Born in London, 14 October, 1752: died at Wolverhampton, 19 April, 1826.
At the age of twelve he went to Sedgley Park School, but the following year he was sent by the venerable Bishop Challoner to the English College at Douai, France, to study for the priesthood. He remained twelve years, but he does not seem to have distinguished himself in any special manner there.
On his ordination in 1777 he returned to England. Two years later he was sent to Winchester to assist the French prisoners in that city, among whom a fever had broken out; and when the pastor, Rev. Mr. Nolan, fell a victim to the fever, Milner was permanently appointed in his place. Winchester was then one of the few towns in the south of England where a Catholic chapel was openly supported. Its existence was indeed illegal, for the penal laws were still in full force; but practically there was not much prospect of its being interfered with. Milner remained there twenty-three years, during which time he devoted himself to missionary work, rebuilt the chapel, and established a school. The Catholic religion in England was at the time going through a double crisis, partly by the action of its own members, and partly by the influence from without, due to the French Revolution . Some thousands of French priests took refuge in England, and were supported by the Government. Some 700 were lodged in the old unfinished king's house outside Winchester, where they formed themselves into a large religious community. Milner, who was brought into daily contact with them, spoke in high terms of the extraordinary edification of their daily lives. The same events on the Continent led to the breaking up of the English convents in France and the Low Countries, and the nuns fled for refuge to their own country, where they arrived penniless and helpless. A great effort was made to assist them. Milner took his share in the movement by establishing in his mission the Benedectine nuns, formerly of Brussels, with whom he ever afterwards maintained cordial relations. The Franciscans from Bruges likewise settled at Winchester.
During succeeding years, Milner began to make his name as a writer and controversialist. His "History of Winchester" appeared in 1798, and showed remarkable power and learning. 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. It was during his residence at Winchester that Milner was first brought into contact with the public affairs of Catholics, which formed the other aspect of the crisis in that body. The Cisalpine or antipapal movement among the 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, the well-known writer, Rev. Joseph Berington, being the most notable example. Milner, who had a keen sense of orthodoxy and loyalty to the Holy See, directed all his endeavors to combating this movement. His writings were numerous and powerful, but they had the defect of unceasing asperity of language, so that he continued to embitter the strife. The committee of Catholic laymen, elected first in 1782, and reelected five years later, were the centre of such opinions, and towards the end three ecclesiastics were added, two of whom ( James Talbot and Charles Berington ) were bishops. The object of the committee was to help to bring about Catholic emancipation. With this end in view, in 1789 they issued a "Protestation", disclaiming some of the more objectionable doctrines with which they were popularly credited, including the deposing power and papal infallibility. Despite the Cisalpine tone of the document, it was signed by nearly 1500 Catholics including all the vicars Apostolic, though the signatures of two were afterwards withdrawn. Pitt who was then Prime Minister promised to introduce a bill of Catholic relief; but when it was drafted, it was found to contain 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 by the absurd title of "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 appelation. During the following year the Bishops of the Northern and London Districts died. A great effort was made by the committee to secure the transference of Bishop Charles Berington to the London District. This would have been a triumph for the Cisalpines; but fortunately it did not succeed. Rome, being warned, appointed Dr. Douglass, a Yorkshireman, who had been outside the late disputes.
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 vigorous action an impression was made on the Government and the oath was further modified; but the situation was really saved 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. 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. By a strange fate it was this very district over which Milner was called to rule in 1803, when he was consecrated Bishop of Castabala, and appointed Vicar Apostolic of the Midland District. It is creditable both to them and to Milner himself that the resulting state of tension was of short duration. The clergy learned to value the great qualities of their new bishop, and conceived an admiration of him, the tradition of which has lasted to the present day.
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 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 unfortunate disagreement with his colleagues led to regrettable 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 well-known "Veto" question, 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 agred 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 London Vicar in combating the Blanchardist schism among the French emigrant clergy, especually the restoration of one of them, Abbé de Travaux, to spiritual faculties without a public retraction. In this matter also he was supported by the Irish bishops.
A crisis occurred in 1813, Dr. 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 Mr. 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 Mgr. Quarantotti, Secretary of Propaganda, 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.
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. He left behind him a record of a life marked by whole-hearted devotion to religion, and of eminent services rendered to a cause, both as a writer and a man of action. In both capacities his work was marred by the asperity of his language, and his intolerance of any views different from his own. This made him many enemies through life, and cut him off from his brother bishops during the greater part of his episcopate. But his lot was cast at a difficult time, and he succeeded in combating difficulties which few other men would have faced. He had the advantage of a strong constitution; his vigour and activity were phenomenal, and, added to his devotion to the Holy See, earned for him the title of the English Athanasius.
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 ). His chief works are: "Funeral Discourse on Bishop Challoner" (1781); "The Clergyman's Answer to the Layman's Letter" (1790); "Pastoral of the Bishop of Leon" (translated 1791); "Discourse at Consecration of Bishop Gibson" (1791); "Divine Rights of Episcopacy" (1791); "Audi Alteram Partem" (1792); "Ecclesiastical Democracy detected" (1793); "Reply to Cisalpine Club" (1795); "Serious Expostulation with Rev. Joseph Berington" (1797); "History of Winchester" (1798); "Brief Life of Challoner" (1798); "Letters to a Prebendary" (1800); "Case of Conscience solved" (1801); "Elucidation of the Conduct of Pius VII" (1802); "Arguments against Catholic Petition" (1805); "Cure of Winefride White" (1805); "Letter to a Parish Priest" (1808); "Letters from Ireland" (1808); "Pastoral Letter on Blanchardists", "Sequel", "Supplement", and "Appendix" (1808-9); "Appeal to the Catholics of Ireland" (1809); "Discourse at Funeral of Sir William Jerningham" (1809); "Treatise on Ecclesiastical Architecture" (1810); "Instructions for Catholics of Midland Counties" (1811); "Letter to Prelate of Ireland" (1811); "Explanation with Bishop Poynter" (1812); "Pastoral on Jurisdiction of Church ", I, II, and III (1812-3); "Brief Memorial on Catholic Bill" (1813); "Multum in Parvo" (1813); "Encyclical Letter" (1813); "Inquisition. A letter to Sir John Cox Hippisley" (1816); "Humble Remonstrance to House of Commons" (1816); "Memoir of Bishop Hornyold" (Directory, 1818); "End of Religious Controversy" (1818); "Supplementary Memoirs of English Catholics" (1820, and "Additional Notes to" in 1821); "Devotion to the Sacred Heart" (1821); "Vindication of the End of Controversy" (1822); "Exposer exposed" (1824); "Parting Word to Dr. Grier" (1825). (For a complete list, see Husenbeth, infra, 572.)
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