One of the great privileges of being an MP and a minister is the involvement you have with our great national institutions.
Here in Horsham Christ’s Hospital is a great case in point: an ancient philanthropic foundation, whose mission is as vibrant today as when it was founded at the inspiration of King Edward VI in the 1550s.
Last Thursday, I had the pleasure of attending the Royal Hospital Chelsea’s Founder’s Day, home to the famous Chelsea Pensioners who have become iconic in their scarlet uniforms.
As Paymaster General, I am ex officio Chairman of the Commissioners. I can remember my father, who held the same post, speaking fondly about the Chelsea Founder’s Day.
Just like Christ’s Hospital, the Royal Hospital is an establishment steeped in history, ritual and tradition but which has real value and relevance in 21st century Britain. It can best be described as a retirement and nursing home to around 300 British soldiers who, because of old age or injury, need support.
It was founded in 1681 by King Charles II ‘for the succour and relief of veterans broken by age and war’ and, because Charles II was notoriously short of money, the necessary funds were secured by Sir Stephen Fox who had been Paymaster General to the Army from 1661 to 1679.
It is to Charles II that Founder’s Day is dedicated and it always takes place as close as possible to May 29 – his birthday and the anniversary of his restoration as King in 1660.
It’s also known as Oak Apple Day and all guests – including me - wore a sprig of oak leaves, reminding us all that in 1651 King Charles II hid in an oak tree – The Royal Oak - avoiding capture and certain death at the hands of the Parliamentarians.
His statue, which stands in one of the courtyards and which was regilded in 2002 to mark the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, is also surrounded in oak leaves.
These last couple of weeks have reminded me that we have plenty of reasons to be proud to be British and the good that the Royal Hospital Chelsea does and the Chelsea Pensioners themselves - with their stories of bravery and selflessness - are yet another. Every hour brave young men and women put themselves in harm’s way in Afghanistan to protect us. We have to look after those who make these sacrifices.
It’s possible to visit parts of the Royal Hospital and even take part in a tour guided by a Chelsea Pensioner. I’d really encourage readers to make the trip – it’s a fascinating and wonderful place – more details can be found on their website: chelsea-pensioners.co.uk