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The History of
Old Somerset House
By John Timbs

Old Somerset House

The building of this celebrated palace, situated on the south side of the Strand, with gardens and water-gate reaching to the Thames, was commenced about 1547. It was erected at the whim of Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector of the Realm - commonly known as the Protector Somerset - during the minority of his maternal nephew, King Edward VI. To obtain space, he demolished the Strand Inn (one of the Inns of Chancery) and the Episcopal Palaces of Lichfield & Coventry, Chester, Worcester and Llandaff. The Church of the Nativity of Our Lady and the Innocents was also taken down and the site became part of the palace garden. For building materials, he pulled down the Charnel House of St. Paul's Cathedral as well as the church and tower of the Priory Church of St. John of Jerusalem (Clerkenwell). Stow described it, in 1603, as "a large and beautiful house, but yet unfinished." The Protector did not inhabit the palace, for he was imprisoned in the Tower in 1549 and beheaded in 1552. 'Somerset Place,' as the palace was known, then devolved to the Crown, and was assigned by Edward VI to his sister, the Princess Elizabeth. Lord Burghley noted, "February 1st, 1667, Cornelius de la Noye, an alchymist, wrought in Somerset House, and abused many in promising to convert any metall into gold."

In 1570, "Queen Elizabeth went to open the Royal Exchange from her house at the Strand, called Somerset House." The Queen later lent the mansion to her kinsman, Lord Hunsdon, whose guest she occasionally became. At her death, the palace was settled as a jointure-house of the queen-consort and passed to Anne of Denmark, Queen of James I, by whose command it was called Denmark House. Inigo Jones erected new buildings and enlargements. Here the remains of Anne and James I lay in state. For Henrietta Maria, Queen of Charles I, Inigo Jones built a chapel, with a rustic arcade and Corinthian columns, facing the Thames; and here the Queen established a convent of Capuchin Friars. In the passage leading from east to west, under the quadrangle of the present Somerset House, are five tombstones of the Queen's attendants.

Inigo Jones died at Somerset House in 1612. During the Protectorate, the altar and chapel were ordered to be burnt and, in 1659, the palace was about to be sold for 10,000. After the Restoration, however, the Queen-mother, Henrietta, returned to Somerset House which she repaired. Hence she exclaims, in Cowley's courtly verse:

Before my gate a street's broad channel goes,
Which still with waves of crowding people flows;
And every day there passes by my side,
Up to its western reach, the London tide,
The spring-tides of the term. My front looks down
On all the pride and business of the town.

Waller's adulatory incense rises still higher:

But what new mine this work supplies?
Can such a pile from ruin rise?
This like the first creation shows,
As if at your command it rose.

Pepys gossiped of "the Queen-mother's court at Somerset House, above our own Queen's; the mass in the chapel; the garden; and the new buildings, mighty, magnificent and costly.....stately and nobly furnished;" and "the great stone stairs in the garden, with the brave echo." The Queen-mother died abroad in 1669. In 1669-70, the remains of Monk, Duke of Albemarle, "lay for many weeks in royal state" at Somerset House and thence he was buried with every honour short of regality. Thither the remains of Oliver Cromwell were removed from Whitehall, in 1658, and were laid in state in the great hall of Somerset House, "and represented in effigie, standing on a bed of crimson velvet." He was buried from hence with great pomp and pageantry, which provoked the people to throw dirt, in the night, on his escutcheon that was placed over the great gate of Somerset House: his pompous funeral cost 28,000. On the death of Charles II, in 1685, the palace became the sole residence of the Queen Dowager, Catherine of Braganza, and, in 1678, three of her household were charged with the murder of Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey, by decoying him into Somerset House, and there strangling him.

Strype describes the palace about 1720: its front with stone pillars, its spacious square court, great hall or guard-room, large staircase, and rooms of state, larger courts, and "most pleasant garden," the water-gate, with figures of Thames and Isis; and the water-garden, with fountain and statues. Early in the last century, court masquerades were given here. Addison, in the Freeholder, mentions one in 1716; and in 1763, a splendid fete was given here by the Government for the Venetian Ambassadors. In 1771, the Royal Academy had apartments in the palace, granted them by George III. In 1775, Parliament settled Buckingham House upon Queen Charlotte, in which she then resided, in lieu of Somerset House, which was given up to be demolished. The produce of the sale of Ely House was applied towards the expenses and it was decided that certain public offices should be erected upon the site of Old Somerset House. The chapel, which had been opened for Protestant Services by order of Queen Anne in 1711, was not closed until 1777. The venerable court-way from the Strand, and the dark and winding steps which led down to the garden beneath the shade of ancient and lofty trees, were the last lingering features of Somerset Place, and were characteristic of the gloomy lives and fortunes of its royal and noble inmates.

Edited by David Nash Ford, from John Timbs' Abbeys, Castles and Ancient Halls of England & Wales (1870).

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