When Henry VIII died in 1547 his son, Edward VI, was still too young to ascend the throne. Edward Seymour, the boy's ambitious and successful uncle, seized this opportunity and had himself created Lord Protector and Duke of Somerset. The new Duke and Protector, "desirous of possessing a residence suitable to his high rank", was determined to build himself a palace.
The Duke already owned land on a prime site between the Thames and the Strand and it was here that he began building his great mansion, Somerset House, in 1547. Although he had commissioned one of the most influential buildings of the English Renaissance, the Duke had little opportunity to enjoy Somerset House. In 1551 his opponents had him arrested and tried for the much more serious crime of treason. This time there was no escape. The Duke of Somerset, Lord Protector of England, was executed on Tower Hill in January 1552.
After this, Somerset House saw many Kings and Queens and great institutions and then at the time of Henry VIII, this was the start of when records of births, marriages, and deaths were kept there. In 1836 the General Register Office was created to set up a comprehensive system for the registration of Births, Marriages and Deaths and appoint the first Registrar General based at Somerset House. It was not until 1970, after slightly less than a century and a half at Somerset House, that the General Register Office moved out.The Principal Probate Registry relocated to Somerset House in 1874 which was where all wills, either originals or copies, had to be registered. The wills of many famous historical figures were among them.
Shakespeare's will made various provisions including the following: "In the name of God Amen I William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon give unto my wife my second best bed with the furniture". Jane Austen's will is there and Napoleon's will was kept there until it was returned to France.Stamp duty on documents, including newspapers, was only one of many revenue-raising methods administered by the Stamp Office, one of the government departments which moved to the new Somerset House in 1789.
In 1834 the Stamp Office united with the Affairs of Taxes and in 1849 Stamps and Taxes joined the Excise to form a new Board of Inland Revenue.
The Board of Inland Revenue occupied the east and west wings of Somerset House until 2011.
After the War, the Inland Revenue, the Principal Probate Registry and the General Register Office still occupied the building. During this time, mezzanine storeys were introduced to many of the offices to increase their floor area.
In spite of these changes much of the space in Somerset House no longer proved ideal for its users and the North Wing was vacated by the Registrar General in 1970. Having remained empty for some 20 years, this part of the building originally designed by Chambers for "useful learning and polite arts" was occupied by the Courtauld Institute and its galleries. The adaptation was carried out by Green Lloyd and Adams and the reallocation of the building to the arts was seen as a major heritage gain.
Following the vacation of the South Wing and Embankment Building by government departments in the last few years, a comprehensive restoration programme has seen galleries and other cultural spaces introduced here. The Embankment Terrace has been reopened and Chambers' great Courtyard has been transformed from a hidden car park into one of the most vibrant public spaces in the capital under the direction of the Somerset House Trust and with financial support from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
Somerset House is now a spectacular neo-classical building in the heart of London, sitting between the Strand and the River Thames where during summer months 55 fountains dance in the courtyard, and in winter you can skate on London's favourite ice rink. Somerset House also hosts open-air concerts and films, contemporary art and design exhibitions including London Fashion week, family workshops and free guided tours of spaces usually hidden to visitors.
The Trust's mission is to conserve and maintain Somerset House to the highest standards and to develop the site as a public space which is universally recognised as a world class visitor attraction and centre of excellence for culture and the arts.
Somerset House has just opened their infamous Ice Rink for 2015. Celebrate Chrstmas in style at London’s most beautiful ice rink.
Enjoy memorable winter experiences on and off the ice. By day, skate in the splendour of the stunning Somerset House courtyard, or after dark, when the rink hosts some of the best international clubs and festivals at exclusive Club Nights. This season, they have partnered with EFG London Jazz Festival for the first time to present a special one-off Jazz Skate.