In 1539, Edward Seymour obtained a grant of land at “Chester Place, outside Temple Bar, London” from Henry VIII of England. When the sickly boy-king Edward VI of England came to the throne in 1547, Seymour became Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector.
About 1549 he pulled down an old Inn of Chancery and other houses that stood on the site and began to build himself a truly imposing residence, but after a lot of money and in the struggle for power he was overthrown and in 1552 paid with his head on Tower Hill. “Somerset Place” then came into the possession of the Crown and was used by Princess Elizabeth for some years before she was crowned Elizabeth I of England in 1558.
In the 17th century the house was used as a residence by the Queens of James I, Charles I, and Charles II. During the reign of James I (also James VI King of Scots), the building became the London residence of his wife Anne of Denmark and was renamed “Denmark House“. She commissioned a number of expensive additions and improvements, some to designs by Inigo Jones. In particular, during the period between 1630 and 1635 he built a Chapel where Henrietta Maria, Queen of Charles I, could exercise her Roman Catholic religion. This was in the care of the Capuchin Order and was on a site to the south-west of the Great Court. A small cemetery was attached and some of the tombstones are still to be seen built into one of the walls of a passage under the present quadrangle. (Check some of the photos)
Many names passed by this site, for example, Oliver Cromwell’s body lay in state after his death in 1658.
Two years later, with the Restoration, Henrietta Maria returned and began a considerable programme of rebuilding in 1661, the main feature of which was a magnificent new river front, again to the design of the late Inigo Jones, who had died at Somerset House in 1652. However she returned to France in 1665 before it was finished. It was then used as an occasional residence by Catherine of Braganza, Queen of Charles II. During her time it received a certain notoriety as being, in the popular mind, a hot-bed of Catholic conspiracy. Titus Oates made full use of this prejudice in the fabricated details of the Popish Plot and it was alleged that Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey, whose murder was one of the great mysteries of the age, had been killed in Somerset House before his body had been smuggled out and thrown into a ditch below Primrose Hill.
Somerset House was refurbished by Sir Christopher Wren in 1685. After the Glorious Revolution in 1688, Somerset House entered on a long period of decline, being used (after Catherine left England in 1692) for grace and favour residences. In the conditions of the time this meant almost inevitably that little money could be found for its upkeep, and a slow process of decay crept in. During the 18th century, however, the building ceased its royal associations. Though the view from its terraced riverfront garden, open to the public, was painted twice on his London visit by Canaletto (looking upriver and down), it was used for storage, as a residence for visiting overseas dignitaries and as a barracks for troops. Suffering from neglect, Old Somerset House began to be demolished in 1775.
Sir William Chambers was appointed to design and built the new Somerset House beginning in 1775, we do not know for certain at what pace the rest of the construction progressed, but it is clear that the outbreak of war with France caused delays through lack of money. Chambers died in 1796; most of the building was completed after Chambers’ death by James Wyatt. However we know that building work was still going on in 1801; and there are indications that as late as 1819 some decorative work still needed to be completed.
Somerset House had its share of trials and tribulations during World War II and nowdays the Somerset house is the home of Courtauld Institute of Art, including the Courtauld Gallery and during the winter the amazing fountain is used as ice ring.