Merry Christmas from Somerset House (London)

Each year Somerset House hosts a plethora of events, including London Fashion Week and an annual ice skating rink.  In 2015 the rink was sponsored by Fortnum & Mason, who also took over a wing of Somerset House with pop-up shops.  That was when I visited to take the glowing picture above, having just received my 10-18mm camera lens.

Somerset House also houses an art gallery, The Courtauld Gallery (free with and Art Fund card, otherwise probably a little pricey).

A few years ago D and I joined one of the free tours of Somerset House, during which we visited places usually not open to the public.  I recommend you take one.  See here.

See here for the fascinating and varied history of Somerset House – royal palace, glory badge of The Lord Protector of Edward VI and former home of HM Revenue & Customs.

When visited: December 2015

Theme tune

History (source

Protector Somerset

From the late 12th century, the river side and Strand frontage were popular locations for the London residences of those seeking influence at Westminster Court.

Great houses included those of the Bishops of Exeter, Bath and Wells, Llandaff, Chester, Worcester, Norwich, and Durham.

By 1531 these had been joined by houses belonging to the King, the Queen, the Dukes of Norfolk, Suffolk and Richmond, and the Marquesses of Dorset and Exeter.

When Henry VIII died in 1547 his son, Edward VI, was still too young to ascend the throne. Edward Seymour, the boy’s ambitious and successful uncle, seized this opportunity and had himself created Lord Protector and Duke of Somerset. The new Duke and Protector, “desirous of possessing a residence suitable to his high rank”, was determined to build himself a palace.

The Duke already owned land on a prime site between the Thames and the Strand; an important thoroughfare linking the Tower of London to the east and the Palace of Whitehall and Westminster to the west. It was here that he began building his great mansion, Somerset House, in 1547. However, clearing the site required the demolition of a number of existing churches and chapels.

This was an extremely unpopular and provocative move. It caused a clash with the ruling Privy Council and was the subject of the indictment that led to the Duke’s arrest and brief imprisonment in the Tower of London in 1549, although he soon obtained his release and reinstatement.

Renaissance Style

By 1551 Somerset House was virtually complete, having cost over £10,000 to build. Although it was a courtyard house in the Tudor tradition, with a gatehouse to the Strand and a great hall opposite on the river front, the Strand facade departed from the old Gothic style of architecture and, instead, combined Doric and Ionic pillars in the most serious attempt at classical composition yet seen in England.

The identity of the architect is not known; there is some evidence that it may have been John of Padua, responsible for Caius College, or possibly John Thynne, who was employed by the Duke at that time.

Although he had commissioned one of the most influential buildings of the English Renaissance, the Duke had little opportunity to enjoy Somerset House. In 1551 his opponents had him arrested again and tried for the much more serious crime of treason. This time there was no escape. The Duke of Somerset, Lord Protector of England, was executed on Tower Hill in January 1552.

Elizabeth I

After Somerset’s execution the building passed into the hands of the Crown. Finally completed in 1553, the house was occupied by Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen Elizabeth I, until her accession to the throne in 1558. As Queen, she preferred to live at the palaces of Whitehall or St. James’s, while using Somerset House for occasional meetings of her council and as a lodging-house for foreign diplomats.

Denmark House

Following the death of Elizabeth in 1603, her successor united two thrones, becoming James I of England and VI of Scotland. James had married Anne of Denmark and Norway in 1589, but Anne found life at the Scottish court rather dull. So when she was given Somerset House for her own use she took up residence and entertained there on a lavish scale, renaming the place ‘Denmark House’, it became the centre of English social and artistic life.

Just as Elizabeth I had encouraged English drama, Anne encouraged the development of the English masque – a form of dramatic and musical entertainment – employing Ben Jonson to write and Inigo Jones to design the sets for a series of extravagant productions. In August 1604, Somerset House played host to a drama of a different kind, when the conference and peace treaty that brought about the end of nearly 20 years of war between England, Spain and the Netherlands was held here.

Besides hosting lavish and expensive entertainments at Denmark House, Anne initiated a major reconstruction of the palace from 1609, much of it to Inigo Jones’ design. Buildings were erected to form a new three-sided courtyard while the original Lower Court was substantially remodelled. Further reconstruction around the Upper Court saw the introduction of an open arcade of nine arches to the entrance, and the rebuilding of the ranges on the east and west sides, in a style to match the Strand Front constructed sixty years earlier.

The cost of the building works was some £34,500 which, together with furnishing and equipment, made Somerset House one of the most ruinously expensive enterprises of James I’s reign. Nevertheless, to complete the renovation, the river front was rendered to imitate stone, the Strand front repaired and the Hall refaced with stone. Indeed, the work of painting, gilding and decorating inside Denmark House continued until Anne’s death in 1619.

Charles I and Henrietta Maria

Charles I came to the throne in 1625 and, later that year, married Henrietta Maria of France, a devout Roman Catholic. Shortly after, she became entitled to the use of Denmark House and further reconstruction and redecoration followed, overseen by Inigo Jones, with contributions by John Webb and Nicholas Stone.

At Denmark House, Jones designed new decorative features for the Queen’s closet, an ornamental seat in the bowling alley, a cistern house, an arbour and a new and lavishly decorated Cabinet Room. A new river landing was also constructed from Portland stone and fountains and grottos introduced to the gardens.

By far the most important building undertaken by Jones at Denmark House was the Queen’s new Chapel. This “lavish setting for the mass” was commissioned in 1630 and took six years to complete, when it was praised as being “more beautiful, larger, and grander than one could ever have hoped for”. Beautiful it may have been, but, by encouraging his Queen to build a Roman Catholic chapel in a royal palace, Charles added fuel to the flames of political dissension and popular ill-will that would later be his downfall.

Henrietta Maria brought the grace and style of the French Court to Denmark House and lived there until she fled to France during the Civil War, just before her husband’s execution.

The Civil War

During the Civil War Denmark House was used as quarters for General Fairfax who commanded the Parliamentary Army. When Parliament ordered the dispersal of the royal treasures for the benefit of the army, much of the collection was gathered at Denmark House in 1649 where it was inventoried and sold.

The tapestries and pictures listed in the inventory alone formed one of the most remarkable private collections ever made; some 1,760 pictures, including works by Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, Correggio, Titian, Tintoretto, Holbein and Van Dyck, amongst others.

Inigo Jones

Described by a contemporary as, “our Kingdome’s most Artfull and Ingenious Architect”, Inigo Jones was Surveyor of the King’s Works from 1615 until the beginning of the Civil War in 1642. During this time he was continuously engaged on the supervision of works at the Royal residences. Besides being responsible for much of the redesigns for Denmark House, he also designed a new palace for Anne at Greenwich, The Queen’s House.

The outbreak of Civil War brought a change in Jones’ fortunes. His work for the Roman Catholic Henrietta Maria some years earlier provoked deep suspicion in the minds of the Parliamentarians, resulting in Jones being fined and his estate sequestrated.

He was able to secure a pardon and the return of all his property, only to later be fined again. Inigo Jones died at Somerset House in 1652, as it was said, “…through grief, as is well known, for the fatal calamity of his dread master”.

Oliver Cromwell

Cromwell died in 1658 and, at Somerset House, “The Lord Protector’s effigy lay in state for many weeks after his death… multitudes daily crowding to see this glorious but mournful sight.”

Although some genuinely did mourn his death, for many it came as a relief, marking the end of a harsh puritan rule and opening up the possibility of the restoration of the monarchy.

John Evelyn records in his diary, “It was the joyfullest funeral I ever saw; for there were none that cried but dogs…” Indeed, public opinion veered so sharply that, just two years later, Charles II was restored to the throne and Cromwell’s body exhumed and hanged at Tyburn!

The Restoration

After Charles II’s restoration in 1660, Henrietta Maria, Charles I’s widow and now Queen Dowager, returned to Denmark House. During this time, as well as the construction of stables, coach houses and apartments, a significant new building was erected housing the Presence Chamber and Privy Chamber.

A riverfront gallery was also built – its five open arches and sculptured keystones providing a model for the Strand frontage of the new Somerset House some 100 years later.

“Saw the Queene’s new rooms, which are most stately and nobly furnished.” From Samuel Pepys’ diary, October 1664.

Plague and Fire

The plague of 1665 prompted all who could, particularly the wealthy, to leave London. Samuel Pepys’ diary for 29 June 1665 records, “By water to Whitehall, where the Court is full of waggons and people ready to go out of town. This end of the town every day grows very bad with the plague… Home, calling at Somerset House where all were packing up, too; the Queen-mother setting out for France this day…”

Henrietta Maria never returned to England and died in France four years later. The great fire of 1666, started in the City to the east of the Strand, destroyed nearly three-quarters of the town, but conveniently cleared the city of disease. The fire stopped just short of Somerset House.

A Lady of the Bedchamber

Frances Teresa Stewart came from a Royalist family which had fled to France after the victory of the Parliamentarians and was brought up at the Court of Louis XIV.

Here she was befriended by Henrietta Maria, who obtained an appointment for her as Lady of the Bedchamber to her daughter-in-law, Catherine of Braganza, who had married Charles II in 1662. The King was notoriously unfaithful to his wife and attempted, unsuccessfully, to seduce Miss Stewart.

In 1667, she eloped with the Duke of Richmond and further enraged the King by returning all the jewels he had given her.

Pepys records in his diary for 19 May 1668, “The King begins to be mightily reclaimed, and sups every night with great pleasure with the Queen; and yet, it seems, he is mighty hot upon the Duchess of Richmond… he did… go to Somerset House, and there, the garden door not being open, himself clambered over the wall to make a visit to her, which is a horrid shame!”

Catherine of Braganza

Christopher Wren supervised another major redecoration of Somerset House in 1685 when Queen Catherine of Braganza took up permanent residence following the death of her husband Charles II. Charles was succeeded by his brother James II, whose reign, until his exile in 1688, was a short-lived disaster. Catherine stayed on at Somerset House as Queen Dowager throughout, as was her right.

After William, Prince of Orange, and his wife, Mary, daughter of James II, succeeded to the English throne, considerable antagonism existed between the strictly Roman Catholic Catherine at Somerset House and the Protestant King and Queen at Whitehall.

A Bill was introduced to Parliament to limit the number of Catherine’s Roman Catholic servants, and she was warned not to agitate against his government. While William was away fighting in Ireland further threats and accusations were directed at her by Queen Mary, including that of failing to pray for the success of the King’s Irish campaign.

Just as matters were becoming extremely uncomfortable for Catherine, she was asked to become Regent of Portugal and left England in 1693, the last queen to inhabit the palace.


During the early part of the 18th century, Somerset House was used to provide grace and favour apartments and also for entertainment, particularly for the very popular masked ball or masquerade. This could either be a private entertainment or a public subscription, where anybody who could afford a ticket could join in the fun.

The masquerade was, in effect, a fancy-dress ball where the wearing of a disguise was an absolute requirement. It was considered by many to be subversive of the established rules of society…

A contemporary contributor to the Spectator magazine says, “People dress themselves in what they have a Mind to be, and not what they are fit for…”, while an author in the Guardian wrote, “The being in disguise takes away the usual checks and restraints of modesty…”

Perhaps the spirit of the masquerade is best captured in this description of the lightly clad form of a notorious society lady as she… “appeared as Iphigeneia for the sacrifice, but so naked the high priest might easily inspect the entrails of the victim”!

Out of the Ruins…

During large parts of the 18th century Somerset House was used for a variety of purposes. Court officials occupied some of the rooms, other parts of the building were given over to storage and offices, including those of the Duchy of Cornwall, while the State Apartments were occupied by foreign embassies or visiting dignitaries. From 1722 the Horse Guards took over the stables and in 1756 a battalion of Foot Guards were quartered in the palace.

This period saw the palace fall gradually into ruin. In 1718 Vanbrugh observed that Somerset House was the “most out of repair” of all the royal palaces and no longer able to keep out the weather. The continued neglect led to the inevitable decision to pull the building down and George III agreed that the site be given over to public offices, with the provision Buckingham House should take the place of Somerset House as the official dower house for the queen. Demolition began in 1775 and continued in stages as the new Somerset House was constructed around it.

When the new building rose from the rubble, the Royal Academy, which had been one of the last occupants of the old Somerset House, became one of the first occupants of the apartments which fronted the Strand, providing tangible continuity between the old and the new.

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