Religious Unrest in Vilnius in 1639 and 1640

The atmosphere of intolerance between representatives of different faiths was becoming ever more heated throughout the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and particularly in the capital Vilnius in the first half of the 17th century. Following the religion-based unrest in 1611, when the three turbulent days saw the demolishing of the Church of Reformed Evangelicals in Vilnius and the burning of its library and archive, hierarchs of the Catholic Church were increasingly eager to expel the churches of the Evangelicals from the city altogether. Even though the Evangelicals managed to rebuild their house of worship – for the fifth time in that very place – over a short period in 1612, their expulsion was just a question of time. New waves of unrest that arose in 1619, 1623 and 1624 and later served as a proof to that fear. Close neighbourhood of Bernardine monks and other Catholic churches was a major cause of frictions. When Reformed Evangelicals of the GDL established in 1579 their house of worship in the north-eastern part of the city (in the present-day Volanas Street) not far from the Catholic churches of St Ann and Bernardines, the Grand Chancellor of the GDL Lew Sapieha – who had himself converter from Protestantism to Catholicism – founded in 1595 the Church of St. Michael the Archangel and a convent for Bernardine nuns both of which were built in the 1620s just across the street from the Evangelical church. As the events of 1639 and 1640 have showed, that appeared to become a direct cause to new religious conflicts. Minor controversies between Calvinists and Catholics have eventually sparked a huge fire of religious strife in that territory.

A childish mischief that ended up in riots

In the autumn of 1639, Calvinists were to blame for shooting first arrows that have ignited unrest. Jan Jurski, the Reformed Evangelical priest, celebrated a christening on October 4 in his home located on the same street where the church of Reformed Evangelicals was. A number of outstanding people, the representatives of the Calvinist elite, took part in the party, including Daniel Naborowski, a poet, the judge of the Vilnius Castle Court and the client of the Voivode of Vilnius Krzysztof Radziwiłł. Naborowski came with his wife and stepson Paulus Piekarski who, together with the servant of his stepmother Jozef Rakowski, took arrows and a bow after lunch and started shooting jackdaws perched on the steeple of the Reformed Evangelical Church. Several arrows shot from the quarter inhabited mainly by Calvinists landed in the territory of the Bernardine nuns. Some of the arrows broke the windows of the nunnery and hit images of St. Michael and other archangels.

Catholics reacted immediately to what they considered a blasphemy.

They claimed that the assault on the nunnery had been planned even though the investigation revealed that an innocent entertainment was behind the incident. However, since the arrows had been shot from the area where the Calvinist Church was, a group of Catholics braced themselves for attacking and destroying the house of worship of Reformed Evangelicals.

The day after saw students of Vilnius Academy and occasional passers-by gathering at the locked-up gates of the Calvinist Church. Unable to get in, people walked towards the hospital and the school. They ravaged both buildings and beat up the poor people sheltered inside the hospital. Although the Calvinists addressed the bishop of Vilnius, Abraham Woina, asking him to stop the unrest, the Catholics extended their assault the next day too. Infantry of the garrison stationed inside the Lower Castle of Vilnius led by rittmeister Marcin Olshewski, a Calvinist, arrived to put down the riot. Two Catholics were killed and many more were wounded, among them Jakub Hartlib, rector of the Calvinist School, who suffered considerable injuries after he had been thrown into the River Vilnia several times by the rioters. Later that evening they robbed the house of Jacob Dessaus, a wealthy Calvinist merchant who lived in Vilnius after moving here from France.

The exile of Protestants and the Catholic transformation of the state

The unrest lasted for three days after which the fight between the hostile parties moved to courts. The process involved high-ranking representatives of the GDL elite with bishop Vaina representing the Catholics, and Krzysztof Radziwiłł, the Voivode of Vilnius, acting as a mediator of behalf of the Reformed Evangelicals. A commission was set up to investigate the case; it consisted of eight members and just two of them, Krzysztof Radziwiłł and Gedeon Rajecki, the castellan of Minsk, were non-Christians. The commission started working 15 January 1640. The parties had been asked to present protests and evidences until spring 1640. The process essentially was moving in line with the scenario of earlier riots that took place in Vilnius. The commission examined the scenes of action. Both Catholics and Evangelicals were fully aware of the importance of evidences, therefore they did their best collecting arguments in their favour. The parties presented different versions of the events to King Władysław IV Vasa. As soon as the legal battle came to an end, new disorders started erupting in Vilnius.

On the 25 of February 1640, a group of people assaulted the funeral procession following the coffin of Aleksander Przypkowski, the cupbearer of Ashmyana, the royal secretary and the client of Krzysztof Radziwiłł. According to the latter, Jan Anzelm Wilczek, who was elder of Ashmyana and brother-in-law of the deceased, paid a visit to the rector of Vilnius Academy on two occasions in order to caution him against potential unrest by students. His warnings, however, did not help. Krzysztof Radziwiłł was compelled to send infantry as new clashes erupted in and around the Castle Street. The latter case, just like the one from the year 1639, was ruled in favour of the Catholics by Władysław IV Vasa.

Yet again not a single Catholic was charged despite the fact that the public order had been disrupted and several buildings run by the Reformed Evangelicals, including the church, the school and the hospital, had been ravaged.

Weirdly enough, the Calvinists themselves were found guilty of the unrests of 1639 and 1640 in Vilnius. Despite the patronage by Krzysztof Radziwiłł, several Reformed Evangelical preachers were compelled to flee to the Duchy of Prussia.

The edict issued by the king on the 26th of May 1640 commanded the nuns to confirm their testimonies by oath, while the Calvinists were given six weeks to more their house of worship outside the city walls. The old building was doomed to be destroyed but the Reformed Evangelicals were allowed to erect a new church outside the city walls, just beside their cemetery. The new church for Calvinists was built in the present-day Pylimo Street; the hand-written notebook of memoires by Jan Cedrowski features its image of 1682. The same year, the church was burned down but Calvinists received yet another permission to rebuild it. The church eventually survived until 1821 when its reconstruction began. The renewed building stands in the same place up to these days.

The outcomes of the religious unrest in Vilnius in 1639 and 1640 revealed the weakening of the Reformation as a social, religious and cultural movement. According to cultural historian Ingė Lukšaitė, the balance between different confessions has already been dented. Just a short while later, assaults against Evangelical churches erupted in other towns and cities and even in private estates run by the Evangelical nobility, while the number of Evangelical parishioners was decreasing. Following the wars in the middle of the 17th century, the Reformed Evangelical Church was nothing more than a confessional minority in the GDL.

Literature: B. Zwolski, Sprawa zboru ewangelicko-reformowanego w Wilnie w latach 1639–1641, Wilno, 1936; H. Wisner, Likwidacja zboru ewangelickiego w Wilnie (1639–1646). Z dziejów walki z inaczej wierzącymi, Odrodzenie i Reformacja w Polsce, vol. 37 (1993), p. 89–102.

Aivas Ragauskas