Tombstones and enigmatic inscriptions hide within a vault beneath a popular London arts venue.
The impressively neoclassical Somerset House has had numerous tenants over the years, starting with the Navy Board and several learned societies from around 1779. Nowadays, Somerset House is a popular arts venue, and its large courtyard draws in visitors all year round, with sparkling jet fountains in summer and an ice rink in winter. Beneath the courtyard, though, there lies the lesser-known, and altogether more sinister-sounding Deadhouse.
Before Somerset House, the site was occupied by the Tudor palace built for Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset. After his execution in 1552, the palace passed to the Crown. One royal resident was Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of King Charles I. A practicing Catholic, she commissioned a chapel to be constructed for herself and her employees. The chapel would last until the demolition of the palace, by which time several Catholics had been entombed there.
Five tombstones survive, now inlaid in the wall of the Deadhouse, a vault that otherwise seems to be mostly used for ducting and wiring. Inscribed mostly in Latin, one of the stones marked the grave of a Portuguese surgeon and comes complete with skull and crossbones.
Another is from the gravestone of a priest, Father Hyacinth, and bears the curious date of death as 1691/2. This is thought to date from a time where mainland Europe followed the (currently used) Gregorian calendar, while Britain continued to use the old Julian calendar, and was thus 13 days behind. Presumably, Hyacinth died around the turn of the year, but no one could agree which year it actually was!
Access to the Deadhouse is via the equally atmospheric light wells, which surround the building to provide daylight to the lower levels. These are particularly popular as a location for Victorian-themed photoshoots and filming, having appeared in a number of Sherlock Holmes films.
Know Before You Go
The Deadhouse and many other historically interesting points of Somerset House can be visited on a Historical Highlights Tours, which usually runs at several times on Thursdays and Saturdays. Full details including how to get tickets can be found on Somerset House’s website.
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