1558-1850: Persecution and Emancipation

From the late 1580s a series of harsh anti-Catholic laws were passed in England to ensure the supremacy of the Church of England. For the next two centuries, Catholics in England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales would be persecuted, arrested, and executed for treason for the crime of holding to the Catholic Faith and obedience to the Pope in Rome.

In England, the systematic persecution of Catholics led to the martyrdom of many hundreds of faithful Catholics, both male and female and belonging to every social class. Our own diocese has several Canonised and Beatified martyrs from this time.

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1850 - 1882: The Diocese of Southwark

The repeal of the Penal laws in the 19th Century and led to the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy by Pope Pius IX in his 1850 Bull ‘Universalis Ecclesiae’. Instead of reinstating the ancient Dioceses of England (which was still illegal in England) Pius IX created thirteen new Dioceses from the eight Apostolic Vicariates which had existed before.

​The area covered by our Diocese was originally part of the London District, and was assigned to the new Diocese of Southwark. The First Bishop of Southwark was Thomas Grant.

​The Pope’s actions were highly controversial in England, and was described by the Prime Minister, John Russell, as an act of “Papal Aggression.” A new law was passed in 1851 banning Catholic Bishops from claiming any territorial jurisdiction. This law was obeyed by the Bishops but ignored by ordinary Catholics. Nobody was ever prosecuted and the law was repealed in 1871.

There were numerous publications against the Catholic Church at this time, and on Guy Fawkes Night there were incidents of Church windows being smashed, and Cardinal Wiseman was burned in effigy alongside effigies of the Pope and the other twelve new Bishops.

1880: A New Diocese in Need of A Home

It soon became apparent that the Diocese of Southwark, stretching from London to Bournemouth and encompassing the Channel Islands and the South of Oxfordshire, was too large for just one Bishop. A decision was made to create a new diocese from the Western half of Southwark. This diocese would be made up of Hampshire, South Oxfordshire, Berkshire, and the Channel Islands.

The new Diocese was almost coterminous with the ancient (now Anglican) Diocese of Winchester. Since the law forbade another Diocese of Winchester from being founded, it seems that the original intention was to place the new Cathedral in Southampton. The Church of St Joseph, on Southampton’s Bugle Street (pictured) was designated as the Pro Cathedral. It was, however, made too difficult to find a suitable plot of land for the new Cathedral in Southampton. The decision was made to found the Diocese in Portsmouth, where a large new Church was being built.

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1882: The Diocese of Portsmouth

The Catholic Community in Portsmouth had existed for some time before the re-establishment of the hierarchy. The first Parish priest (Dr John Cahill, who would later become Bishop of Portsmouth) was appointed in 1791 and the first Parish Church was built on Prince George Street in Portsea in 1794. With a capacity of 300, the community quickly outgrew the first Chapel and a new Church needed to be built. In 1877 Parish Priest, Fr John Horan, raised £9,000 (with a generous £4,000 donation from the Duke of Norfolk) to begin building a new Church in Portsmouth in the Gothic Revival style. Owing to the difficulties in finding a suitable site for the Cathedral in Southampton, it was decided that Fr Horan’s new Church would be the diocesan Cathedral.

On 19 May 1882, Pope Leo XIII created the Diocese of Portsmouth by Papal Brief and named John Vertue as the first Bishop. The Cathedral was opened and consecrated in 1887 and completed in 1906 (with further additions into the 20th Century.

Previous Bishops of Portsmouth

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Bishop John Vertue

1882 - 1900

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Bishop John Baptist Cahill

1900 - 1910

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Bishop William Cotter

1910 - 1940

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Archbishop John Henry King

1941 -1965

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Bishop Derek Worlock

1965 - 1976

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Bishop Anthony Joseph Emery

1976 - 1988

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Bishop Crispian Hollis

1988 - 2012