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Royal Hospital Chelsea

Royal Hospital Chelsea (72)

The first thing we should be clear about when speaking of this building is that, although its name might confuse you, it is not in fact a hospital. It is a residence for retired soldiers. Its history dates back to the 17th century, during the period of the Restoration. Until then, despite the fact that outbreaks of war were frequent, there had been no provision whatsoever about what to do with retired or wounded soldiers, and for this reason, it was usually the religious orders that were responsible for offering them help, above all the poorest and most needy. 

On Charles II acceding to the throne in 1660, it became obvious that there was a pressing need to resolve the problem since, on the one hand, after the Civil War the exiled officers who had supported the monarchy had returned and, on the other hand, the Parliament-supporting army had been dissolved. 

In the following years it became clear that there were many soldiers that were not operative. For this reason, with the aim of being able to accommodate retired soldiers, in 1681 Charles II entrusted the architect Christopher Wren to build the Royal Hospital. The site chosen was the idyllic setting of Chelsea, on some land next to the river.

Despite the fact that raising the funds for the building proved difficult, since the Parliament was not prepared to finance the work, the slow process progressed and finally, in 1692, the building was finished. In March of the same year there were already 476 retired soldiers living there, called Chelsea Pensioners. Even today between 300 and 400 soldiers live in the Royal Hospital, and they wear the period uniform with a three-cornered hat and red coat.

Based on the Hôpital des Invalides in Paris, the three main rooms surround a main courtyard, the Figure Court, on the north, east and west sides, in which there is a statue of Charles II represented as if he were a Roman general. The statue was produced by Grinling Gibbons. In the north wing, the entrance of which is decorated with a portico supported by Doric columns, is the Great Hall, which houses the dining room and, separated from this by an octagonal vestibule, the chapel. 

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