The earliest part of the site is a Norman domestic dwelling, built in the 1180s. Although the site is known as King John's Palace there is no evidence that King John of England ever visited the house. In the 14th century the merchant and mayor of Southampton, John Whytegod, lived in the property. After the French raid of Southampton in 1338 the walls were turned into what would become Southampton's defensive walls. Its windows and doors were filled in or replaced with gun slits. It is one of the finest examples of Norman domestic architecture in England.
The main body of the house was extended and developed by Sir John Dawtrey (d.1518), a major landowner, M.P. and Sheriff. He received large sums of money from Henry VIII to supply food for the navy and to help in the defences of the town. Money was also provided for the building, fitting out and provisioning of ships – including The . During the Tudor period, the house was a home for influential members of Southampton society including Sir Richard Lyster (1480–1554), a judge and Chief Justice of the King's Bench.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the house was used as a merchant house as a cloth maker and manufacturer. During the restoration, in 2007, conservators discovered that several walls were covered with graffiti that dated between 1570 and 1620. Images include ships, caricatures of people, and exotic animals. During that period Tudor House was owned by ship owners, and it is likely that the house was used as a place of lodging for sailors and privateers. The graffiti is now considered to be one of the most well-preserved pieces of Tudor maritime graffiti in England.
The house's improvements in fortune coincided with those of Southampton, which had become fashionable as a spa town, due to the discovery of a chalybeate spring.
For a large proportion of the century the house was divided into lease-held properties. The house also had a number of business uses, including a dyeworks, bookbinders, bonnet-makers and architect's office. By the end of the 19th century the area around Tudor House had become one of the city's worst slum areas, with limited running water, disease-ridden properties, and malnourished tenants. Because of this the area, including Tudor House, was scheduled for demolition.
In 1886, when the house was threatened with demolition, local philanthropist William Spranger bought the house, recognising its significance as a site of historic importance. Spranger made significant changes to the house, including installing a 'minstrels' gallery in above the banqueting hall, and creating several doors where previously there had been none. For twelve years he led a campaign to turn the house into a museum. Eventually he was successful, and the house opened as a museum on 31 July 1912.
During the Second World War Tudor House and Garden remained open as a museum, and the wine cellar was used as an air raid shelter by the museum curator, Edward Judd, and his family during the Southampton Blitz in 1940. Tudor House remained undamaged, however a house two doors away was destroyed.
By the end of the century, the museum had become fairly dilapidated; a combination of poor renovation work, and time. According to a survey conducted in 1999, the house was 'opening like the petals of a flower', a reference to the way the house was bowing outwards.
In 1999, a survey of the building discovered major structural problems, and major redevelopment work was needed to preserve the building. Funds were sought from Southampton City Council, the Heritage Lottery Fund, English Heritage, and other donors.
The museum closed to the public in 2002, and remained closed for nine years. During this time walls were strengthened, new interpretation was added, and archaeological fieldwork was conducted. Additionally a new block was added, consisting of a cafe and toilet facilities. These were designed to remain in keeping with the original building.
In 2012, the centenary was marked by opening with an admission price of 6 pence, the same price as when the museum first opened.
The garden was initially developed in the 16th century, and was seen as an extension of the house itself. The current garden is a recreation of a Tudor knot garden, and was designed by garden historian Dr Sylvia Landsberg. The plants in the garden are representative of the types of plants that would have been found during the Tudor period, particularly herbs and edible plants.
The garden is based on manuscripts and other historic sources. Features of the garden include parapets and mounts, a fountain plot, a seat arbour, and bee bole.
The house is allegedly haunted with staff and paranormal investigators reporting shadows moving about, the sound of bells ringing and footsteps which have been linked to Anne Boleyn, who, according to the legend, was once a guest there.
- Landsberg, Sylvia (2012). The Tudor Garden. Southampton City Council, England.
- Tucker, Sue (2011). Tudor House and Garden: 900 years of history in the Heart of Southampton's Old Town. Southampton City Council.