John Milner (bishop)

The Right Reverend
John Milner
Vicar Apostolic of the Midland District
Church Roman Catholic Church
Appointed 6 March 1803
Term ended 19 April 1826
Predecessor Gregory Stapleton
Successor Thomas Walsh
Other posts Titular Bishop of Castabala
Ordination 21 December 1776
Consecration 22 May 1803
by John Douglass
Personal details
Born 14 October 1752
Holborn, London
Died 19 April 1826 (aged 73)
Buried St. Peter and St. Paul's Church, Wolverhampton
Nationality British
Denomination Roman Catholic
Parents Joseph and Helen Miller or Milner

John Milner (1752–1826) was an English Roman Catholic bishop and controversialist who served as the Vicar Apostolic of the Midland District from 1803 to 1826.

Early life

At the age of twelve he was sent to Sedgley Park School, but the following year, on the recommendation of Bishop Richard Challoner, he was sent to the English College at Douai, France, to study for the priesthood. He remained there twelve years. Upon his ordination to the priesthood in 1777 he returned to England and, at first, resided in London, in Gray's Inn, having no permanent appointment, but being what was familiarly called among the Catholic clergy of that time "a jobber", serving as a supply priest when and where required.[1]

Two years later he was sent to Winchester to replace the Catholic missioner, Rev. Mr. Nolan, who had died of a malignant fever while ministering to the hundreds of French Catholic prisoners of war then confined in the city gaol.[2]


Winchester was then one of the few towns in the south of England where a Catholic chapel had been openly supported since the latter part of the 17th century. The saying of Mass there was technically illegal, for the penal laws prohibiting the saying of Mass were not repealed until the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1791 ; but practically there was not much prospect of Catholics being interfered with. The facilities at Winchester, however, were quite inconvenient and insecure, Masses being celebrated either in the priest's house (called "St. Peter's House") or in a kind of shed at the end of the garden behind it. Under Milner's guidance, the decision was taken to build a Catholic chapel in the "light gothic style" at a time when most ecclesiastical architecture in England was neo-classical, and when Catholic chapels rarely aspired to any style at all.[3] In Milner's own words  :-[4]

This measure being resolved upon, instead of the following the modern style of building churches and chapels, which are in general square chambers, with small sash windows and fashionable decorations, hardly to be distinguished, when the altars and benches are removed, from common assembly rooms ; it was concluded upon to imitate the models in this kind, which have been left us by our religious ancestors, who applied themselves with such ardor and unrivalled success to the cultivation and perfection of ecclesiastical architecture. [History of Winchester, P. II. ch. xii]

The chapel, erected behind St Peter's House, out of sight from the road, was dedicated to Our Lady and to Saints Peter, Birinus, and Swithun, and was consecrated by Bishop Douglass, Vicar Apostolic of the London District, on the 6th December, 1792.[5]

Milner remained in Winchester twenty-three years, during which time, apart from building the chapel, he devoted himself to missionary work and established a school. The English convents in France and the Low Countries were breaking up, and the nuns fled for refuge to their own country. Milner established in his mission the Benedictine nuns, formerly of Brussels. The Franciscans from Bruges likewise settled at Winchester.

During succeeding years, Milner began to make his name as a writer and controversialist. The Cisalpine movement among the Catholic laity was beginning, the moving spirit being Charles Butler, nephew of Alban Butler, a lawyer of eminence and reputation, and the lifelong opponent of Milner. The movement also affected some of the clergy, Joseph Berington being the most notable example. Milner directed all his endeavors to combating this movement.

Towards Catholic Emancipation

Pitt as Prime Minister promised to introduce a bill of Catholic relief; but when it was drafted, it was contained an oath which all Catholics were to be called upon to take, based on the "protestation", but in stronger language, and containing doctrine to which no good Catholic could set his name; while the Catholics throughout were called "Protesting Catholic Dissenters". The four vicars Apostolic met at Hammersmith, in October, 1789, Milner attending as theological adviser. They unanimously condemned the oath and the new appellation.

The committee now suggested some modification of the oath; but it was not sufficient to free it from objection, and three out of the four vicars Apostolic joined in condemning it a second time. When the Relief Bill was brought forward in February, 1791, the bishops called Milner to their assistance. By means of his action an impression was made on the Government and the oath was further modified; but the situation was really changed after his return to Winchester, when the House of Lords, at the instigation of the Protestant Bishop of St. David's, substituted a totally different oath for the one objected to; and in this form the Bill was passed. It abolished the penal laws properly so-called and legalized the celebration of Mass; but Catholics continued liable to numerous disabilities for many years afterwards.

After this the Catholic Committee dissolved; but the chief members re-formed themselves into an association to which they gave the name of the Cisalpine Club and which lasted for many years. Milner continued to write and speak in opposition to them.

Appointment as Vicar Apostolic and First Controversies

The clergy who were supporters of the Cisalpine spirit were chiefly in the Midland District, one group who had acted together being known as the Staffordshire Clergy. It was this very district over which Milner was called to rule in 1803, when he was consecrated titular Bishop of Castabala, and appointed Vicar Apostolic of the Midland District. His coat of arms was blazoned 'Argent a chevron Gules between in chief an Alpha Chi-Rho Omega and in base a fish naiant Sable'.

The resulting state of tension between clergy was of short duration. Milner, however, was not satisfied with his position in the Midlands. He had formed an alliance with the Irish bishops, and with their co-operation, a determined attempt was made to have him transferred to London as coadjutor with right of succession. This scheme was opposed by Bishop John Douglass, and ultimately defeated, though the pope consented that Milner should become parliamentary agent to the Irish bishops in their struggle to procure Catholic emancipation, and that for this purpose he should be permitted to go to London as often as necessary. This disagreement with his colleagues led to further results. Milner found fault with the manner in which the London District was governed, and was not afraid to say so publicly, in numerous pamphlets and other publications, and even in his pastorals. The subjects of contention were several; but two especially may be mentioned. One was the " question of the Royal veto of the appointment of bishops, which first came into prominence in the year 1808. By this it was intended to concede to the Crown a negative voice in the election of Catholic bishops, by conferring a right to veto any candidate whose loyalty was open to question. The chief Irish bishops had agreed to the measure in 1799; but since then, owing to the postponement of emancipation, the scheme had dropped. Milner revived it, and was for a time the warm advocate of the veto. He found himself in opposition to most of the Irish bishops.

He visited Ireland, and afterwards wrote his Letter to a Parish Priest (who was really an Irish bishop) in defence of his position. The Irish bishops, however, condemned the Veto in 1808. A year later Milner was converted to their way of thinking, and became as vigorous in opposition to it as he had been before in its favour.

About this time the English Catholics, in presenting a petition to Parliament, embodied what was known as their "Fifth Resolution", offering a "grateful concurrence" to a Bill which would give them emancipation, accompanied by any "arrangements" for the safe-guarding of the Established Church which should not be inconsistent with their religion. Milner declared — contrary to the assertions of the framers of the Resolution — that the "arrangements" intended, included the Veto, and he denounced those who signed the petition, including all the other vicars apostolic of England. In this he received the support of the Irish bishops. Another source of criticism was the want of vigour which he alleged against the Vicar of the London District in combating the Blanchardist schism among the French emigrant clergy, especially the restoration of one of them, Abbé de Trevaux, to spiritual faculties without a public retraction. In this matter also he was supported by the Irish bishops.

The Quarantotti Rescript

A crisis occurred in 1813, William Poynter being then Vicar Apostolic of the London District. A Bill for the full emancipation of Catholics was introduced into the House of Commons by Grattan; but Lord Castlereagh and George Canning introduced amending clauses giving the Crown a veto on the appointment of bishops, to be exercised only on the recommendation of a committee consisting chiefly of Catholic Peers. Milner and the Irish bishops maintained that no Catholic could assent to this without incurring schism. The other vicars apostolic did not go so far as this, though they opposed the clauses. The leading members of the Catholic Board, consisting chiefly of laymen, were in favour of accepting them as the necessary price to pay for emancipation. Milner, however, used all his influence to procure the rejection of the Bill. He printed a Brief Memorial in this sense, and distributed it among members of Parliament. The Bill passed its second reading, but in committee the clause admitting Catholics to Parliament was defeated by a small majority of four votes, and the Bill was abandoned. Milner took to himself the credit of having been the cause of its defeat, and the laymen were so angry with him that, to their permanent disgrace, they publicly expelled him from the committee of the Catholic Board. In the meantime Dr. Poynter appealed to Rome for guidance in the expected event of the re-introduction of the Bill. The pope was at that time a prisoner of Bonaparte, and the Cardinals were dispersed. In their absence Cardinal Giovanni Battista Quarantotti, Secretary of Propaganda Fide, using the powers with which he had been provisionally invested, issued a Rescript, dated February, 1814, approving of the Bill as it stood. Milner did not fail to see the serious results which would follow from this and decided immediately to appeal to the pope, who having been liberated from captivity, was on his way back to Rome. His journey was so far successful that the Quarantotti Rescript was recalled, and the pope ordered the whole matter to be examined afresh. In the end a decision was promulgated in the shape of a letter from Cardinal Litta, Prefect of Propaganda, to Dr. Poynter, who had also come to Rome. The provisions of the late Bill were condemned; but on the general question of the veto, apart from the Lay Committees, the decision was against Milner; subject to certain safeguards, Catholics were empowered to concede a veto to the Crown, provided this negative power was so limited as not to be allowed to grow into a positive nomination. This led to further agitation in Ireland, and another deputation was sent to Rome; but the English Catholics, including Milner himself, accepted the decision without question. The English vicars apostolic were, however, naturally opposed to the veto, and in the event it never became necessary to utilize the permission granted.

Last Years

On his return from Rome, Milner continued to write controversially, the new Orthodox Journal being a frequent medium for his communications. His language was as harsh as ever, and unbecoming in a bishop, until at length an appeal was made to Rome, and Cardinal Fontana, who was then Prefect of Propaganda, forbade him to write in it anymore. During the last years of his life Milner withdrew to a great extent from public politics. He ceased to act on behalf of the Irish bishops, and though he did not hold any intercourse with the other vicars Apostolic, he ceased to write against them. He devoted himself to literary work. In 1818 his End of Controversy, perhaps the best known of all his books, at length appeared, and it was followed by a war of pamphlets and replies which went on for several years. Feeling his health failing, he applied for a coadjutor, and Rev. Thomas Walsh, President of Oscott College, was appointed. He was consecrated in 1825 when all the bishops of England met, and a reconciliation was effected. Milner survived less than a year, his death taking place at his house at Wolverhampton on 19 April 1826.


His History of Winchester appeared in 1798. It led to a controversy with Dr. Sturges, a prebendary of the cathedral, which brought forth two of Milner's best-known works, Letters to a Prebendary and The End of Religious Controversy. In deference to the wishes of his bishop, however, the last-named work was withheld for the sake of peace, and it did not see the light until nearly twenty years later.

His controversial writings were numerous and powerful, but they had the defect of unceasing asperity of language, so that he continued to embitter the strife.

His chief works are:

For a complete list, see Husenbeth, infra, 572.


There are many portraits of Milner: (1) sketch, age about 25; (2) miniature, as a bishop about 1803; (3) miniature by Kernan (1808 — considered the best likeness); (4) painting by Barber, drawing master at Oscott, 1817; (5) painting by Herbert, R.A. — said to be the most like, but it is in Gothic vestments and mitre, having been painted long after Milner's death. (These are all at Oscott.) (6) Painting of Milner as a priest, age about 45, at the convent, east Bergholt. (7) Painting at the presbytery, Norwich, very similat to (5). (8) Engraving in "Laity's Directory", 1827, from a painting by Radcliffe (Orth. Jour., I, 173). (9) Bust, by Clark, sen. of Birmingham: many copies to be met with. (1), (2), and (6) reproduced in the "Dawn of the Catholic Revival"; (8) in Miss Harting's "Catholic London Mission"; (4) in "Catholic London a Century ago"; (5) in the penny "Life of Milner," by Rev. E. Burton (Catholic Truth Society).

See also


  1. Husenbeth, p. 9
  2. Husenbeth, pp. 9f.
  3. Patten, p. 1
  4. Husenbeth, p. 44
  5. Husenbeth, p. 45 ; cf. Patten, p. 1


Dawn of the Catholic Revival (London, 1909)

External links

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "article name needed". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton. 

Catholic Church titles
Preceded by
Gregory Stapleton
Vicar Apostolic of the Midland District
Succeeded by
Thomas Walsh
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