Londoners riot at the building of Somerset House

Seymour
Lord Protector Somerset and his unorthodox building practices

It’s a great mistake to build a palace that rivals that of the monarch. Take Cardinal Wolseley who commissioned Hampton Court Palace only to have Henry VIII decide it was way too good for his top adviser and took it over. The same dangerous error was made by the Lord Protector Somerset – who built a previous version of what we know today as Somerset House on the Strand.

Somerset was the brother of Henry VIII’s third wife Jane Seymour – who died after giving birth to Henry’s successor, Edward VI. He became king as a child and Somerset had to exercise effective power – hence his title of Protector. Enjoying his new role, the boy’s uncle decided to construct a massive home for himself between London and Westminster.

The only problem was the presence of other people’s homes – like the residences of the bishops of Lichfield, Llandaff and Worcester. The solution was easy. Demolish the residences and use the masonry for his new palace.

Somerset house
A home for Somerset – built from other peoples’ homes

He also 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.

All of this wasn’t enough. His lordship’s new Somerset House needed to be huge and impressive. 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.

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Why did royal psychopath Henry VIII let his fourth wife live?

Anne of Cleves was the fourth wife of Henry VIII.

We’re always told it was an unfortunate match made by his adviser Thomas Cromwell that led directly to the poor man being beheaded when it all went horribly wrong. Like so many before him, he was led out on to Tower Hill in east London to feel the axe blade against his neck.

Having seen a very flattering sketch of Anne by the painter Holbein, Henry was expecting his new wife to be quite stunning. The story runs that when he met her though, the monarch was filled with disgust. Apparently, he referred to the poor woman as that “Flanders mare”.

But is this story complete bunkum?

Is the reality that Anne was a very intelligent and quite good looking woman who was betrothed to a physically broken man who may by then have been impotent? Why did the king treat her so favourably after the divorce, showering palaces and even kindness on her? Henry referred to Anne as his “sister” while going on to behead his next wife, Katherine Howard. So clearly their relationship was a friendly one.

Anne had free access to the royal children and went on to outlive the king and all his six wives. She’s an underrated woman as I showed on the next episode of Private Lives of the Monarchs on Yesterday TV.

Why would anybody want to wipe the backside of King Henry VIII?

At the Tudor court, aristocrats vied to be the Keeper of the Stool – responsible for helping King Henry VIII with his bowel movements. Why? Because you not only got proximity to his backside – but more importantly, to his ear. In that confined space, just you and the monarch, there was a great opportunity to drip poison about your enemies or simply advise on state matters while the king went about his business.

This was me on Private Lives of the Monarchs (UKTV – Yesterday TV) explaining this curious court job.

People who lived on London Bridge

To look at London Bridge now you see….well…..a bridge with traffic on it. But go back three centuries or more and the bridge was full of houses and some illustrious tenants. During the reign of Henry VIII, the court painter Holbein lived there. Two hundred years later, another artist – Hogarth – was a resident. They saw London Bridge in its Tudor and Georgian manifestations. It would have been remarkably similar during both periods.

Nonesuch Palace
Nonesuch Palace

The only highway for hundreds of years across the Thames was made up of about nineteen irregular arches with the original stones being laid in around 1176. Incredibly, this structure would last with many modifications until 1831 By that time, the medieval bridge and its Tudor houses had gone into a severe decline. The narrowness of the arches created fierce rapids and were not navigable by larger vessels.

From the Middle Ages, there was a stone chapel to St Thomas a Becket at the centre of the bridge. At either end were towers and the one facing Southwark was decorated with the severed heads of traitors. One of those heads under Henry VIII belonged to John Houghton, the last prior of the London Charterhouse who wouldn’t take the oath recognising King Henry as head of the Church of England. For that, he was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn gallows. An old story had it that the keeper of the tower who supervised these grisly human remains was an old cripple who would play his lute at night accompanied by his pet owl.

The mad lute player who looked after the heads on London Bridge
The mad lute player who looked after the heads on London Bridge

In the sixteenth century, a large wooden building called Nonesuch House (as there was none such like it) appeared on the bridge. It was basically a wooden kit made in the Netherlands and then assembled in situ using just pegs to keep the whole thing together. It was surmounted by onion domes and sundials.

By the eighteenth century, the bridge was something of a death trap. The houses were on the verge of collapse and hung over the street blocking out the daylight. Timber beams slung across the top storeys stopped them collapsing on top of carts and coaches below. There were no footways and the whole thing was clogged up permanently – proving impossible to cross.

The only shops were needle makers and booksellers. One of the latter was Crispin Tucker, who both sold and wrote books and was visited by Alexander Pope and Dean Swift (author of Gulliver’s Travels). Nonesuch and the St Thomas chapel were in a bad state and used as warehouses.