Portsmouth – Royal Garrison Church

The Royal Garrison Church, now in the care of English Heritage, is no longer used for worship, but it is open to the public during the summer months thanks to the services of a friendly team of volunteers.   BQ and I had intended to visit the church on a couple of previous occasions but somehow plans fell through.  But now, its imminent closure for the winter spurred us on to arrange this visit.  


The Garrison Church, or Domus Dei as it was originally known, was founded in about 1212 by the Bishop of Winchester, as part of a complex of buildings serving as a hostel for pilgrims and a hospital for the sick and elderly.  It consisted of an aisled hall (now the ruined nave) and a chapel. 

In 1450, Domus Dei was the site of the infamous murder of the Bishop of Chichester.  He had been sent to Portsmouth as Keeper of the Privy Seal to make reduced payments to the ship-men of Portsmouth on account of their unruly behaviour during church services. Whilst conducting another service, a group of seamen burst in, dragged out the bishop and murdered him.   In retribution, all of the residents of Portsmouth were excommunicated by the Pope. This excommunication was in place for 60 years and was only removed after leading citizens underwent a ritual of penance which involved being beaten by rods. The city also had to agree to erect a cross and a chapel where prayers for the Bishop’s soul should be said every Good Friday.  (This piece of information answers a query raised in an earlier blog).

After the Reformation in 1540, the building was used as an ammunition store, and it started to decay, but in 1559 the great Elizabethan project to build up the defences at Portsmouth began. The medieval hospital became part of the governor’s house, where two significant events in the history of the site took place.  These were the marriage of Charles II to Catherine of Braganza in 1662 and the grand receptions held in June 1814 to celebrate the defeat of Napoleon.  The receptions were attended by the Prince Regent, the Emperor of Russia, the King of Prussia and his general, Field-Marshal Blücher.

In 1826 Government House was demolished and, some time later, a reconstruction of the church interior was commissioned.   Restoration was completed in 1868.


The Portsmouth that we see today has been largely rebuilt following the widespread destruction suffered during World War II.   The huge Naval Base in the heart of the city was a prime target for enemy aircraft and, as a result, the town and the civilian population paid a heavy price.  The nightmare began on 10th January, 1941.   At around 7 pm the German Luftwaffe attacked Portsmouth in a raid that lasted two hours, only to return again a couple of hours later. Nearly 300 raiders dropped a total of 25,000 incendiaries and hundreds of high explosive bombs which damaged the city to an extent no one could have imagined. Not only did 170 people lose their lives, the city also lost six of its churches and its three major shopping centres.   Remarkably, the Royal Garrison Church remained structurally intact although it suffered a direct hit by a firebomb which destroyed the roof of the nave.  It was only due to the heroic efforts of the team of firefighters, who tackled the inferno despite the continuing air attack, that the choir and chancel was saved.    Unfortunately this was just the first of many raids that the city experienced before peace was restored and one has to admire the courage and fortitude of the population that stayed put and kept the city functioning.

The main nave roof was never repaired giving it the distinctive appearance that we see today.  However the two side sections were eventually replaced by the local council in order to protect the ancient wall memorials.

x Nave

All that remains of the nave.

x Choir

During the 19th century restoration, a lavish redecoration and the installation of the organ was carried out thanks to the generosity of many individuals.   The oak stalls were dedicated to the memory of famous men including Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington.

x Altar

The chancel.  Unusually, the silver-gilt church plate is on display on the altar.   This is the first time in all our church visits that we have seen the church plate.  Normally it is kept firmly under lock and key.

x Window 2
One of the more unfortunate casualties of the firebomb attack was the original stained glass windows. Some were subsequently restored, but others were replaced with windows of modern designs such as the one above.  To my eye it seems odd and a little jarring to see military scenes in a church window.  I am not sure if they are unique, perhaps our readers will let me know if they have seen others.

x Volunteers

Our grateful thanks to the team of friendly and knowledgeable volunteers.  They made our visit so much more interesting and enjoyable.  Without volunteers it would not be possible to open the Garrison Church at all.   If you should live in or around Portsmouth and have time to spare, then please do consider joining this happy team.

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

BQ and I have visited the Dockyard many times over the years, firstly with children then, later on with grandchildren and on occasions with visiting friends or relations.   It is an excellent day out.  However, neither of us had been back since the much heralded opening of the Mary Rose Museum a couple of years ago and, as we were so close, this seemed to be a perfect opportunity to see if it lived up to all the hype.

x Warrior

The Mary Rose Museum is quite a distance from the entrance so BQ waited for the golf buggy that was shuttling back and forth while I strolled up looking at some of the famous exhibits. 

Shown above is HMS Warrior, the pride of Queen Victoria’s Fleet.  Powered by both steam and sail, when she was launched in 1860 she was the largest and most powerful warship in the world. Such was her reputation that enemy fleets were intimidated by her obvious supremacy and so she never needed to fire a shot in anger.

In the background is the notorious Spinnaker Tower which was originally to be called the Portsmouth Millennium Tower.  It was conceived in 1995 with an opening date planned for late 1999.  However, due to political, financial, contractual and engineering problems construction didn’t even begin until 2001 and wasn’t completed until 2005, five years late and £11 million over budget.   The backers of the tower had hoped to put its troubles behind it for the grand opening ceremony attended by VIPs.    As they watched, the project manager, accompanied by representatives from the main contractors and lift manufacturer, were supposed to glide to the top in the external glass lift.  It shuddered to a halt 100 ft up and for the next 1 hr 40 minutes, the lift remained obstinately stuck.   

On a happier note the tower in now open to the public, the external glass lift has been removed, the views are spectacular, and for just £80, a couple can enjoy afternoon tea and a bottle of Prosecco in the summit observation room!

x Victory 2

HMS Victory.  Laid down in 1759, Victory was a First Rate, the most powerful type of ship of her day with three gun decks mounting 100 guns.  Victory’s most famous Admiral was Horatio Nelson who flew his flag from her between May 1803 and October 1805 as Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet.  On 21 October 1805, Victory led the British fleet into battle off Cape Trafalgar against the Franco-Spanish force; at 11.48 the most famous signal in the history of the Royal Navy, ‘England Expects That Every Man Will Do His Duty’ flew from her masthead.  Nelson was shot by a French marksman at the height of the battle and later died when victory was assured. Out of a crew of 821, Victory had 57 men killed and 102 wounded demonstrating the serious nature of the fighting.

The Mary Rose


The warship Mary Rose was the flagship of Henry VIII’s fleet.  It was completed in 1512 and remained in service until 19th July 1545 when it capsized in the Solent while leading an attack on the French invasion fleet.  The wreck was rediscovered in 1971 and was raised in 1982 along with 26,000 artefacts plus the remains of about half the crew.  It was one of the most complex projects in the history of maritime archaeology.  Conserving the hull of the Mary Rose was the most expensive and time consuming part of the project and it wasn’t until 2016 that the ship could finally be seen dry – for the first time since 1545.

x Mary Rose

The first impression on entering the museum is just how incredibly dark it was.  This might have been because of the contrast with the bright sunshine outside, but we both found it quite disconcerting particularly because the interior was packed with other visitors. Once we were part of the throng, we moved with the general flow of humanity through air tight double doors, around corners and along corridors until we were finally in the hall that contains the remains of the Mary Rose – albeit just 50% of the original ship.  The other half which hadn’t been protected by being buried in silt had long since rotted away.  To appreciate the size of the ship, look at the people standing in the three viewing levels in the background.  Light is clearly the enemy of the fragile timbers as the wreck remained in near darkness except for a brief period of illumination every 10 minutes or so .  Each time it was bathed in light, it was to the accompaniment of the sound of mass clicking camera shutters – including mine.

Becketts Restaurant

x Becketts

x DeeSituated in one of the few surviving pre-war buildings in this part of the city, Beckett’s Restaurant has a well deserved reputation for good food.  I thoroughly enjoyed my meal although I didn’t much like the glutinous look of BQ’s mac’n cheese. But he cleared his plate then waxed lyrical as he ate the bread and butter pudding.  If it was half as good as my passion fruit tart I can understand why.  As with so many of our past Dine and Divine meals our lunch was made all the more pleasurable by the efficiency and charm of the person serving us.  The elegant Dee definitely epitomised these qualities.


BQ’s Impressions

In 1982 I moved the family from Durham to Southampton, much to their disgust, although my son, then aged eight, was somewhat mollified by the fact that Kevin Keegan had signed to play for the Saints.  My new house was within walking distance of the Dell and he would not have to change the red and white stripes of his beloved Sunderland. Just don’t ask how his team is doing at the moment!   Driving into the car park adjacent to the Garrison Church immediately brought back the mixed feelings that I had at that time.  For, next to the church, was the harbour wall where we stood 36 years ago and watched the fleet set sail for the Falkland conflict.   I told my family that this would be the last time that they would see a battle fleet leave harbour primed for conflict as everyone would surely come to their senses when they realised just how long it would take to reach their destination.  However, I was proved wrong and now we have a replacement for HMS Invincible, although with no planes, proving that there is nothing new in this world.

Conflict is a good place to start in considering the history of the church, as it was fire bombed during the Second World War, although it was left in a better condition than the many churches that were vandalised during the reformation.  Although the nave was left as a shell, it is an attractive shell, the fire bomb left the main structure intact, and indeed the whole early English choir and chancel is in good condition.  The pillars are fine, topped with decorative corbels and the structure is very well maintained.  The chancel is excellently preserved and was warm and welcoming on this sharp first cold morning of the year.  The stalls were very comfortable indeed.  With the excellent volunteer staff it was quite a wrench to have to venture out into the stiff breeze and make our way to Beckett’s for lunch.

On arrival I felt that I had by accident arrived in an 18/30 disco in Ibiza as the music thumped away with very little tune discernible. I asked the waitresses if there was a quieter area and she helpfully signified that there was.  During this dialogue MW was outside photographing the exterior. On his return I proudly announced that I had already negotiated a change of table to which he replied ‘I am quite happy here thank you’. * My meal was a strange mixture of Mac (ugh) cheese and crab although I was hard pressed to locate, both in taste or sight, much of the crab.  Still, with the samphire and sun dried tomatoes it was very tasty.  Everything however, paled into insignificance as the pud arrived, the lightest and most delicate bread and butter pudding I have ever tasted.   Sorry Mum I hope you don’t turn in your grave!

* There was a reason! mw


Our Lunch

  • Crab mac’n cheese, topped with sundried tomatoes and crunchy samphire served with garlic bread  BQ
  • Chilli and lime smashed avocado open sandwich, served with roasted vegetables, cherry tomatoes and frites  MW
  • Becketts bread and butter pudding, layered with white chocolate, apricot jam served with nutmeg and clementine cream  BQ
  • Passion fruit tart, served with lemon curd ice cream  MW
  • Merlot  BQ
  • Chenin Blanc  MW



One thought on “Portsmouth – Royal Garrison Church

  1. A very comprehensive history of not only the Garrison Church but also the Mary Rose museum. I was surprised to read there had been a reception in June 1814 to celebrate the defeat of Napoleon when I believe it was another year before the battle of Waterloo!
    Another good lunch but I am beginning to wonder if you choose your lunch venue for the food or the pretty waiting staff and why was MW reluctant to move to a quieter table?


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