When Catholics in England were deprived of the normal episcopal hierarchy, their general pastoral care was entrusted at first to a priest with the title of archpriest (in effect an apostolic prefect), and then, from 1623 to 1688, to one or more apostolic vicars, bishops of titular sees governing not in their own name, as diocesan bishops do, but provisionally in the name of the Pope. At first there was a single vicar for the whole kingdom, later their number was increased to four, assigned respectively to the London District, the Midland District, the Northern District, and the Western District. The number of vicariates was doubled in 1840, becoming eight: the apostolic vicariates of the London district, the Western, Eastern, and Central districts, and the districts of Wales, Lancashire, Yorkshire, and the North.
The legal situation of Catholics in England and Wales was altered for the better by the Catholic Relief Act 1829, and English Catholics, who before had been reduced to a few tens of thousands, received in the 19th century thousands of converts from Anglicanism and millions of Irish Catholic immigrants, so that Catholics came to form some 10% of the general population of England and a considerably higher proportion of church-goers.
In response to petitions presented by local clergy and laity, Pope Pius IX issued the bull Universalis Ecclesiae restoring the normal diocesan hierarchy. The reasons stated in the bull are: "Considering the actual condition of Catholicism in England, reflecting on the considerable number of the Catholics, a number every day augmenting, and remarking how from day to day the obstacles become removed which chiefly opposed the propagation of the Catholic religion, We perceived that the time had arrived for restoring in England the ordinary form of ecclesiastical government, as freely constituted in other nations, where no particular cause necessitates the ministry of Vicars Apostolic."
The London district became the metropolitan Diocese of Westminster and the diocese of Southwark; the Northern district became the diocese of Hexham; that of Yorkshire became the diocese of Beverley; the district of Lancashire became the dioceses of Liverpool and Salford; the Welsh district (which included neighbouring English territory) became the two dioceses of Menevia and Newport and Shrewsbury; the Western district became the dioceses of Clifton and Plymouth; the Central district became the dioceses of Nottingham and Birmingham; and the Eastern district became the diocese of Northampton. Thus the restored hierarchy consisted of one metropolitan archbishop and twelve suffragan bishops.
The sees thus assigned to the new Catholic diocesan bishops of England did not correspond to the pre-Reformation dioceses, and were instead newly erected ones. Thus there was not to be a Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury. Instead, the Diocese of Westminster was created with its own archbishop. The Archbishop of Westminster was likewise not declared Primate of All England. However, he and his successors see themselves as successors to the Catholic Archbishops of Canterbury. Accordingly, the heraldic arms of Westminster, featuring the pallium, is similar to that of Canterbury, with Westminster claiming to have better right to display the pallium, which is no longer granted to the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The bull Universalis Ecclesiae did not indicate the reason for choosing to erect new dioceses rather than to restore the old. The main factor is likely to have been the law enacted under King George IV in 1829, which "forbade the use of the old titles, except by the clergy of the Protestant Church by law established".
John Henry Newman declared: "A second temple rises on the ruins of the old. Canterbury has gone its way, and York is gone, and Durham is gone, and Winchester is gone. It was sore to part with them. We clung to the vision of past greatness, and would not believe it could come to nought; but the Church in England has died, and the Church lives again. Westminster and Nottingham, Beverley and Hexham, Northampton and Shrewsbury, if the world lasts, shall be names as musical to the ear, as stirring to the heart, as the glories we have lost; and Saints shall rise out of them if God so will, and Doctors once again shall give the law to Israel, and Preachers call to penance and to justice, as at the beginning."