The Royal Hospital is 330 years old!
4th February 2022
On 4 February 330 years ago, the Royal Hospital opened its doors to the very first Chelsea Pensioners. Today, we are still providing a home for the Nation’s Army veterans in the site Sir Christopher Wren designed, according to King Charles II’s original vision. We are very proud of this unbroken history of care and with the help of our friends hope to continue to do so far into the future.
King Charles II's vision
Until the 17th century, the state did not make any provision for old or injured soldiers. Following the establishment of England’s first permanent or standing Army during the English Civil War, the need to look after our veterans became pressing. So, in 1681 King Charles II issued a Royal Warrant to establish a refuge for soldiers “broken by age or war”. His pledge is inscribed in Latin above the Royal Hospital’s colonnade to this day.
A decade in the making
Sir Christopher Wren was commissioned to bring the King’s vision to life. The original design comprised a quadrangle - Figure Court – with Long Wards on two sides and the Wren Chapel and Great Hall on another. During construction, two other quadrangles – Light Horse Court and College Court – were added as it was clear that more space would be needed to accommodate the planned number of veterans. The foundation stone was laid by the King in 1682, but it would beanother 10 years before it was ready for the first Chelsea Pensioners to take up residence.
The Royal Hospital opens
On 4 February 1692, under the reign of William and Mary, the first 99 Chelsea Pensioners moved into their new home. The opening ceremony was performed by the King and Queen. This event is imagined in a painting by Howard Davie (1868-1943) which was donated to the Royal Hospital by the Royal family in 1968, when it was rediscovered at York House in St James’s Palace.
A letter from Lieutenant Simon Bland, Comptroller to HRH the Duke of Gloucester records this donation, adding that it was part of King George V’s private collection, which the Duke of Gloucester inherited. The letter mentions that the painting used to hang in the room of King George’s grandsons, Richard and William, when they were young. Today, the painting can be seen hanging in our Visitors Centre.
Still welcoming Pensioners in 2022
More than three centuries on, the Royal Hospital is still welcoming Army veterans. In January alone we welcomed five new Chelsea Pensioners to our community. We continue to adapt to changing times so we can meet the needs of new generations of Chelsea Pensioners. As one new arrival said:
It’s reassuring to know that I don’t have to go anywhere from here and everything is taken care of. I’ve come to start a new chapter.