Today, Somerset House, on London’s Strand, is best-known for its connections to the arts. It’s where The Courtauld Gallery is based and where concerts & film screenings take place on a regular basis, joined by an ice rink during the festive season.
What some readers may not realise is that Somerset House dates back 450 years, to the Tudors, with whom it dramatically fell out of favour. I learned this, and much more, on today’s ‘Old Palace Tour’, which I highly recommend. I’m going to share a little of my new-found knowledge, on the proviso that you seek out this intriguing building for yourself.
Somerset Palace, as it was originally known, was built by Edward Seymour – brother of Henry VIII’s third wife, Jane, and Lord Protector during the brief reign of Edward VI. Loathed by the aristocracy for his overwhelming ambition, Seymour was executed in 1552 and the Palace passed to the Crown. The future Elizabeth I lived there from 1553 to 1558, following which it remained unused until James I’s wife, Anne of Denmark, invited Inigo Jones to renovate the building. Once again, ‘Denmark House’ was a royal residence.
Henrietta Maria (wife of Charles I) and Catherine Braganza (wife of Charles II) followed in Anne’s footsteps and, like Anne, made the most of ‘The Palace of the Queens’, using it for parties and masquerades. Rumblings were afoot, however; the Stuarts might have believed in the divine rights of kings but their subjects most certainly didn’t and many of them viewed the royal family as out of touch with reality. The fact that Henrietta Maria and Catherine were Roman Catholic and held masses at Somerset Palace did nothing to improve their – or its – popularity.
After Charles II died, Catherine of Braganza was left to wander this palace on her own. Eventually, the loneliness became too much to bear and she returned to Portugal, where she became a successful politician. Somerset Palace again found itself out of favour and remained so until George III had the neglected building demolished and replaced by Somerset House.
In moved the Royal Academy of Arts, the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries, with Somerset House hosting the RAA’s first exhibition in 1780. England, at that time, was susceptible to attack and depended on the British Navy for its defence and in 1789 the Navy Board took up residence as the “engine room” of the British Empire. It was followed by King’s College, the General Register Office and the Inland Revenue, plus terraced houses for naval officers and their families.
We began our tour in Somerset House’s famous Fountain Court, from where you can admire the statues of sea and river gods built into the building’s exterior in deference to the former naval presence. We then descended 80 stairs into the basement, where every single copy of every British newspaper published was “stamped”. Considered a menial job, this is reflected in the dingy and damp conditions, the basement having been prone to flooding over the years.
It was down in the basement, too, that the ‘Tax on Wigs’ was invented, to fund the Napoleonic Wars. It charged one guinea per year per powdered wig – potentially very lucrative for the government, given that the fashion of the day was for gentlemen to wear wigs in place of their own hair. Unsurprisingly, the wig tax proved deeply unpopular, so much so that people stopped wearing them in protest. Forced to devise another money-making ruse, the government came up with income tax, which was equally unpopular, despite being described as “temporary” (ha!).
As we continued our tour around the less well-known parts of Somerset House, our highly entertaining guide shared additional nuggets of information, including the fact that over 60 films – including two James Bonds – have been filmed here and that Somerset House regularly doubles as Buckingham Palace in TV dramas.
I can see why it’s so popular. Somerset House has undergone so many incarnations; it must be one of the most versatile buildings in London. For example, the deeply creepy ‘Deadhouse’, which is now a dank cellar containing memorial stones from a nearby graveyard, was a storeroom during the 19th century for wine and brandy, previously having been a garden and a Catholic chapel.
Downstairs, in the bowels of the building, you feel as though you’ve travelled back in time when you spy a genuine Navy Barge once used by officers to traverse the River Thames. Clean(ish) the water might be now, but our guide reminded us that the Thames and its surroundings were not always so hygienic. Indeed, during the 19th century it was common for London’s two million inhabitants to throw their rubbish into the river, eventually leading to the ‘Great Stink’ of 1858.
There was time for one final surprise, for which we temporarily left Somerset House, wandering along the Embankment to Strand Lane. Thrillingly, this is where a public baths was discovered in 1776 and nicknamed ‘Cold Plunge Bath’ by Londoners. One hundred years later, the Victorians declared the building (which we were allowed to enter – it smells rank) to be of Roman origin. Alas, recent research has disproved the Roman theory; it transpires our erstwhile Roman Bath was a reservoir for the Somerset Palace fountain built in 1615.
Ah well. Concluding our tour with a Roman relic would have been the icing on the cake, but this was still a fascinating exploration of a building that has seen and experienced so much over the centuries. The secrets it must hold and the scandals it must have witnessed…it’s enough to make the imagination run riot.
Somerset House holds a separate ‘Historical Highlights’ tour for which I shall definitely return. Like the ‘Old Palace Tour’ it is free of charge and I would urge you to seek out both experiences for yourselves.