The fifth in the Lukians’ historical series shows the moment the Warsaw Confederation on religious freedom was passed in 1573.
The Polish-Lithuanian Union created a huge political community, the largest multi-denominational and multi-religious community in Europe. Here living alongside each other were adherents of Christianity in the Latin, Orthodox, and Armenian rites, next to them Jews (who had earlier been expelled from other countries in Western and Central Europe), and even Muslims (Tatars, who began settling in Lithuania in the fourteenth century). Nor were there any religious wars between them. As in all of Europe, here too Christianity was privileged, but the mere fact of the division of the noble political nation into two large religious groups – Catholic and Orthodox – accustomed nearly all to the law of preserving diversity in faith, even before the Reformation broke out in 1517. Luther’s challenge caused an avalanche of religious conflicts in Europe. In Germany, the Scandinavian countries, England, France, and the countries of the Habsburg Empire, hundreds of thousands of people during the 16th century would kill each other with exceptional ferocity in the fight for the exclusiveness of their version of Christianity. In the Polish-Lithuanian state, although the Reformation also achieved great successes here, winning many followers within the nobility (Calvinism), as well as among the burghers, especially in the Pomeranian cities (Lutheranism), there was no religious war.
Sejms, provincial Sejms, participation in public life – this was the practical school for hammering out compromise in disputes waged with words rather than sabers. This school was also the place for a special exam that the Rzeczpospolita had to undergo after the death of the last of the Jagiellonians. Zygmunt August died on July 7, 1572. It was known that citizens were now to choose, freely, a new king. Choose – but how? Who would conduct the election? Greater Poland’s nobility, for the most part Catholic, supported the idea that the primate be the interrex. Lesser Poland’s nobles, among whom Calvinists won a majority, headed by their governor Jan Firlej, preferred to give him, as the Grand Crown Marshal, the decisive role during the interregnum. The place of the election was also contested, especially once it was established that every nobleman could participate in it. Protestants from Małopolska (Lesser Poland) wanted the election to be held in Bystrzyca near Lublin, because the Calvinist nobility prevailed there. Finally, through a series of noble and senate conventions, it was decided that the place for the election would be the village of Kamień next to Warsaw – and there, in Mazovia, Catholics were definitely the more numerous. At the Convocation Sejm (that is, the Sejm establishing order for the election), convened in Warsaw on January 6, 1573 and where this decision was adopted, a compromise formula was established according to which the primate was to preside over the election and crown the king, but the Grand Crown Marshal Jan Firlej, a Protestant, would declare the legitimate choice.
The Sejm appointed a committee that was to establish rules for maintaining internal peace in the Kingdom. Religious peace was an essential component of these rules. All the more so because the Protestants in the Rzeczpospolita already knew about the huge recent massacre of their fellow believers in France (Saint Bartholomew’s night, August 24, 1572), and that one of the most important candidates to the Polish throne – Henry Valois – was from France. On behalf of accord and guarantees for religious minorities, on January 28, 1573, a confederation act was passed, named from the place where it was adopted: Warsaw. The noblemen of the Commonwealth swore in this act to “preserve the peace between ourselves and shed no blood out of differing faith and practices in the Churches, nor to penalize one another by confiscatione bonorum (confiscation of goods)…” Although the majority of Catholic bishops criticized the Warsaw Confederation (it was signed only by Kraków’s bishop, Franciszek Krasiński), it fulfilled its task: no civil war of a religious nature took place in the Rzeczpospolita. The newly elected king, Henryk Walezy (Valois), would have to swear to the act of the Warsaw Confederation, along with other fundamental rights of the Rzeczpospolita. Thus the Protestant nobility received guarantees of religious freedom under the Catholic king.
The British brought to the New York World’s Fair a historic copy of their Great Charter of Liberties (Magna Carta), signed by King John in 1215, rightly recognized as the documentary basis of the European tradition of freedom. The Warsaw Confederation, depicted in the painting by the Lukians, would ultimately win similar recognition as the foundation of religious tolerance when it was inscribed in 2003 on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register.