Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Somerset House in London

I have been past Somerset House in London hundreds of times and yet I know very little about the place. In fact all I know is that it used to house the records of Births, Deaths and Marriages and the general public could go there to access the records. The General Register Office where those records were kept moved out of Somerset House in 1970, having been there since 1836. The only other thing I knew is that in winter there is a public ice skating area in the fountain court; I went along one year, not to skate but just to watch.

Edmond J. Safra Fountain Court -

Very recently I learnt that Somerset House used to be a palace for 3 queens. I also found out there are free tours available. I went along for a tour, only to find there was no guide that day, but I was given a self guided leaflet.

See the official site for the complete history and old photos and pictures. Here is a short history -
1547 Edward Seymour, Lord Protector and Duke of Somerset, started building a palace for himself on the banks of the Thames. He was executed at the Tower of London 5 years later and ownership of the almost completed palace passed to the Crown. The palace was actually closer to the Thames than the present building.

Princess Elizabeth moved to Somerset House in 1553 and lived there until she was crowned Queen Elizabeth I in 1558.

3 queens then lived in the palace -

1. Anne of Denmark, wife of James I of England (James VI of Scotland). During her time the house was renamed Denmark House in her honour. The Treaty of London which ended the 19-year Anglo-Spanish War, was negotiated and signed at Denmark House in 1604. The famous architect Inigo Jones redesigned parts of the building for Anne, until she died in 1619. Inigo Jones died in the house in 1652.

2. The next queen to live there was Henrietta Maria of France, wife of King Charles I. In the 1640s the house was taken over as the headquarters for the Parliamentary Army during the the English Civil War. The war ended in 1649 and Charles I was executed. Charles II was crowned king and his mother, Henrietta Maria returned to Denmark House in 1660. In 1665 when the Plague raced through London, Henrietta Maria moved back to France where she died in 1669. A year after the plague, in 1666 the Great Fire of London destroyed much of the City of London, but stopped just short of Denmark House.

3. The last royal to live in the house was Catherine of Braganza, wife of Charles II. She stayed there until 1693 and during that time, Sir Christopher Wren was responsible for more construction and renovation work.

That was the end of the royals. From the 1700s Somerset House was used as offices, apartments, stables etc. In 1779 The Royal Academy of Arts moved into the North Wing, followed by the Society of Antiquaries a year later. The south, east and west wings were then added. The Navy Board and Stamp Office moved in. The latter taxed newspapers and printed documents. The new Somerset House was complete by 1801.

The Royal Academy and Royal Society both moved out later, also the Admiralty, and the Inland Revenue moved in.

In recent decades The Courtauld Institute of Art moved in, and by 2000 the river terrace was open, and the first ice rink was made. The place has been used for London fashion week and other art groups. The Inland Revenue, now known as HMRC moved out in 2011.

Today Somerset House is used as an arts centre.

Looking from the North Wing towards the South and the West (right) wing. The King George III statue is hidden behind the lamp post, and Father Thames sits below the king.

The West Wing -

Looking towards the North Wing and The Strand entrance -

Entrance to the South Wing and Seamen's Hall -

The Seamen's Hall was the entry to the Navy Office. The Nelson Stairs led up to the Navy area and were frequently used by the Nelson brothers. The stairs were restored after bomb damage in 1940 -

Looking at the entrance to the South Wing from the Victoria Embankment terrace -

Maybe next time I go to Somerset House will be in the winter to watch the ice skating again.

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