Somerset House, by Llinos Thomas

Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset
Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset

 

**This is the first post in a new series about famous Tudor buildings and palaces**

On a recent visit to London, a trip to Somerset House was high on the agenda.  Upon arriving at the building however, it wasn’t at all what I was expecting.

Let me explain.  In my mind’s eye, Somerset House was a building seething with Tudor history, cloaked in mystery and whispers of plotting for power.  In reality, although no one could ignore the breathtaking architecture of the courtyard, it was far easier to overlook the history of this site as a key building during the reign of Edward VI.

It was built of course, for Edward Seymour, that long time Tudor conspirator.  As Jane Seymour’s brother, his place in Henry VIII’s court was assured, due to her precious gift of a son and heir to King Henry.  When Henry died in 1547 and that son, Edward, came to the throne, Edward Seymour became even more powerful.  As Duke of Somerset and Protector of England, he ruled the land through the boy king, and he wanted a palace fit for his status.

As so many men before him who had held a great position of power, Somerset had many enemies.  Many members of the council were jostling for power whilst their king was so young, ill, and able to be manipulated.  Somerset’s unpopularity increased when he wanted to knock a church down to take the stone to use in the building at Somerset House.  This was a huge violation of a sacred building.  Ultimately, Somerset was overthrown and executed in 1552, as so many influential Tudor men before him.

On the other hand, Somerset House went on to thrive as a residence of Stuart queen consorts – Anne of Denmark, Henrietta Maria and Catherine of Braganza.  More recently it has been used as government offices and as a home for the arts.

Whilst I could well appreciate the art on display, the statues and the remarkable architecture of Somerset House, I didn’t feel that the history of the building was explored enough.  Imagine all the secret meetings Somerset must have held there.  How did the European queen consorts of Stuart kings spend their time there?  The Tudor history exhibition was closed to visitors, and the guided history tour concentrated on the architecture rather than the history.

We could make a lot more of the history of this building.  The man whose name the building still holds, the Duke of Somerset, is all but forgotten.

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