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History Hot Spots: The Royal Garrison Church, Portsmouth

Words by Victoria Doxat

Garrisons Church

On the night of January 10th 1941, a bombing raid completely destroyed the nave of The Royal Garrison Church, fortunately, the quick actions of the verger with the help of the sailors and airmen who were stationed nearby managed to save the chancel. The nave and the rest of the church remain without a roof as a memorial to the air raid and has since become one of Portsmouth’s most significant landmarks. 

The most important event in the life of the Church (apart from the firebombing) was the wedding of King Charles II who married Catherine of Braganza in 1662. 

The Church also witnessed various grand receptions held there in 1814 to celebrate the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Leipzig. These events were attended by such notables as the Prince Regent, the Emperor of Russia and the King of Prussia.

The Royal Garrison Church was first built by the Bishop of Winchester in 1212 and was originally used as a hospital and a hostel for pilgrims. At this time the Church was known as ‘Domus Dei’ (God’s House) and it is thought that as with other medieval hospitals, the beds for the patients were placed in bays in the aisles so that patients were within sight of the chapel.

After the Reformation, in 1540, the hospital was handed over to the crown and it became a munitions store, ending over 300 years of service to the poor and sick of Portsmouth. 

In 1559 Elizabeth I commenced her plans to improve the defences of Portsmouth, and the church changed use again with new buildings added including Government House, providing part of the residence for the Governor of Portsmouth. More recently, Governors Green, next to the church became the subject Tony Robinson’s Channel 4 Time Team programme in 2009. Limited to just 3 days of digging, (the programme’s usual format), the team were able to compare any surviving remains of the hospital and other buildings to existing maps of the area. 

In the 19th century, the church was restored and refurbished by the Victorian architect GE Street. As part of an ambitious ten-year programme, he built a new south porch and vestry, installed new flooring and added specially designed furnishings. The money for this huge restoration project came from the Navy, Army and the public, the work finally being completed in 1868.

The Royal Garrison Church is an impressive building, and its lack of a roof adds to its beauty. It is well worth a visit if you haven’t been to see it already. In addition to the marvel of the missing roof, the church also boasts beautiful stained glass windows, depicting scenes from the Second World War and the oak stalls have been dedicated as memorials to the nation’s most famous sailors, including Nelson and the Duke of Wellington.

Victoria is a writer and lecturer and has lived in and around Portsmouth her whole life. You can read her entertaining blog Jelly Nightmares at


Posted in: Articles, History & Architecture