Home » History » The Ottoman Empire and the Emergence of Tolerance in the Dutch Republic

The Ottoman Empire and the Emergence of Tolerance in the Dutch Republic

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We move now to the Netherlands, where the Protestant movement endured persecution under the successor to Charles V, king Philip II of Spain. Prince William of Orange ruled the Netherlands in name of the Spanish king, but experienced moral difficulty in the execution of the persecution laws. Orange appealed many a time to Philip to moderate the persecution bills, but when this proved unsuccessful, he allied with the Protestants in a war of independence against the Spanish Empire. The Prince was persistent in appealing to the Calvinists for religious tolerance when trying to unite the Dutch provinces against Spain.


The arguments for the possibility of religious tolerance had reached him in letters reporting on the discussions in France. The debate was identified just by the reference to the Ottoman Empire. The Catholic humanist Viglius wrote to the Prince in 1564, that ‘some desire to moderate the persecution bills, others want to allow liberty of conscience, and at least live like the Christians do under the Turk’. And the Flemish noble d’Esquerdes wrote that ‘it is better to be tributary to the Turk than to live contrary to one’s conscience and to be treated according to these [persecution] bills’. In due course, the Ottoman example was frequented by the direct advisers of the Prince. Dirck Volkertsz Coornhert, one of Europe’s unique authors on tolerance, was aware of the example of the Turks, which was employed in the writings of his brother Frans. Councilor to the Prince of Orange, Phillipe de Morney, also used the argument. And when in 1574 the Prince himself was asked about his thoughts on tolerance, he replied ‘… that the Turk, scrupulous as he is to the point of sectarianism, permits all kinds of religion, and the Pope himself tolerates the Jews’.


The example of the Ottoman Empire would enjoy an interesting context in the Netherlands, as the Prince received assistance from sultan Süleyman I in his struggle for independence. In December 1565, tolerance advocate Francis Junius and the brother of the Prince of Orange, Louis of Nassau, composed a letter to Philip II, asking for toleration. The Brief discours envoyé au Roy Philippe rather daringly contrasts the ‘powerful’ Turk to the ‘ignorant’ strategy of Philip, who was under great pressure from the Ottomans in the Mediterranean:

“And who has not nowadays noticed a very large diversity of religions under the Great Turk? Only among the Christians, there are fifteen to twenty diverse sects and religions. And then there are the Jews, the Persians and the Muhammadans, all subjects in his Empire, more opposed to each other in the matter of religion than water is opposed to fire. Verily, if such a diversity would be the true cause of chaos and sedition (‘tumult et sedition’), it would have been impossible for the Turk to have become so powerful. It is a matter of great ignorance to think that one cannot maintain peace among subjects when they possess different religions. Who considers the cause of chaos and sedition at their source, will find that it does not originate at all in diversity of religion, but in certain passions such as avarice, jealousy, arrogance, vengeance and others of the like, which can ignite the smallest differences, and when the Magistrate does not put them in their place, they inflame little by little and go on to cause public disorder and sedition.”

Having in mind that the Dutch would only a few months later receive support from Süleyman against Philip, their arguments read almost as a provocation:

“The joy of being able to live and serve God in liberty of conscience is such a great force which makes one forget all other joys and desires (…) That is why it is no wonder that without any doubt, many from the Provence, during the persecutions in France, for the sake of religion have become tributory to the Turk, hoping that at least they let them live in the liberty which they desire most of all.”

In August 1566, during a famous protest against Spanish-Catholic rule in Antwerp known as the ‘Beeldenstorm’ (‘Storm against idols’), a crowd of Calvinist Christians chanted a song which advised to put ‘Half moons on your sleeves, rather Turk than Pope!’ They were referring to silver medallions in the shape of a crescent moon, with the inscription ‘In spite of the Mass – Rather Turk than Pope’. The medallions were again seen on the clothes of Dutch corsairs at the capture of the city of Leiden in 1574.54 Popular history has interpreted this to mean that the Dutch would ‘rather be dead’ than to live under Catholioc rule any longer. But historical records clearly reveal that the phrase referred to the contrast between the sultan and the Pope in the matter of tolerance. The preference for Turkish rule is found in several songs in use by the Dutch, for example:

The Prince of Orange triumphant
God will make him wise and understand
That Gods Word from this moment
May be preached to every corner
Rather Turk than Pope he has become
Although the Turk is not called Christian
He did not burn anyone for the faith
As the Papists do, every single day.

Historian Jan Fruytiers adds the trustworthiness of the Turk as a legitimation of the slogan on the medallions:

“… some wore silver half moons on their hats with these words written on them: Rather Turk than Pope. They estimated the tyranny of the Pope worse than that of the Turk, who would at least not bother a man’s conscience when he pays taxes, and who also keeps his promises better than the Pope.”


Just after the ‘Beeldenstorm’, in October, Joseph Nasi, a Jewish friend of Orange from Antwerp who had fled from the Inquisition and now worked for the sultan, arranged for a letter from Süleyman I promising the Netherlands financial and military support. After the demise of Süleyman, diplomacy continued with sultan Selim II until coöperation was established in 1574. What exactly is written and discussed between the sultans and the Dutch I currently do not know. But as Süleyman had mentioned his tolerance of Protestants in his correspondence to Francis I in 1528, he is sure to have done so again with the Dutch, especially since he was aware that the Dutch were fighting to achieve the toleration he already granted in his Empire.

It could have been for the support and correspondence of the sultans, or for the fact that European advocates of tolerance had completed their argument sufficiently, or a combination of both. But by 1579, William of Orange succeeded in establishing the first declaration of universal tolerance in Europe, extending freedom of religion not only to other Christians (as in the Hungarian Edict of Torda of 1568), but also to Jews and even Muslims. The ‘Union of Utrecht’ stated that ‘every individual is allowed liberty in his religion and no one is to be persecuted or questioned for his faith’.

The Union of Utrecht did not prevent especially Catholics from experiencing discrimination every now and then, having to keep their churches out of sight by setting them up in the atticks of private houses. But still, the campaign for tolerance had succeeded in establishing tolerance as an ideal in the minds of Dutch intellectuals, who on occasion took pride in the toleration even of Muslims in the Netherlands. In Dutch paintings, Muslims are depicted as symbols both of the idea of tolerance, as of the tolerance and mundanity of the Dutch Republic.

The Netherlands became an interesting junction in the adoption of the Ottoman example of religious diversity. First, it reached the Netherlands in the arguments for tolerance emanating from France and in the writings of Sebastian Castellio. Second, the religious intolerance of Spain was the reason for the Dutch to revolt and seek collaboration with the Ottomans. There can be no doubt about it that the contrast of Ottoman policy to Spanish intolerance, experienced by Joseph Nasi in his own life, played a key role in the understanding he established between Süleyman I and the Dutch. Prince William of Orange has been pictured as tirelessly attempting to unify the Dutch provinces under the condition of universal tolerance of religions. What made the Prince so confident and persistent in his appeals to tolerance has always remained something of a mystery. Although his personal dissatisfaction with the persecutions must have been an important factor, as has been suggested, I believe the Ottoman example and Ottoman support supplied him with confidence to strive not just for tolerance of some sects, but to envision a religiously diverse society.


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