The Royal Garrison Church


The Royal Garrison Church in Penny Street, Old Portsmouth might appear to be a ruin, but it surprises and delights those visitors who venture through the Nave and beyond the glass doors into the Chancel. Although the Nave lost its roof and contents through fire in the Blitz of 1941, the Chancel is still intact and its splendour gives an indication of how the Church would have looked before the bombing in World War II.

The building was originally established as a hospice for pilgrims, the sick and the elderly in 1212 and known at that time as the Domus Dei (God's House). The Chancel was the Chapel and the Nave the Hospital. This use continued until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century. During the twenty years following this, the buildings were neglected and the Church used as an armoury.
In the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, plans were made for strengthening the fortifications of Portsmouth (the extent of the town being the part now known as Old Portsmouth) and the Domus Dei and its adjacent buildings were put into good order for use by the Garrison; a house was built for a Governor. In 1662, Catherine of Braganza landed in Portsmouth to marry King Charles II. He arrived a few days later and married her in the Presence Chamber of the Governor's House.
The Church has been visited by all of our Heads of State since 1672 when King James II (then the Duke of York) visited Portsmouth, and they have usually presented books to the Church, with the exception of Queen Anne who gave a massive set of silver Communion Plate. Government House was last used in 1814 for a meeting of Allied Sovereigns and the buildings were demolished in 1826 with just the Church remaining. Parade services continued, but by that time the building had fallen into a poor state of repair.
In 1866 restoration was begun. The floor was concreted and tiled, the oak choir stalls were provided, windows were enlarged and glazed with stained glass, the organ was installed and many more improvements were carried out. Much of the work perished when the Church was hit by an incendiary bomb during an air raid on 10th January 1941, but the Chancel was saved although the stained glass to the windows was destroyed. Temporary repairs were carried out to enable the Chancel to be put into use by the following Easter. There have since been further repairs and new stained glass windows have been installed.
The fabric of the building is now maintained by English Heritage. A group of volunteers forming The Friends of the Royal Garrison Church care for the interior of the building and the artefacts which it contains. The Church is open to the public from 1st April to the end of September on weekdays from 11am to 4pm. Admission is free. Opening is dependent, however, on there being sufficient volunteers available and currently helpers are being sought to become, initially, assistants to the guides.

Anyone interested in becoming a volunteer is invited to contact the Secretary of The Friends of the Royal Garrison Church, Trevor Gale (telephone 023 9273 5521).

April 2006