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What Is Somerset House, London?

By Maggie J. Hall
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Somerset House in London is a historic landmark reconstructed in the 1700s and consisting of a large C-shaped stone structure surrounding a paved Tudor-style courtyard. The original building, completed in 1551, served as a palace for the uncle of Henry VIII's young son, Edward VI. Kings, queens, and dukes used the complex as a place of residence. Certain rooms in the building served as government offices, including the Inland Revenue and the registry for recording births, deaths and marriages. Somerset House now contains arts and cultural exhibits along with part of King's College in the East wing.

The massive neoclassical structure has architectural features that include Doric and Ionic pillars and stone banisters, which span the front perimeters of the ground level and the roof. A famous interior feature is the Nelson Stair in the south building, an oval staircase, which many consider a work of art. The structure winds upward with stairs and landings attached to the wall. A skylight installed above the stairwell provides light from the bottom up. Externally, a river terrace runs along the Thames River and provides access to the Waterloo Bridge.

The expansive courtyard covers over 39,000 square feet (3,700 square meters). Besides historic statues, the center of the paved area contains 55 water fountains, illuminated at night by fiber optics. During the winter months, the space serves as a public ice rink with various vendors around the perimeter for public convenience. During warmer months, the Somerset House courtyard hosts open-air concerts, art, and fashion exhibits.

The complex offers guided tours throughout the facility detailing the building's use and history that includes Tudor scandal, the Enlightenment of the Georgian era, and advancements in science and naval power. The Courtauld Institute of Art is one of the British museums in the complex that features exhibits of famous paintings created by the Masters, along with Impressionist and post- Impressionist works of art. Collections also include silver and gold artifacts and former personal possessions donated to the museum. This area of the building contains galleries, a caf&eacute and a gift shop.

The Seaman's Hall in Somerset House explores the history of the Royal Navy through documents, paintings, and model ships. The area formerly served as the place where officers awaited appointed commissions. The 18th century Admiralty barge lies in the Thames River near the Seaman's Hall. The Lord Commissioners of Admiralty once used the vessel, which is now open to tourists.

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Discussion Comments

By EdRick — On Nov 23, 2011

@MissDaphne - He did have a son with his third wife, Jane Seymour. He divorced Catherine, his first wife, and then beheaded Anne Boleyn. A major factor was that Anne had miscarried a male fetus, which convinced him that God was against his marriage. (Catherine had also had a baby boy who lived for just a few weeks; he was born in winter and it was a tough era.)

Then Jane had a son, and died shortly thereafter. Naturally, he would have liked more than one son, so he kept marrying; his fourth marriage was a diplomatic affair that ended in disaster when he was unable to consummate the marriage.

His fifth marriage was to a young girl that he beheaded when he found out she was not a virgin when they wed, and his sixth wife was a widow who survived him. So when he died, he had his two daughters from his first two wives, plus Edward, who was I think about twelve then. Henry thought he was all set, but Edward lived only a few more years, bringing Mary and then Elizabeth to the throne.

By MissDaphne — On Nov 23, 2011

Wait, who was Edward VI? I thought Henry VIII only had daughters. Wasn't that why he kept divorcing and beheading his wives - in his endless quest for a heir? (Poor Catherine of Aragon. Such a good and faithful wife, tossed aside for someone younger and flashier.)

And I know that both his daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, were queen. Did he have a son somewhere in there, too?

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