Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:31 am
My mother would love to walk from Point along Old Portsmouth’s walls, past the Sally Port, Square Tower and above Battery Row. There was the Regency Grand Parade, scene of many ceremonial occasions in days gone by. There was the statue of Nelson, who boarded HMS Victory nearby before the Battle of Trafalgar. And below the ramparts, on Governor’s Green, was the Royal Garrison Church, its nave naked and roofless. “It was bombed,” mum would say. “I remember the night well.” As a child, this building, open to the skies, held a morbid fascination for me; yet many years passed before I went back and paid a visit.
Portsmouth’s Royal Garrison Church is in fact the only visible remains of a medieval hospital complex known as Domus Dei, God’s House, founded in around 1212 by the Crusader Bishop of Winchester, Peter des Roches (aka Peter de Rupibus). As well as giving some shelter to the elderly and sick, the purpose of Domus Dei was to provide hostel accommodation for visiting overseas pilgrims, landing in the port en route to shrines at Canterbury, Chichester, Winchester, or elsewhere.
The relatively recently ruined nave was an aisled hall adjoining the hospital chapel – now the chancel of the church. Beds were situated on either side of the hall. It seems that the fortunes of Domus Dei mirrored those of the growing port. But misfortune struck in 1450 when the visiting Bishop of Chichester and former Lord Privy Seal, Adam Moleyns, was dragged out of Domus Dei and lynched on the nearby beach. According to a contemporary English Chronicle, the Bishop had been sent to Portsmouth by King Henry VI to pay certain soldiers and sailors and, as the remuneration fell far short of expectations, they cruelly killed him (with boisterous language). However, it may not be that simple. Moleyns was associated with the Duke of Suffolk, the man largely blamed for the loss of English lands in France, including nearby Normandy; it is possible that the hapless bishop was either done away with by some who had suffered financially because of those territorial losses, or by friends of Suffolk’s chief critic, the Duke of York. In any event, as a consequence of the murder, the entire town of Portsmouth was excommunicated, and remained so for almost 60 years. Hence this episode was not only unfortunate for the bishop, but also for the socio-economic well-being of Portsmouth. The penalty was finally lifted in 1508, when the townsfolk undertook a thorough and demanding penance both at Domus Dei, and at Portsmouth’s parish church, St Thomas’s – now the cathedral.
The hospital survived until the Reformation, when religious houses were dissolved by order of Henry VIII. For a short time thereafter, Domus Dei was used as an armoury and then, in 1585, the buildings on the south side were demolished to make way for an adjoining residence for the Governor of Portsmouth, with the chapel becoming the chapel for the new Governor’s House.
On 14 May 1662, a princess came to stay at the Governor’s House. Catherine of Braganza, the third daughter of the Duke of Braganza (later King John IV of Portugal) and Luisa de Guzman, was to be Queen Consort of England, Scotland and Ireland. Her future husband, King Charles II, might have been asked, “So, apart from a dowry that included Tangier, Portuguese colonies in Bombay, extensive trading privileges in Portugal and a few other places, plus a huge pot of much-needed cash, what finally persuaded you to marry Catherine?” Catherine was not considered particularly beautiful but Charles, who famously had an eye for the ladies, travelled to Portsmouth to meet Catherine on 20 May and commented that there was nothing in her face to shock; on the contrary, there was much agreeableness about her looks, she had excellent eyes and he thought himself very happy.
With that ringing endorsement, the couple were married the very next day in (apparently) a Catholic ceremony at the Governor’s House. It is said that the wedding could not take place in the parish church of St Thomas’s, because it had been used as an observation post by Royalist forces in 1642, during the Civil War, and was still badly damaged by the consequent Parliamentary bombardment from neighbouring Gosport, which wrecked the tower and much of the nave.
Legend has it that Catherine introduced tea, a popular beverage at home in Portugal, to Britain. The story goes that her voyage had been fairly rough and, on arrival at the Sally Port, she was offered a glass of refreshing English beer. Surprisingly, this was not to her taste and she sent to her ship for some tea, a copious stock of which had been thoughtfully included with her luggage. That may or may not be true, but tea had been known in Britain since the 1650s, though it was hideously expensive and not widely drunk. Catherine, as Queen Consort, nevertheless helped to popularise it. Frankly, the poor woman probably needed more than a satisfying cuppa to cope with often vicious anti-Catholic feelings in Britain at the time, the king’s plentiful paramours and being blamed for not producing a legitimate heir.
Royalty graced the Governor’s House again: the future King James II, as Duke of York, Queen Anne and King George III with Queen Charlotte all visited. But possibly the most glittering event took place between 22 and 25 June 1814, when a series of grand receptions were held at the house, as well as offshore, to celebrate Napoleon’s exile to Elba. As history shows, the party was a little premature. However, this oft-called ‘Meeting of the Sovereigns’ included the Prince Regent (the future King George IV), King Frederick William III of Prussia, Alexander I, Tsar of Russia, together with innumerable other A-list celebrities of the day – members of royalty, as well as military and civic leaders, including Field-Marshal Blücher, Count Platoff, Hetman of the Cossacks and Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington. It is astonishing, to think of all these people congregating in this place. I was also struck, reading an account of the Meeting of the Sovereigns, by what an enormous affair it was, how much went into it – and by how long the various royal personages stayed. This was no quick glass of sherry and a couple of casual handwaves. And on the balcony of the Governor’s House, the guests drank a toast to the prosperity of the British people; isn’t that wonderful!
Sadly, the Governor’s House was demolished in 1826. At some point, certainly by the mid-19th century, the remaining chapel and hall became the church for the Portsmouth garrison. By this time, Portsmouth was one of the most heavily fortified towns in the world. However, the church became dilapidated and, in 1865, a refurbishment and repair programme began, which resulted in an elegant neo-medieval building.
Seventy-five years later, the Luftwaffe crews that flew over Portsmouth on 10 January 1941 added their own chapter to the 750-year old story of the Royal Garrison Church, and to the wider history of the town. Probably, this did not occur to them at the time; most likely, they were more concerned with doing their worst and getting back home as quickly as possible. Portsmouth’s naval facilities made it a primary target, so this was not the first air-raid its residents had experienced, and would not be the last: but it was one of the worst, killing 171 people, injuring 430 and making some 3,000 homeless. The raid began in the evening, at around 7pm, and one of the first casualties was the electricity supply, followed not long afterwards by the water mains. So, fire and rescue was difficult. The attack continued until about 9pm, when there was a respite before a second wave of bombers came over in the early hours, dropping high explosives into the middle of the hundreds of fires started by incendiary bombs delivered earlier. The Royal Garrison Church and nearby High Street was just one of many buildings and areas badly hit that night, including the Guildhall, commercial district, hospitals, shops, several other churches and of course people’s homes. The FA Cup, won by Pompey in 1939, was later dug out of the rubble of the bank that had been keeping the trophy safe for the duration. Eighty men, women and children died when one shelter received a direct hit. Round the corner from the Garrison Church is a plaque commemorating the 14 individuals killed when 101 High Street was hit. It was the night my grandmother’s house was rendered uninhabitable, forcing the family to leave the city. And my Royal Artillery father, having unofficially extended an evening pass to the Ritz cinema in Gosport by impulsively visiting his wife, my mother, in Portsmouth, found himself stranded; and posted as missing because the Ritz had suffered a direct hit too.
With the benefit of maturity and hindsight, I can barely comprehend the memories my mother would have had whenever she passed the Royal Garrison Church. It must have been a symbol of the destruction that was part of my parents’ generation’s lives. The nave was gutted, but the chancel was saved by the verger, Mr Heaton, assisted by soldiers and airmen stationed nearby. It is hard to imagine the intense heat they must had had to combat. Scorch marks are still visible on the beautifully carved Victorian choir stalls – and all the chancel windows were lost.
Now, the chancel is separated from the vacant nave by a wall. Inside, it is vibrant and busy, with military banners, colourful stained glass and brightly patterned tiles. I wasn’t expecting anything so grand, or interesting. The church is still in use, mainly by organisations with service associations, and there are photographs and memorials everywhere, including in the nave. In fact, there are hundreds of memorials associated with the church, some no longer there having been damaged in 1941, or removed for safe-keeping. The oak choir stalls have dedications to soldiers and sailors, including Wellington and Nelson. Outside the church is a simple memorial to the people of Portsmouth during World War Two, and an effigy of General Sir Charles Napier, who died near Portsmouth in 1853 (though the gentleman’s mortal remains lie elsewhere in the church environs). My North American reader may be interested to hear that one of the memorial plaques in the church recalls John Mason, one-time Captain of Southsea Castle and founder of New Hampshire in 1629, who lived in Portsmouth and who died in 1635. (Interestingly, Mason owned the house on High Street where the Duke of Buckingham was famously murdered in 1628 – just thought I’d mention that. Buckingham House, as it is now, is still there.) Actually, when you think about it, many hundreds of people have been commemorated at Domus Dei, the royal Garrison Church, over the centuries and their relics must lie all around under your feet.
The original chancel windows having been destroyed, they have been gradually replaced since 1959 and are exceptionally beautiful and interesting. As well as those with religious imagery, there are special windows dedicated to the 8th Army and the Gunners, the Royal Artillery. The Sovereigns’ Window depicts visits made to Portsmouth and the church by British monarchs. The Army Window (shown) depicts a bowman and ships from the Hundred Year War with France, a soldier of the 1939-45 war and the D-Day invasion fleet (part of which sailed from Portsmouth) and, finally a soldier of the Stuart period with the arms of Charles II. The Church Window (shown) highlights elements of the church’s history, including its foundation and the night of its near-destruction in 1941.