Ecclesiastical Titles Act 1851

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The Ecclesiastical Titles Act 1851 was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom (14 & 15 Vict. c. 60) passed in 1851 as an anti-Roman Catholic measure, repealed 20 years later by the Ecclesiastical Titles Act 1871.


When the church in England and Wales was established as an independent Church of England by Henry VIII in the 16th century, it continued to use the same buildings and hierarchy as hitherto. Hence, the titles of Archbishop of Canterbury and Bishop of London (for example) continued in use, with the incumbents holding authority over the same areas, and the same held for the whole of the Church of England hierarchy. The position in Scotland would be more complex, due to internal disagreements about episcopalianism. In Ireland, the Catholic hierarchy continued to use the titles of the ancient sees.[1]

In 1850, in response to the Catholic emancipation legislation, Pope Pius IX set up a Roman Catholic hierarchy of dioceses in England and Wales in Universalis Ecclesiae. This was met with widespread hostility, and many characterised it as an act of "papal aggression", although, because the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 (Statute 10 of George IV, chapter 10) had forbidden the use of the old titles except by the clergy of the established Protestant Church,[2] the Catholic Church had refrained from using the ancient titles of the existing Anglican sees, and had created new titles for their bishoprics. Thus they did not name the relevant see that of Bristol, but that of Clifton; not Exeter, but Plymouth; not Canterbury, but Southwark. The selection of Westminster as the title of the principal see in London, however, was nevertheless seen by critics as presumptuous.

The Ecclesiastical Titles Act 1851 was passed in response, making it a criminal offence for anyone outside the "united Church of England and Ireland" to use any episcopal title "of any city, town or place, or of any territory or district (under any designation or description whatsoever), in the United Kingdom" e.g. Bishop of Anytown, and provided that any property passed to a person under such a title would be forfeit to the Crown.[1]

It did not succeed in its aim. The Roman Catholic bishops continued to operate under their territorial titles on a civilly illegal basis. The civil law was never enforced against them.


The Act was repealed in 1871 by the Liberal administration of Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone.

The act of repeal (the Ecclesiastical Titles Act 1871 34 and 35 Vict. c. 53) specified in its preamble and in section 1 that the repeal of the earlier Act did not give legal force to the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church in England or confer upon it any jurisdiction, these being, in United Kingdom law, matters for the Crown.[3]

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