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Original act of the Warsaw Confederation

The Warsaw Confederation (January 28, 1573), an important development in the history of Poland and Lithuania, is considered the formal beginning of religious freedom in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. While it did not prevent all conflict based on religion, it did make the Commonwealth a much safer and more tolerant place than most of contemporaneous Europe, especially during the subsequent Thirty Years' War.



Religious tolerance in Poland had had a long tradition (e.g. Statute of Kalisz) and had been de facto policy in the reign of the recently deceased King Zygmunt II. However, the articles signed by the Confederation gave official sanction to earlier custom. In that sense, they may be considered either the beginning or the peak of Polish tolerance.

Following the childless death of the last king of the Jagiellon dynasty, Polish and Lithuanian nobles (szlachta) gathered at Warsaw to prevent any separatists from acting and to maintain the existing legal order. For that it was necessary to make all citizens unconditionally abide by any decision taken by a body, and the confederation was an important proof that two states stand together.

In January the nobles signed a document in which representatives of all the major religions pledged each other mutual support and tolerance. The confederation created a legal basis for a new political system and at the same time secured the unity of the state which had been inhabited for generations by communities from different ethnic backgrounds (Poles, Lithuanians, Ruthenian, Germans, Armenians, Wlachians, Dutch, Tatars, and Scotts) and of different denominations (Catholic, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, Jewish, and Muslim).

This act was not imposed by a government or by consequences of war, but rather resulted from the actions of members of Polish-Lithuanian society. It was also influenced by the 1572 French St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, which prompted the Polish-Lithuanian nobility to see that no monarch would ever be able to carry out such an act in Poland.

The people most involved in preparing the articles were Mikołaj Sienicki (leader of the "execution movement"), Jan Firlej and Jan Zborowski. Their effort was opposed by many dignitaties of the Roman Catholic Church.

They were opposed by most of the Catholic priests: Franciszek Krasinski was the only bishop that signed them (Szymon Starowolski claimed he did so under the "threat of the sword"), and the future legal acts containing the articles of the Confederation were signed by bishops with the stipulation: "excepto articulo confoederationis." Another bishop, Wawrzyniec Goslicki, was excommunicated for signing the acts of the Sejm of 1587.

The articles of the Warsaw Confederation were later incorporated into the Henrician Articles, and thus became constitutional provisions alongside the Pacta conventa also instituted in 1573.


Religious life in late 16th century Poland, situated between Orthodox Muscovy, Muslim Ottoman Empire and Western Europe, torn between Reformation and Counter-Reformation, was of an exceptional character. This country became what Cardinal Stanislaus Hosius called “a place of shelter for heretics”. It was a place where the most radical religious sects, trying to escape persecution in other countries of the Christian world, sought refuge. All religious sects in Poland enjoyed tolerance as such was the King’s will. The confederation officially legalized this situation and introduced the rule of peaceful co-existence for nobles of all denominations.

There is debate as to whether the religious freedom was intended only for the nobility or also for the peasants and others; most historians favour the latter interpretation.


  • “Certainly, the wording and substance of the declaration of the Confederation of Warsaw of 28 January 1573 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.” - Norman Davies

See also


Further reading

  • Bob Scribne, Tolerance and Intolerance in the European Reformation, Cambridge University Press, 2002, ISBN 0-521-89412-3, Google Print, p.264+

External links



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