Below Waterloo Bridge begins the picturesque sweep of the Embankment, from which rises the noble block of buildings collectively called Somerset House, their walls still bearing mooring-rings and other tokens of the time when they had to withstand the force of the tides, before the river was forced to recede and leave them high and dry.
The original Somerset House was begun by the Protector Somerset about 1547, and on his fall in 1548 was seized by the Crown. It was a favourite residence of Elizabeth before she came to the throne, and also of Anne, wife of James I., by whose orders new buildings were added by Inigo Jones.
In 1626 it passed into the possession of Henrietta Maria, the unhappy wife of Charles I., and under her auspices a Roman Catholic chapel was added by the architect of Elizabeth's buildings, in which much cause of offence was given to loyal Protestants by the superstitious ceremonies therein enacted.
During the troubles which ensued before and after the execution of Charles, Somerset House, with its stairs down to the river, a lifesaver for escaping fugitives, was the refuge of many a political offender, and the scene of many a Papist plot. In it Sir Edmundbury Godfrey is supposed to have been murdered, and in a small cemetery in its grounds, Roman Catholic members of the Stuarts' household were secretly buried with the rites of their own form of belief.
The old building was taken down about the middle of the eighteenth century, and the first stone of the present Somerset House was laid in 1776. The central block, after the designs of Sir William Chambers, inaugurator of the classic revival, is a handsome structure, with a carved front in the classic style, entered from the Strand through a quadrangle adorned by a gigantic bronze group by Bacon in the centre, and a river front, of which the most important characteristic is the handsome terrace supported on arches.