Confederation of Warsaw 1573

Confederation of Warsaw 1573. Central Archives of Historical Records in Warsaw, Poland.
Confederation of Warsaw 1573. Central Archives of Historical Records in Warsaw, Poland.

A declaration of goodwill

The 16th century in Europe is very often seen as an age of religious wars. In the territories of today’s Germany (Roman Empire of the German Nation), war lasted for 30 years until the Augsburg Peace of 1555. In France, one will remember the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572. In the second half of the 16th century in Europe, we find two general models of resolving religious differences:

  • The dominant Augsburg Model (Germany, 1555) – cuius regio, eius religio – where the sovereign (the king, duke etc) decided the denomination of his people.
  • The Polish model (Confederation of Warsaw, 1573) where the nobleman (and in fact burghers from the king’s towns) decided the denomination for himself and those he ruled (around 15% of population).

The second/Polish model was grounded in our tradition of tolerance. In the huge territories of Poland and Lithuania during medieval times, there were many denominations (more than five): for example, the Roman Catholic Church, Orthodox Church, Greek Church, Armenian Church and Judaism. All these confessions lived together under royal protection. In the 16th century, Poland was a “safe harbour” for heretics, as Cardinal Hozjusz used to say. In the next century, there was great emigration from Western Europe to Poland of French Huguenots, Dutch Mennonites and Scots etc and it was this Polish model, which through time, set the example to follow.

Besides wars it was a time of reforming states which also witnessed the rise of modern civil administration. In such a general political and religious situation, the Polish-Lithuanian state faced in 1572 its own challenge, created by the end of ruling Jagiellon dynasty. Our noblemen had to choose a new king. In reality, election of the king meant a choice of model of state: how to arrange relations between the king, the parliament and nobility in two countries, Poland and Lithuania, joined until then only by personal union, at a time of very violent disputes and differences over the religious questions being debated all around Europe.

The model of state had to be decided by noblemen. One has to remember that about 8–10% or around 1 million – from a population of 10 million – were noblemen. The Polish-Lithuanian state had more than six different ethnic groups (Poles, Lithuanians, Ruthinians, Germans, Armenians, Italians and Jews) and more than eight denominations (Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Lutheran, Calvinist, Polish Brothers and Jewish). Confederation was the way to build a new political system called “noble democracy”. It was adopted as a resolution after a week of discussions by representatives of each land, gathered at a special pre-election session of the parliament. In these times, internal peace and order meant not only efficient justice but also religious peace between different confessions and denominations. In the text of the Confederation however, it was more about how war should be declared, how the court system of justice should work etc.

Confederation of Warsaw is to be seen as a kind of proto-constitution. It was a “social agreement” in which noblemen citizens apart from their political, material and religious status, found a common way to solve problems of the country and state in a peaceful way and guaranteed this solution by their own personal commitment, represented by more than 200 seals visible today. It was a declaration of goodwill, not an edict given (under pressure) by the king.
The text of the Confederation was printed in Polish, Ruthinian and German (there was also a French manuscript for Henry Valois). It was incorporated into Polish and Lithuanian law.

The Confederation of Warsaw guaranteed three very modern (liberal) freedoms for noblemen in Poland:
    •    Freedom of worship and spreading one’s religion
    •    Freedom of assembly (synods)
    •    Freedom of press (right to print)
    •    Equal access to offices


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