Somerset House – nowadays a vibrant creative centre – was constructed in the 1770s on the site of an earlier Tudor palace built by the rapacious – it’s not too strong a word – Edward Seymour, the eldest brother of Jane Seymour and the first Duke of Somerset. Remnants of his palace, one of a number of aristocrats’ mansions that lined the banks of the Thames, can still be found on the site, as indeed can earlier Saxon remains.
Somerset bludgeoned his way to becoming Lord Protector of the nine-year-old Edward VI after the death of his father Henry VIII and set about constructing a palace big enough for his image of himself.
It was built on robbery. He pillaged local inns, churches and other places without compensation to build his grandiose home. He stole stone from the charnel house of Saint Paul’s and parts of the Priory of Saint John of Jerusalem at Clerkenwell. According to the writer Thomas Pennant, he was only stopped from stealing stone from the monastery of Westminster Abbey by being bribed with 14 manors. When he tried to demolish the nearby St Margaret’s Church it provoked a riot by locals and he backed off.
Later, providence came to the rescue: Protector Somerset was executed on Tower Hill before his palace was completed, an event that was lamented, according to Pennant, but only because his overthrow was brought about by “a man more wicked, more ambitious and detested than himself”. Those were the days.
Somerset House then became an occasional residence for royalty, including Elizabeth I, before being pulled down in 1775. It was replaced by the current Palladian design, which until recently housed government services, giving it some claim to be the first dedicated office block ever built.
Fascinatingly, there are still traces of the original building to be found if you know where to look – or if you get onto a conducted tour. The most dramatic lie under a glass floor, appropriately in the archaeology department of King’s College (see photo above). They include a Tudor wall on the left and chalky medieval remains next to a bed of stones beneath which was uncovered a rubbish tip dating to the time the Saxons established the trading port of Lundenwic along the Strand.
At the eastern end of the building yard, where King’s students park their bikes, is a late 17th century wall – the only free standing remnant of the old palace (photo above). On the other side is the entrance to what for years has been known as the Roman Bath, partly because it was mentioned by Dickens and other authors. However, King’s professor Michael Trapp has established that, although it has been used as a cold bath for periods, it was in fact a much taller structure which fed water into spectacular fountain in the Somerset House gardens.