John Palmer was born on 15 Oct. 1782, son of William Palmer, a small farmer in the parish of Charmouth, Dorset, and was bred a low churchman. In 1806 he came to London to seek employment, chanced to attend the services at the Roman Catholic Chapel in Warwick Street, Regent Street, read ‘The Garden of the Soul’ and was converted to Roman Catholicism.
He then entered the service of Thomas Weld of Lulworth Castle, Dorset, and in 1808 became a novice in the Cistercian monastery of St. Susan, Lulworth, where he was professed by the name of Bernard on 21 Nov. 1810. Harassed by government in 1817, the Lulworth community found an asylum in the abbey of La Meilleraie (Melleray) near Nantes, where Palmer received minor orders. In 1831 the abbey of La Meilleraie was suppressed by Louis-Philippe’s government, and, though a few of the monks were permitted to remain, the majority emigrated to Ireland, and founded the abbey of Mount Melleray, co. Waterford.
In affiliation to this monastery was established in 1836 a little community of about nine brothers in Charnwood Forest, Leicestershire. At first they resided in a cottage, where they were joined in March 1837 by Palmer, just released from confinement in Nantes. He had been detained there, notwithstanding the representations of the British consul, since the suppression of the abbey of La Meilleraie.
In 1837 the monks removed from the cottage to a little monastery which had been built for them in its immediate vicinity from funds contributed by Ambrose Lisle Phillipps and others of the faithful. On 31 July 1838 Palmer received priest’s orders, and in 1841 was appointed superior of the house. The community rapidly grew in numbers, and in 1844 the, monastery was abandoned for a new and much larger structure, built in Pugin’s severest lancet style, on a neighbouring eminence, to which was given the name of Mount, St. Bernard. The major portion of the funds was contributed by the Earl of Shrewsbury and Ambrose Lisle Phillipps, the residue being raised by public subscription.
By decrees of the congregation ‘de propaganda fide,’ ratified by Pius IX on 9 May 1848, the monastery was constituted an abbey with independent jurisdiction, in union with the general chapter of the Cistercian Congregation of Strict Observance, that is to say in the Trappist obedience, in France, and Palmer was appointed abbot. As such he was consecrated on 18 Feb. 1849, with mitre, crosier, ring, and gloves. As the first English mitred abbot since the Reformation, Palmer occupies a conspicuous position in the history of the catholic revival of the nineteenth century. He possessed in an eminent degree the characteristics of the saint; profound humility, boundless charity, and habit of severe self-mortification.
After a long and painful illness, borne with exemplary patience, he died of dropsy on 10 Nov. 1852. On the 13th his remains were interred in a vault beneath the chapter-room of the abbey.