Somerset House: The Old Palaces Tour

Somerset House is one of the most interesting buildings in London, but the history of the site itself is just as fascinating. The current building was completed in 1780, but the site has a long history before that. It’s possible to go on an Old Palaces Tour to learn about the history of the site before the current building existed.

The site was a prime spot from the early days of London, being located on the banks of the Thames in between the financial heart, the City, and the centre of Government, Westminster. When the Duke of Somerset became Lord Protector on the accession of the boy-king Edward VI in 1547, he decided to build himself a palace on this very spot, even though it meant demolishing several churches and chapels that already existed on the land. A few years later, Somerset Palace – architect unknown – was complete, but the Duke was executed for treason in 1552 and it passed into the hands of the Crown. Elizabeth used the Palace on occasion, both as a Princess and later as Queen, but it was more heavily used after her death in 1603.

From then until its demolition nearly 200 years later, the Palace was most notable for being the home of three Catholic queens: Anne of Denmark, Henrietta Maria and Catherine of Braganza. Anne, wife of James I of England and VI of Scotland, renamed the building Denmark House, hosted numerous lavish masques, and commissioned elaborate extensions to the palace. A similar policy was followed by Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I, and her addition of a Catholic chapel did not help improve relations between the King and his Parliament. On the outbreak of the Civil War, Henrietta Maria fled to France, Charles of course was defeated and executed, and Denmark House became the headquarters of General Fairfax, commander of the Parliamentary Army. The contents of the house were inventoried and sold – to this date only one picture remains as a record of what the interior looked like – and Inigo Jones, responsible for much of the seventeenth century redesign of the building, was fined by the Parliamentarians who viewed his work for the royal family with suspicion. He died at Somerset House, his estate confiscated. However, on Oliver Cromwell’s death – his body lying in state at Somerset House – Charles II was restored to the throne and Henrietta Maria, now Queen Dowager, returned to Somerset House.

The final Roman Catholic queen to inhabit the house was Catherine of Braganza, who moved in after the death of her husband Charles II and remained there during the reign of William and Mary, a difficult situation as the monarchs were Protestant. After Catherine left in 1693, the Palace was used by various government departments before falling gradually into disrepair. George III agreed that the building should be demolished and replaced by a new building for the purpose of government offices, on the condition that Buckingham House, further to the west, should be given to the Crown.

We were taken round the existing Somerset House during the tour and the history of the old palace was explained to us: it was fascinating considering that hardly anything of the old palace still exists and we had to rely on our imaginations. Our guide was really knowledgeable and enthusiastic and really brought the old palace to life.

Overlooking the Thames, the main transport thoroughfare at the time of the old palace

After spending some time in the courtyard, we ventured downstairs to where the nineteenth-century embankment is visible as well as the level of the Thames waterline. Originally, boats could come right inside the palace, and these days one of the royal barges is installed behind a pane of glass (one of a pair, the other barge is at the National Maritime Museum).

The embankment
The barge

Next we visited my favourite part of Somerset House – the Deadhouse, underneath the courtyard. When the old palace was demolished, the only bits saved from it were some of the graves from the Roman Catholic chapel, which have been installed here. They include the grave of a doctor, the wife of a gardener, and a diplomat.

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Finally, we visited the Strand Lane Baths, which are located next to Somerset House. During the nineteenth century, it was widely thought that these dated back to Roman times, and there is a worn Victorian sign inside the building stating this. Indeed, the National Trust sign outside calls them the Roman Baths. However, it is now generally accepted that the baths date from no earlier than the beginning of the 17th century. An intriguing theory claims that the bath was originally the feeder cistern for a magnificent fountain in the grounds of the old Somerset House, built for James I’s queen, Anne of Denmark, in 1612. The Hidden London website has a very informative piece about this.

Looking down Strand Lane
The original National Trust sign which still says Roman Baths
The building
The baths
The baths
Victorian sign

By the late eighteenth century, the baths were being used as a public bathing facility. Charles Dickens reportedly bathed here, and made his character David Copperfield take the plunge here as well. Whenever they date from, they are a fascinating little feature of the embankment. Apart from these tours, access is only possible on Open House Weekend or by making an appointment with Westminster Council.

I thoroughly enjoyed my Old Palaces Tour. Tours take place each Tuesday at 12.45 and 14.15. They are free, but are popular so don’t arrive too late. I turned up at a quarter to twelve and the first tour was full up, but I was the first person to register on the second. It’s definitely worth making the effort to go on this tour.