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Religious Violence and Tolerance: the Case of English Reformation

On 23 January 2020, during a regular session of the seminar "Christianity in the History of Medieval and Modern Europe" (run by the Centre in conjunction with the Centre for French-Russian Studies) Anna Seregina gave a paper "Religious Violence and the Co-existence of Different Confessions in England in the 16th 17th centuries". Below is A. Shpirt's report on the talk.

On 23 January 2020 the next session of the regular seminar “Christianity in the History of Medieval and Modern Europe” was held at the Centre for French-Russian Studies (Moscow). The seminars in the series are convened conjointly by the Centre for Medieval Studies, HSE, Centre for French-Russian Studies, and the Centre for Ukrainian and Belorussian Studies (Faculty of History, Moscow Lomonosov State University). At the seminar, discourses of religious violence and confessional intolerance were discussed as part of the English Reformation. On agenda were the following questions:

·      Religious violence and English Protestantism in the 16th–17th centuries: academic interpretations

·      What was the role of doctrinal and exegetical ideas in kindling bouts of violence in 16th–17th century England?


The seminar built on the discussion at the previous session which had featured the talk by I.A. Fadeev (Institute of World History, Russian Academy of Sciences) “Church of England and Anglican Identity”. 

The central piece of the current session was the paper by Anna Seregina (Institute of World History, Russian Academy of Sciences) "Religious Violence and the Co-existence of Different Confessions in England in the 16th 17th centuries" coupled with the discussion of her recent books (in Russian):  

·       The Political Thought of English Catholics of the late 16th – early 17th centuries (St Petersburg, 2006)

·       The English Catholic Society in the 16th–17th centuries: Montagu viscontes(Moscow; St Petersburg, 2017)

·       London and Reformation: the Life of the British Capital under Tudors (1485–1603) (St Petersburg, 2020).

British historians of the 19th century are responsible for the historiographic legacy of a ‘religiously tolerant England’ which is still very much present in popular accounts. According to this narrative, there was no religious persecution in Protestant England with the exception of the short rule of Mary I, and only political crimes like treason were punished.

All the major revolts and upheavals in 16th-century England (1536, 1549, and 1569) were religiously motivated, and executions were widespread among those who belonged to non-dominant confessions throughout the century. The civic war of the 17th century was another major religious conflict. The rights of religious minorities were not legally secured until the late 17th century, and for Catholics not until the 19th century.

This myth of tolerance has been significantly dismantled in the scholarship of last decades of the 20th century; significantly, however, thinking in terms of sharp contract between religious violence vs tolerance is anachronistic in reference to 16th–17th century developments. Our analysis should be done in the terms that had currency in 16th-century England. Thus, “conformity” would be the term that covered subjects’ compliance with legal and church regulations; breaking them would be a political rather than religious crime. State rhetoric always underlined that it was rebellions subdued, rather than religious groups ousted. In practical terms, therefore, religious and political motivations and discourses overlapped.

Consequently, in 16th century discourse, religious violence was opposed to the freedom of conscience, not “toleration”. The latter was negatively connoted and could be used in reference to lack of religious zeal or even atheism on part of power structures. Freedom of conscience was typically the last resort of the persecuted, both Catholics and Protestants.

This line of argument could be handled in this manner. Attending church is an act of complying with the sovereign’s power, i.e. a political act, whereas participation in shared prayer or eucharist is a religious action. Many Catholics relied on this distinction in their refusal to follow religious practices while assenting to attend churches.

One’s free will as a Christian was intimately linked with the freedom to practice one’s own faith, if privately. Many aristocratic Catholics were in practical terms allowed to do this while in public contexts they were banned from more open forms of religious action. 

A compliant subject of the sovereign, rather than a rebel, was treated with charityin following his private religious devotions, something that is usually forgotten when approaching the material from the anachronistic perspective of violence vs tolerance.

The two discourses, therefore, co-existed in 16th century England. One the one hand, there were injunctions to eradicate “heathens”, often voiced to avoid charges of lack of zeal (toleration). At the same time, peaceful cohabitation with neighbours of other confessions was also promoted. The first discourse is more prominently present in pamphlets and sermons while the second in official documents (often local regulations) used in speaking about specific political action. The choice between the two discourses was situation-based.

Select bibliography:

Difference and Dissent: Theories of Toleration in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ed. C.J. Nederman and J.C. Laursen (New York 1996)

J.C., Laursen, C.J. Nederman, Beyond the Persecuting Society: Religious Toleration before the Enlightenment (Pennsylvania 1998).

Religious Toleration: “the Variety of Rites” from Cyrus to Defoe, ed. J.C. Laursen (London 1999)

Nederman C.J., Words of Difference: European Discourses of Toleration, c. 110–1550 (Pennsylvania 2000).

Tolerance and Intolerance in the European Reformation, ed. O.P. Grell and B. Scribner (Cambridge 2002)

A.   Walsham, Charitable Hatred: Tolerance and Intolerance in England, 1500–1700 (Cambridge 2006)

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