Learn about the history of Somerset House on a free tour.
Somerset House is one of my favourite London buildings. It’s so versatile, full of history, is beautiful to look at and has a wealth of entertainment and art options. The current building we see today dates back to the 18th and 19th century, but its history goes way back to the 16th century. With over 450 years of history on the site, there’s a lot to take in. However, the Historical Highlights Tour, which takes place every week is a good place to start.
The first large house on the site was a two-storey property, which started to be built in 1547. It was a home for the Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset (1500-1552), who was given the land by his brother-in-law King Henry VIII. He served as Lord Protector of England for the first two years of his nephew King Edward VI’s (1537-1553) reign from 1547-1549, who was only nine when he came to the Throne. However, Somerset was overthrown in October 1549 and was executed on Tower Hill in 1552. His house, known as Somerset Place, was taken into the crown’s possession, with the future Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) living there during her half-sister Queen Mary’s (1516-1558) reign. However, the house hadn’t been completed decades later, with 16th century historian John Stow (1524/25-1605) referring to Somerset Place as still ‘yet unfinished’ in 1598 – over 50 years after building work started.
By 1603, Anne of Denmark (1574-1619), Queen Consort to King James I of England (or James VI of Scotland) was given Somerset Place for her London residence, with it renamed Denmark House in her honour. Anne enrolled architect Inigo Jones (1573-1652), among others, to make some improvements and additions to the long neglected house. Following Anne’s death, Jones designed a chapel in 1636 where her daughter-in-law, Henrietta Maria of France (1609-1669), wife of King Charles I, could quietly worship as a Roman Catholic, when Protestant was the dominant religion of the time. A small cemetery was established outside the chapel, with some of the 17th century gravestones being shown during the tour. Read the rest of this entry
Down a small side street near the Aldwych campus of King’s College is an extraordinary piece of hidden London.
Known as the ‘Roman’ Bath on Strand Lane, the building is rarely open to the public. I visited a few months ago during Open House London and found the origins of the baths weren’t quite as romantic as they sounded. At one point there were two baths on the site – named ‘Essex’ and ‘Roman’ respectively, however it is the latter (which is also the oldest), that can be seen today.
Thanks to centuries of redevelopment, bombing and fires, there isn’t much left of Roman London today. Within the borders of old Londinium, we have some of the Roman wall at Tower Hill, the remains of the Amphitheatre at Guildhall and an old bathhouse at Lower Thames Street. While the bath at The Strand continues to be named ‘Roman’, it turns out it is significantly younger than two millennia.
Recent research by historians at nearby King’s College London has found the bath was originally constructed in 1612 as a feeder cistern for an elaborate fountain in the gardens of an earlier incarnation of Somerset House (prior to the current building, which dates back to 1796). At the time, the house was the residence for Anne of Denmark (1574-1619), Queen Consort of King James I of England (1566-1625). Following their deaths, it is believed the fountain was demolished around 1630 during extensive remodelling under the reign of their son King Charles I (1600-1649). This research by Professor Michael Trapp and Dr Kevin Hayward rejects an earlier theory the bath was a spring water reservoir for Arundel House, home to Thomas Howard, 21st Earl Of Arundel (1586-1646). Read the rest of this entry