Five things you might not know about Somerset House

When I first stepped into the courtyard of Somerset House I couldn’t quite believe how stunning it was. It was back in the days when I’d not longed moved to London and the city’s beautiful architecture made living here every day pretty exciting. In the years that followed, it quickly became a place to visit for exhibitions and of course ice skating in the run up to Christmas (the sight of its ice rink makes me feel so festive!). I still can’t get over its beauty, but after reading and seeing these stunning pictures on Candids By Jo, I decided it would be fun to check out the free tour on offer.

I’ll admit one of the main reasons for going on the tour was to see a staircase or two, but I really enjoyed it and I thought I’d share my favourite facts (and photos!)

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1. It was once a Royal Palace.

In the 16th Century, the newly appointed Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector, Edward Seymour, was determined to build himself a palace. At the time, the riverside was a popular location for those in positions of power and the original building on The Strand was planned. After the Duke’s execution it was occupied by the future Queen Elizabeth I and a number of regal characters followed suit, taking ownership and developing it into the palace that we see today.

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The building’s grand columns are possibly the immediate hints at its regal past, but look a bit closer and you’ll notice smaller details like the crown on top of the lamps and the portrait cameos on the walls.

It’s no surprise really then that it’s been used as a stand in for Buckingham Palace in films and TV series. Put a guard or two in front of this view and I can just about see the similarities.

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2. It was built using parts of St Paul’s Cathedral

As the power went to his head, the Duke of Somerset not only demolished the houses that stood on the site he wanted, he also partly demolished the chantry chapels and cloisters of St Paul’s Cathedral and used it during the building process. A move that’s safe to say wasn’t a very popular one.

3. It was originally built to sit right on the River Thames

Back in the day, the riverside banks that we can freely walk along now didn’t exist and palaces were built directly next to the water. Not only was riverside living fashionable and part of establishing your status and influence in court society, but it was also pretty practical as the main form of transport and delivery of goods a few centuries ago was by boat. Somerset House had a huge garden that stretched right out to the edge (you can see it here). These days you can find nautical references in the sea monsters that clutch onto the walls.

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4. The building attracted even more religious controversy

The Duke of Somerset wasn’t the only one to spark trouble in relation to religious buildings. In 1625, when Charles I came to the throne, his wife Henrietta Maria of France became entitled to Somerset House (then named Denmark House) and instructed further reconstruction and development. The Queen was a devout Roman Catholic and the refurbishment included a lavish new Chapel. In a country that was declared Protestant at the time, the development did not go down well and fueled popular ill-will towards them.

However, it is believed that the Chapel did allow for the Queen’s allegiances to be buried on site, rather than an unmarked grave as was practice at the time for members of the public who practiced Roman Catholicism. There are a number of plaques you can see as part of the tour, however, it is unknown as to whether any remains lie behind them.

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5. It has some stunning stairs

The first is the Navy Stair, originally built in the late 18th Century/early 19th Century. It was seriously damaged during World War II, however, as luck would have it the original plans were kept in tact and the staircase was rebuilt in the 1950s.

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The second is the award-winning Miles Stair in the West Wing, built in 2014 by renowned architect Eva Jiricna.

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Sadly, with 100s of years of history to cover, there wasn’t enough time for me to climb the staircase and see it from the top.  As it’s not open to the public either, I’m currently trying to figure out how to sneak back in for more photos!

This post was put together from memory with prompts from Somerset House’s website. The historical highlights tour of Somerset House is a much better way of getting to know this iconic building better, bringing its history to life.

The free tour is available on Thursdays at 1.15pm and 2.45pm and Saturdays every hour from 12.15pm with the last tour at 3.15pm. You can collect free tickets at the information desk in Seaman’s Hall from 10.30am on the day.

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Have you explored Somerset House yet? Have you done any other London tours?

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5 Comments

  1. May 8, 2016 / 9:01 am

    Oh this tour sounds great. I’ve been to Somerset house to go to the Courtauld gallery for various exhibitions but I’ve never thought of looking at the building itself- this is definitely going on my list! Just yesterday I did a walking tour near St Pauls organised by Open City- http://www.open-city.org.uk/activities/yearround/architecturetours.html – not free sadly but very interesting and I can definitely recommend!

    • ThisCityLifeLondon
      May 8, 2016 / 9:26 am

      Oh the Open City tour sounds interesting! Will look into that! x

  2. May 9, 2016 / 6:55 am

    Fascinating post! Like you I have visited for various reasons – including the World Photography Exhibition on at the moment which I highly recommend – but I haven’t looked into the history too much. Definitely would like to take this tour!

    • ThisCityLifeLondon
      May 9, 2016 / 11:38 am

      The World Photography exhibition is great, need to go back to see this year’s. I think the only thing I haven’t done at Somerset House is the summer cinema screen!