Until the 17th Century the state made no specific provision for old and injured soldiers. Care for the poor and sick was provided by the religious foundations. Much of this provision ended following the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536.
During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I it became recognised that provision needed to be made for the poor and for sick and disabled soldiers. This led to an Act of Parliament, passed in 1593, that levied a weekly tax (not exceeding 6d in the pound) on parishes for the relief of soldiers and sailors.
The Civil War, between Charles I and Parliament, which started in 1642, required changes to the existing arrangements. Therefore, in 1645 Parliament decreed that pensions to disabled soldiers should be paid from national funds, not local taxation.
The Restoration of Charles II, in 1660, and the disbandment of the Parliamentary Army and the return of exiled Royalist forces made the improvementof provision for the welfare of old or disabled soldiers a more pressing matter.
By 1673 it was already being noted that some soldiers were no longer fit for service. It was common practice for maimed or old soldiers to be kept on regimental rolls, or sent on garrison duty - thus impairing the effectiveness of an army that was under heavy demand.
King Charles was determined to make provision for the soldiers on the English establishment and on 22nd December 1681 he issued a Royal Warrant authorising the building of the Royal Hospital.
Sir Christopher Wren, Charles II's Surveyor-General of Works, was commissioned to design and erect the buildings. Sir Stephen Fox (1627 - 1716), who had been Paymaster General to the Army from 1661 to 1679, and was a Commissioner of the Treasury, was commissioned to secure the funds necessary to progress the scheme.
Charles II was always short of money and Parliament had made it quite clear that it would not fund the project. Fox therefore sought funding from private donations. The King provided £6,787 4s 2½d from unused money for the ‘secret service'. Other contributions came to about £13,000. This was clearly insufficient to fund the new project and Fox therefore proposed a novel method of securing funds. As Paymaster General Fox had been responsible for paying the army. To do this, on time, he borrowed the money. From 1668 to 1679 he had received 12d in the £ for performing this service. When he resigned this position, because of ‘difficulties' the money was reallocated by King Charles - 4d to pay for the costs of paying the army and 8d to reduce the costs of the pay. Fox suggested that the money saved should go to the Royal Hospital. In 1683 the King agreed to allocate 4d to the Royal Hospital, backdated to 1680/81. This was later increased to the whole of the 12d, less the actual costs of paying the army.
The funds provided were still insufficient and Fox had to find other sources of funding. A levy of 12d in the £ was made on the sale of officers commissions and from 1684 a day's pay was deducted from every officer and soldier in the army. The last measure was, in effect, a contributory pension, as all soldiers were to benefit.
In 1685, Wren, who was also an MP, proposed that the fees from the licensing of Hackney carriages should accrue to the Royal Hospital. This wasapproved although no income has ever been received. In the same year the City of Newcastle-upon-Tyne also agreed to supply 100 chaldrons (wagons) of coal each year to the Royal Hospital in lieu of paying rent to the Crown for the castle there.
The chosen site, set adjacent to the River Thames in the pastoral setting of Chelsea contained the uncompleted building of the former "Chelsey College", a theological college founded by James 1 in 1610. Never having been successful the College was closed during the Civil War and was later used to house prisoners during the Civil War and in the later wars against the Dutch. In 1667 the site was given by Charles II to the Royal Society (another of his imaginative creations). The Society, of which both Fox and Wren were members (Wren was President in 1681), had found no use for it and in February 1682 it was repurchased by the King (or rather by Sir Stephen Fox on his behalf) for the reasonable sum of £1,300.
The early building continued at a rapid pace, so much so that Charles II was able to inspect the work, including the partly completed chapel, just before his death in 1685.The whole project could have been jeopardised by James II's ill-conceived appointment of Richard Jones, the Earl of Ranelagh (1638? - 1712), as Paymaster-General of the Forces, an office he held from 1685 to 1702. Owing to his mismanagement and embezzlement there was continued delay in completing the building work and admitting the pensioners. Among his misdemeanours, he diverted funds intended for completing the Royal Hospital to the building of a "small but lavish" house (sadly demolished in the 19th Century) in the grounds and he was allowed to appropriate about 1/3 of the Royal Hospital's land for his own uses at an annual payment of £5. Following his dismissal from office in 1702 it was discovered that he had been guilty of gross fraud and had misappropriated a total of £904,000 from army funds. Such was his degree of mismanagement that the accounts for the period to 1702 were not closed until 1737.
In 1692 work was finally completed, and Ranelagh compelled to allow pensioners in. The first In-Pensioners were admitted in February 1692 and by the end of March the full complement of 476 were in residence.
Letters Patent in 1702/3 created an independent Board of five members for the hospital. Originally all the Commissioners were appointed by name, but now eight hold their appointments by virtue of their office (three Government ministers, the Governor and Lieutenant Governor and three serving officers or officials from the Ministry of Defence). There are also up to ten "Specially Appointed" Commissioners, who are distinguished individuals selected because of their experience and expertise in areas relevant to the Royal Hospital's work, These members serve for up to six years. The Board of Commissioners meets quarterly in the Council Chamber.
The early funding of the Royal Hospital was made from deductions from army pay, with occasional funding from other sources (such as the sale of commissions). This continued to be the Royal Hospital's main source of revenue until 1847. Since then the Hospital has been supported by Government ‘Grant-in-Aid'. This is supplemented by a small income derived from legacies, donations and the Army Prize Fund. The last element comes from shares of money allocated as the prize money for battles and campaigns in the 19th Century. Those that were unclaimed went to the Royal Hospital.
In 1688, The Earl of Ranelagh persuaded Wren to build him a house to the east of the South Terrace. He then leased 23 acres of Royal Hospital land for a period of 99 years at a rental of £5, as recompense for lands lost in his native Ireland. The land thus acquired included the whole of the east side of the current Royal Hospital plus the site now occupied by Chelsea Barracks. After his fall from power and death in poverty in 1712 his daughter Lady Catherine Jones, continued to live in Ranelagh House with the help of influential friends. At her death in 1730 all the land was sold off, in ten lots, in 1733.
In 1739 a speculative builder bought Ranelagh House and its grounds and in 1741, in partnership with the owner of the Drury Lane Theatre, built the Rotunda and associated pleasure grounds (against much objection from the Royal Hospital). Opening in 1742 the wooden Rotunda, designed by William Jones, had an external diameter of 185 feet (56 metres - slightly smaller than the Albert Hall), and was regarded as an engineering masterpiece. The Rotunda was the venue of much public entertainment, including breakfasts, concerts, masquerades and fireworks. The gardens were described as having winding paths, ornamental canals, water features and groves. It eventually went out of favour and both the Rotunda and Ranelagh House were demolished in 1805.
When Robert Walpole became Paymaster General in 1714 he appropriated (in the style of the Earl of Ranelagh) 4½ acres of Royal Hospital land (from the entrance gate to the River Thames) and enlarged the rear part of Wren's stable block to provide himself with a house. Walpole, who is generally acknowledged as the first Prime Minister from 1721 to 42 maintained the property until his death in 1745.
Wren's magnificent formal gardens, which provided a vista from the Royal Hospital to the River Thames and included canals, gazebos and summer houses (one each for the Governor and Lieutenant Governor), were all swept away from 1850 to 1868 when the Chelsea Embankment was constructed.
In 1809, Sir John Soane constructed a new Infirmary building, with space for 80 patients on the site now occupied by the National Army Museum(1968/69). The Infirmary was damaged by bombing in the Second World War and later demolished.
The present Ranelagh Gardens (on the site of Ranelagh House and the Rotunda) were laid out by John Gibson (who designed Battersea Park andseveral other Royal parks) in about 1860. Previously the area had been used for Pensioners' gardens and Soane provided a Summer House for their use in 1834. This structure is currently being restored.
Much of the land taken by Walpole was bought back in the C19th. The Royal Hospital also benefited in acquiring land as a result of the construction of the Chelsea Embankment and Chelsea Bridge Road. The Royal Hospital site now covers a total of 66 acres (27 hectares).
In the grounds are two batteries of guns. Four of the guns were captured at Waterloo (1815). The other is formed of two guns taken from the Sikhs at Chillianwallah (1849), one Chinese piece (1680), and one Dutch gun dated 1623. The 36" spherical shells were designed for use with Mallet mortars (mid-19th Century) but were never actually employed in action.
The 19th century saw the fitting of ranges in the Long Wards which were, until 1955, used for the cooking of rations.
Since 1913 the RHS Chelsea Flower Show has been held annually on the South Grounds.
Parts of the hospital were heavily damaged, with some loss of life, by enemy bombing in 1918, reconstructed in 1923 only to be destroyed again by a V2 rocket in 1945. Other damage was suffered during the Blitz and the Infirmary was destroyed in 1941.
In the Octagon Porch the Royal coat of arms was installed which had been removed from the Royal Hospital at Kilmainham at its closure in 1925.
The first televised church service in Britain was broadcast from the Chapel in 1949.
In 1955 the Hall was restored to its original purpose, and oak benches have since been replaced by chairs.
The berths were enlarged in 1954-55 and again in 1991 to their present size of 9 feet by 9 feet (2.7 by 2.7 metres).
2002 saw the restoration of the large mural painting in the Great Hall by the artists Verrio and Cooke.
Also in 2002 the statue of King Charles II which has stood in Figure Court since 1692 was re-gilded to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II's Golden Jubilee.
On display in the Museum, is the parade chair presented to Queen Elizabeth II by The Royal Hospital in 2002. Also on display is The Sovereign's Mace which was presented to the Royal Hospital by Queen Elizabeth II in July 2002. Throughout its existence the Royal Hospital has had no colours or other distinctive device. The Mace is now carried at all of the Royal Hospital's ceremonial events.
Currently the facilities are being upgraded to meet the needs of the 21st Century In-Pensioner. Improvements to bathing and WC facilities are planned and an IT suite has been opened. However, all the works have to take account of the historic structure. Improved access arrangements for In-Pensioners with disabilities is also planned.
In March 2009 the Margaret Thatcher Infirmary was opened and is a state of the art care home and hospice for Chelsea Pensioners. Built by Quinlan Terry is has 125 ensuite bedrooms.
Work has started on the refurbishment of the Long Wards and Wards 23 & 24 were opened in May 2010. Work will beging shortly on the remaining Long Wards.