Gutenberg brought freedom and suppression. He liberated the word, but from the sixteenth century onwards most secular and religious authorities in Europe tried to regulate and control it. Printers were required to hold official licenses to trade and produce books. In 1557 the English Crown aimed to stem the flow of dissent by chartering the Stationers’ Company. The right to print was restricted to Oxford and Cambridge and twenty-one existing printers in the City of London. The nature of censorship was initially predominantly religious in nature with the aim of suppressing views that were contrary of those of an organized religion on the grounds of blasphemy, heresy, sacrilege or impiety.
Tolerance and censorship are incompatible. There are civil, ecclesiastical and social components to the notion of tolerance. The first concerns the policy of the state towards dissent; the second focuses on the degree of diversity tolerated within a particular church; and the third deals with accepting or celebrating difference in the street and work place. The practice of religious toleration depends on the principle that society and the state extend freedom of belief and expression by refraining to impose restrictions, conditions, doctrines, or forms of worship or association upon them. The principle goes beyond the sole domain of religion as it incorporates the broader (and more important) goals of intellectual liberty and freedom from censorship. The early history of religious toleration in England is – in one way or another – connected with the Low Countries.
The accession of Elizabeth I put an end to the years of Catholic restoration under Queen Mary. With the 1559 Act of Supremacy in which Elizabeth declared herself Supreme Governor of the Church of England came an Oath of Supremacy, requiring anyone taking public or church office to swear allegiance to the monarch as head of the Church and state. Anyone refusing to take the Oath could be charged with treason. Between 1559 and 1561 a continuous drift of academics and intellectuals to the Low Countries can be observed. The Elizabethan purge of the universities created a remarkable Catholic diaspora in the Southern Netherlands. During the first decade of her reign more than a hundred senior members of the University of Oxford alone left for Louvain and Douai.
English Catholicism in exile not only survived in the Low Countries, but also found a more distinct and polemical voice. In December 1425, John IV of Burgundy was allowed by papal bull to establish a university in Louvain, the capital of the Duchy of Brabant. The new university had three faculties: law, medicine and the arts. The faculty of theology was added in 1432. It developed into a bastion of conservatism and hence intolerance. Louvain accused Luther of heresy even before the Pope did. The faculty was actively involved in the battle against Protestantism and in listing books that on the index. In 1559, Philip II established the University of Douai in Flanders with the purpose of preserving the purity of the Catholic faith from the errors of the Reformation. Soon there were English, Scottish and Irish colleges and the university became the chief centre for exiles, including many young men from Oxford and Cambridge who remained loyal to the old faith.
Next to Louvain and its famous university, Douai became the most important recusant centre on the European mainland. Catholics leaving Britain tended to settle in English monastic foundations in the Southern Netherlands where there were over twenty such islands of refuge representing all important orders. It was here that John Heigham started life in exile. The latter had been involved with the shadowy Catholic book trade in London at the close of the sixteenth century before moving to Douai first and later to St Omer, where he commissioned numerous devotional works for an English Catholic audience. His collaborations with printers in the Low Countries made him the most productive Catholic publisher of his day after the English College press. A notable publication was the Venerable Bede’s Historie of the Church of England (St Omer, first edition 1622; the second dates from 1626).
Students at the English College at Douai (founded by William Allen in 1568) were groomed to undertake missionary work at home. English refugees in Louvain and Douai constituted for the Catholic authorities in Rome and Spain a potential recruitment force. Hence their financial support to those who had fled their country of origin and who found themselves isolated. Only a few English exiles managed to integrate. Refugees made no contribution to the economic or artistic life in the Low Countries. They were a displaced group of people waiting to return home, deliberately avoiding mixing with locals. Integration and tolerance were the last concept that came to the minds of these displaced exiles. A similar observation can be made for Protestant refugees in the Netherlands.
In 1608, a group of separatists, who would later become known as the Pilgrims, fled prosecution in England and settled in Amsterdam. In 1609 the Pilgrims moved to Leiden where they stayed until 1620. One of the separatist leaders there, William Brewster returned to England in 1617 helping to make arrangements for the Pilgrim migration to America. In 1620 he and his 120 followers of the Leiden congregation set sail on the Speedwell for Plymouth from where 102 passengers embarked on the Mayflower to undertake the long journey to Virginia. It was because of the anxiety of losing their English identity, the fear that their children would become assimilated in Dutch society, and of course because of the threat of war with Spain, that these Puritans decided to sail for America.
Protestantism has prided itself as being a liberating creed. Yet, it has to face the fact that its founding fathers believed in stamping out the beliefs of nontrinitarians. Toleration was condemned for encouraging erroneous beliefs – the persecuted advocating persecution. The case for conciliation was first made by English separatists who had fled to the Low Countries. The ideal of toleration was born in exile. In 1606, Leonard Busher fled to the Netherlands where he embraced Baptism. This particular tradition had grown out of the merging of English separatism and Dutch religious tenets during the first decade of the seventeenth century. Primary to this development was the figure of physician John Smyth while he was in Holland between 1608 and 1612. Having joined the so-called Ancient Church in Amsterdam, he was in close contact with local Mennonites, followers of Frisian Anabaptist Menno Simons. His flock were given space to hold their services at the ‘cake house’ of sympathizer Jan Munter. Thus the first English Baptist church was born on foreign soil. In 1614 Busher published his classic Religious Peace, or, A Reconciliation between Princes & Peoples, & Nations in Amsterdam. Addressed to James I and the English parliament, the book is a eloquently argued case for religious toleration, resting on the principle that no sovereign or bishop can compel conscience or command faith.
Baptist leader Thomas Helwys sailed to the Netherlands in 1608, having been a key figure in organizing the emigration to Amsterdam and Leiden of the separatists led by John Smyth, Richard Clifton and John Robinson. In A Short and Plaine Proof (1611) he developed his radical ideas arguing for total religious toleration (he approved of the freedoms allowed by Dutch secular authorities). In his Mystery of Iniquity (printed in Amsterdam, 1612) he opposed all compulsion, even of Roman Catholics and non-Christians, in matter of conscience: ‘Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least’. He bluntly warned King James that he was ‘a mortal man and not God, and therefore hath no power over ye immortal souls of his subjects’. Earlier he had published A Declaration of Faith of the English People Remaining in Amsterdam (1611), it being the first such confession of an English Baptist church. Amsterdam was the chosen place of refuge for English dissenters during the seventeenth century. Such was the Amsterdam tolerant policy towards faith that the phrase ‘an Amsterdam of religions’ became almost proverbial in English. Independent minister and printer John Canne arrived in the Dutch capital in 1632, soon after becoming the leader of the English Brownist refugees there. In 1634 he published his most important book in Amsterdam, entitled A Necessitie of Separation from the Church of England in which he called for a break with the Anglican Church. Canne remained in Amsterdam until at least 1645 where he ran his own printing press bearing the Richt Right impress. It was at this time that dissident thinking started to make an impact. The 1640s are considered a key decade during which the impetus behind tolerationist ideas came from radical Puritanism. London-born Roger Williams is traditionally seen as opening the debate in 1644 when his call for toleration went as far as embracing heretics, blasphemers, Catholics, Muslims and pagans. Tolerationists provided a principled opposition to religious persecution whilst pleading for the peaceful co-existence of a plurality of religions.
The 1689 Toleration Act was a landmark in this struggle for religious toleration although its idealistic purpose should not be exaggerated. Cromwell did not strive to create a liberal society in which divergent religious opinions were openly tolerated. Both his re-admission of Jews into England and William III’s Act of Tolerance were politically motivated manoeuvres rather than statements of principle. Theirs was a ‘qualified tolerance’. But toleration that calls for exceptions, freedom for some and not for others, is no tolerance at all. Persecution hides around the corner. As indeed was the case. Atheism, blasphemy, idolatry and adultery were excluded from toleration, because they were regarded as contrary to natural reason and public order. As, for many commentators, was Catholicism. Thomas Helwys, Roger Williams, and the Levellers were remarkable voices in the toleration debate. During the period of their greatest influence, Levellers were willing to extend toleration to Catholics. They were the real champions of religious freedom voicing the idea of a constitution in which the state has no religious role.
Even John Locke did not go as far. He published some of his early works in Holland, including the famous Epistola de tolerantia (Gouda, 1689), a plea for toleration in matters of belief. The text was translated in Dutch the same year and published in Rotterdam as Brief aangaande de verdraagzaamheid. Locke was one of several proponents of religious toleration who made an exception for Catholics (including Cromwell and Milton). They were objected to on two main grounds: Catholics were idolaters and disloyal subjects owing allegiance to a hostile foreign prince, the Pope.