Old Somerset House
In the 16th century, the Strand, the north bank of the Thames between the City of London and the Palace of Westminster, was a favoured site for the mansions of bishops and aristocrats, who could commute from their own landing stages upriver to the court or downriver to the City and beyond. In 1539, Edward Seymour, 1st Earl of Hertford (died 1552), obtained a grant of land at "Chester Place, outside Temple Bar, London" from his brother-in-law King Henry VIII. When his nephew the young King Edward VI came to the throne in 1547, Seymour became Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector. In about 1549 he pulled down an old Inn of Chancery and other houses which stood on the site and began to build himself a palatial residence, making liberal use of other nearby buildings including some of the chantry chapels and cloisters at St Paul's Cathedral, which were demolished partly at his behest as part of the ongoing dissolution of the monasteries. It was a two-storey house built around a quadrangle, with a gateway rising to three storeys, and was one of the earliest examples of Renaissance architecture in England. It is not known who designed the building.
Before it was finished, however, the Duke of Somerset was overthrown, attainted by Parliament and in 1552 was executed on Tower Hill. Somerset Place, as the building was referred to, then came into the possession of the Crown. The duke's royal nephew's half-sister, the future Queen Elizabeth I, lived there during the reign of her half-sister Queen Mary I (1553–58). The process of completion and improvement was slow and costly. As late as 1598 John Stow refers to it as "yet unfinished".
Old Somerset House, in a drawing by Jan Kip
published in 1722, was a sprawling and irregular complex with wings from different periods in a mixture of styles. The buildings behind all four square gardens belong to Somerset House.
The Thames from the Terrace of Somerset House Looking Towards St. Paul's
, c. 1750
In the 17th century, the house was used as a residence by the queen's consort. During the reign of King James I, the building became the London residence of his wife, Anne of Denmark, and was renamed Denmark House. She commissioned a number of expensive additions and improvements, some to designs by Inigo Jones. In particular, during the period between 1630 and 1635, he built a chapel where Henrietta Maria of France, wife of King Charles I, could exercise her Roman Catholic religion. This was in the care of the Capuchin Order and was on a site to the southwest of the Great Court. A small cemetery was attached and some of the tombstones are still to be seen built into one of the walls of a passage under the present quadrangle.
Royal occupation of Somerset House was interrupted by the Civil War, and in 1649 Parliament tried to sell it. They failed to find a buyer, although a sale of the contents realised the very considerable sum (for that time) of £118,000. Use was still found for it however. Part of it served as an army headquarters, with General Fairfax (the Parliamentarians' commander-in-chief) being given official quarters there; lodgings were also provided for certain other Parliamentarian notables. It was in Somerset House that Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell's body lay in state after his death in 1658.
Two years later, with the Restoration, Queen Henrietta Maria returned and in 1661 began a considerable programme of rebuilding, the main feature of which was a magnificent new river front, again to the design of the late Inigo Jones, who had died at Somerset House in 1652. However she returned to France in 1665 before it was finished. It was then used as an occasional residence by Catherine of Braganza, wife of King Charles II. During her time it received a certain notoriety as being, in the popular mind, a hot-bed of Catholic conspiracy. Titus Oates made full use of this prejudice in the fabricated details of the Popish Plot and it was alleged that Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey, whose murder was one of the great mysteries of the age, had been killed in Somerset House before his body had been smuggled out and thrown into a ditch below Primrose Hill.
Somerset House was refurbished by Sir Christopher Wren in 1685. After the Glorious Revolution in 1688, Somerset House entered on a long period of decline, being used (after Queen Catherine left England in 1692) for grace and favour residences. In the conditions of the time this meant almost inevitably that little money could be found for its upkeep, and a slow process of decay crept in. During the 18th century, however, the building ceased its royal associations. Though the view from its terraced riverfront garden, open to the public, was painted twice on his London visit by Canaletto (looking up- and downriver), it was used for storage, as a residence for visiting overseas dignitaries and as a barracks for troops. Suffering from neglect, Old Somerset House began to be demolished in 1775.