Wren, Newton, and the Chelsea Pensioners

This day in London history: on 28 November 1660 the Royal Society was founded. A group of twelve men met at Gresham College in Bishopsgate after a lecture by Christopher Wren, then the Gresham Professor of Astronomy, and decided to found “a Colledge for the Promoting of Physico-Mathematicall Experimentall Learning”.

The following year, the name The Royal Society first appeared in print when Fellows of the Society put forward a petition to King Charles II for a royal grant of incorporation; this, the First Charter, was granted. This Charter did not provide for all the privileges the Fellows desired, and a Second Charter was granted in 1663. In this Charter, the King declared himself to be the Founder and Patron of the Society.

However, before sufficient funds for building could be raised, Charles changed his mind and repurchased the land to provide an infirmary for soldiers. This was the Royal Hospital, built by Wren, and now home to the Chelsea Pensioners.

The Society's first home
The Society’s first home

The Society was given accommodation in Gresham College but meetings were sporadic in the early days, interrupted by events such as the Plague and the Great Fire. In 1669 Charles II granted Chelsea College and its surrounding lands to the Society so that it could have a permanent home.

For many years, there was a rumour that Nell Gwynn had beseeched Charles to build the hospital after she heard had been moved by the story of an injured soldier. Once the hospital had been built, old soldiers there would toast Nell as their benefactress. Romantic as it sounds, it seems unlikely that there is any truth to Nell’s involvement in the hospital.

It was not until 1710 that the Society had a home in Crane Court. Sir Isaac Newton was by now the President of the Society. His Principia Mathematica, in which he presents his ‘laws of gravity’, was published by the Royal Society. Another 18th-century Fellow was Benjamin Franklin; in 1753 the Society awarded him its Copley Medal for his work with electricity; in 1756 he was elected as a Fellow of the Society.


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