Established way back in 1682 by the then king – the ‘Merry Monarch’ himself, Charles II – the Royal Hospital Chelsea’s original incarnation was as a home for aged and wounded soldiers. To some extent, it still fulfils that role today; however, wounded military personnel are, of course, properly treated in hospitals – so in our modern times, it’s effectively a retirement home for British servicemen and -women, should they wish to come and live within its welcoming, historic environs.
Inspired by the Parisian building his French contemporary, the legendary Kind Louis XIV, had constructed (the iconic ‘Hotel des Invalides’), Charles was determined to create an equally splendid home for his own veteran soldiers. To that end, he commissioned the greatest architect of the age, Sir Christopher Wren, to create a design; only for the building (following Charles’ death) to be enlarged by his brother and heir, King James II, to encompass around three full courtyards. Finally, the first ‘In-Pensioners’ were admitted in 1692.
Today’s Royal Hospital
Now, in the 21st Century, the buildings that make up the ‘Hospital’ serve as the home of around 350 ex-servicemen and -women. Its full-time residents famously wear their distinctive uniforms, which genuinely haven’t changed much at all since the 18th Century (less than 100 years after the building’s founding), yet their ‘dress-down’ – or everyday – garb tends to be in navy blue; it’s on ceremonial occasions that the ‘Chelsea Pensioners’, as they’re known, tend to be proudly seen in their instantly recognisable scarlet coats and tricorne hats.
Having been designed by Wren in an English baroque style, the buildings boast two residential wings that are linked by the site’s Great Hall and Chapel. The latter comprises a stunning fresco of ‘Christ Rising from the Tomb’ by the Italian artist Sebastiano Ricco; opposite this, the Great Hall fittingly features a mural of King Charles II, posed on horseback, as created by Verrio and Cooke. And, today, this space serves as the in-pensioners’ refectory.
The museum and gardens
Elsewhere in the Hospital is a small museum that’s open most days to the public (a top attraction to plan a visit to then, once you’ve decided on a short-break where to stay in Chelsea) and, in its entrance, can be seen a fine panoramic work based on the Battle of Waterloo, painted by George Jones.
Inside the museum there’s a permanent exhibition that explores and explains the history of the Chelsea Pensioners and their home, as well as containing a scale model of the Hospital, in addition to fascinating records dating back to its foundation, a mock-up of a residential room (in which each in-pensioner lives) and several historical medals and uniforms.
Additionally, the Hospital’s grounds, including the glorious Ranelagh Gardens, are open to visitors (not least those staying locally at, say, accommodation in Chelsea London). Indeed, a small pavilion that was originally designed by Sir John Soane (an architect of other post-Wren buildings that make up the Hospital’s site) features a display that illustrates the gardens’ role as an 18th Century pleasure resort; believe it or not.
In this era, Ranelagh Gardens enjoyed a reputation as a fashionable meeting spot for the great and the good of London society. Centuries later now, they host the globally-renowned Chelsea Flower Show every May.
Address: Royal Hospital Chelsea, Royal Hospital Road, London SW3 4SR
Opening times: The museum is open Monday to Friday (excluding bank holidays) from 10am to 4pm
Prices: Entry to the museum is free for groups under 10 and is also included as part of the guided tour
Contact: for more information telephone 020 7881 5516 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.