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.
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, 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 English church.
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.
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.
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.
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.