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On 29 September 1850, by the Bull Universalis Ecclesiae, Pope Pius IX recreated the Roman Catholic hierarchy in England, which had gone underground with the death of the last Marian bishop in the reign of Elizabeth I. From 1688 to 1850, for example, a bishop was called a Vicar Apostolic and was given certain districts to oversee such as the Vicar Apostolic of the London District was accorded. This changed, however, after the Catholic Relief Act 1829 and further changes over time.
Westminster became the metropolitan see and its occupant the practical Catholic equivalent of the archbishops of Canterbury. This new structure replaced the four Vicars Apostolic who had ministered to English Catholics since the seventeenth century though the new bishops (as Vicars Apostolic of old) always saw themselves in continuity with the pre-Reformation Church.
The Catholic Church did not restore pre-Reformation dioceses with Catholic bishops, but rather erected new ones, because of the Ecclesiastical Titles Act of 1851, which favored the established Church of England. Likewise, there could not be a Catholic archbishop of Canterbury. Instead, the archdiocese of Westminster was created with its own archbishop. In like manner, the Archbishop of Westminster was not declared Primate of All England, though he and his successors always saw themselves as successors to Canterbury's Catholic archbishops, hence the resembalance of the coat of arms of the two Sees, with Westminster believing it has more reason to claim it because it features the pallium, no longer given to the Archbishop of Canterbury. By contrast, in Scotland, where the Reformed Church did not maintain an episcopate, the old dioceses were reestablished as Catholic. In Ireland, however, only after the Church of Ireland was disestablished, was the Catholic Church allowed to have its own archbishop of Armagh in residence at Armagh as Primate of All Ireland, performing liturgical functions there. Now both Churches have competing dioceses.
The suffragan sees were Southwark, Hexham (changed to Hexham and Newcastle in 1861), Beverley, Liverpool, Salford, Shrewsbury, Newport and Menevia, Clifton, Plymouth, Nottingham, Birmingham, and Northampton.
In 1895 Wales, except Glamorganshire, was separated into the Dioceses of Newport and Menevia, and of Shrewsbury, and formed into the Vicariate of Wales. The vicariate was erected into the Diocese of Menevia in 1898.
The Diocese of Portsmouth was formed in 1882, by the division of the Diocese of Southwark into the Dioceses of Southwark and Portsmouth. Thus, the province of Westminster having fifteen suffragan sees was numerically the largest in the world.
By letters Apostolic, "Si qua est", of 28 October 1911, Pope Pius X erected the new provinces of Birmingham and Liverpool, making these two dioceses into archdioceses. With Westminster remained the suffragan Sees of Northampton, Nottingham, Portsmouth, and Southwark; to Birmingham were assigned those of Clifton, Newport, Plymouth, Shrewsbury, and Menevia; and to Liverpool, Hexham and Newcastle, Leeds, Middlesbrough, and Salford.
It had for many years been felt that some such division would have to be made, but there had always been the fear of causing disunion thereby, especially if it meant as in pre-Reformation times a division between north and south. Such a result was obviated by ignoring the precedent of York and Canterbury, and arranging for three instead of two provinces. Under the new Apostolic Constitution, the Archbishop of Westminster was granted the right to "be permanent chairman of the meetings of the Bishops of all England and Wales, and for this reason it will be for him to summon these meetings and to preside over them, according to the rules in force in Italy and elsewhere." He ranks over the other two archbishops.
Division of dioceses
The grouping of the dioceses is rather curious. Instead of the natural division into a northern, a midland, and a southern province, formed by drawing a line from the Humber to the River Mersey, and another from The Wash to the Bristol Channel, the Westminster or eastern province and the Birmingham or western province reach from the south-east and south-west to the Humber and Mersey respectively. In this way the northern province is contiguous to the other two, bringing all three into closer intercommunication. It is interesting to note that in 787 an attempt was made to have a third province with the metropolitan at Lichfield, but in 803 it was abandoned and the bishops of central England were again made subject to Canterbury.