The district is entirely within the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, although Chelsea gives its name to nearby locations, such as Chelsea Harbour located within the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, and Chelsea Barracks in the City of Westminster. From 1900, and until the creation of Greater London in 1965, it formed the Metropolitan Borough of Chelsea in the County of London.
The exclusivity of Chelsea as a result of its high property prices has historically resulted in the term Sloane Ranger being used to describe its residents. Since 2011, Channel 4 has broadcast a reality television show called Made in Chelsea, documenting the lives of affluent young people living there. Moreover, Chelsea is home to one of the largest communities of Americans living outside the United States, with 6.53% of Chelsea residents being born in the U.S.
The word Chelsea (also formerly Chelceth, Chelchith, or Chelsey,) originates from the Old English term for "landing place for chalk or limestone" (Cealc-hyð: chalk-wharf, in Anglo-Saxon). Chelsea hosted the Synod of Chelsea in 787 AD. The first record of the Manor of Chelsea precedes the Domesday Book and records the fact that Thurstan, governor of the King's Palace during the reign of Edward the Confessor (1042–1066), gave the land to the Abbot and Convent of Westminster. Abbot Gervace subsequently assigned the manor to his mother, and it passed into private ownership. By 1086 the Domesday Book records that Chelsea was in the hundred of Ossulstone in Middlesex, with Edward of Salisbury as tenant-in-chief.
King Henry VIII acquired the manor of Chelsea from Lord Sandys in 1536; Chelsea Manor Street is still extant. Two of King Henry's wives, Catherine Parr and Anne of Cleves, lived in the Manor House; Princess Elizabeth – the future Queen Elizabeth I – resided there; and Thomas More lived more or less next door at Beaufort House. In 1609 James I established a theological college, "King James's College at Chelsey" on the site of the future Chelsea Royal Hospital, which Charles II founded in 1682.
By 1694, Chelsea – always a popular location for the wealthy, and once described as "a village of palaces" – had a population of 3,000. Even so, Chelsea remained rural and served London to the east as a market garden, a trade that continued until the 19th-century development boom which caused the final absorption of the district into the metropolis. The street crossing that was known as Little Chelsea, Park Walk, linked Fulham Road to King's Road and continued to the Thames and local ferry down Lover's Lane, renamed "Milmans Street" in the 18th century.