I recently had the opportunity to do something pretty incredible…venture below the central courtyard of Somerset House, through a series of dingy passageways and vaults, and into the “Deadhouse”.
During the reign of King Charles I, beginning in 1625, the devoutly Roman Catholic Queen Henrietta Maria took up residence in Somerset House (then known as Denmark House). The palace was redecorated and redesigned in honour of her move, and a lavish Catholic chapel was built in the part of the building that is today the Courtauld Gallery. The chapel now no longer exists, but at the time it was thought to have been “more beautiful, larger, and grander than one could ever have hoped for” – a fine example of the English Baroque.
In a period when Europe was in the throws of the tumultuous Counter Reformation, Queen Henrietta Maria bravely worshiped and practiced the Catholic faith in a Protestant country. In addition to the construction of the small chapel, the Queen also used her close ties to the King to gain permission for proper Catholic burials for her staff and courtiers that secretly shared her faith. The “Deadhouse”, found beneath the grand courtyard of Somerset House, quietly contains these gravestones and tombs.
You can read more about the history of Somerset House here.