The pioneering feminist who set up a school for girls at the Royal Hospital

8th March 2022

There have been female Chelsea Pensioners at the Royal Hospital since 2009, but women have played a part in our story for far longer. 

The very foundation of the Royal Hospital is believed to have been inspired by a woman. According to some accounts, King Charles II’s mistress Nell Gwynn came up with the idea. Legend has it that she asked for a a piece of land as big as her handkerchief for the project. She then placed her handkerchief on a map of London securing our riverside site for posterity. Other sources credit the King’s wife Catharine of Braganza with the concept.

In the 17th and 18th centuries Christian Davies (also known as Mother Ross) and Hannah Snell both disguised themselves as men to serve in the Army, earning themselves a Royal Hospital pension and a place in our burial ground.

Other famous women who have been associated with the Royal Hospital include the diarist Fanny Burney, who lived here as her father was the Chapel organist, and the scientist Mary Somerville –  the first female member of the Royal Astronomical society. Florence Nightingale also has links with the Royal Hospital, as she took Chelsea Pensioners with her to the Crimea to help with nursing (although how helpful they were is a matter of debate!). 

Mary Astell may be less well known today, but she played an important part in the Royal Hospital’s history and was an early pioneer of feminism.

One of England's first feminists

Frontispiece from Jacques du Bosc’s 'The Excellent Woman', offered by Ruth Perry as an example of how Astell might have looked.

Mary Astell was born in 1666 in Newcastle. As was usual for women at this time, she received no formal education. However, she was informally taught by her uncle, Ralph Astell – a graduate of Cambridge and a clergyman.

Following the death of her mother and aunt, Mary moved to Chelsea, where she got to know a group of literary women, including poets Lady Mary Chudleigh and Elizabeth Thomas, Anglo-Saxon scholar Elizabeth Elstob and Judith Drake, an author and intellectual. 

These influential women helped to develop and publish Mary’s work. She was also supported by the former Archbishop of Canterbury William Sancroft, who gave her financial support and introduced her to her future publisher. 

"Women are capable of the best"

Mary Astell's Proposal

Mary was one of the first English feminists, arguing that women were just as rational as men – and just as deserving of an education. In 1694 she anonymously published A Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest, where she put forward a plan for an all-female college. She developed the idea further in a second part published three years later.  These ideas would come to fruition later, when she set up her own school for girls at the Royal Hospital.

In 1700 Mary published her witty Some Reflections on Marriage where she warned women of “the dangers of a hasty or ill-considered choice” of partner. She argued that the education of women contributed to a happier marriage, as husband and wife were more equal.

A school for girls at the Royal Hospital

In 1709 Mary decided to leave public life and put her principles into practice by setting up a school of her own. 

The Anglican charity school was based at the Royal Hospital Chelsea for the daughters of Chelsea Pensioners. She found the funding and wrote the entire curriculum herself. 

When Mary was 60, she moved in with Lady Catherine Jones, her friend and patron and lived with her until her death in 1631. She asked to be left alone with God during her final few days.

Mary’s legacy lives on in her writing, which reflects an attitude towards women’s rights that was far ahead of her time.

Wise words from a woman ahead of her time

If all men are born free, how it that all women are born slaves?

 

How can you be content to be in the world like tulips in a garden, to make a fine show, and be good for nothing?

 

Truth is strong and will sometime or other prevail.

 

But alas, what poor Woman is ever taught that she should have a greater design than to get her a husband?

 

Women are not so well united as to form an Insurrection. They are for the most part wise enough to love their Chains, and to discern how becomingly they fit.

 

If God had not intended that Women shou’d use their Reason, He would not have given them any, for He does nothing in vain.

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