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Are, literally, chief bishops. By the 5th cent. ad the title was applied to the occupants of sees of major ecclesiastical importance, particularly those of metropolitan bishops. This designation originated in the bishop of the principal city of a district or division of a country, the metropolis, being the usual president of any assembly of bishops of that area. Ecclesiastically, such a district or division formed a province. Thus Milan, residence of the emperors during the 4th cent., became the metropolitan see for much of northern Italy. There is little evidence to suggest that, prior to the withdrawal of the Roman legions, the church in Britain was organized along provincial or metropolitical lines. Not until the arrival of Augustine (597) was Canterbury established as an archbishopric, and York did not become a separate province until the 8th cent.

However, attempts by Canterbury to assert its precedence over York were fiercely resisted, particularly in the 11th and 12th cents. The argument was not resolved until the 14th cent.—in Canterbury's favour. The independence of the Scottish bishops from the province of York was recognized by Pope Celestine III in 1192, though the primatial see (St Andrews) was not raised to archiepiscopal status until 1472. Glasgow became an archbishopric in 1492. In Ireland Armagh, Cashel, Dublin, and Tuam all achieved archiepiscopal status during the 12th cent., the primatial see being at Armagh. The number of Anglican archbishoprics was reduced to two (Armagh and Dublin) by the Ecclesiastical Commission in the 1830s.

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