No physical remains in the grave of a 19th century church leader that is to be made a saint.

Cardinal Newman, Britain’s most famous Catholic convert after Tony Blair, died in 1890.

He was a pillar of the Oxford Movement, which tried to bring the Anglican church back to its Roman Catholic roots. After this failed he converted to Roman Catholicism.

The decision to remove his remains from their final resting place was controversial as the Cardinal had stipulated he wanted to be buried with his longtime companion, Father Ambrose St John.

Peter Jennings, Press Secretary to the Fathers of the Birmingham Oratory and for the Cause of the Beatification and Canonisation of Cardinal Newman, said on Saturday:

“The grave of the Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801 – 1890) was excavated with the utmost care on Thursday October 2nd, Feast of the Guardian Angels.

“Cardinal Newman died on Monday 11 August 1890 and was buried in the small secluded cemetery at the Oratory House, Rednal, near Birmingham on Tuesday 19 August 1890.

“He was declared Venerable by Pope John Paul II on 22 January 1991.

“During the excavation the brass inscription plate which had been on the wooden coffin in which Cardinal Newman had rested was recovered from his grave.

“Brass, wooden and cloth artefacts from Cardinal Newman’s coffin were found.

“However there were no remains of the body of John Henry Newman. An expectation that Cardinal Newman had been buried in a lead lined coffin proved to be unfounded.

“In the view of the medical and health professionals in attendance, burial in a wooden coffin in a very damp site makes this kind of total decomposition of the body unsurprising.

“The absence of physical remains in the grave does not affect the progress of Cardinal Newman’s Cause in Rome.

“The Birmingham Oratory has always been in possession of some actual physical remains of Cardinal Newman.

“These consist of some locks of hair.

“These, together with items found in his grave, will be housed in a casket for a Vigil of Reception on Friday 31 October and Saturday 1 November, to be followed by the High Mass of All Saints on Sunday 2 November at 11am, when the casket will be placed in the Oratory Church, Edgbaston.”

The Very Reverend Paul Chavasse, Provost of the Birmingham Oratory and Postulator of the Newman Cause said:

“The lack of substantial physical remains does nothing to diminish our deep reverence for Cardinal Newman. Yesterday’s outcome seems to have a Providential significance.”

Though Cardinal Newman was a lifelong celibate, and many scholars argue that his love for his fellow priest was merely Platonic, this move by the Catholic Church has fuelled speculation that they are embarrassed by the close nature of the friendship between the two men.

Newman and St John shared a house together and were lifelong friends. They share a tombstone with the inscription “out of shadows and phantasms into the truth” etched across it.

The Catholic Church claims the move is in preparation for his beatification, the third stage of recognition of sainthood.

Martin Prendergast, a homosexual campaigner in the Catholic Church, claimed the relationship had caused misgivings in the Vatican: “I don’t think they can just pretend the relationship didn’t exist,” he said.

“Nature has thwarted the Vatican’s heartless plot to violate Cardinal Newman’s request to be buried with the man he loved, Father Ambrose St John,” said human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell.

“The Vatican wanted to rebury the Cardinal’s remains in a marble tomb, separate from St John, to dampen speculation that he might have been gay.

“Newman’s and St John’s bodies have decomposed together, uniting them forever in the same soil. They cannot now be separated, as the Catholic Church planned. Cardinal Newman’s wishes have triumphed over the Vatican’s homophobia,” said Mr Tatchell.