Royal Hospital Chelsea | Visiting the historic home of the Chelsea Pensioners
The history of the Royal Hospital Chelsea and the Chelsea Pensioners and how you can visit.
As the host venue of the Chelsea Flower Show, the Royal Hospital Chelsea sees over 157,000 visitors pass through its gates every May. However, these horticulture lovers only get to see the outside of this historic venue. Known as the home of the ‘Chelsea Pensioners’, parts of the Royal Hospital are open to visitors, including during Open House London.
The Royal Hospital Chelsea is a retirement and nursing home for around 300 veterans of the British Army. Until the 17th century, there was no state provision to look after retired or injured soldiers. However, King Charles II (1630-1685) recognised these veterans needed care and founded the Royal Hospital Chelsea in 1682. He chose to establish it on a 66-acre site in Chelsea, which housed a theological college named ‘Chelsey College’, founded 73 years earlier by his grandfather James I of England (1566-1625). Charles II and his royal administrator Sir Stephen Fox (1627-1716) commissioned architect Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) to design and oversee the building’s construction.
Wren designed the Great Hall and Chapel. The 42ft high chapel was completed in 1687 and was consecrated in August 1691. The chapel’s interior features a painting of the Resurrection of Christ by Italian painter Sebastiano Ricci (1659-1734) and his nephew Marco Ricci (1676–1730), which was added in 1710-15 during Queen Anne’s (1665-1714) reign. Just to the south-west of the Chapel was the Great Hall, which was originally intended as a dining hall. It featured 16 long tables with a large mural of King Charles II on horseback being crowned by Victory. Meanwhile, outside in the central court, the King was honoured again with a 7ft 6in statue in copper alloy by Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721).
Work was completed in 1692 with the first pensioners entering the hospital in February that year. Some of the first residents were veterans of the 1685 Battle of Sedgemoor. Wren expanded the Hospital’s design to include two quadrangles known as ‘Light Horse Court’ and ‘College Court’, which were completed in 1692. More buildings were added in the 19th century, with Sir John Soane (1753-1837) designing a new infirmary, which was sadly destroyed during World War II. A post-war infirmary was replaced by the Margaret Thatcher Infirmary, designed by Sir Quinlan Terry in 2008.
The Great Hall was used as a dining hall until 1800, when pensioners started dining in the wards. For over 150 years, the hall was used for recreation and also where the body of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1769-1852) lay in state following his death. The table on which his coffin rested is still inside the hall. In 1955, the hall resumed its original purpose and is still used for dining by the pensioners today.
Each resident has their own ‘berths’ to sleep in and house their belongings. Gas lighting was installed in 1854, but residents had to wait until the early 20th century for electrical lighting. The berths were enlarged in the mid ’50s and again in 1991 to increase them from 6x6ft to 9x9ft. The berths were upgraded in 2015 to include a study area and en-suite bedroom.
Another impressive building within the complex are The State Apartments, which were completed in 1685-1688. The Apartments were intended as a dining hall for visiting royalty. The moulded ceiling is designed by John Grove and features King James I’s cypher. The apartments also include paintings of Charles I, Charles II, Queen Catherine, and Wren, among others.
To become a Chelsea pensioner, a man or women must have served as a regular soldier and be aged over 65. Within the hospital grounds, they wear a blue uniform, but change into their iconic red coats when they travel outside. The Royal Hospital Chelsea is an independent charity and relies on donations to cover the running costs to house and care for the Pensioners. Parts of the hospital are open to visitors, including the on-site museum, the Great Hall and Chapel.
- Royal Hospital Chelsea, Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea, SW3 4SR. Nearest station: Sloane Square. For more information and visiting hours, check out the Chelsea Pensioners official website.
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