Open House Festival

Royal Hospital Chelsea, Home of the Chelsea Pensioners

health, museum, historical house, military, mixed use

Sir John Vanbrugh, Nicholas Hawksmoor, Sir Christopher Wren, Sir John Soane, Robert Adam, Samuel Wyatt, 1682

Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea, SW3 4SR

Numbered amongst the UK's architectural glories and boasting 66 acres of beautiful grounds, the Royal Hospital Chelsea has been home to the iconic Army veteran community fondly known as the 'Chelsea Pensioners' since its foundation in 1692. The Great Hall and Chapel will not be accessible from 12.00-14.00 on Saturday 16th September due to an internal event. The remainder of the site will be open during this time. Visitors should note that filming will be taking place during the afternoon of Sunday 17th September. If you would like to be excluded from any filming, please let our staff and volunteers know on arrival at the site.

Getting there


Sloane Square, Victoria


Victoria, Battersea Park


11, 137, 452, 170, 360

Additional travel info

Uber Boats nearest stop is at Cadogan Pier. No parking available.


Accessibility notes

The Great Hall and Chapel will not be accessible from 12.00-14.00 on Saturday 16th September due to an internal event. The remainder of the site will be open during this time. Please note that we cannot supply wheelchairs on the day. The Open House route is fully accessible for wheelchairs, but please let us know in advance if you require the use of our wheelchair lifts.


A Royal heritage


The shadow of the Civil Wars that divided a nation some three decades earlier had passed and England once again had a Stuart king. The ageing Charles II was restored to his father’s throne, but never forgot those who loyally served under the banner of the Crown and fought against their fellow Englishmen on the battlefield.

He looked to Paris, where his cousin the Sun King, Louis XIV, has completed the first purpose-built accommodation for veterans of the French army: Hôtel des Invalides. Inspired by his French counterpart, Charles harnessed the architectural genius of mathematician and astronomer, Sir Christopher Wren, whom he had charged with rebuilding London following the Great Fire of 1666. The vision of these two men became England’s first home and provider of care for soldiers ‘broken by age or war’: the Royal Hospital Chelsea.


Charles II is dead, never seeing his ambitions for the Royal Hospital realised. But under the eye of Sir Christopher Wren, a landmark emerged from the pastoral village of Chelsea to dominate views over the Thames. The first veterans took up residence in February 1692, living shoulder to shoulder with their brothers in arms. Recognisable by their iconic scarlet tunics, they became fondly known throughout the country as the ‘Chelsea Pensioners’.


Though Chelsea has long since been engulfed by the sprawl of London, the Royal Hospital remains one of the most iconic sites within the capital. Numbered amongst Britain’s most important heritage organisations as the permanent home to the Chelsea Pensioners, it remains one of our most loved and valued working historic buildings. The Royal Hospital’s relevance to modern society remains undiminished, continuing a centuries’ old tradition of veteran care.

The Royal Hospital Chelsea was the vision of a king, but its legacy has been for the benefit of all former soldiers below officer ranks. They served the nation in its time of need and now the Royal Hospital serves them in theirs, providing a welcoming home, comradeship and specialist care, ensuring that no Chelsea Pensioner need spend their final years alone.

Each year, around the anniversary of Charles II’s coronation, the Royal Hospital community comes together for Founder’s Day: we remember the monarch who understood the debt of gratitude a nation owes to those who fight for our freedom, its wish, and obligation, to look after them.

The Chelsea Pensioners

Any former soldier of the British Army over the age of 65 can apply for full-time residence at the Royal Hospital Chelsea as a Chelsea Pensioner.

Some 300 veterans call the Royal Hospital home, including men and women who served in conflicts such as the Second World War, Korea and the First Gulf War. Today’s community, decorated with 730 medals and with 5,373 years of combined military service between them, represents 69 British Army regiments and corps.

Hailing from across the United Kingdom as well as overseas, members of our veteran population come from a wide spectrum of socio-economic backgrounds, with an average age of 82 years. Most join the Royal Hospital due to loneliness in the advanced stages of their lives, following the loss of a spouse, or when friends seem to dwindle.

Though their service records and civilian lives are entirely individual, each Chelsea Pensioner understands what it means to serve in the armed forces and the potential sacrifice that entails. Together, they are the iconic faces of the British veteran community, upholding our tradition of Remembrance.

Chelsea Pensioners are united by the Royal Hospital’s military ethos and culture, which foster purpose and pride. The shared values that cement our community reflect the best of the older generations of veterans and provide a powerful, positive role model to other ex-Service personnel and to soldiers today through the shared perspective of a military background.

Many armed forces veterans are significantly less fortunate than the Chelsea Pensioners. To acknowledge and harness their position, Chelsea Pensioners play an active ambassadorial role across the UK and abroad. The Chelsea Pensioners’ collective knowledge and valuable experiences demonstrate the many ways in which the British Army supports those who have served over the course of a lifetime.

The Royal Hospital’s military ethos places a premium on respect and camaraderie. Our ambition is to safeguard the needs of future veterans, whilst supporting links with other ex-Service organisations, the serving forces and the Ministry of Defence. We work in collaboration with the military community and charities to raise awareness of and encourage the nation’s respect, support and affection for its veterans, who were prepared to sacrifice their lives for Crown and country.

Origins and Civil War

Until the 17th century, the state made no specific provision for old or injured soldiers. Historically, religious foundations cared for the poor and sick, but this largely ended with the Dissolution of the Monasteries, which took place during the reign of Henry VIII.

Under Elizabeth I, it was recognised that this had resulted in an absence of places to which these soldiers could retire. A 1593 Act of Parliament and numerous proposals sought to address these concerns by raising money through parish taxation and establishing alms-houses. These measures were largely unsuccessful.

During the English Civil War (1642–1651), Parliament decreed pensions for soldiers with disabilities should be paid from national funds, rather than local taxation, as communities identifying as either Parliamentarian or Royalist would be unwilling to support veterans who had fought on the opposing side.

The Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and the disbandment of the Parliamentary Army and exiled Royalist forces made improving provision for soldiers’ welfare more urgent. This need intensified when the English Army was established as a standing military force in 1660.

In response, King Charles II issued a Royal Warrant in 1681, which authorised the building of the Royal Hospital Chelsea to provide a home and refuge for land soldiers 'broken by age or war' in the service of the Crown – as well as a lasting architectural ornament to the restoration of the monarchy.

It is popularly believed that Nell Gwynn, an actress numbered amongst Charles II’s favourite mistresses, played a decisive role in the Royal Hospital’s foundation. Whilst this is unsupported by contemporary records, the legend endures.

Architecture and building works

The chosen site for the Royal Hospital, set adjacent to the River Thames in what was then the countryside of Chelsea, contained the uncompleted building of the former 'Chelsey College'. This was a disused theological college, sanctioned by King James I and which for many years had been used to house Scottish and Dutch Prisoners of War.

Sir Stephen Fox (1627-1716), Paymaster General to the Army and Commissioner of the Treasury, was tasked with securing the necessary funds to build the Royal Hospital. The early funding of the Royal Hospital was made from deductions from army pay, with occasional funding from other sources. This continued to be the Royal Hospital's main source of revenue until 1847. Since then, the Royal Hospital has been supported by 'Grant-in-Aid' from the Ministry of Defence, as well as raising income through events – such as the RHS Chelsea Flower Show – and charitable fundraising.

The original Royal Hospital building was intended to house 412 veteran soldiers and their officers, and comprised a single quadrangle, known as Figure Court, surrounded on two sides by the accommodation blocks and on a third by the Great Hall and Chapel. The pavilions at each corner provided for the kitchen, Infirmary and officers’ accommodation. However, before work had begun it became apparent that the buildings would be insufficient and Wren added two further quadrangles to his design.

In 1692 work to the Royal Hospital was finally completed and by the end of March the full complement of 476 Chelsea Pensioners were in residence.

In 1809, Sir John Soane constructed a new Infirmary building, with space for 80 residents on the site now occupied by the National Army Museum. Soane was Clerk of Works to the Royal Hospital until his death in 1837, during which time he added a number of buildings to the site, including his own residence and a Stable Block.

The Long Wards

The four-storey wings on the East and West side of Figure Court contain the Chelsea Pensioners living quarters, or sheltered accommodation, which are known as Long Wards. The East and West wings were symmetrically planned, with Long Wards running the length of the building on each of the four floors. Each Long Ward is 200 feet (61 metres) long with a line of wainscoted berths – or bedrooms – running down the inner side, now containing 18 berths.

The original berths – so called, the story goes, because they were crafted from the wood of captured ships – were designed by Sir Christopher Wren and measured six feet (1.8 metres) square. The berths were enlarged in 1954-55 and again in 1991 to 9 feet (2.7 metres) squared. By the end of 2015, all Chelsea Pensioner berths were upgraded to meet the needs of the 21st century veteran and now contain a study area and en suite bathroom.

Gas lighting was installed in the Long Wards in 1854, but it was not until the early 20th century with the advent of electricity that there was any lighting in the berths.
Wren’s design included shallow and wide stairs at the northern ends of the Long Wards, for the convenience of elderly or disabled residents. The staircase in the East Wing is modern, having been damaged by bombing in 1940. The wood used to restore it was left over from the repair of the House of Commons, and the altered wall is picked out in lighter brick.

Wren provided separate stairs at the south end of each wing as a means of escape in case of fire.

The Great Hall

Until the early 19th century, the Great Hall was the dining room for residents of the Royal Hospital Chelsea.
It was furnished with sixteen long tables (one for each Long Ward) which would provide space for two sergeants, two corporals, a drummer and twenty-one private soldiers (in all 26, the number that lodged in each Long Ward).

Although Wren situated the kitchens adjacent to the Great Hall, there was no connection between the spaces until 1824. Prior to that, all food was conveyed along the Colonnade and through the main entrance. Heating was provided by an open fire in the middle of the Hall. 5 gallon 'black jacks', leather jugs, were used for bringing ale up from the beer cellar below.

Towards the end of the 18th century, the Chelsea Pensioners took to dining in the Long Wards and from the early 19th century all food was collected from the kitchen. The Great Hall was then used for recreation, court martials and Army entrance examinations. It was also in this room that the Duke of Wellington's body lay in state in 1852 and where thousands of people paid their respects to the fallen hero of Waterloo.

In 1955 the Hall was restored to its original purpose and oak benches have since been replaced by chairs.

The large mural painting at the far end of the Hall dates from circa 1690 and represents King Charles II on horseback surrounded by allegorical figures, with the Royal Hospital buildings in the background. It was begun by Antonio Verrio, but is mainly the work of Henry Cooke. It was restored in 2002.

The Chapel

Built between 1681 and 1687 the Chapel is a rare example of Sir Christopher Wren's pure ecclesiastical work being carried out without site constraints.

It was designed to accommodate about 500 people, all staff and Chelsea Pensioners, and rises 42 feet high.

The wainscoting and pews (originally for staff and Horse Guards) are by Sir Charles Hopson, the leading joiner of his day and deputy Clerk of Works at the Royal Hospital from 1691 to 1698. The choir stalls are modern additions. Backs have been fitted to the benches, and the three-decker pulpit has been dismantled to create the existing pulpit and reading-desk, otherwise the original plan is maintained exactly as Wren had determined. The plasterwork was carried out by Henry Margetts. The carving is by William Emmett, Master Carver before Grinling Gibbons and William Morgan. The organ case is the work of Renatus Harris, but the organ has since been replaced by a modern instrument.

The painting of the Resurrection in the half dome of the apse is by Sebastiano Ricci, assisted by his nephew Marco, and dates from 1714. The work was probably paid for, as a donation to the Royal Hospital, by Queen Anne.

The Royal Hospital's magnificent silver-gilt altar plate was made by Ralph Leake and is hall-marked 1687-8. It comprises a large alms dish, a pair of candlesticks with baluster stems, a salver, three flagons, four chalices and patens, and a straining spoon. The altar cross, the font and the coat of arms on the front of the organ loft date from 1955-6.

One of the original service books has been preserved. The old registers of baptisms, marriages and burials are now held at the National Archives, Kew. Burial services were discontinued in 1854.

The Chapel was consecrated in August 1691, and compulsory services held twice daily. Nowadays they are typically confined to the Sunday morning services before which the Chelsea Pensioners parade in Figure Court.

Figure Court

Figure Court is the oldest part of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, having been started by Wren in 1682.

The Colonnade is all Wren's original work, with benches and panelling dating back to 1688. Wren is also believed to have composed the Latin inscription, summarising the Royal Hospital’s mission. It translates as: “For the succour and relief of those broken by age and war, founded by Charles II continued by James II and completed by William and Mary in the year of our Lord 1692”. The 32-foot Doric columns of the main portico support the Royal Hospital's water cistern, originally filled from the River Thames.

The 7'6" statue of Charles II, from which Figure Court takes its name, is the work of Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721). It shows the monarch as a Roman general, holding a baton as a sign of his imperial authority. The statue was presented to the King by one of his courtiers, Tobias Rustat, in 1682 and was moved to the Royal Hospital after Charles II’s death in 1685. Originally gilded, it was bronzed in 1782 and then regilded in 2002 for HM The Queen's Golden Jubilee.

The State Apartments

The highlight of the State Apartments is the Council Chamber – a magnificent room one and a half storeys high. The State Apartments were designed as a potential dining rest stop for the monarch travelling down the Thames en route to the Royal palaces. Indeed, it’s thought that Wren might have intended to link the Royal Hospital to Kensington Palace – the nearest Royal residence – through a city planning scheme.

The finest craftsmen contributed to the elegance of the State Apartments. The heavily moulded ceiling, featuring King James II's cypher, is by John Grove, who also worked on the Queen’s House at Greenwich. The wainscoting was produced by William Cleere and the fine lime wood carving over the fireplace is by William Morgan and William Emmett.

The State Apartments also feature a painting of Charles I and his family by Sir Anthony van Dyck and studio, together with portraits of Charles II, Catherine of Braganza, James II, the Earl of Ranelagh, Sir Stephen Fox and Sir Christopher Wren; namely, all those who were instrumental in the Royal Hospital's foundation and early development.

Above the State Apartments, there is a suite of rooms remodelled by famed interior designer and architect Robert Adam (1728-1792), as well as the Surveyor’s Closet – three rooms where Wren stayed while working on the Royal Hospital site.

Grounds and gardens

Originally constituting formal water gardens connected to the Thames by canals, the grounds were vastly altered by the mid-19th century construction of the Embankment. Wren’s gazebos and summer houses, together with the vista to the River Thames, were removed between 1850-68.

Laid out by John Gibson, who was responsible for Battersea and several Royal Parks, Ranelagh Gardens was devised as a pleasure ground to rival those at Vauxhall and housed a (demolished) Rotunda comparable to the Royal Albert Hall. The Rotunda features in a wealth of contemporary paintings (Canaletto) and saw some of the greatest musicians of the age perform there, including Mozart at 9 years old. The Soane Pavilion remains in testament to the Gardens’ erstwhile fashionable status, together with the original undulating landscaping.

The 18th-century burial ground on the site's North side, which is preserved, is the final resting place for the first Chelsea Pensioners, including those who served in the Civil War.

Finally, RHC has been synonymous with the iconic RHS Chelsea Flower Show since 1913.

The contemporary grounds boast an abundance of trees and planting, including a prize-winning ‘incense cedar’. Wildlife ranges from bats and voles to bees and tawny owls.

The Royal Hospital during the Blitz

The Chelsea Pensioners and staff made their own contributions to the war effort, from growing their own vegetables to forming two Home Guard units. They also witnessed the horrors of the Blitz first-hand. Veterans who had believed their combat days to be over were once again in the firing line. Positioned on the bank of the River Thames, which provided a map of the capital under cover of darkness, the Royal Hospital fell under the eye of Luftwaffe pilots navigating their way over London.

Public air raid shelters were built on site, which remain preserved today, and the Royal Hospital was also used as an air defence location. Throughout the war years the Royal Hospital kept a comprehensive diary that documented events on a daily basis.

2 September, 1939

A party of 50 Pensioners were evacuated to Rudhall Manor along with support staff where they remained until 1946. Notable art works were transported to Montacute House in Somerset (now National Trust) for safe keeping. As the war progressed and bombing became more frequent, there were more evacuations to Ascott and Moraston Houses. However, most Chelsea Pensioners and staff remained at the Royal Hospital throughout the war.

16 April, 1941

This day saw one of the heaviest air raids of the Second World War and the Soane Infirmary was hit by an aerial mine that exploded and destroyed the East Wing. Tragically, there were heavy casualties; four nurses, the Wardmaster and eight Chelsea Pensioners were killed and 37 others were injured.

3 January, 1945

The North-East Wing took a direct hit from a V2 rocket and was completely destroyed: many surrounding buildings were also significantly damaged. Five people from the Royal Hospital lost their lives as a result of this attack and 19 others were injured. Chelsea Pensioners were temporarily accommodated in Sloane Gardens, sent on leave or evacuated.

Many of today’s cohort of Chelsea Pensioners served on the front line during the Second World War.


The Great Hall and Chapel will not be accessible from 12.00-14.00 on Saturday 16th September due to an internal event. The remainder of the site will be open during this time.

Visitors should note that filming will be taking place during the afternoon of Sunday 17th September. If you would like to be excluded from any filming, please let our staff and volunteers know on arrival at the site.

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