Somerset House and King's College

Old and New London: Volume 3. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878.

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Walter Thornbury, 'Somerset House and King's College', Old and New London: Volume 3, (London, 1878), pp. 89-95. British History Online [accessed 24 June 2024].

Walter Thornbury. "Somerset House and King's College", in Old and New London: Volume 3, (London, 1878) 89-95. British History Online, accessed June 24, 2024,

Thornbury, Walter. "Somerset House and King's College", Old and New London: Volume 3, (London, 1878). 89-95. British History Online. Web. 24 June 2024,

In this section



"Before my gate a street's broad channel goes,
Which still with waves of crowding people flows;
And every day there passes by my side,
Up to its western reach, the London tide,
The spring-time of the term. My front looks down
On all the pride and business of the town."—Cowley.

Old Somerset House—Rapacity of the Protector Somerset—John of Padua, Architect of the Original Building—Downfall and Execution of the Protector—Somerset House assigned to the Princess Elizabeth—Afterwards the Residence of the Queens of England—Its Name changed to Denmark House—Additions made by Inigo Jones—Banishment of the Capuchin Fathers, and Desecration of the Chapel—The Services in the Chapel restored, and Pepys' Account of them—Catherine of Braganza—Attempt to implicate the Royal Household with the Murder of Sir Edmundbury Godfrey—The Cemetery—Description of the Old Buildings—Their Demolition—Building of New Somerset House—Amusing Tradition relative to Somerset House—King's College.

The building so familiar to Londoners, old and young, by the name of Somerset House, occupies the space formerly covered by four or five buildings of note in their day, of some of which we have already spoken. It appears from Stow that in order to make a level space of ground to hold the fair new palace which he purposed to erect—"that large and goodly house now called Somerset House"—the Protector Somerset pulled down, and "without any recompense," the Inns, as they were called, of the Bishops of Chester, Llandaff, Lichfield and Coventry, and Worcester, with all the tenements adjoining, and also the old parish church of St. Mary's.

The original Somerset House, it is almost needless to remark, took its name from the Duke of Somerset, the Lord Protector of the reign of the boy-king, Edward VI.; but the present building is of much more recent date. By the attainder of Somerset it reverted to the Crown, and it was frequently tenanted by Queen Elizabeth. Anne of Denmark, the wife of James I., and Catherine of Braganza, the neglected queen of Charles II., both in succession held their courts within its walls. At length it came to be appropriated by usage as a residence to the queens-dowager, and was frequently appointed as a temporary residence for such of the ambassadors of foreign princes as the later Stuarts and the earlier Brunswick sovereigns cared especially to honour.

Mr. A. Wood, in his "Ecclesiastical Antiquities of London and its Suburbs," is of opinion that the Protector Somerset already possessed some property on the site of Somerset House when he began the great work of pulling down his neighbours' houses around their ears and his own. But be this true or not, he seems to have known, or at all events to have made, little distinction between meum and tuum, and when he had once resolved on his end—namely, to build a palace on this central site, at a bend commanding the view of the river from London Bridge to the Abbey at Westminster—he was not likely to be at much loss as to the means to be employed. Wide space and materials were all that he needed, and these he soon obtained in a manner such as we should now probably distinguish by the term "by hook or by crook." And further, in order to complete the undertaking in a thoroughly substantial and, as it would now be called, "first-class" style, he pulled down also the charnel-house of Old St. Paul's and the chapel over it, together with a structure in "Pardon Churchyard, near the Charterhouse, throwing the dead into Finsbury Fields," and the steeple, tower, and part of the church of the Priory of St. John of Jerusalem at Clerkenwell. With these materials he commenced his work, unblessed by either the Church, or the people, or the poor.

Bishop Burnet, alluding to the Protector's rapacity, admits that "many bishops and cathedrals had resigned many manors to him for obtaining his favour," though he adds, "this was not done without leave obtained from the king." He also accuses the Protector of selling chantry lands to his friends at easy rates, for which it was concluded he had great presents. The rise of Somerset House exposed its owner to the reflection that "when the king was engaged in such wars, and when London was much disordered by the plague that had been in it for some months, he was then bringing architects from Italy, and designing such a palace as had not been seen in England."

Pennant tells us that the architect employed by the Protector Somerset in the erection of Somerset House was the celebrated John of Padua, the architect of Longleat, in Wiltshire, who is said, in Walpole's "Anecdotes of Painting," to have held, under Henry VIII., the post of "Devizer of His Majesty's Buildings."

Whether the Protector Somerset ever resided in the palace he had thus been at so much trouble in building, there is some room to doubt. The building itself was commenced in 1546–7, and as soon after as the month of October, 1548, at which time the works were still going on, he was deprived of the Protectorship and committed to the Tower. He was, however, pardoned after two years' imprisonment, and restored to the Council; but in the following year he was again committed to the Tower on charges of high treason, and was beheaded on Tower Hill in January, 1552. One of the grounds of dissatisfaction at first exhibited against him appears to have been "his ambition and seeking of his own glory, as appeared by his building of most sumptuous and costly buildings, and specially in the time of the king's wars, and the king's soldiers unpaid." On the attainder of the Duke of Somerset his palace was, of course, forfeited to the Crown, and his nephew, King Edward, appears to have assigned it to his sister, the Princess Elizabeth, for her use whenever she visited her sister's court. But when she came to the throne, she preferred the regions of Whitehall and St. James's, and fashion followed in the wake of royalty westwards. At this period the building is spoken of as "Somerset Place, beyond Strand Bridge." On Elizabeth's succession to the throne some partial restoration of Somerset's property was probably made, for Somerset Place became the residence of the Dowager Duchess.

SOMERSET HOUSE AND STAIRS. (As they appeared before they were pulled down in 1776.)

Elizabeth seems to have lived here occasionally, most probably, however, at the expense of her kinsman, Lord Hunsdon, to whom she had given the use of it. Such, at all events, was the opinion of Pennant.

Stow tells us that the queen of James I. made this house her palace, and that she entertained the king with a feast within its walls on Shrove Tuesday, 1616, when the latter was so delighted at her reception of him that he ordered it to be called Denmark House in her honour. The palace was much improved and beautified by the queen, who added much to it in the way of new buildings, Inigo Jones being called in to furnish the designs. She also brought a supply of water to it by pipes laid on from Hyde Park. In 1626 it was settled for life on Henrietta Maria, the queen of Charles I., for whom it had been stipulated on her marriage that she should be allowed the free practice of her religion, having been born and brought up a pious Catholic. Accordingly it was fitted up for the reception of herself and her household, including, of course, a body of priests to say mass daily, and to celebrate the offices of the Church. The priests in attendance on the queen were Capuchins. They had succeeded to the Oratorians, who had been expelled by the influence of Buckingham (Steenie) with his royal master. The foundation-stone of the chapel was laid by the queen, the work being carried out under the direction of Inigo Jones. The first stone was laid with great ceremony. From six in the morning there was a succession of masses daily till nearly noon, and as it was difficult to approach the sacraments elsewhere, except clandestinely, the confessionals were thronged constantly. On Sundays and festivals there was a controversial lecture at noon, and soon after followed vespers, sung by the Capuchins and musicians in the galleries. When vespers were over, there was a sermon on the gospel of the day, and lastly, compline. The chapel seems to have been also turned to account constantly in other ways. There were frequent "conferences" for the edification of Catholics and the instruction of Protestants, and on three days in each week the Christian doctrine was taught catechetically in English and in French. The consequence was that there were frequent conversions to the ancient faith, and the name of the chapel began to offend the ruling powers. Accordingly, when the queen was absent in Holland, it was resolved by the authorities to make an assault upon the place. The Capuchin fathers were silenced and driven out, then imprisoned, and at length banished; their dwelling itself was pulled down, and the chapel desecrated, in spite of its being the property of the queen. The Capuchins were brought back, and the chapel was repaired, when Henrietta Maria returned to England, a widowed queen, after her son's restoration.

THE SAVOY. (From a Drawing by J. P. Ncale, published in 1815.)

Here, in September, 1660, died the Duke of Gloucester, from the small-pox; and hence his body was taken by water "down Somerset Stairs," as Pepys tells us, to Westminster, to be buried in the Abbey.

Pepys, in his "Diary," gives an account of a service held in the chapel of Somerset House in 1663–4. "On the 24th, being Ash Wednesday, to the Queen's chapel, where I staid and saw mass, till a man came and bade me go out or kneel down; so I did go out; and thence to Somerset House, and there into the chapel, where Mons. D'Espagne, a Frenchman, used to preach." In October he again visits Somerset House, and saw the queen's new rooms, "which are most stately and nobly furnished!" In January, 1664–5, he went there again, and was shown the queen's mother's chamber and closet, "most beautiful places for furniture and pictures." In consequence, however, of the plague in the June following, the Court prepared to leave Whitehall and Somerset House. The Queen went to France, and there died in 1669. On the death of Charles II. in 1685, Somerset House became the residence of Catherine of Braganza, who lived here until her return to Portugal in 1692. It had previously belonged to her as Queen Consort, and during the ultra-Protestant furore, which exhibited itself for some years prior to the Revolution, attempts were made to implicate her household in the pretended Popish Plot of the time, and to connect the mysterious murder of Sir Edmundbury Godfrey in 1678 with persons in her service.

There is so much doubt and uncertainty mixed up with the story of the murder of Sir Edmundbury Godfrey, that it is almost impossible to winnow the truth from the falsehood, owing to the perjuries of Titus Oates and his confederate, Bedloe, the discharged servant of the Lord Belasyse. But it appears clear that the worthy justice of the peace was inveigled to a spot close to "the Watergate at Somerset House," under the pretence of his presence being wanted to allay a quarrel, and that he was strangled on the spot with a twisted handkerchief. His dead body, it would seem, was afterwards carried to Primrose Hill, at that time a retired and lonely spot, where a sword was run through it. For their presumed share in this murder three persons were hung at Tyburn in 1679. An attempt was made by Oates and Bedloe to implicate the Jesuits in the plot, and even the Queen, who then resided at Somerset House; but Charles, with his usual wit, refused to listen to the charge, telling Burnet that though "she was a weak woman, and had some disagreeable humours, she was not capable of a wicked thing."

We have already said that, under the Stuarts, Somerset House was frequently appointed for the reception of ambassadors whom the sovereign and the court delighted to honour. The last foreigner of importance who lodged there was the Venetian ambassador, who made a public entry into it in 1763, shortly before the building was pulled down.

From the time of the departure of Catherine of Braganza, Somerset House ceases to possess any interest in its strictly palatial character. It continued as an appurtenance of successive queens down to the year 1775, when Parliament was recommended, in a message from the Crown, to settle upon Queen Charlotte the house in which she then resided, "formerly called Buckingham House, but then known by the name of the Queen's House," in which case Somerset House, already settled upon her, should be given up and appropriated "to such uses as shall be found most useful to the public."

Mr. Wood, in his "Ecclesiastical Antiquities," tells us that in the reign of James II., Dr. Smith, one of the four vicars-apostolic who acted as Catholic bishops in England, was consecrated at Somerset House. There was also in the grounds of Somerset House a small cemetery, in which the Catholic members of the Queen's household were buried. In 1638 Father Richard Blount, who had "reconciled" Anne of Denmark, the consort or James I., to the Roman Church, was buried here by the Queen's permission. The value of such a permission at that time may be inferred from the fact that, owing to the severity of the penal laws, Catholics were for the most part obliged to be buried in Protestant cemeteries, with rites distasteful to themselves; and they were only too glad when the priest who attended them in their last illness could bless a little mould which was put into their coffin, and perform the usual ceremonies in secret, and even at a distance from their bodies.

A map and ground-plan of old Somerset, or Denmark House in 1706, shows that it consisted of one large and principal quadrangle, called "the Upper Court," facing the Strand. Its out-buildings were very extensive, and still more so its terraced gardens, facing the Thames, with stairs at either end: In the southern front of the quadrangle named above were the Guard Chamber, with a waiting-room, the Privy Chamber, the Presence Chamber, from the west end of which a flight of stone steps led down into the garden. On the western side, from the Strand nearly to the riverside, there ran along Duchy Lane (now absorbed in Wellington Street South) a row of coach-houses, stables, and store-yards. To the south-east angle of the chief quadrangle there was a passage down the "Back Stairs" to a second, or lower court, two storeys lower than the upper court. Here were the more private apartments of the queen—the "Coffee Room," "Back Stair Room," "Oratory," dressing-room, bed-chamber, and "Withdrawing Room," the two last-named facing the gardens and commanding a fine view of the reach of the river. Still further to the east, extending across what now is part of King's College, as far as Strand Passage, or Lane, were a variety of other buildings, occupied by the members of the Court, called the French Buildings, connected with the Yellow Room, the Cross Gallery, the Long Gallery, and leading to a "pleasance" which opened into the garden. A print in the Gentleman's Magazine, showing some of these last-named buildings before they were pulled down, together with the new building of Sir William Chambers on the north, leads us to suppose that, though interesting as a specimen of the style of Edward VI., their removal was no great loss from an architectural point of view.

The gardens were laid out in the square and monotonous style of the period, so well described by Pope—
"Grove nods to grove, each alley has its brother,
And half the garden just reflects the other."
This was literally true here, for in front of both the greater and the lesser quadrangle there were square gardens, with straight gravel walks on each side, and three avenues of trees; a handsome flight of stone steps, with iron gates; and on either side some handsome statues of Tritons and Nereids. Along the river ran a raised terrace, with a heavy dwarf wall. In a print of the river front of Somerset House, dated 1706, there appears moored a little way off the stairs a sort of house-barge, under which is written "The Folly," and a queershaped wherry, approaching the form of a gondola.

"I am extremely pleased," observes Stow, "with the front of the first court of Somerset House, next the Strand, as it affords us a view of the first dawning of taste in England, this being the only fabric that I know which deviates from the Gothic, or imitates the manner of the ancients." How amused would Pugin or Sir Gilbert Scott be to read this statement! and also the sentiment which follows:—"Here are columns, arches, and cornices that appear to have some meaning; if proportions are neglected, if beauty is not understood, if there is in it a strange mixture of barbarism and splendour, the mistakes admit of great alleviations." In all probability the architect was an Englishman, and this his first attempt to refine on the work of his predecessors.

It is currently believed that James Stuart, the elder "Pretender," was at one time secreted in old Somerset House; and there is an allusion to this belief in the Town Spy, published in 1725:—"The Pretender's residing at Somerset House in the year of Peace was blabbed out by one of the Duke d'Aum—nt's postilions."

The demolition of the old building was commenced as soon as an Act could be passed, and Sir William Chambers was appointed architect of the new buildings. They were commenced in 1776, and in 1779 one of the fronts was completed. The site occupies an area of upwards of 800 feet by 500. The front towards the Strand consists of a rustic basement of nine arches, supporting Corinthian columns, and an attic in the centre, and a balustrade at each extremity. Emblematic figures of Ocean and of the eight principal rivers of England in alto-relievo adorn the keystones of the arches. Medallions of George III., Queen Charlotte, and the Prince of Wales were formerly placed over the three central windows of the first floor. The attic is divided into separate portions by statues of Justice, Truth, Valour, and Moderation; and the summit is crowned with the British arms, supported by emblematical figures of Fame and the genius of England. The chief feature of the river front of Somerset House is its broad terrace, about 600 feet in length, raised on rustic arches, and ornamented with emblematic figures of the Thames. The centre of the large quadrangle opposite the chief entrance from the Strand is occupied by a gigantic piece of bronze work, executed by Bacon. The principal figure is a fanciful and almost allegorical representation of Father Thames.

The building affords at present accommodation during the working hours of the day to about 900 Government officials, maintained at an annual cost of something like £275,000, and belonging to the Audit Office, the office of the Registrar-General, and the offices connected with Doctors' Commons. In the north front the annual exhibition of the Royal Academy was held from 1780 down to about the year 1837, when it was transferred to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. The use of apartments in Somerset House for the meetings of the society was also granted in 1780. The Royal Society removed from Somerset House to Burlington House, Piccadilly, in 1856. The Society of Antiquaries, and also the Royal Astronomical and the Geological Societies, have also at various times occupied apartments in Somerset House.

"The royal patronage of the arts," writes Malcolm, in 1806, "is most conspicuous in this grand building, which contains the apartments of the Royal Society, the Society of Antiquaries, and the Royal Academy of Painting. The two former assemble on the east side of the vestibule or entrance, and the latter on the west."

The Society of Antiquaries dates its origin from the year 1751. Malcolm tells us that previous to that time several unsuccessful, or at least interrupted, attempts had been made, in the reigns of Elizabeth, James, and Charles I., to establish such a society, but nothing effective was done until the reign of George II., who granted a charter, styling himself the founder and patron of the Society of Antiquaries, appointing Martin Folkes, Esq., as its president, and limiting the society's permanent income to £1,000 a year. The president must be assisted by a council of twenty members, half of whom are elected annually, along with himself, and the officers and members of the society are required to possess an accurate knowledge of the history and antiquities of their own and foreign nations, and to be "loyal and virtuous members of the community." The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Privy Seal, and the Secretaries of State for the time being, are visitors of the society. The number of fellows is not limited by their charter. At their meetings descriptions and dissertations are read, and illustrative drawings are exhibited. Their transactions as a body are under the control of an elective director in the arrangement of communications to be published. Their official publication, in a handsome quarto form, is known as the "Archæologia."

Pennant writes, in 1806: "The Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries both hold their meetings here; and here also are annually exhibited the works of the British painters and sculptors."

Mr. John Timbs, in his "Romance of London," tells us an amusing traditionary story relative to this place:—"A little above the entrance-door to the Office of Stamps and Taxes is let into the wall a white watch-face. Of this it is told that when the wall was being built a workman fell from the scaffolding, and was saved from being killed only by the ribbon of his watch, which caught upon a piece of projecting ornament. In thankful remembrance of his wonderful preservation, he is said, and is believed to this day, to have inserted his watch in the face of the wall." A very pretty story, indeed, if it was only true. But fortunately for the age of poetry, Mr. Timbs us into the real secret of the watch, which is espetially prosaic. "It was placed," he says, "impresent position, many years ago, by the Royal Society, as a meridian mark for a portable transit instrument in one of the windows of the ante-room;" and the late Admiral W. H. Smyth, eminent hydrographer to the Admiralty, we often tell his friends that, having assisted in moving the instrument, he well remembered the was being inserted in the wall. We fear, therefore, the poetic view must be dismissed.

Running parallel with the buildings forming west side of the quadrangle, and having its front towards Lancaster Place, a new wing was build 1857, from the designs of Mr. Pennethorne, in style of architecture corresponding with the rest of the building. Here are the offices of the Inland Revenue Department, and in the basement sever rooms are set apart for the printing of postage and other stamps, postal wrappers, envelopes, &c.

The vaults of Somerset House were formerly used for the purpose of keeping some of the various public records, which happily have now all be collected into one repository in Fetter Lane.

The whole of the east wing was left incomplete by Sir William Chambers, but in 1829 this part the edifice was finished from the designs of Robert Smirke, R.A., and it now forms King's College, which was founded by royal charter in previous year. The entrance is a neat, though confined semi-circular archway from the Strand over which stand the Royal Arms, supported figures symbolical of Wisdom and Holiness, with the motto, "Sancte et Sapienter." The building extends from the Strand to the Thames, and occupies a considerable area of ground. The interior which is very capacious, is well calculated for intended objects. The centre of the principal floor is occupied by the chapel, under which is the hall for examinations, &c., and a new triangular wing one storey high, built in a line with Somerset House and fronting the Thames Embankment, adjoining the residence of the Principal, is now (1874) course of erection.

The government of King's College is vested in a Council, which reports annually to the Court of Governors and Proprietors, as the official title of the corporation runs. Forty-two members compose this council, nine of whom are the official governors; one is the treasurer, eight are life governors, and the other twenty-four, of whom six go out every year, are elected by the Court of Proprietors, from a list prepared by the Governor There are certain endowments, producing in all an annual income of £880, which are specially appropriated to certain prizes, scholarships, and professorships, classical and scientific; but the College possesses no endowment applicable to general purposes, and the whole of the expenditure required for the ordinary every-day work of the College has to be defrayed out of the fees paid by the students. The general education of the College is carried on in six distinct departments—viz., the theological department; the department of general literature and science (divided into the classical, the modern, and the Oriental); the department of the applied sciences; the medical department; the evening classes; and finally, the school. This last is in the hands of a head master, subject to consultation with the principal, who has the general supervision of the whole College. The scientific professorships in the department of general literature and science are thirteen in number, of which two — physiology and practical physiology — are held by the same individual. There is also a lecturer in photography. It should be added that the education given here is strictly in accordance with the principles of the Church of England.

The students of King's College are divided into two classes—the "matriculated" and the "occasional." The former are those who are admitted to the full prescribed course of study, while the latter, through inability to attend the whole course, devote themselves to the pursuit of one particular subject, as at the two great universities of England. The principals of King's College in the forty years which have passed since its foundation have been distinguished theologians, Bishops Otter and Lonsdale, Canon Jelf and Canon Barry.