Petite Portsmouth is one of the later recruits to the fold of English Anglican Cathedrals. Cobbled together over the centuries, we have a building that grew from east to west, in the reverse direction to the construction of most of its brethren.

The weather vane on the top of its lantern tower hints at the town’s naval origins.

Indeed, the tower has served as a landmark for sailors for centuries.

The original cruciform building was a parish church dedicated in 1188 to Thomas à  Becket, murdered in Canterbury Cathedral a decade earlier.

A French raid in 1337 destroyed most of the town of Portsmouth during the Hundred Years War.

And the English weren’t any more kind to the church three centuries later—during the Civil War, the Royalists used the church tower as a lookout, and the Parliamentarians fired on it, pretty much destroying the building between the two warring sides. Of the original structure, only the chancel and transepts remain.

Charles II, safely back on the throne after the Restoration in 1660, undertook a campaign to repair churches across the country. Portsmouth’s choir was rebuilt in the classical style. The lantern and cupola for the restored tower popped up in 1703. Twenty years later, galleries were added to accommodate the growing congregation and extended in 1750.

A very helpful guide directed our attention to the colourfully painted model of the church, made to assist in explaining the church’s construction stages to parcels of schoolchildren. It is equally informative for grownups! I wanted to take it home and play with it myself.

The yellow portion is the original 12th-century church, with its typically stubby, square Norman tower.

The red section was added following the Restoration in the 17th century—the choir and repaired tower with the lantern-topped tower.

That brings us to the green bit—the addition to the nave envisioned by none other than Charles Nicholson of Sheffield Cathedral fame, and for the same reason: to bring Portsmouth up to snuff for its newly acquired Cathedral status in 1927.

But – best-laid plans and all that—what is reflected in the green blocks is a watered-down version of an originally grandiose design, which was of dubious relation to the original church. To be fair, Nicholson ultimately faced the same stop-start-stop process occasioned by World War II that the Sheffield Cathedral project endured. And with much the same result.

Nicholson chose a round-arched “Neo-Byzantine” style that vaguely echoed the classical style of the late 17th-century choir.

By 1939 the outer choir aisles, the tower, the transepts and three bays of the nave had been completed.

The base of the 17th-century tower had been opened up to form the tower arch.

But WWII intervened. By June 1940, work on the extension scheme had ground to a halt. The bays of the nave were blocked off with a “temporary” brick wall to remain for more than fifty years.

The Cathedral got off lightly during the remainder of the War and suffered only minor damage to the windows.


Nicholson died in 1940, and insufficient funds scuppered any further work. Plans of varying degrees of ambition were submitted in the 1960s but came to nought. The longer the building was used in its truncated state, the more “temporary” became “permanent”. Finally, by the mid-1980s, push came to shove – literally. The “temporary” brick wall was found to be in danger of collapse—no surprise there.

Now – how to finish Nicholson’s truncated nave? The 1930s plan called for a long nave in the traditional style of an English cathedral. But times were a-changing, and it was doubtful that so much space was now required.

So a decision was taken to terminate the nave very near where the temporary wall had been placed. The Cathedral was going to remain very close to its present form.

About £3 million was needed. In January 1990, a fourth bay of the nave, western towers, tower rooms, rose window, gallery and ambulatory were added to the structure. Funds also covered a new stone font. It looks like they visited the same font warehouse that supplied Coventry. At least this one is stone, though it strongly resembles a goldfish pond.

Coventry’s looks like a wooden garden planter.

We leave the Cathedral and look at the newly finished west end. As Simon Jenkins puts it in England’s Cathedrals, it looks like a Roman gatehouse from this angle.

The bronze West Doors, designed by Brian Keale, are based on the tree of life.

Stepping back, it could easily be mistaken for a community centre.

Though the building can be summed up as a hodgepodge of ill-fitting designs striving to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, the people who guided us through the building could not have been more friendly. They went out of their way to volunteer information and answer questions.

Portsmouth is a very pretty seaside town, and the day ended happily.