A Brief History of London’s Somerset House

© Cheryl Bolen

Though the Duke of Somerset was executed in 1552, the huge building still bearing his name sits in one of the most prime locations in all of London. The massive structure that was built around a quadrangle stretches from the River Thames to the Strand, adjacent to the present-day Waterloo Bridge. (See an aerial photo of Somerset House here http://www.blom-uk.co.uk/2011/09/image-of-the-week-%E2%80%93-september-14th-2011/.)

Courtyard of Thames-side Somerset House in London

Courtyard of Thames-side Somerset House in London

This is not the palatial house begun in 1549 by Edward Seymour, one of the brothers-in-law of Henry VIII. Upon Henry’s death, Seymour became Lord Protector of the Realm under the reign of his young nephew, Edward VI, proclaimed himself the Duke of Somerset, and set about to build one of the finest mansions in London. Two years later he was interred, and he was beheaded in 1552.

The structure (far too large to be thought of as a house) that currently sits on the site of Somerset House was designed by William Chambers in 1776 and was extended ever further in the mid 1800s. During the Regency, a large portion of the building housed the Admiralty. An elaborate stairway within the building still is referred to as the Nelson Staircase.

For much of the 20th century, Britain’s Inland Revenue was housed there. A variety of artistic societies have inhabited Somerset House over the past century, and it has also housed King’s College and part of the University of London.

The quadrangle belongs to the people. During winter, it’s an ice skating rink. In summer, fountains cool off hundreds. Many concerts and entertainment venues are also held in the quadrangle. Throngs of Londoners who’ve never heard of the beheaded Duke of Somerset still enjoy the “house” that he envisioned almost five centuries earlier. – Cheryl Bolen, whose latest installment in her lighthearted, romantic Regent Mysteries, An Egyptian Affair, releases Dec. 15.

The Two Wives of George IV

©By Cheryl Bolen

Before England’s King George IV became prince regent (a title more identifiable with him than his eventual monarchy) at age 48 in 1811, he had taken two wives–and neither of the marriages were ever dissolved and neither woman ever truly shared his reign.

How can he have legally had two wives? He didn’t. One of his wives was illegal. As a young man of 21, he fell madly in love with Maria Fitzherbert, a wealthy and beautiful widow six years his senior. The fact that she was a Catholic was not the only obstacle in their path of matrimonial harmony. There was also the Royal Marriage Act prohibiting any member of the royal family from marrying without the king’s permission. As an act of Parliament, the Royal Marriage Act superseded any law of church; to violate it would be a crime.

For over a year the Prince of Wales courted Mrs. Fitzherbert and even resorted to a botched suicide attempt to gain her hand. Eventually she relented, and in 1785 they were secretly wed by an Anglican minister and fancied themselves married. But cognizant of the criminal act they had committed, the two never publicly acknowledged the marriage, nor did they ever live in the same residence. The prince was willing to let his brother Freddie (the Duke of York) sire children who would be heirs to the throne, and he planned to do away with the Royal Marriage Act when he became king. (Freddie, by the way, never had any children.)


Maria Fitzherbert and the Prince of Wales (later George IV)

Troubles precipitated by Mrs. Fitzherbert’s hot temper, the prince’s wandering eye, and–most of all–his vast debts sent the marriage into the skids less than a decade later. Prinny had decided to take Brunswick’s Princess Caroline for his wife, an action that would increase his annual income and clear his exorbitant debts.

Though he had never met Caroline, a first cousin, the prince married her in 1795. He took such an instant dislike to her slovenly appearance he had to get himself excessively drunk in order to beget a child on her (Princess Charlotte, who died in childbirth in 1817). With that duty dispatched, he turned his back on his true wife, and they lived apart for the remainder of their lives.

Five years after his “legal” marriage, the prince persuaded Mrs. Fitzherbert to return to him. They stayed affectionate for almost a decade, parting ways because of his infidelity the year before he became regent.

Caroline of Brunswick

Caroline of Brunswick

Caroline died shortly after his coronation as King George IV, but he never remarried, and when he died ten years later in 1830 he wore about his neck a miniature portrait of Mrs. Fitzherbert. –Cheryl Bolen’s newest release is the first in the Brazen Brides series, Counterfeit Countess. Fans of her Regent Mysteries can preorder the newest installment, An Egyptian Affair, only on iBooks.

What Regency Gentlemen Knew

It is difficult for those of us in the twenty-first century to possess the knowledge our Georgian heroes possessed. As members of the aristocracy, they had studied with private tutors since the age of four or five. They were fluent in Latin and most could read Greek. They knew the ancient scholars as well as contemporary boys know baseball and football. Regency-era gentlemen spoke French as well as they spoke their native tongue. Most of them had undertaken the Grand Tour throughout Europe, and many had ventured as far away as Turkey, India, or Egypt.

Few of us today connect with the ancient Greeks and Romans as did those in Georgian England.

But it is now possible to — without laboring for years over Greek and Roman classics — to gain a cursory understanding of the knowledge our heroes possessed. For there is a succinct “cheat sheet” readily available on the internet.

This cheat sheet (actually about 90 pages) is an appendix of Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to Son, which has been digitalized by Google.

Cheryl prefers print. These are two of her volumes of Lord Chesterfield's letters, one of which dates to the Regency.

Cheryl prefers print. These are two of her volumes of Lord Chesterfield’s letters, one of which dates to the Regency.

The entire collection of the peer’s letters, edited by Oliver H. Leigh in 1901, is available by linking from Google’s home page, to the second page, then clicking on books.

The letters to Lord Chesterfield’s illegitimate son and only offspring were published upon his lordship’s 1773 death and were widely read.

To compensate for the disadvantages of the boy’s birth, the father attempted to give the boy every advantage he could in education and spent years writing long epistles to the poor lad, instructing him in every phase of deportment.

What is especially useful to those of us who write about the era is the information contained in the last section of the work, the appendix, “Juvenile Section.”

These letters covered the decade ending when the boy was fourteen. In them, Lord Chesterfield provides instruction from which most of us can profit.

The Trojan Wars — which raged for ten years and which are treated in millions of words elsewhere — are encapsulated into a couple of pages by Lord Chesterfield’s ability to simplify into descriptions readily comprehensible to a young boy.


Likewise, Lord Chesterfield explains the founding of Rome and the chronology of its early rulers. He does the same for the history of England, giving a brief paragraph to each English ruler, as well as to the island’s earliest inhabitants. For example, “The Romans quitted Briton of themselves; and then the Scotch, who went by the name of the Picts (from pingere to paint), because they painted their skins…”

The juvenile letters also list the twelve provinces of France and briefly tell what the capital city is of each and what the province is noted for. He similarly describes Asia, Germany, and many other geographical regions so that the modern reader (us) will have the same knowledge of 18th century geography that our heroes and heroines would have had, ie., “Indostan, or the country of the Great Mogul, is a most extensive, fruitful, and rich country. The two chief towns are Agra and Delhi; and the two great rivers are the Indus and the Ganges. This country, as well as Persia, produces great quantities of silks and cotton; we trade with it very much, and our East India company has a great settlement at Fort St. George.”

Here is another example: “The Lord Mayor is the head of the city of London, and there is a new Lord Mayor chosen every year; the city is governed by the Lord Mayor, the Court of Alderman, and the Common Council. There are six-and-twenty Alderman, who are the most considerable tradesmen of the city. The Common Council is very numerous and consists likewise of tradesmen…The Lord Mayor is chosen every year out of the Court of Aldermen. There are but two lord mayors in England; one for the city of London, and the other for the city of York. The mayors of other towns are only called mayors.”

Lord Chesterfield stresses that such knowledge as he is imparting to his son cannot be found in books, nor can it be studied in school. Because of his book of letters (never intended for publication), now we can profit from his vast knowledge.

On a Regency Exhibit

Cheryl Bolen toured the Regency Exhibit at California's Huntington Library in 2011, the two-hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Regency.

Cheryl Bolen toured the Regency Exhibit at California’s Huntington Library in 2011, the two-hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Regency.

©By Cheryl Bolen

As an author whose first Regency historical romance was published in 1998, I’ve long been a student of the period, and in 2011 I had the opportunity to visit a fabulous exhibit on the English Regency at the Huntington in Los Angeles County.

The Huntington (Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens) offered the exhibit to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Regency, which began in 1811 when George III was declared too mad to rule. His eldest son served as Prince Regent until his father died in 1820, whereupon the regent became King George IV.

I particularly enjoyed reading the era’s newspapers. The following advertisement (these were intermingled with news stories) I think must be geared to men, but could also apply to women:


A new oil which gradually changes white, gray or red hair to a beautiful brown – gives softness, elasticity, curl and thickens – 7 shillings, 6 pence per bottle  

A loan office, located at 2 Craven, Strand, advertised that it gave loans “to persons of fashion, promisary notes to persons of known credit and consequence.” The office was open from 10-4.  
The most well-known jewelry store of the era offered this advertisement:

Rundell, Bridge, Rundell

Goldsmiths & Jewelers

to Their Majesties

Their Royal Highnesses the Prince of Wales

and the Duke of York and Royal Family

Ludgate Hill  

And the last advertisement I’m going to feature was for an on-premises auction by “Mr. Christie.” Yes, that Christie’s auction house!

Valuable Library Richmond Surrey – By Mr. Christie on the premises by order of the Executors of Miss Hotham deceased, 6,000 volumes. Catalogues are preparing.  

The Huntington Library and Art Museum itself is a treasure to visit. The former estate of rail magnate Henry Huntington, it’s nestled on a few hundred acres of lush botanical gardens in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. The Huntington collections of rare manuscripts and old master paintings is particularly geared for English history. It houses Gainsborough’s Blue Boy (as well as Pinkie), first editions of Jane Austen, and an original Chaucer manuscript. And almost half a million rare manuscripts.

This article was first published in The Regency Reader in September 2011.

Gentlemen’s Clubs in Regency London

©By Cheryl Bolen

The three most exclusive gentlemen’s clubs during the Regency — White’s, Brooks, and Boodle’s — were all located on the same street (St. James) in London’s west end, and all are still in existence today.

But don’t expect to see any signs out front.

Most members of these private establishments in the borough of Mayfair come from the upper echelons of society. Their male ancestors have likely held memberships since the clubs moved to St. James Street in the late 1700’s. When Prince Charles married Diana, he hosted his bachelor party at White’s. His son, Prince William, is also a member.

How White's looks today. Note the famed bow window on the ground floor.

How White’s looks today. Note the famed bow window on the ground floor.

White’s, originally a chocolate shop in 1693, moved to 37-38 St. James in 1778. During the Regency it was strongly associated with Tories. Members could take their meals at the club, and they especially enjoyed the gambling, as well as White’s well-known betting book. The book recorded bets about battles during the Napoleonic wars and often included bets on prospective matrimonial partners. It was at the club’s famed bow window that Lord Alvanley bet a friend £3,000 (over $100,000 today) which of two raindrops would fall fastest.

Brook’s, founded in 1764 by a group of men which included four dukes, moved to 60 St. James in 1778. While many prominent men of the era held membership in both clubs, Brook’s was a bastion for Whig leaders such as Charles James Fox, the Duke of Portland and the Duke of Devonshire. The Prince Regent was a member. Like White’s, Brook’s also had a betting book. One of its most interesting entries is, “Ld Cholmondeley has given two guineas to Ld. Derby, to receive 500gs whenever his lordship f**** a woman in a balloon one thousand yards from earth.” Boodle’s is located directly across the street from Brook’s. Established in 1762, Boodle’s has also boasted many famous members, including Beau Brummel. More recently (relatively speaking), it was author Ian Fleming’s club. He bases James Bond’s club on Boodle’s.

One of the chief attractions to gentlemen’s clubs was the select gambling. Gentlemen of their class always paid their debts of honor.

London’s Caricaturists: Sex and Satire

Robert Cruikshank, 1819, Going to a Fight

Robert Cruikshank, 1819, Going to a Fight

© Cheryl Bolen

Cheryl wrote a variation of this article for the Quizzing Glass in 2011.

Between 1770 and 1830 some 20,000 satirical or humorous engravings were published in London’s print shops. The three most prominent artists (whom we think of as caricaturists) were, chronologically, James Gillray (1756-1815), Thomas Rowlandson (1757-1827), and George Cruikshank (1792-1878).

Because these dealt with politics, international affairs, and scandals and satire of London’s social elite, those who figured in the graphic satire and those who flocked to the print shops to purchase them for a shilling or more came from the middle and upper class.

The Caricature Shop, 1801, Anon. Most of these were located on The Strand. Rowland's shop was at 52 Strand; Ackermann's print shop was at 101 Strand.

The Caricature Shop, 1801, Anon. Most of these were located on The Strand. Rowland’s shop was at 52 Strand; Ackermann’s print shop was at 101 Strand.

British historican Vic Gatrell uses his study of the 60-year era of graphic satire to show that before the Victorian era, London was a city of sex and laughter. The result of his interest is the stunning City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London, a nearly 700-page tome featuring 289 of these “cartoons” published (in the U.S) in 2006.

Man, how these illustrations demonstrate sex and satire! Many of these illustrations have never before been reprinted, partly because of the bawdy subject matter.

Since many of the social situations which inspired these satirical illustrations are unknown to most of us, Gatrell has kindly provided text to explain the background. His research and knowledge of Georgian London are astonishing.

These 700 pages are crammed with interesting tidbits. Some examples:

  • Bachelor Prime Minister Pitt (the younger) “was stiff to everyone except a woman.”
  • Public hangings were moved from Tyburn to the gate of Newgate prison in 1783.
  • Piccadilly was the first street to be lit by gas—in 1809.
  • Sedan chairs did not go out of fashion until 1820.
  • Women wearing powdered wigs washed their heads every three months.
  • Bagnios (public baths/brothels) were located in the Charing Cross area near Charles I’s statue.
  • Doors to Haymarket opened at five.
  • Drury Lane boxes cost 5 shillings, and upper gallery seats could be had for a shilling.

Because the artists slightly changed the actual names or omitted letters, the artists and printers did not get sued.

One print, for example, shows Lady Worsley washing her naked body in the bathhouse at Maidstone while her husband, Sir Richard Worsley,  stands outside, hoisting a man up to the small window near the roof to get a peek. The story goes that Sir Richard tapped on the bathhouse door to notify his wife he was going to give Bissett a peek. Apparently, Sir Richard was an accomplice in his wife’s many adulteries. The text on the drawing reads:

Sir Richard Worse-than-Sly, Exposing his Wife’s Bottom – O Fye!

cartoon 7

Gillray, 1796. Fashionable Jockeyship. This caricature depicts Lord Jersey carrying the Prince of Wales (later Prince Regent) to his wife's bed. The horns the prince is depicting are the sign of cuckold.

Gillray, 1796. Fashionable Jockeyship. This caricature depicts Lord Jersey carrying the Prince of Wales (later Prince Regent) to his wife’s bed. The horns the prince is depicting are the sign of cuckold.

Cuckolds were popular scandals for the caricaturists. Here’s one on the notorious affair between Lady Emma Hamilton and Lord Nelson while her husband, Sir William Hamilton turns a blind eye.

cartoon 6

Isaac Cruikshank. A Mansion House Treat – or Smoking Attitudes! Lady Emma Hamilton, dressed in one of her attitudes costumes, smokes with her lover Lord Nelson as her husband, Sir William, has his pipe lighted by a sailor as he sits between Lord Mayor of London, at left, and Prime Minister Pitt. Their conversations are full of double entendres. The sailor tells Sir William his pipe is too short. Emma says, “Pho, the old man’s pipe is always out, but yours burns with full vigor.” Nelson replies, “I’ll give you such a smoke. I’ll pour a whole broadside into you.”

Many of the illustrators accepted bribes. George Cruikshank (whose father, Isaac, was also a noted caricaturist) accepted £100 from the regent to strop satirizing him. Gillray earned a £200 annual pension from George Canning in 1797 to produce propaganda against the Foxite Whigs.            

“Bums, Farts, and Other Transgressions” is the title of one of the chapters. If you ever wondered how to illustrate a fart, this is the book for you. Part of another chapter on libertines deals with the erotica Rowland illustrated from 1790 until 1810. Some of the erotica is truly graphic, even pornographic, except Gatrell explains that because they are humorous they do not meet the criteria for pornography. (Warning: Keep book out of reach of young children.)

George Cruikshank, 1819. Loyal Address's Radical Petitions, or the R---t's most Gracious Answer to Both Sides of the Question at Once.

George Cruikshank, 1819. Loyal Address’s Radical Petitions, or the R—t’s most Gracious Answer to Both Sides of the Question at Once.

Some of Rowlandson’s erotica was costly to purchase and was prized by wealthier Londoners. These prints were also shared with women.London in Regency times was the richest and most economically dynamic city in the world, and its residents were undoubtedly the most debauched.

Rolandson, 1800. Gratification of the Senses a la Mode Francois (Ackermann, 1800)

Rolandson, 1800. Gratification of the Senses a la Mode Francois (Ackermann, 1800)

Of the couple of hundred Regency research books in my library, this volume has risen to the top five in breadth of knowledge imparted. –Cheryl’s newest House of Haverstock book, Countess by Coincidence, releases on July 7 and can be purchased for half price during the preorder period.


Palmerston’s Papers Rival Walpole’s, Boswell’s in Historical Significance

© Cheryl Bolen

The second Viscount Palmerston (1739-1802), whose son served as Prime Minister in the 1850s and 1860s, exemplified the late Georgian aristocracy. He served for many years in the House of Commons and was at the center of society. He traveled extensively abroad, always with an eye to adopting Continental architecture and artifacts into his own beloved Broadlands, his country home in Hampshire.

What makes him stand apart from other effulgent aristocrats of his day, though, is the rich legacy of letters (1,400), travel journals and appointment books (100 books) he left behind — some million words in all, a sixth of which is presented in Connell’s work.

It was through a most circuitous path that these papers saw publication. Since the Prime Minister Lord Palmerston had no legitimate issue, Broadlands fell to the second son of Palmerston’s wife, the widow of Lord Cowper, whom Palmerston did not marry until she was fifty. That son, William Cowper (said to have been sired by Palmerston), left no issue, so Broadlands passed to the second son of his niece, Evelyn Ashley. The estate eventually passed to Ashley’s granddaughter, who became the Countess Mountbatten.

The Countess Mountbatten found the papers at Broadlands in the mid 1900’s while renovating the mansion and asked Brian Connell to edit them. His labors resulted in Portrait of a Golden Age: Intimate Papers of the Second Viscount Palmerston, Courtier under George III, published in 1958.

Critic Virginia Kirkus said their discovery “rates with the Boswell papers and the Walpole letters, and that recaptures a personality and period as vividly as does Cecil’s Melbourne.”

From Palmerston’s engagement diaries, it is possible to know with whom he had dinner every night of his adult life. His range of friendships included an astonishing roster of the great names of his era from Voltaire to Lady Hamilton to Prinny. His works are rich with records of prices he paid for items as well as serving as a glossary of medicinals of the era. Palmerston himself prefaced his diaries, “As these books may be considered as the anals of a man’s life, and may be of use even after his decease, they ought by all means to be preserved.”

The 2nd Viscount Palmerston hired both Capability Brown and Robert Adam to beautify and modernize his Hampshire seat, Broadlands.

The 2nd Viscount Palmerston hired both Capability Brown and Robert Adam to beautify and modernize his Hampshire home, Broadlands.

Few of the entries are intensely personal, but the following one chronicles the death of his first wife, who died in childbed two years after their marriage:

Lady Palmerston was taken ill with a feverish complaint. Two days afterwards she was brought to bed of a dead child. She was tolerably well for some days, but a fever came on suddenly which made a most rapid progress and on the fatal 1st of June terminated the existence of a being by far the most perfect I have ever known; of one who possessing worth, talents, temper and understanding superior to most persons of either sex, never during my whole connection with her spoke a word or did an act I could wished to alter.

These diaries shed so much light on the practices of the day. For example, weddings were no big deal. Families often did not attend. The well-placed Lord Palmerston wrote the following to his mother prior to his first marriage:

I should have wrote to you a little sooner but could not have given you any certain notice of the time of my being married, but have the pleasure to tell you that before you read this, you will in all probability have a most amiable daughter-in-law, as I believe I shall be married tomorrow.

We should all give thanks to Countess Mountbatten and to Brian Connell for giving us such a work.

Her Broadlands—which the 2nd Lord Palmerston so lovingly restyled in the Palladian manner favored by the Georgians—has been closed for several years for restoration. It now belongs to her grandson, Lord Brabourne and will reopen to the public during the summer of 2015. Many of the family archives have reportedly been sold to the University of Portsmouth. What a privilege it would be to see both Broadlands and the archives!—Cheryl Bolen’s second book in the House of Haverstock series, A Duchess by Mistake, releases on April 7 and can now be preordered.