Protestantism, Catholicism and Toleration in Early Modern Europe, 1517-1650

By Marcus Wells - History Student @ St Peter's College, Oxford


After the emergence of Protestantism in the early sixteenth century, Catholic European states (France, Poland, and the southern Holy Roman Empire) faced the question of toleration of Protestants. The Protestant states also faced the reciprocal question (England, the Dutch Republic, the northern HRE and the Scandinavian states) as they emerged from Catholic Europe. True toleration was rarely granted to the other’s faith by 1650. However, some coexistence or de facto toleration was often possible in practice. Throughout the period, such arrangements were almost always in place due to the economic benefit of tolerating a particular group.

After the Reformation, the toleration of Protestants became a question for Catholic states. There was initially little toleration; the late sixteenth century saw some attempts at accommodation, but the development of the Catholic Reformation largely reversed this; Catholic states were little more tolerant in 1650 than they were in the early sixteenth century. In the Holy Roman Empire, the Peace of Augsburg (1555) established that rulers could choose the faith of their realms. This was not toleration: individuals within these states had to conform to the appropriate faith. In the Empire’s Catholic states, the Catholic Reformation stiffened attitudes to Protestants; the Jesuits in Bavaria actively sought to convert Protestants, while Ferdinand of Styria forbade Protestants from taking public office and infringed on Protestant rights in Bohemia during the 1610s. Thus, by the Thirty Years’ War, the Empire’s Catholic states were no more accommodating of Protestants than they had been previously.

The governments of France and Poland, having initially opposed the spread of Protestantism, agreed to tolerate it in 1598 (the Edict of Nantes) and 1573 (the Confederation of Warsaw). However, in both these states, this had been seriously undermined by 1650. France defeated a series of Protestant revolts in the 1620s, resulting in the loss of privileges for Huguenot strongholds, such as La Rochelle and Montauban. Under Sigismund III (1587-1632), orders such as the Jesuits and the Dominicans engaged in missionary work to attempt to convert the region’s Protestants (as well as its Jews and Orthodox Christians). Jesuit teachers in Poland increased from 8 (1565) to 70 (1599), while the numbers of Dominicans grew from c300 (1580) to c900 (1600): much effort was being put into the Catholic Reformation. Sigismund also engaged in selective court patronage and promotion of parliamentarians: at the start of his reign, there were forty-one Protestants in the Senate; by the end, there were just five. Thus, what toleration there had been was eroded in the early seventeenth century, meaning that Catholic Europe was little more tolerant of Protestants than it had been in the early sixteenth.

However, Protestant states were more tolerant of Catholics by the mid-seventeenth century out of pragmatic considerations. Although England did not officially tolerate Catholics after 1559, coexistence occurred in practice, so long as Catholics were discreet. In 1655, Major-General Worsley found that over 900 Catholics in Lancashire had refused to take the Oath of Abjuration for Catholics in 1643. The fact that many non-swearing Catholics were present twelve years after the Oath’s introduction indicates the possibility of more widespread Catholicism there before the Civil War. Since Catholicism had not been officially tolerated since 1559, Lancashire was likely a hangover from before the Elizabethan Settlement. In this way, little changed in terms of the de facto toleration of Catholics in this area. In the Dutch Republic, although the Calvinist consistory warned against Catholicism, discreet Catholics were tolerated. This is attested by the survival of a Catholic church in the attic of an Amsterdam canal house, built in the 1660s. Switzerland, although a Protestant state, in practice tolerated Catholics under the religious settlements of 1529 and 1531; many rural areas remained Catholic. This was out of pragmatic consideration of Switzerland’s fragmented political structures: uniformity across different areas was not feasible. Such Catholic communities continued into the seventeenth century. In fact, the town of Schwyz proposed in the 1630s for its territory to be divided in two, because Catholic numbers there were so significant.

Finally, economic considerations motivated Protestant states to issue de-facto toleration to Catholics. In the Dutch Republic, Jacob Jordaens, a Calvinist artist, accepted commissions from Catholics in Antwerp after its fall in 1585 to paint altarpieces and paintings glorifying the Pope. This reflects the pragmatic economic concerns of the Republic, which overrode its religious policy. Similarly, Elizabeth I patronised the Catholic composers Thomas Tallis and William Byrd, and Charles I the Catholic painter Paul Rubens: considerations of patronage overrode religious policy throughout post-Reformation England. In sum, from the emergence of the Reformation movement into the mid-seventeenth century, Protestant states issued de-facto toleration to Catholics, except in Switzerland, where more full toleration was offered. This was due to pragmatic concerns, either economic or based on what could be achieved within a political entity.

In conclusion, both Catholic and Protestant states attempted to instil conformity, though the Catholic states were notably more successful. These states began tolerating Protestants in the late sixteenth century, but this was largely eroded by 1650. Throughout the period, Protestant states did offer some de facto toleration of Catholics, but out of pragmatic necessity rather than a spirit of mutual embracement. The limitations of this toleration were clearly exhibited in the large numbers of Catholic emigrants fleeing England, the Netherlands, and Protestant German states. In 1650, religious toleration was not officially established in any European state, except in Poland and Switzerland. The Christian Europe of 1650 was thus little more tolerant than it had been at the outbreak of the Reformation.

Further Reading:

1. A. Bamji, Geert H. Janseen and M. Laven eds., The Ashgate Research Companion to the Counter-Reformation (2016)

2. B. Kaplan, Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe (2007)

3. P. Benedict, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism (2002)

4. U. Rublack (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of the Protestant Reformation (2017)