Wren’s London – 5. Royal Hospital Chelsea

Known as the home of the scarlet-coated ‘Chelsea Pensioners’, the Royal Hospital Chelsea’s origins go back to December 1681 when King Charles II issued a Royal Warrant authorising the building of a royal hospital to care for old and maimed soldiers.

Sir Christopher Wren, then Charles II’s Surveyor-General of Works, was subsequently commissioned to design and construct the new buildings on a site next to the River Thames in Chelsea. Sir Stephen Fox, a commissioner of the Treasury, had the unenviable task of finding enough money to fund it – a task he managed through tapping a range of different sources.

Charles II didn’t live to see the completed project (although he did inspect the partially complete work just before his death in 1685) which was finally finished in 1692. The first pensioners were admitted in February that year.

Wren’s initial design comprised a single quadrangle with accommodation blocks for more than 400 veterans and their officers on the sides, and a chapel and great hall in a colonnaded building at the northern end while the southern end is open to the river (the picture above shows the ‘rear’ of the Hospital as seen from Royal Hospital Road). Known as Figure Court, it was named after a 7′ tall statue of Charles II which stands within it and which depicts the king as a Roman general.

Before the work was complete, however, Wren had realised that the design would not be large enough and added a two further quadrangles – one on each side of the original, they are known as Light Horse and College Courts – to the design.

There are some 300 ‘in-pensioners’ who still live in the hospital’s ‘berths’. When inside, they are encouraged to wear the Royal Hospital’s blue uniform while their famous scarlet coats with tricorne hats are worn on ceremonial occasions including Founder’s Day.

Held on a day close to 29th May – Charles II’s birthday and the date of his restoration – Founder’s Day commemorates his escape after the Battle of Worcester in 1651 and is known as Oak Apple Day in remembrance of the story that the fleeing Charles had to hide in an oak tree to avoid capture by parliamentary forces.

Women were first admitted to the hospital in 2009.

WHERE: Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea (nearest tube station is Sloane Square); WHEN: Entry to the courts, chapel and Great Hall is from 10am to 12pm, 2pm to 4pm; the museum is open Monday to Saturday, 10am to noon, 2pm to 4pm and Sundays 2pm to 4pm (closed Sundays from October to March); COST: Free; WEBSITE: www.chelsea-pensioners.co.uk

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