At the moment I'm studying (in spare moments) the Vicars Apostolic who governed the Church in England and Wales between 1685 and 1850. From 1688 there were four Districts (London, Midlands, Western and Northern) and these were increased to eight by Gregory XVI in 1840. It's a fascinating story but also one that is not generally known. Most people have heard of Bishop Challoner, and possibly of Bishops Giffard, Baines and Milner (called by Newman 'the English Athanasius') but these shepherds remain largely unknown and forgotten.
Their world was very different from that of Newman and Manning. The Vicars Apostolic lived discreetly, frequently changed their lodging, used aliases and travelled long distances on horseback. Many were buried without vestments or signs of their office, with their hands simply lying by their sides. There is a famous story about Bishop Hornyold, VA of the Midlands District (1756-78) finishing Mass just as the house was raided and saving himself 'by substituting a female cap for his flowing periwig and throwing a large woman’s cloak over his vestments, and in this disguise, throwing himself in a corner of the room into the attitude of prayer.'
Challoner was bishop in London for forty years but never once ordained a priest, for there were then no seminaries on English soil and priests were almost always ordained overseas. Douglass (VA of London, 1790-1812 - see picture above) was the first to openly wear a pectoral cross, though only in the privacy of his home and without wearing a cassock. His successor, Poynter (VA 1812-27), normally wore a brown suit and the Rev. Joseph Silveira used to recall the astonishment produced the first time the bishop walked from his room at St Edmund’s, Ware to the chapel in his episcopal cassock in 1817.
Despite their fragile position and limited resources, their jurisdiction was technically vast and included the colonies, though they never visited these distant lands and simply resolved disputes, granted faculties and (whenever they could) sent out priests. Sometimes the colonies proved to be a useful 'dumping ground' for troublesome priests. A striking example was William Simpson, who had held four appointments in the Northern District but ‘made havoc of every one of them’ and, after Bishop Giffard paid off his debts, squandered the money on women and married in an Anglican church. After imprisonment for debt, he seemed to be repentant and was commissioned by Giffard for work in the West Indies. He soon apostasised from the Faith and was presented to an Anglican living on Nevis, although he seems to have been reconciled to the Church at his death in September 1735.
Until 1784 the VA of the London District (Challoner) was in charge of the American colonies. By that time, of course, America had declared its independence but, as the bishop's biographer Burton notes, ‘this feeble old man [Challoner], living his retired life in an obscure London street’ exercised a jurisdiction that ‘remained the only remnant of authority in the hands of an Englishman that was still recognized in America.’
This period of English Catholic history is not only one of heroism but of great division and frequent 'pamphlet wars'. Long before the days of a Bishops' Conference (providing a certain 'unity'), there were fierce rivalries among some of the VAs. In the lead up to Catholic Emancipation, there were passionate arguments between 'Ultramontanes' and 'Cisalpines' over what being English and Catholic meant - to what extent did the Pope have authority over British institutions, for example, and could the Government veto the appointment of bishops? Some of the more liberal 'Cisalpines', like Rev. Joseph Berington, even called for ecumenical schools and a vernacular liturgy, so as to discourage anti-Catholic prejudice.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century there was conflict over a group of sedevacantists - the Blanchardists (mostly French emigre clergy) who did not recognise Pius VII's concordat with Napoleon. And there were on-going tensions that had been present for centuries, such as that between the secular and regular clergy. By the mid nineteenth century there was strife between the older clergy, who looked back to the recusant tradition of penal times, and the new generation, who looked towards the 'Second Spring' and were convinced of the imminent Conversion of England. Writing in 1848, Wiseman praised the younger priests but felt that most of the older clergy were resistant to change and 'Gallican' in their views. Even after 1850 a number of older priests did not adopt the recently-introduced Roman collar and stuck to the venerable tradition of dressing in the sober clothes of the day.
An interesting period indeed, despite being treated as the 'Dark Age' between the martyrs and the restoration of the Hierarchy. In fact, it was a time of growth and development that made possible the achievements of the age of Wiseman and Manning.