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The Ecclesiastical Titles Act 1851 was an Act of the British Parliament (14 & 15 Vict. c. 60) passed in 1851 as an anti-Roman Catholic measure. It was ineffective and was repealed 20 years later by the Ecclesiastical Titles Act 1871. It was legislation demanded by Prime Minister Lord John Russell in the wake of widespread popular "no popery" outbursts in 1850 when the Catholic Church set up a network of its own bishops in England. Anti-Catholic elements denounced the Papal move as "papal aggression." The new law was the last effort made to repress a Christian church, and was repealed in 1871. Catholic bishops officially followed the law but rank-and-file Catholics ignored it. The effect was to strengthen the Catholic Church in England, but also it felt persecuted and on the defensive.[1]


When the church in England and Wales was established as an independent Church of England 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.[2]

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)[3][4] had forbidden the use of the old titles except by the clergy of the established Protestant Church,[5] 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 for Westminster had long been identified as a major centre of the Church of England.

Incited by anti-Catholic elements and indeed the prime minister himself, serious anti-Catholic riots took place in November 1850 in Liverpool and other cities. Nearly 900,000 Protestants petitioned the Queen to stop what they called "papal aggression". Guy Fawkes day in 1850 saw numerous symbolic denunciations, and a handful of cases of violence.[6]

Public opinion and elite opinion also turned heavily against the Oxford Movement (Tractarian movement) inside the Church of England, which led some very prominent figures to become Catholics. Tractarians were denounced as traitors burrowing inside the Anglican church.[7]

The Ecclesiastical Titles Act 1851 was passed in response, making it a criminal offence for anyone outside the Church of England 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.[2]

It did not succeed in its aim. The Roman Catholic community unofficially used the territorial titles, although the bishops themselves carefully stayed within the letter of the law. No one was ever prosecuted.[8]


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.[9]


  1. ^ : Chadwick, The Victorian Church (1966) v. 1 pp 292-309
  2. ^ a b Report of the House of Commons Select Committee on Ecclesiastical Titles and Roman Catholic Relief Acts, 2 August 1867, p. 89
  3. ^ Reports from Committees, Great Britain. Parliament. House of Commons. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1867. p. 87.
  4. ^ Hansard's Parliamentary Debates. CXIV. London. 1851. p. 1145.
  5. ^ Report of Select Committee, p. 85
  6. ^ K. Theodore Hoppen, The mid-Victorian generation, 1846-1886 (Oxford University Press, 2000) pp 444-34.
  7. ^ Chadwick, The Victorian Church p 296
  8. ^ Chadwick, The Victorian Church p 304
  9. ^ Text of the Ecclesiastical Titles Act 1871 as in force today (including any amendments) within the United Kingdom, from

Further readingEdit

  • Chadwick, Owen. The Victorian church Vol. 1. (1971). pp 271-309
  • Paz, Denis G. "Another Look at Lord John Russell and the Papal Aggression, 1850." Historian 45.1 (1982): 47-64.
  • Plowright, John, ed. The Routledge Dictionary of Modern British History, "Ecclesiastical Titles Act 1851" (pp. 88-89)]
  • Ralls, Walter. "The papal aggression of 1850: a study in Victorian anti-Catholicism." Church History 43.02 (1974): 242-256.
  • Wallis, Frank H. Popular Anti-Catholicism in Mid-Victorian Britain (Edwin Mellen Press, 1993.)

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