During the 16th and 17th centuries, there were many religious wars in Europe. In countries, were it was very close to Rome (like Spain, Portugal, Austria, Italian states), they did not occur. In Northern Europe (Scandinavia), were it was far from Rome, or it head also political reasons (the Netherlands), the Protestantism was accepted (relatively) quickly. However, in the "middle" countries, like German states, France, in some part Bohemia and Hungary, and of course England and Scotland, the Reformation was not quickly accepted/rejected, but some wars or fightings occurred.

In Poland (and Lithuania), which is geographically in the same position as Germany, no wars happened. This is somehow strange, as many Polish people were protestant and many Catholic. Sources claim that "Poland was very tolerant", example (WHKMLA):

The majority of Poland's nobility had converted to protestantism. Poland's tolerance policy attracted those who were persecuted because of their confession, from the Netherlands, France, Silesia.

The same is on the official site of Republic of Poland (but this might be a kind of propaganda):

In the 15th and 16th centuries, Poland was a country open to new religious trends. Unlike other European countries, there were no religious wars here. Not only could heterodox religionists find sanctuary here, they were also protected by the kings and lords of Poland. As a result, culture and scholarship experienced an influx of new ideas and literary works, building up an image of Poland as a country of toleration. This was particularly true as regards the Warsaw Compact, ratified in 1573, which gave Protestants equal rights with Catholics. The last Jagiellonian monarch, Zygmunt August (Sigismundus Augustus), said in Sejm, "I do not rule your consciences." Not surprisingly contemporaries and later generations called the Jagiellonian era, especially the 16th century, their Golden Age.

And what would be a post without citing Wikipedia? Here it is:

The 16th century Commonwealth was unique in Europe, because of widespread tolerance, confirmed by the Warsaw Confederation. In 1563, the Brest Bible was published (...). The period of tolerance ended during the reign of King Sigismund III Vasa, who was under strong influence of Piotr Skarga and other Jesuits.

The Sigismundus III Vasa's reign was also strongly influenced by his Swedish claims, and considered protestant rulers of Sweden illegal. This however had no impact on Polish common tolerance policy.

My question is where did this religious tolerance come from? Why were there no fightings in this multi-religion state?

My assumption is that the Commonwealth was since its existence multi-cultural country. There were Polish, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Germans, Jews etc. There were Catholics, Orthodox and Jews who (probably) made good businesses with one another helping them to find common factors. So when Protestants came, they were just another group of many. Or, referring to "good business", it was just not profitable for anyone

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    Excellent question! You might want to consider opening another one, that I thought of reading this one: you write the majority of Poland's nobility had converted to protestantism. But at some stage Poland becomes a Catholic country - when? And what happened to the Protestant nobles? Did they re-convert? Were killed? Emigrated? Commented Jun 19, 2013 at 13:27
  • Thank you for nice words. Feel free to ask yourself -- I already have some ideas to answer. But maybe something will be said in answers to this question, if of course there would be some.
    – Voitcus
    Commented Jun 19, 2013 at 14:02
  • A very short answer to Felix's question - the vision of Poland as a clearly Catholic country is an early 20th century invention, taking birth with all nationalism movements that were popular among Europe. And it wasn't realized before WWII and ethnic migrations organized by ZSSR and communist government. So it's safe to assume that they just passed away. Commented Jun 27, 2013 at 14:10
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    What geographic area are you considering as Poland at this time? With or without: NW Ukraine, Livonia, Prussia, and Pomerania (in modern terms) amongst other options? Commented Oct 1, 2013 at 21:27
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    He had less views than I remembered. I've made an answer of my views, only partly based on Norman Davies. Commented Oct 5, 2013 at 19:15

6 Answers 6


That Poland avoided internal wars of religion can indeed be attributed to the religious tolerance of the state at this time, a tolerance that stretches back a long time.

And this has to do with it's position, where many of its neighbouring countries were not Catholic. To the east the Kievan Rus adopted Orthodoxy, and further north the areas now known as Lithuania remained pagan until the end of the 14th century, by which time the pagan Lithuanian kings had expanded their rule to cover much of the Orthodox Kievan Rus. Although the Lithuanian rulers adopted Catholicism (in a failed attempt to stop the Teutonic Order "crusading" in Lithuania) much of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania remained Orthodox.

Soon after the official Christianization of Lithuania a Polish-Lithuanian Union was created. This means that the Polish kings had not only the Catholic church, but also several different Orthodox churches in their area. At that point the rulers had a choice between either trying to forcefully convert everyone to the same church (but then, which one?) or just adopt an attitude of religious tolerance.

But Poland's leaders was constantly busy fending off enemies like the Teutonic knights (early 15th century), the Bohemians (15th century), the Crimean Tatars (attacked on 75 separate occasions between 1474 and 1569) and the Grand Duchy of Moscow (pretty much all the time). That meant that it needed to concentrate on defending itself rather than bothering with religion, so the obvious solution was to just let people go to whatever church they wanted.

When the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was created in 1569, it also had a system with checks and balances on power, meaning that the King couldn't have forced a religion on the people even if he wanted to, which continued the religious tolerance, made official in the above mentioned Warsaw Confederation.

To a large extent then, the religious tolerance was to prevent internal religious wars, due to having many churches. This tolerance then paved the way for other religions. The tolerance may also have had some source in the relatively large Jewish population living in Poland since the 10th century. This population seems to have been tolerated by polish kings and princes for economic reasons. But the question then arises why this happened in Poland and not in other places, and I suspect that once again the answer is that the Polish was dealing and trading with both Orthodox and pagans anyway.

If this is multi-culturalism that creates tolerance, or tolerance that creates multi-culturalism, depends entirely on your definition of multi-cultural. But I would say that with normal definitions it's not multi-cultural to have several different churches in a country, but it is multi-cultural to have many ethnic groups and religions. And with that definition it is the tolerance that creates the multi-culturalism, and not the other way.

Further reading:

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    Well reasoned and researched explanation. Commented Oct 5, 2013 at 22:13
  • This was the answer I was desiring. I do accept it. However, do you have some data about Lithuania being mostly Orthodox? At one place you write she was pagan and on the next paragraph that it was orthodox. I think I know what you mean, but this is the only thing which is unclear here.
    – Voitcus
    Commented Oct 7, 2013 at 5:27
  • @Voitcus Ah, yes. What is today Lithuiania was Pagan up to the 14th century. The Grand duchy of Lithuania is bigger and includes large parts of what was previously Kievan Rus, which was Ortodox. I'll try to clarify. Commented Oct 7, 2013 at 6:30
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    The case of the (then independent) Transylvania was very similar. It had one of the first proclamations of religious freedom, and in fact had good ties with Poland (they even shared a ruler at one point, elected by both countries)
    – vsz
    Commented Dec 13, 2013 at 7:16

Poland was indeed involved in the 30 Years War, sending death squads to aid Habsburg allies in Bohemia and getting decked when Bohemia sicced the Ottoman Empire on them.

At this time, Poland-Lithuania was far more unified politically under the Magnates and royalty than the Holy Roman Empire... and nobody kid themselves, the 30 Years War was a political as well as a religious war. Rising European powers sought to solidify their power into what we know now as a nation-state, and the implosion of the Holy Roman Empire gave them the opportunity they needed. Distance from Rome was not as much of a factor as the political landscape - Ireland remained Catholic, mostly to spite their regional rival, England, and they were a very long way from Rome - and many Swiss cantons became protestant, despite bordering on what's now Italy.

The strong leadership in Poland-Lithuania allowed it to quell internal cultural strife with the Warsaw Confederation, which granted religious freedom to the subjects of the Commonwealth. This was something of a tradition for the area, going back to the Statute of Kalisz, which formalized tolerance for Jewish subjects, and the continuation of the toleration policies of Zygmunt II.

This dual policy - tolerating protestants at home and slaughtering them abroad - kept the peace without endangering Catholic rule.

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    I think it can be argued that the Warsaw Confederation is because of weak leadership. In other countries they could enforce a single religion, in Poland they could not. The Catholic church (mostly) opposed the confederation, but since the political leadership wasn't united in the support for Catholicism, they were forced to accept it. Commented Oct 6, 2013 at 5:57
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    Calling Lisowski's mercenaries 'death squads' is an exageration. They were most probably not worse than any other mercenaries in this bloody conflict.
    – Trantor
    Commented Jan 13, 2020 at 0:08
  • >The Lisowczycy unit of the Polish cavalry received no formal wages; instead, they were allowed to loot and plunder as they pleased. They weren't "death squads", they were just allowed to pillage, plunder and rape instead of not receiving any payment.
    – Bartors
    Commented Jul 7, 2022 at 7:47

In fact, Poland had at least one internal religious war, namely, the Khmelnytsky Uprising in 1648–1657, right at the end of the 30 year war in Central Europe.

Religion, ethnicity, and economics factored into this discontent. While the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth remained a union of nations, a sizable population of Orthodox Ruthenians were ignored. Oppressed by the Polish magnates, they took their wrath out on Poles, as well as the Jews, who often managed the estates of Polish nobles. The advent of the Counter-Reformation worsened relations between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. Many Orthodox Ukrainians considered the Union of Brest as a threat to their Orthodox faith.

You can read more in the linked wikipedia article as well as this one.

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    This uprising was caused by political motives: the eastern part of the Commonwealth was trying to obtain the same rights as Poland and Lithuania. Before the uprise, local nobility was increasing the economic pressure on local peasants as well as attempted to treat non-polonised Kossacks as a 2nd class citizens. So it was more a peasant revolt rather than "Religious war" - rebels were looking for any allies (including Muslim Tatars) to fight against hated nobles - the fact that those nobles were Catholic was secondary.
    – Yasskier
    Commented May 22, 2019 at 3:28
  • @Yasskier Every war has political and economical motives. Thus the same trick can be applied to all these "Religious Wars" in Europe (where "religious" is nothing but excuse). In general it's quite curios to see how Polish (and then Western) sources try to idealize the religious situation in Commonwealth by being totally silent on all the issues with Orthodox faith (with all of the infinite direct and indirect conflicts incl. uprisings). Commented May 26, 2019 at 5:30

Your question identifies, and hypothesizes a correlation between distance from Rome and pro (or anti) Catholic leanings. Under this hypothesis, Poland ought to be a "conflicted" country because of its "middle" distance.

In seeking a correlation (that may be false), the hypothesis overlooks causal variables that affected other "middle distance" countries like England and Bohemia, and not Poland.

In England, for instance, the anti-Catholic spark came not from religion per se, or relations between countries, but rather King Henry VIII's desire to divorce Catherine of Aragon, and marry Anne Boleyn. The Pope, who was practically a hostage of Catherine's nephew, Charles V, couuld not allow this. That's why Henry VIII broke with the Catholic church and set up the Church of England.http://www.greatsite.com/timeline-english-bible-history/king-henry.html

In Bohemia, anti-Catholic feeling went back to the early 15th century, to the Hussite rebellions, which were aimed against Austrian overrule. This pre-dated Martin Luther and "mainstream" Protestantism by almost a century. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hussite_Wars

In Poland, on the other hand, there were no anti-Catholic irritations. In fact, Poland had a history of religious tolerance going back to the 12th century, when King Boleslaus III welcomed both Jews from western Europe and Islamic Tartars from the east. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hussite_Wars Thus, when it was offered the alternative of Protestantism, Poland could accomodate both (plus Russian orthodoxy and others).

  • That's an interesting theory but how does it square with the fact that Germany had no obvious anti-Catholic irritants as the ones you've identified for England and Bohemia? Commented Jul 2, 2013 at 13:00
  • Thank you for your answer. I'm not exactly sure if this policy with Jews and Muslims was the reason to accept Protestantism. They lived in small parts of Poland (Tatars) or in ghettos (Jews). The Protestants were in fact everywhere...
    – Voitcus
    Commented Jul 2, 2013 at 13:19
  • @Felix Goldberg: I don't have the details handy, but from what I remember, some of the German princes (Philip of Hesse, and the brother of Anne of Cleaves, etc.) had ties to Henry VIII and were "embroiled" in his complications.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Jul 2, 2013 at 13:34
  • I voted up so you could get at least half of the bounty. Could you please improve your answer by showing the impact of inviting Jews to Poland on Protestant (or Catholic) acceptance? As I said before, I hardly believe that this impact was, I'd rather say that co-existing of Catholic and Orthodox churches allowed this tolerance. Any source would be welcome.
    – Voitcus
    Commented Jul 4, 2013 at 6:42

The Polish political system had its roots in medieval society : the king was elected by nobles (like a tribal chief). Once nobles chose to change their religion there wasn't any absolutist monarch that could stop them. Besides people wore religion more lightly than is realised (of course history records the fanatics but most people were socially religious). It was fanatical Jesuits who forced out other faiths and changed Poland from pluralism to exclusively Catholic.

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    So why didn't the "fanatical Jesuits" provoke a violent reaction from those whose faiths were forced out?
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Feb 21, 2019 at 21:22

It would seem that religious toleration in Poland became a necessity because borders with Lutheran Prussia and Orthodox Russia kept changing and people had to be reabsorbed into Poland. Also people fled intolerance in Prussia and Russia going to Poland for sanctuary. Poland needed France and Austria as allies against Prussia; therefore, it was wise to remain officially Roman Catholic while allowing Protestant and Eastern Orthodox to worship freely.

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