Northumberland House: Three Centuries, Three Families

It was a plea that fell on deaf ears, in the interest of progress and the Board of Works:

“The Duke of Northumberland is naturally desirous that this great historical house, commenced by a Howard, continued by a Percy, and completed by a Seymour, which has been the residence of his ancestors for more than two centuries and a half, should continue to be the residence of his descendants; but the Metropolitan Board of Works are desirous that this house, which, with its garden, is one of the landmarks of London, and is probably the oldest residential house in the metropolis, should be destroyed.”

—-‘Northumberland House and its associations’, Old and New London: Volume 3 (1878)

Before the Victorian Embankment was constructed, the Strand was once a river road connecting London to Westminster. During the Elizabethan period and into the reign of James I, great mansions were erected along this route with gardens that stretched down to the river. At the corner of the Strand and Whitehall, at a small hamlet called Charing, Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton, built the largest one in Jacobean style. Its principal feature loomed over the Strand–a three story high frontispiece topped by a high parapet. It looked like it was designed to hold a Bavarian glockenspiel.

Northumberland House – Canaletto

A Fleming, Gerald Christmas, was allegedly one of the architects. He left his mark on the front portal of the house by embedding his initials in the stonework. Scarcely a decade after the house was built, this stone fell and killed a young man standing below on the Strand, watching Anne of Denmark’s funeral procession.

When the Earl of Northampton died, the house passed to another Howard, newly created Earl of Suffolk. The river mansion became known as Suffolk House, but not for long. A daughter married a Percy and took the residence with her as part of the marriage settlement. Henceforth it was called Northumberland House.

In the middle of the seventeenth century, the river mansion was given a fourth side along the river to complete the enclosure of its quadrangle. This was the new entrance and where the main living areas were moved, away from the noise and dust of the street side. Great stone stairs were constructed leading from the dining room down to the riverfront terrace and its verdant gardens.

Elizabeth Percy was the sole remaining heiress of the Percy line in 1670. She had the distinction of being a twice-widowed virgin, having been married as a child to Lord Ogle, who died soon after and then to Thomas Tynne, a philanderer who was “barbarously murdered” before he could sleep with his new wife. He was shot to death by another suitor for her hand as he sat in his carriage in Pall Mall:

“Here lies Tom Thynne of Longleat Hall/Who ne’er would have miscarried;

Had he married the woman he slept withal/Or slept with the woman he married.”

The heiress of the Percy family was not yet seventeen years of age when she then married Charles Seymour, the ‘proud’ Duke of Somerset: “a man in whom the pride of birth and rank amounted almost to a disease.” Their son Algernon made major alterations to the house as his wife, Frances, complained of in 1749:

“I am actually frightened with the sum my lord is laying about Northumberland-house;..”

She had not recovered from the death five years before of her only son, the Viscount Beauchamp “my ever lamented Beauchamp” and hated the thought of travelling to Bath instead of finding a resting place at Northumberland House. But no one could get near the place:

 “..It is still hid with scaffolds toward the street, but by the plan, and the little I could see of it when I was in London on the king’s birthday, it will be very handsome and indeed it should:  my lord destined ten thousand pounds for the alterations.”

The house was to pass to her daughter, who married a man with the pedestrian name of Smithson. The new Duke and Duchess of Northumberland lived in great style on the Strand, expanding the house by adding on two Palladian wings, one of which contained a picture gallery: “(a) sumptuous chamber,..might have been in better taste,” wrote Horace Walpole.  Oh, dear.

Topping it all was the Percy lion, a cast iron sculpture placed on top of the glockenspiel parapet, his tail outstretched like a handle.

The Northumberland fortune increased and so did the house. By the Regency, it had a magnificent glass drawing room and a grand marble staircase, a final burst of magnificence before the family moved away to the more fashionable neighborhood of Grosvenor Place. Then along came Trafalgar Square in front of it and the Embankment behind, isolating the great mansion, although still beloved by the Percies.

In 1873 the Board of Works demanded the Duke sell Northumberland House to make way for a street to the Victoria Embankment. There were other routes proposed, through lesser houses and considerably less ancient, but the Ministry had set its sights on putting the road straight through the house and its gardens. The house was handed over for 500 thousand pounds and the auction of what could be salvaged from demolition amounted to 6500 pounds.

“3,000,000 bricks, the grand marble staircase…the elaborate ornamentations of the hall, dining and reception rooms; the state decorations which adorned the hall and corridors, and a large quantity of lead, stated to be of the weight of over 400 tons.”

The story of Charing Cross and its immediate neighborhood, by J. Holden McMichael

The lion is now atop the Duke’s suburban London residence, Syon House.

Syon Park – licensed for reuse by Don Cload under the Creative Commons
see the lion at the top?

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13 thoughts on “Northumberland House: Three Centuries, Three Families

    • I think that’s it: mindless. There were hundreds of smaller, decrepit buildings nearby with little or no historic value that lay between the Strand and the embankment that could have provided the avenue for the new road.

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    • LIke Wentworth Woodhouse, England’s largest private country residence, Northumberland House was large and impressive. It positively cried out to be demolished. Luckly we still have the former.

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  1. Loved the history of Northumberland House. I think I have seen the Canaletto painting of the house. I assumed the painting subject was a house in Italy. I wish there were a river side or river view of the house. Excellent blog. Thanks!

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  2. It is so un-British to want to destroy something so historical. Ever since I first read about Northumberland House at the V&A, I’ve been angry that future generations (including me!) have been deprived of being able to see such a landmark. Thanks, Anglyn. I love these kinds of blogs.

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    • I’m so glad you enjoyed this post. The V&A have a fragment of Northumberland House’s famous glass drawing room. I recently found out the marble staircase that was highly favored during the Regency wound up in a house at 49 Princes Street belonging to the founder of a shipping company, Leylands. The American artist Whistler was engaged to renovate the house and had the stair installed, along with the well-known Peacock Room: http://bit.ly/SoXxYO

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