Founder's Day is the highlight of the Royal Hospital Chelsea’s calendar, an event attended by all Chelsea Pensioners, which celebrates the founding of the Royal Hospital by King Charles II.

The event has taken place almost every year since the founding of the Royal Hospital in 1681. Below, we celebrate the history of this very British ceremony.

This year's Founder's Day will be held on Thursday 8 June.

 

 

The Royal Hospital Chelsea’s Founder's Day, also known as Oak Apple Day, is always held on a date close to 29 May – the birthday of Charles II and the date of his restoration as King in 1660. The Oak reference commemorates the escape of the future King Charles II after the Battle of Worcester (1651) when he hid in an oak tree to avoid capture by the Parliamentary forces, and is expressed through all Chelsea Pensioners wearing oak leaves on their famous scarlet uniforms (pictured below).  

The gold statue of Charles II that stands in the centre of figure court is also adorned in oak leaves for the occasion. Over the years the statue oak leaf dressing has varied from a large wreath at the base to a wreath worn on the head, and from total covering where the statue is not even visible to a discreet skirt of oak branches around the base.

The Founder's Day ceremony has been captured on camera since this first image was taken in 1872. As you can see from the photo below it, little has changed over the last one and a half centuries.

Notice in the bottom right hand corner, the statue of King Charles II was completely shrouded in oak leaves in 1872, while last year, just the base of the statue was covered.

The proceeding two photos - both capturing the moment the parade of Chelsea Pensioners passes the statue of King Charles II -  weren't just taken from different angles, but from profoundly different years.

The first was captured in 1910, four years before the outbreak of the First World War, while the photo below it was captured in 1946, a battle-weary era summed up by the bomb damaged windows of the East Wing, visible in the background.

HM Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother attending Founder's Day

The Duke of Kent reviewing the Chelsea Pensioners

A member of the Royal Family attends the ceremony each year. Her Majesty the Queen has reviewed the parade four times.

Every year the official visitors book gets prepared with the Royal Coat of Arms ready for the member of the Royal Family to sign.

Founder's Day is an invitation-only event, and is a chance for the Chelsea Pensioners to reunite with their family and friends and enjoy this poignant, colourful celebration. 

“Founder’s Day is very important because it’s the only day we can bring our relations into the hospital under a party atmosphere. It’s the nearest thing we have to an open day.” Gordon Sanders (left)

“It’s a tradition that’s been going on for over 300 years and it’s a big get together and we re-unite with our families. We all line up and wear Oak leaves, two oak leaves and an acorn. We can’t go away on that day unless it’s really important. Everybody is there we have over 3,400 people watching. It’s a special occasion, it’s very unique.” Tom Mullaney (right)

Last year, a number of Chelsea Pensioners who served on D-Day and beyond for the liberation of France received the prestigious Légion d'honneur, including Frank Mouque (pictured). The medal is awarded by the French government is to recognise the selfless acts of determination displayed by the veterans of the Normandy landings.

 

“We were a bridging engineer company – that means first in and last out.

At 8am we disembarked, along a narrow gangway. The wire to stop us falling suddenly parted and I nearly fell in – I remember thinking ‘that was close’. We ran forward into the sea it was around 4 foot deep and some 25 yards away from the beach. Then we ran to the top of the beach. Let’s face it the landing was very gory. You didn’t have time to think, survival instinct kicked in.

 “I wasn’t brave, I wasn’t a hero I was a little cog in a big wheel. When you add all those little cogs together – then we became important. We all worked together towards peace.”  

Frank Mouque

Frank was a Royal Engineer in World War Two which meant he was responsible for clearing landmines and building bridges.  He landed on Sword beach on June 6 1944 and had to ‘bob’ through the sea and then cross the beach under perilous conditions.

Read more stories from our World War II veterans here.

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