Somerset House - a slice of London's history

Somerset House – a slice of London’s history

For a thousand years, the north bank of the River Thames between Westminster and the City of London has been prime real estate. For powerful nobles like the Duke of Somerset, it was the best place to be, between the court and parliament at Westminster and the rowdy hustle of the City with its famous ‘Square Mile’ of commerce based around the old markets and docks.

The Old Tudor Palace of Somerset Place

When King Henry VIII died in 1547, his only son, the young and sickly Edward, became king, with his his uncle Thomas Seymour, Duke of Somerset, as Lord Protector. Seizing the moment, Seymour decided his new rank demanded a residence fronted on The Strand and sweeping down to the Thames that would outdo his rivals. However, his arrogance at displacing so many people to build Somerset Place resulted in short spell in the Tower of London.

Thomas Seymour still managed to finish his dream home in 1551, but only a year later he was arrested again, this time for treason, and was beheaded on Tower Hill. His property was seized by the Crown, and Henry VIII’s daughter, Elizabeth I, used Somerset Place occasionally. Even Shakespeare visited.

Somerset House as the Queen’s Palace

Subsequent queens were given the use of Somerset House to entertain friends while their husbands were busy at Westminster. When the English Civil War brought the beheading of Charles I only a short way along the river at the Palace of Whitehall, Somerset House was taken by Roundhead officials, and Oliver Cromwell’s body lay in state here in 1658.

Royal Scandals and Masked Balls

With the Monarchy restored under Charles II the good times returned, with masked balls and lavish entertainments. However, the famous diarist Samuel Pepys records calling at Somerset House on his way up river to escape the plague in 1665. Fortunately, the Great Fire of London in 1666 stopped just short of the building, but Pepys mentions that after dining with his queen, Charles II climbed over a garden wall to visit his mistress who was there as Lady of the Bedchamber – which Pepys, no saint himself, thought ‘a horrid shame’.

Connections with Inigo Jones and Sir Christopher Wren

Improvements were made by two of Britain’s most famous architects, Inigo Jones, who died at Somerset House in 1652, and Sir Christopher Wren, as part of the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire. The court continued to use the house, but in 1775 George III stopped using it as a residence when Buckingham Palace was built, and returned it to the government for official purposes. It was in such a bad state that it was mostly pulled down, and become the building we see today, designed by another master architect, Sir William Chambers.