On January 28, 1573, one of the first acts granting religious freedoms in Europe, the Warsaw Confederation guaranteed to uphold peace between the adherents of the diverse confessions, making the newly-formed Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth one of the most tolerant countries on the continent.
Since 1386, the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuanian had been in a de facto personal union. But in 1569, the Union of Lublin, pressed by King Sigismund II Augustus, formally established the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth as a real union ruled by a single elected monarch, who carried out the duties of King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, and governed by a common Senate and Parliament, the Sejm.
The newly-formed country was one of the largest and most populous of 16th century Europe, covering almost one million square kilometres and sustaining a population of almost 12 million at its largest territorial extent. Inhabited by Poles and Lithuanians, but also Czechs, Hungarians, Slovaks, Ruthenians, Vlachs and Jews, the Commonwealth was notably marked by high levels of ethnic and religious diversity.
But with the heirless death of King Sigismund in 1572, the end of the male line of the Jagiellonian dynasty, which had ruled Poland and Lithuania since 1386, became a real challenge for the new Commonwealth. With no legal measures enabling the state to function effectively during the interregnum when there was no king, it was feared that separatist trends might prevail, especially in Lithuania, and that the integrity of the young state might already be threatened.
In order to maintain the existing legal order and to prevent the political crisis that was brewing, the Sejm was convoked in January 1573 to lay down the principles for electing the new ruler, to carry out a review of the Commonwealth’s constitutional arrangements, and to determine the bases for their possible amendment.
The resulting declaration of the so-called Warsaw Confederation created a legal basis for a new political system and at the same time secured the unity of the new multiethnic state. Notably, the Warsaw Confederation guaranteed to uphold peace between the adherents of the diverse confessions then practised in the Commonwealth and swore to oppose any and all attempts to initiate persecutions for reasons of religion. As a result, it was opposed by many dignitaries of the Catholic Church.
One of the first acts granting religious freedoms in Europe, the Warsaw Confederation was arguably strongly influenced by the fact that among the leading candidates to the vacant throne was the son of the French king, Henry de Valois, who was widely seen as being responsible for the slaughter of French Protestants during the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of August 1572. This prompted the Polish and Lithuanian nobility to see that no monarch would ever be able to carry out such an act in the Commonwealth.
In fact, in accordance with the stipulations of the Warsaw Confederation, when Henry was indeed elected to the throne of the Commonwealth in May 1573, the Polish delegation that traveled to France demanded that the king-elect swear an oath to uphold the principles of the Warsaw Confederation, which he did in Notre Dame Cathedral the following September. Those principles were later incorporated into the Henrician Articles, which essentially functioned as a first Polish constitution until the Constitution of May 1791.
While religious tolerance in Poland had had a long tradition and had been de facto policy during the reign of King Sigismund II, the Warsaw Confederation made the Commonwealth one of the most tolerant countries on the continent. In 1561, Bonifacio d’Oria, a religious exile living in Poland, wrote of his adopted country’s virtues to a colleague back in Italy: “You could live here in accordance with your ideas and preferences, in great, even the greatest freedoms, including writing and publishing. No one is a censor here.”
But as a result, the Commonwealth also became a place were the most radical religious sects, trying to escape persecution in other countries of the Christian world, sought refuge. So much so that the Polish cardinal Stanislaus Hosius, one of the leading figures of the Counter-Reformation who served as the papal legate to Poland, called the country “a place of shelter for heretics”.
According to the British historian Norman Davies, “the wording and substance of the declaration of the Confederation of Warsaw were extraordinary with regards to prevailing conditions elsewhere in Europe; and they governed the principles of religious life in the Republic for over two hundred years.” Indeed, French 18th century historian de Rulhière wrote that “this country, which in our day we have seen divided on the pretext of religion, is the first state in Europe that exemplified tolerance. In this state, mosques arose between churches and synagogues.”
But, barely half a century later, a number of Rome educated bishops took over the Church administration, clergy discipline was implemented and rapid intensification of Counter-Reformation activities took place. The Catholic Church quickly regained power, instigating changes throughout the 17th century which defined the character of Polish Catholicism for centuries to come…
In 2003, the text of the Warsaw Confederation was added to UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme.
Find out more about Central European history in our new On this Day series.