, and it's second owner, whose family inhabited it until the early 20th Century, were Scottish. In 1610 Thomas Vavascour, Knight Marshall at the court of King James I, commissioned the house which Charles I subsequently awarded to his childhood friend, William Murray.

The guides at Ham House are particularly passionate about Elizabeth Murray, but not necessarily in a good way-describing her as being Cromwell's alleged mistress, having possibly poisoned her first husand so she could marry her second, and who lived out an impoverished old age tapping her stick along the hallways and snapping at the servants who managed to put up with her. Oh, and her malavolent ghost aunts the place too, digging people in the back as they descend the stairs.

There are two Lely portraits at Ham of Elizabeth, both showing an ethereal looking young woman, one at eighteen and the other in her early twenties, tiny in stature with wispy red-blonde hair and sleepy eyes.  Reputedly, Oliver Cromwell was fascinated with her when she was barely out of her teens, her first husband adored her and her second husband defied convention and married her six weeks after his wife's death thus scandalising society and with little chance of obtaining an heir to his dukedom as she was forty four.
Her mother, the inimitble catherine Bruce Murray fought the Surrey Sequestration Committee throughout the Civil War to keep Ham House, and managed it even when William Murray remained at the exiled court of Charles I in Oxford and was arrested for spying in 1646.

Surely there was more to this woman than a sharp temper?  The house she loved and fought for is certainly impressive, and she and her second husband, John Maitland, Duke of Lauderdale, transformed it into a palace suitable to entertain King Charles II.

In 1678, The Diarist John Evelyn 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”.
Main Hall at Ham House


Royalist Rebel by Anita Seymour will be available from Claymore Books in January 2013

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