Somerset House today is an 18th century hulk of a building used for art exhibitions and offices. Previous it housed civil servants working for the Inland Revenue. And before that, it began as a Tudor palace built by an arrogant and unpopular aristocrat.
Edward Seymour wasn’t famous for being humble or tactful. He was very much a creature of his turbulent age. He was the first Earl of Hertford and his sister became the third wife of Henry VIII. Unlike the previous beheaded wife, Anne Boleyn, Edward’s sister Jane gave Henry the son he craved but then died shortly after childbirth.
That son ascended to the throne when Henry VIII died – at the age of only nine. So, Edward Seymour became the Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector. With his new found power – effectively ruling England – he decided it was a time to have a palace that befitted his new status.
Somerset House would spring up in the area between the city of Westminster and the city of London. This strip along the river – now a road called the Strand – had always been home to the palaces of bishops and princes. But Edward wanted a particularly huge palace.
So he started tearing down other people’s palaces!
In order to build Somerset House, he bulldozed (or the Tudor equivalent) the residences of the bishops of Lichfield, Llandaff and Worcester. And incorporated their masonry into his fabulous new home. But that wasn’t going to suffice.
He then knocked down the nearby church of St Mary’s for more materials. And then Somerset’s men tore down a chapel in St Paul’s churchyard; robbed more stone from the church of St John of Jerusalem near Smithfield and then wrecked the Strand Inn near the Temple.
Still, Edward Seymour cast his greedy eye around and wondered what else he could demolish. So, the ambitious noble ordered his masons to start tearing bits off St Margaret’s church in Westminster – a much loved place of worship. And that’s what finally got to Londoners.
They formed the Tudor equivalent of a human chain around St Margaret’s and drove off Somerset’s masons. This didn’t help Somerset’s popularity and his star began to wane. Building stopped on Somerset House and the man himself was eventually dragged to the scaffold to have his head chopped off.
If you’ve ever been to Wong kei in London’s Chinatown, you may have experienced the joy of being shouted at by the waiters – it had the reputation for years of being the rudest restaurant in London. I understand that as of last year, they’ve refurbished the place and decided to tone down the bad attitude – even though many punters paid to be treated badly. It was all part of the fun.
Wong Kei Chinese restaurant
But what has often caught my eye on going into Wong kei – and I haven’t dined there for at least ten years – are the plaques on either side of the main door. One commemorates Sarah Bernhardt laying the foundation stone of the building in 1904. And who, you might ask, was she?
Sarah was the leading actress in the late Victorian period. Born in Paris of a Dutch prostitute and unknown father, she briefly trained to be a nun before taking up acting. She was very aware of her public image and projected herself as mystical and unknowable. This extended to having some very odd pets including a boa constrictor and an alligator fed on milk and champagne (it died). When I first came across her story what struck me was the choice of resting place at night – Sara slept in a coffin, which she took with her on tour. When the great actress died, hundreds of thousands of people lined the streets of Paris to bid her adieu.
The other plaque is to another legend of the same period, Sir Henry Irving. He laid the coping stone in 1905. Irving was both an actor and theatre manager – a very hands-on member of the acting fraternity. He had a close association with the Lyceum Theatre, near the Strand, which today has been hosting the Lion King for what seems like an eternity. Irving found a sound financial manger for the Lyceum in the form of a Dubliner called Bram Stoker. Yes – THAT Bram Stoker! The creator of Dracula.
I’m not going into all the detail here but there’s a debate that has raged for a hundred years over whether Irving was the model for Dracula. The theory tends to emphasise a history of conflict between the two men with Stoker seething with hatred for the overbearing and evil Irving. The truth doesn’t quite bear that out – though they seem to have had stormy episodes, they co-operated for decades in running the Lyceum.
So why are these two plaques outside Wong kei? Well, the building originally opened as a theatrical costume shop in the heart of London’s bohemian Soho. Little could Bernhardt and Irving have known that the thespians would one day give way to scoffers of crispy duck noodles.