By Roberta Woods
My interest in the whole subject was triggered by a talk and subsequent walk in April 2022 – an event put on by Sir John Soane’s Museum in London’s Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Sir John Soane was the foremost architect of the Regency period and is probably best known for his design of the Bank of England. This is a free entry museum, but still requiring booking, and is well worth a visit.
Most of you will be familiar with Somerset House at the top of the Strand. However, few will know that this magnificent palace was just one of many built from the twelfth century on, all with extensive gardens leading down to their own river gates and landings directly onto the Thames. If it were possible to travel back a few centuries in time, a line up of great palaces not unlike Somerset House in size and magnificence, would be revealed, perched like sentinels along the North bank of the Thames.
The word strand is derived from the Old English strond denoting ‘the edge of a river’; we will have come across the usage of the word as most seaside towns in England will have a ‘Strand’ or beachside promenade. The Thames at this time was much wider before much of the northern bank was taken in the construction of the Victoria Embankment by Bazalgette in 1862, to cover the new sewer and underground railway. The position of the extant York House Watergate Gate, some 100 metres back from the Thames bank, and one of the last remnants of these great palaces, serves to indicate the original width of the Thames before construction of the Embankment. The Strand had been a popular location for the British upper classes between the 12th and 17th centuries, having easy access to the City, Law Courts and the Palace of Westminster. Many of the earlier Medieval inhabitants were from the upper ecclesiastic orders, mostly bishops, followed by the aristocrats – Dukes, Earls and Lords in the 16thC. Many of the aristocratic owners of these grand houses, having been favourites of either Henry VIII or his daughter Elizabeth I, found that they did not long survive a fall from grace with the monarch – they would be swiftly executed and their property passed to the latest royal favourite.
North (Covent Garden) Side of the Strand:-
Bedford House (Russell House) – Elizabethan and Jacobean house of the Russell family, Earls of Bedford on site of current Southampton Street. Demolished 1704 when the family relocated to Bloomsbury.
Cecil / Burghley House / Exeter House – The first was a 16thC house on the site of the current Strand Palace Hotel, built by William Cecil (later Lord Burghley), subsequently home to his eldest son Thomas Cecil who was created Earl of Exeter in 1605, hence name changes. Later became Exeter Exchange (or Change), a sort of forerunner to the modern shopping mall, and is probably most remembered for housing a menagerie on its upper floors for over fifty years from 1773 to 1829 when it was demolished. The mind boggles; elephants, lions and tigers all prowling the floorboards above the shops below!!
South Side of Strand:-
Looking at Embankment from South Bank, from Left to Right on the River (refer to Norden’s Map of Westminster 1593):-
Northumberland, York, Durham, Salisbury, Worcester, Savoy, Somerset, Arundel and Essex Houses
In medieval times, if you looked across the Thames from where the London Eye now stands, you would have seen an extraordinary sight; an unbroken succession of magnificent structures, palaces in all but name, stretching over three quarters of a mile from what is now Trafalgar Square to the site of today’s Temple Station. Try to imagine the area encompassing what is now Embankment all the way down to Temple, awash with grand houses, all opening onto the Thames. The main entrance to these houses would be directly from the river, hence each had it’s own grand water-gate and landing.
Northumberland (Suffolk) House
My first job on leaving school, was for the Ministry of Defence in a large Victorian building bearing the name Northumberland House, which I have only recently become aware was on the site of the original house of this name. There had been a Priory and Hospital of St. Mary Rounceval founded in 1231, near to or on this site. The estate subsequently came into the possession of Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton, and the house which he erected around 1605, was first known by that name.
It passed at his death to Thomas Howard, Earl of Suffolk. The daughter of the second Earl married Algernon Percy, Earl of Northumberland, and during the occupancy of the Earls of Suffolk the house was known as Suffolk House, but it was renamed on the marriage of Elizabeth Howard to the Earl of Northumberland, and was always known as Northumberland House. In it’s later years it would have overlooked Trafalgar Square until it’s demolition in 1874. Northumberland Avenue now passes over the site of the house and gardens.
By the time of it’s demolition, it was apparent that it had lost much of its antiquity from modern alterations.
Northumberland House was the last of the grand Strand houses to be demolished, a necessary sacrifice to Joseph Bazalgette’s sewer improvements. There’s nothing left of it on site, but the famous lion that stood on top of the edifice still graces Syon House in Brentford, another Northumberland family property, and William Kent’s gates can be seen at the entrance to Bromley-by-Bow Health Centre in East London, and part of one of the magnificent rooms has been re-created in the V&A.
The site of York House is commemorated by York Buildings, a cul-de-sac behind the Water Gate, off Villiers Street which runs from the Strand by Charing Cross Station down to the Embankment and which still contains some fine late 17thC houses, built when the original house was demolished in 1672. The original house here was the London residence of the Bishop of Norwich as early as 1237. During the Reformation it was acquired by Henry VIII and came to be known as York House when he granted it to the Archbishop of York in 1556. Cardinal Wolsey lived here before he was abandoned by Henry VIII and charged with treason, he was lucky to have died from natural causes before he faced execution. Later occupant, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex was not so lucky, departing from here in 1601, aged just 34 years to be executed in the Tower. Essex, previously a royal favourite, had fallen from grace and plotted a coup against Elizabeth I. It seems it was not a wise move to become a royal favourite or indeed to have a more magnificent house than the monarch as it was bound to end in tears.
In the 1624 the house was acquired by another royal favourite and notorious rake, George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, from the Archbishop of York. The beautiful watergate at the end of Buckingham Street, now half buried in the Embankment Gardens, is the sole relic left of this mansion. This gateway marks the position of the north bank of the River Thames before construction of the Victoria Embankment in 1862. Designed by Inigo Jones, it was built in 1626 by Nicholas Stone, master mason, to the Kings James the First and Charles the First for George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, to serve as the watergate to York House. The arms on the river front and the motto fidei cotucula crux (the cross is the touchstone of faith) on the land side, are those of the Villiers family. York House passed to the 2nd Duke following the Civil War – he then sold it to developer Nicholas Barbon in 1672 to make way for new roads and city planning. We think of development as being a modern phenomena, but Barbon, who was as influential as Wren and Nash in shaping the landscape of London, must have been the first. York House was demolished in 1675 and Barbon proceeded to build streets and offer building leases on the land – a stipulation of the deal was that he should immortalise the Buckingham name, which he honoured – Villiers Street, Duke Street, Buckingham Street, George Court and Of Alley (now York Street) all bear testament to the illustrious former resident. In 1893 the gate having fallen into decay, the London County Council obtained parliamentary powers to acquire and preserve it as an object of public interest. A rare case of a council doing the right thing!!
This was the Bishop of Durham, Thomas de Hatfield’s house in 1345. It was also at one time the home of Anne Boleyn and was subsequently given to Sir Walter Raleigh by Elizabeth 1 in 1583. By the mid-17thC it had become derelict and was demolished in 1660. Durham Street and The Adelphi are built on this site. My second place of employment was for a company located within this magnificent art-deco structure.
Salisbury/ Exeter/Burghley House
The 2nd Cecil House (1st being on North Side), had been used as royal lodgings in the 15th and 16th centuries. Demolished around 1695. Subsequently the site of the Hotel Cecil. Directly opposite the London Eye
Formerly the Inn, or residence of the Bishop of Carlisle. This house, along with the Savoy Palace, occupied the site currently housing the Savoy Hotel. There are several plaques located around the exterior of the Savoy Hotel relating to the history of the site, one of which (known as the Savoy Eagle Plaque) states:-
On part of this site in 1640 was built Worcester House where lived Edward, second Marquess of Worcester. At midnight on the 3rd September, 1660, Anne Hyde daughter of the Earl of Clarendon was secretly married here to the Duke of York (afterwards James II) whose two daughters, Mary and Anne, became Queens of England.
Built by Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester and founder of the House of Commons, in 1245 Named after Peter, Count of Savoy who was given it in 1246. It subsequently housed the renowned right-hand man of Richard II, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, younger son of Edward III and reputedly the richest man in England – he lived here in princely luxury from 1362 to 1381. This house was said to be the most magnificent of any nobleman in England, before it was destroyed during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, led by Wat Tyler – the rebels being incensed by the poll tax proposed by John of Gaunt. It would be rebuilt in 1512 at Henry VIII’s behest as the Savoy Hospital, but was ill-kept and knocked down in 1816, making way for what is now the Savoy Hotel. However, the original chapel of St John the Baptist, now known as The Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy remains with it’s medieval walls still intact. They form the largest remains of the Strand palaces above ground. Some of the stones rescued from the hospital’s demolition were recycled into the Royal Coburg Theatre (today’s Old Vic), where they can still be seen.
In the Savoy Palace in 1658 by order of Oliver Cromwell, the confession of faith was drawn up. Here also, in 1661, Charles II ordered commissioners to assemble for the revision of the liturgy, which assembly was afterwards known as the Savoy Conference.
Another plaque relates:-
Here, John of Valois, King of France, when brought to England as a captive by the Black Prince after the Battle of Poitiers, was entertained as a prisoner of war, and died on April 8th 1364. Also in the Palace of the Savoy, Geoffrey Chaucer first great English poet came to dine many times with John of Gaunt, and here wrote many of his poems.
Somerset House still stands, although this is a later Georgian reconstruction. It does, though, give you an idea of the scale of these mansions. They were brazen displays of ostentatious wealth, often only yards away from some of the most deprived slums in the city. On the doorstep of Somerset House was the area known as Seven Dials, a notorious rookery (den of thieves), and stretching up to the area where Aldwych now stands. The current Somerset House was begun in 1776 and was further extended in Victorian times. It stood directly fronting the Thames until the building of the Embankment. Remnants of a late 17th century wall can be found at a side entrance to King’s College, which occupies part of the site. That is the only free standing survival from the old palace, but even older ones lie under a glass floor in the archaeological department. They include a Tudor wall on the left and a rubbish tip dating from when Saxons established the trading port of Lundenwic along the Strand. The Georgian house replaced an earlier Tudor one built by Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford, who became Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector when his young nephew Edward VI came to the throne in 1547. Before he could complete his palace, the Duke fell out of favour and was executed in 1552. These noblemen never seemed to grasp the message that building a lavish mansion and then asking the monarch to visit and admire, was destined to end on the executioners block.
The house then reverted to the Crown and the Duke’s half-sister, the future Queen Elizabeth I lived there during the reign of her half-sister Queen Mary (1553-58). During the 17thC the house was used as a residence by royal consorts – it was the London residence of King James I’s wife Anne of Denmark. After his death in 1625, King James’s body was laid in state in the house, at that time known as Denmark House. Between 1630 and 1635 a chapel was built in the house where King Charles I’s wife Henrietta Maria could exercise her Roman Catholic religion. Having been relinquished as a royal residence by the end of the 18thC, the house fell into disrepair and was demolished in 1775. The Georgian manifestation built by Sir William Chambers the following year was a grand quadrangle which had various government offices through the 19thC and today is divided between the arts and education, among these the Courtauld Gallery and Kings College London.
Arundel House was granted in 1232 to the bishops of Bath and Wells and used as their town house. Covering almost five acres, this was the largest site of all the Strand palaces, with a river frontage of an astonishing 150 metres. William Fitzwilliam, 1st Earl of Southampton was the owner between 1539 and his death in 1542, ownership then passing to Thomas Seymour in 1545. After Seymour’s execution in 1549, the house was sold to Henry FitzAlan, Earl of Arundel and remained in the ownership of the Earldom for much of the 16th and 17th centuries. Subsequently it became the home of the Royal Society, until the Great Fire of London in 1666 robbed it of its headquarters. What was left of the palace was knocked down in 1678.
What became Essex House, was originally part of the Outer Temple of the Knights Templar in the 11thC. Ownership passed to the Knights of St. John in 1313. The house was purchased in 1549 by the Earl of Arundel after the execution of its previous owner Thomas Seymour, brother of Lord Protector Seymour, who had built Somerset House before he too was executed, prior to its completion. Archaeologists uncovered extensive remains. A wall with stairs was found very close to Somerset House next door. Later Henry VIII gave the house to William, Baron Paget in the early 16thC. Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester rebuilt the house in 1563, originally calling it Leicester House. It was renamed Essex House after being inherited by Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex in 1588. The house was converted into a mansion called Essex House by the Cecil family but was subsequently demolished in 1674 having been acquired by Nicholas Barbon, who had also acquired York House around the same time for development.
All but Somerset House were demolished by the end of the seventeenth century, when this area ceased to be fashionable for the nobility, who had moved towards London’s West End, ceding the Strand to would-be-revolutionaries who met in the areas many public houses – the ‘Duck and Drake’ tavern was the favoured haunt of those involved in the Gunpowder Plot, while the Levellers busily conspired against Charles I at the ‘Nag’s Head’.
The shift in city planning had turned this most sought- after neighbourhood with it’s abundance of art and architecture, into a decidedly less salubrious one. The Strand did however re-invent itself as a lively neighbourhood, featuring restaurants and cafes, including Twinings, after which the famous tea brand is named. When King’s College was founded in 1828, the Strand shifted again to become a student neighbourhood.
With all these changes, we are fortunate that even Somerset House has survived, and as to all he other great houses, we must resort to our own imagination, and the historian’s descriptions, to envisage what a spectacular vista this stretch of the north bank of the Thames would have presented to anyone passing by boat or viewing from the opposite south bank at the time of Norden’s Map of Westminster 1593.
One could live in London one’s whole life and never learn of these forgotten palaces. Those structures that happen to have survived the centuries and millennia, largely through chance, are not necessarily the most important to have ever existed. London abounded with grand buildings now forgotten that were crucial to our history, they must not be overlooked simply because we can no longer see them.
Roberta Woods is the author of a book titled, The Chemical Conquistador: Colonel North & His Nitrate Dream House. The book is available to buy online via the link below.