Founder's Day 2020

5th June 2020

The historic Founder’s Day Parade is the most important event of the Royal Hospital Chelsea’s normally busy events schedule. Ordinarily the Hospital’s grounds team are busy tidying up following the thousands of visitors from the RHS Chelsea Flower Show and following Founder’s Day, preparations would be underway for for the Live at Chelsea music concerts.

This year was very different. Shortly after the start of the Coronavirus pandemic the Hospital made the difficult decision to cancel the Parade. However, after much planning and consideration it was decided to continue with the strong tradition of celebrating the Royal Hospital’s Founder – Charles II. The Parade went ahead, albeit in a scaled-back and quiet fashion and the Pensioners participating were socially distanced to ensure no-one was put at risk.

Founder's Day, also known as Oak Apple Day, is always held on a date close to 29th 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.

A Pensioner on parade at Founder's Day 2020 with the Household Cavalry band in the background

The event was not open to the usual crowd of friends and family of the Pensioners and staff which added to the quiet and contemplative nature of the parade – which both celebrated the founding of the Hospital by Charles II and honoured those Chelsea Pensioners who have sadly succumbed to the deadly virus.

Our Governor, General Sir Adrian Bradshaw KCB OBE DL, addressed the Pensioners:

… As ever, on this occasion we reflect on the loss of friends and comrades since we last gathered to remember our Royal Founder, and this year we mourn also those whose ‘last posting’ was advanced by the disease that still stalks the streets outside our gates. 

We give thanks to God for the survival of those of our number, both Pensioners and staff, who have come through the disease, and for the professionalism and care of those who have looked after them.  We think of our magnificent clinical team, our nursing and care staff, of our welfare team, and all others whatever their roles who have kept this place running efficiently during lockdown.  We also give thanks for the fantastic work of our small Army team. 

Today we regret not having with us the usual crowd of family and friends to help us celebrate our founding.  Whilst we certainly intend to have something of a liberation party when this pandemic is finally over, we will have to wait until next year to have the chance, we hope, to enjoy the full Founders Day experience again.

Today, sadly, we are unable to enjoy hosting this year’s Royal Reviewing Officer in person, but we thank Her Royal Highness, The Duchess of Cornwall for her very kind message to us. Her Royal Highness greatly regrets not being able to be here but hopes that she might be able to visit us in the very near future when national restrictions are sufficiently eased. …

The Royal Hospital's Governor, General Sir Adrian Bradshaw

Only 35 Pensioners participated in this year’s Parade with the rest in their regular order ‘blues’ uniform watching safely from windows overlooking Figure Court - where the Parade is held. We were honoured to have The Band of the Household Cavalry and Director of Music - Major Paul Collis-Smith attend, who all played brilliantly and added a touch of normality to the Parade’s otherwise unusually quiet proceedings.

The Governor, Pensioners and staff were also sad not to be able to welcome Her Royal Highness, The Duchess of Cornwall to this year’s Parade as Royal Reviewing Officer, however, Her Royal Highness did send some kind words to our Pensioners and reflected on the significance of the day:

… Although – sadly – I am not with you in person, I know you are wearing your oak leaves with pride to remind us of your remarkable history.  In these challenging times, we might do well to reflect on the traditional symbolism of the oak leaf.  The oak represents strength, wisdom and endurance.  These are qualities which are immensely valuable, even vital, to us all – and never more so than now.  They are qualities which abound among Chelsea Pensioners – qualities which have seen you through your military service to our country – and which inspire every person who is fortunate enough to meet you.

I look forward to seeing you all again – face-to-face, hopefully – in the not too distant future.  In the meantime, I salute you all and wish you a Happy Founder’s Day.  

The reduction in scale of the event meant that some aspects of the Parade were easier to organise – invitations for example! But there were some challenges in delivering a Parade which observed government health guidelines and still carried on the centuries old tradition and spirit of the Chelsea Pensioners.

Regimental Sergeant Major - Ross Martin

“The Founder’s Day celebrations will be streamlined”

We spoke with our Regimental Sergeant Major, Ross Martin (pictured left) ahead of the event: 

“Before the pandemic, the majority of my work was organising external events, for when the nation wanted Chelsea Pensioners to represent the Army or the veteran community. Now that part of my job doesn’t really happen, so my role is maintaining Pensioner morale, making sure they’re briefed as to where we are with the pandemic, what the government direction is and what we’re doing to follow that.

I’m also helping the activities team to keep the Pensioners occupied. Some are very busy rehearsing for Founder’s Day. It will not take place as it has in the past, because we can’t have guests. But the Governor said it was extremely important for the Founder to be celebrated. So we’ve streamlined it with just 35 Pensioners on parade and a band from the Household Cavalry. There will be social distancing and no march past – and the Pensioners will be seated on the grass because I don’t think they have the endurance they had last year when they were moving about more.  

When the Parade ended, instead of the usual BBQ and revelry with friends and family this year, the Pensioners had to settle for something a little more low-key. In true testament to their resilience and good nature the Pensioners celebrated a successful parade and enjoyed a quiet (socially distanced) drink with their peers at the newly established ‘COVID Arms Ale House’.

A Pensioner enjoying a drink following the Founder's Day Parade under a tree with a sign affixed reading 'the COVID Arms'

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