In medieval times, if you looked across the Thames from near where the London Eye now stands, you would have seen an extraordinary sight: an unbroken battalion of overpowering buildings, palaces in all but name, stretching over three quarters of a mile from what is now Trafalgar Square to the site of today’s Temple Station. They were occupied first by bishops, then by aristocrats.
Each one would need a book to do it justice. On the west, where Whitehall began, was Cardinal Wolsey’s York House. Next to it was Suffolk House – later known as Northumberland House – followed by Durham House (home to Sir Walter Raleigh among others) Salisbury House, Worcester House, Savoy Palace, Somerset House and Arundel House.
Their gardens occupied the whole of the southern section of the Strand down to the river (which nearer in those days, before the Embankment was built). Today, only Somerset House still stands, and that is a later re-construction, not the original. It does, though, give you an idea of the scale of these mansions. They were brazen displays of ostentatious wealth, often only yards away from some of the most deprived slums in the city.
There are few other remains, but they are impressive. The most fascinating is Cardinal Wolsey’s wine cellar at York House, later appropriated by Henry VIII, which is buried in almost pristine condition in the bowels of the Ministry of Defence and is not open to the public (though I did once blag a visit). The only visible remnant of York House today is the Watergate, from which the Earl of Essex departed to be executed after his abortive attempt to foment a rebellion against Elizabeth I’s government. It can be seen in all its glory in Embankment Gardens, by Embankment station.
Northumberland House was the last of the grand houses to be demolished, a necessary sacrifice to Joseph Bazalgette’s sewer improvements. There’s nothing left of it on site, but the famous lion that stood on top of the edifice still graces Syon House in Brentford, another family property. William Kent’s gates can be seen at Bromley Health Centre, and part of one of the magnificent rooms is now in the Victoria and Albert museum.
Further along the Strand was the vast Savoy Palace, named after Peter, Count of Savoy, who was given it in 1246. It achieved notoriety when occupied by John of Gaunt, the younger son of Edward III, the richest man in England. His Palace lasted until the Peasants Revolt of 1381, when it was destroyed. A hospital was later built on the site, taking its name from the Savoy. This was demolished in the 19th century, and all that is left of it is its chapel – now called the Queen’s Chapel – whose medieval walls are still intact. They form the largest remains of the Strand palaces above ground. Some of the stones rescued from the hospital’s demolition were recycled into the Royal Coburg Theatre (today’s Old Vic), where they can still be seen.
Next along is Somerset House, where remnants of a late 17th century wall can be found at a side entrance to King’s College, which occupies part of the site. That is the only free standing survival from the old palace, but even older ones lie under a glass floor in the archaeological department. They include a Tudor wall on the left and a rubbish tip dating from when Saxons established the trading port of Lundenwic along the Strand.
Finally, Arundel House, which was granted in 1232 to the bishops of Bath and Wells, covered almost five acres, the largest site of all the Strand palaces, with a river frontage of an astonishing 150 metres. A modern day Arundel House reminds us of the extensive ruins excavated nearby.
The original was purchased in 1549 by the Earl of Arundel after the execution of its previous owner Thomas Seymour, brother of Lord Protector Seymour, who built Somerset House before he too was executed, prior its completion. There can be a downside to being very rich. Archaeologists uncovered extensive remains. A wall with stairs was found very close to Somerset House next door.
All of these houses have been lost, but numerous street names – from York Buildings to Arundel Street – preserve their memory.
All previous instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London can be found here.
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