William Hiseland: the Oldest of the Original Chelsea Pensioners

The pensioners of the Royal Hospital Chelsea are iconic with their red coats and tricorn hats. After recently reading a book on the hospital, I was surprised to learn that this uniform is only the ceremonial uniform and not the everyday wear of the pensioners. I was even more surprised to learn about one rather special resident, William Hiseland (is also seen spelt as Hiseland/Hizeland or Hadeland), who lived until he was 111. It is believed that William was born on the 6th of August 1620 and he died 7th of February 1732. Even today anyone living over 100 is an amazing achievement, but to have managed this in the late 17th and early 18th century seems more surreal!

chelsea pensioner
E. R. White, A group of Chelsea Pensioners disputing in the Hall at the Royal Hospital Credit: Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

As if living to over 100 wasn’t an achievement enough, that is only part of his story and how he ended up as a Chelsea Pensioner. First of all, he was actually one of the first Chelsea Pensioners to live at the hospital as it had only opened its doors in 1692 to elderly veterans.[1] It’s uncertain as to when exactly he first came to live at the hospital, but its thought to have been around 1713.[2] When the hospital was first established, they served ‘in pensioners’, who lived within the hospital and had forfeited their pension to pay for their care, or those ‘out pensioners’, who were paid their army pension by the hospital but were living elsewhere.

William himself was given a pension of 1 crown (5 shillings) when he retired aged 93, which was paid by Charles Lennox, the 1st Duke of Richmond, and Robert Walpole, the first Prime Minister. To actually be a part of the army until such an old age is something amazing, but when you look further into his military career, things get even more interesting. It’s believed that he first entered the army at the age of 13 in 1633, but unfortunately there was nothing to corroborate this. Whether this is true or not, it is known that the first significant battle he took part in was at Edgehill, the first pitched battle of the English Civil War.[3] Having survived the Civil War, he also fought in William III’s wars in Ireland in 1689, by which time he would have been nearly 70.[4] By this point, you’d have expected the elderly veteran to think about taking things easy, especially as he had already gone past the average life expectancy at the time of 35-40.[5] He literally kept soldiering on!

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The Royal Hospital, Chelsea: viewed from the Surrey bank with boats on the river (1776) Credit: Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

The next war he was to be found in was as part of the Grand Alliance army made up of Britain, the Holy Roman Empire, Austria, United Provinces (now Holland) and Danish Auxiliary Corps during the War of Spanish Succession against France. At the Battle of Malplaquet, William was believed to have been 89. Whatever his real age was, he was definitely the oldest man on the battlefield.[6] It’s not known as to how much fighting personally did whilst serving in his older years, but to even still be part of the army was a major achievement. From all this dedication to his country, it’s no wonder that William Hiseland became one of the first pensioners to live at the Royal Chelsea Hospital.

The adventurousness in his character didn’t stop when he became a resident at the hospital. In 1723, he left the comfort of the hospital to get married. In pensioners were not allowed to be married as the pension would be forfeited and as a dependent, any wife would need support. Some sources claim that this was his only marriage, but others suggest he may have had up to 3 wives after the age of 100.[7] Whichever of those statements is right, William’s wife died and he returned to being a pensioner at the Chelsea Hospital, living there until his own death as the last living soldier of the English Civil War.[8] His grave can be found in the cemetery in the grounds of the hospital and is located near to the first ever pensioner admitted, Simon Box.[9]

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William Hiseland Portrait, Royal Chelsea Hospital Museum

The fact that a portrait of this extraordinary veteran survives (see above) shows just how much others at the time believed this man should be remembered. The epitaph carved into his gravestone also tells the story and brings his character to life:

Here lies William Hiseland a veteran if ever a soldier was, who merited well a pension. If long service be a merit having served upwards of the days of man ancient but not superannuated, engaged in a series of wars, civil as well as foreign, yet not maimed or worn out by either. His complexion was fresh and florid, his health, hale and hearty, his memory exact, and ready in stature. He surpassed the prime of youth and what rendered his age, still more patriarchal, when above one hundred years old he took unto him a wife. Read fellow soldiers and reflect that there is a spiritual welfare as well as a welfare temporal.”

I think William’s obvious patriotism and love for the career he had chosen for 70 odd years is an inspiration to us all.

[1] Rochester, J., The Royal Hospital Chelsea: a Brief History, talk given to the Sherbourne Historical Society, 5 November 2019, https://www.sherbornehistoricalsociety.co.uk/upcoming-talks/the-royal-hospital-chelsea-a-brief-history/57

[2] Wynn, S. and Wynn, T., A History of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, 1682-2017 (Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2019), p. 44.

[3] Wynn, S. and Wynn, T., A History of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, p. 43.

[4] Wynn, S. and Wynn, T., A History of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, p. 43.

[5] Lambert, T., A Brief History of Life Expectency http://www.localhistories.org/life.html

[6] Wynn, S. and Wynn, T., A History of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, p. 43.

[7] Wynn, S. and Wynn, T., A History of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, p. 43; Faulkner, T., An Historical and Typographical Description of Chelsea, and its Environs, Vol 2 (1829), p. 265.

[8] Wynn, S. and Wynn, T., A History of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, pp. 43-44.

[9] Rochester, J., The Royal Hospital Chelsea: a Brief History, talk given to the Sherbourne Historical Society, 5 November 2019, https://www.sherbornehistoricalsociety.co.uk/upcoming-talks/the-royal-hospital-chelsea-a-brief-history/57

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