Last week we managed to purchase two seventeenth-century objects with a connection to Ham House, Surrey. The locket and the strongbox were being sold in an auction at Holloway’s, Banbury, and have a provenance from the Tollemache family, who descended from Elizabeth Murray, Countess of Dysart and Duchess of Lauderdale (1628-1698).
The locket commemorates the death of Henry, Duke of Gloucester, the short-lived youngest son of King Charles I, and may originally have contained a lock of his hair. During the Civil War Henry was captured by the Parliamentarian forces and for a while he was brought up by guardians appointed by Parliament. Partly as a result of this he became a staunch Protestant.
Henry returned to London when his eldest brother Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, but he died of smallpox shortly afterwards. It was later remarked that, had he lived, he would have been an acceptable alternative as king to his brother, the Catholic James II, who was ousted in 1688.
William Murray, the first Earl of Dysart, who remodelled the interiors of Ham in the late 1630s, had grown up with Charles I and was an influential member of his court. His daughter Elizabeth stayed loyal to the Stuarts during the Interregnum, secretly conspiring for the return of Charles II. The locket may have belonged to her, but its precise significance is not yet clear.
After Elizabeth married the Duke of Lauderdale in 1672 more enlargements and refurbishments were put in train at Ham. The strongbox purchased last week is very similar to one still at Ham House and recorded as being in the Duchess’s Bedchamber in the 1683 inventory.
These strongboxes fulfilled an important function in keeping money, valuables and important documents secure in seventeenth-century houses where there was very little privacy. The locket and the coffer are rather potent objects, both for what they contained and for what they symbolised.