A church that gave refuge to medieval pilgrims and spiritual courage to generations of sailors and soldiers embarking on active service will reopen next month following a major restoration.
The Royal Garrison Church at Portsmouth is a part of the histories of countless families in Britain and worldwide due to its long association with the Armed Forces. It also has connections to a momentous royal marriage, a mysterious murder and the novelist Jane Austen. For decades, however, visitors have been unable to experience its original layout as seen by 13th-century monks and Nelson’s Jack Tars.
The overhaul removes a 1960s partition of concrete and glass that obstructed the visual connection between the chancel and the nave, which is roofless due to Second World War bombing. A new wholly glazed partition reinstates the original lines of sight through the building, while the interiors, masonry and furnishings have all undergone conservation.
Curators hope the improvements will bring many more visitors to the church which has been referred to as Britain’s “military cathedral”. Samantha Stones, Senior Properties Curator (South) at English Heritage, the building’s custodian, said: “As an early 13th-century building of this quality and completeness, it is immediately of national importance. But there are also its connections to the growth of Portsmouth and the growth of the nation’s military capacity — and to all the people who came to the church then went off to all the corners of the Earth. It’s a fantastically interesting monument that deserves to be much better known.”
The church was built in about 1212 as the primary structure of the Domus Dei, or God’s House — a hostel for pilgrims and hospital for the sick and elderly. Its guests would have included foreign pilgrims en route to Canterbury and English pilgrims travelling to Santiago de Compostela, Rome and Jerusalem. The area that would later become the nave contained bays for beds, while the chancel was a chapel.
In 1450, Adam Moleyns, Bishop of Chichester, is said to have been dragged from the Domus Dei before he was murdered nearby. It remains unclear whether the churchman and royal administrator was killed by soldiers and sailors in a row over pay or assassinated on the orders of political enemies such as Richard, Duke of York. In any case, the inhabitants of Portsmouth paid the price as they were excommunicated, with the sentence only lifted in 1508.
The Domus Dei complex fell into neglect following the Reformation and was used as an armoury for a time before the main building was incorporated into the governor of Portsmouth’s new residence as a chapel in the 1580s. By then, Portsmouth was recognised as an important strategic centre. It was in the “Presence Chamber” of the Governor’s House that King Charles II married his Portuguese bride Catherine of Braganza in 1662 — a pivotal moment in the history of the British empire, given Catherine’s dowry, which included Bombay.
The governor’s residence was later the setting for a very regal, if premature, reception to celebrate the defeat of Napoleon in 1814. Among the guests were the Prince Regent, the Emperor of Russia, the King of Prussia, the Duke of Wellington and Prussian Field-Marshal Blücher. In 1826, the mansion was demolished, leaving only the old Domus Dei chapel, which had acquired the status of garrison church to the forces.
As a fixture of local military life, the church was familiar in the early 19th century to Jane Austen whose brothers Francis and Charles were naval officers. In her book Mansfield Park, the church is attended by the family of Mr Price, a former lieutenant of Marines. The roguish Henry Crawford contrives to secure an invitation to join Mr Price’s daughter, Fanny, the book’s heroine, and her relatives for worship there one Sunday. Austen writes: “In chapel they were obliged to divide, but Mr Crawford took care not to be divided from the female branch; and after chapel he still continued with them, and made one in the family party on the ramparts.”
The church was renovated by the Gothic Revival architect GE Street in the 1860s-70s. A newspaper report of the time stated that, given the burials of so many soldiers and sailors in and around the building, it served as “a national monument to the memory of gallant men who have done bravely for their country”. A book of 1880 described the churchyard pithily as a spot “literally crammed with the dust of heroes”.
Among those interred there are General Sir Charles Napier (1782-1853), who served in the Peninsular War and later led the British conquest of Sindh.
The church itself came into the firing line during the Second World War when Portsmouth was heavily targeted by German bombers. The nave was badly damaged during a massive air raid on the night of January 10/11, 1941, that killed 171 of the city’s residents.
A screen consisting of a thin reinforced concrete lower section with glass above was later erected to enclose the chancel. This not only disrupted the visual flow of the two adjacent spaces but was unsustainable as the steel reinforcement began to corrode. To replace it, English Heritage worked with architects and engineers to design the new glass partition, which has a discreet bronze frame, to reunite the spaces.
Stones said: “It’s incredible to be able to stand in the nave and look through into the chancel. We wanted to design something simple but of great architectural value to complement its surroundings. You’re meant to be looking at the church, not the screen, although it’s beautiful in its simplicity. It has increased the light levels and there are thermal gains too. There was a technical challenge because the collection in the chancel — which includes regimental colours — needs to be kept in almost museum-like conditions. So designing glass so that would protect the collection while doing all the other things we wanted was was really challenging. And we managed it.”
Another impact is that visitors will be able to see — through the glass partition — scorching to the ends of some of the pews in the chancel. The damage resulted from the bombing and was not easily visible before the replacement of the partition.
Among various other upgrades, conservators have restored the Victorian organ and the church’s interiors have been repainted. As for the colour scheme, Stones explained: “We wanted to respect both the medieval and the Victorian schemes. So we’ve gone for a seemingly boring off-white. Before it was a typical 1980s off-pink or peachy colour. It has made a huge improvement in terms of the light and the feeling of airiness of the space and it’s much more historically accurate for both the medieval and Victorian periods.”
English Heritage has also installed new interpretation panels to chart the church’s history and help place it in its wider context. At the same time, old information boards have been removed so the space is less cluttered overall. And the project has improved accessibility by incorporating permanent ramped access to the chancel.
The nature of the bomb damage means is is not viable to re-roof the nave, which stands open to the sky as a memorial to all servicemen and servicewomen who gave their lives for their country.
The church, which remains consecrated, will reopen on April 1 and entry is free.