Margaret Clitherow being pressed to death

Persecution and Toleration in Early Modern England

Tutor: Emilie Murphy

Module type: MA Option

Module Code: HIS00080M

Credits: 20

The early modern period is widely regarded as an era of intensified persecution, and yet simultaneously as the crucible in which a tolerant society was born. The period witnessed concerted drives to eliminate religious dissent, catalysed violence and wars of religion, and left a legacy of hatred and prejudice that led many to conceal their religious beliefs, go into exile or face execution. At the same time, this was a period where old assumptions about the evils of toleration were debated, where religious minorities were permitted and sanctioned, and an era which saw ordinary people of differing confessions find creative ways to coexist.

This course will focus on England, but it is set firmly within the context of wider contemporary British and European developments, and studies the relationship between these competing impulses from c.1500-1700. The course emphasises the value of forging links between the political and ecclesiastical, intellectual, social and cultural histories of the period and of combining a variety of approaches to the study of tolerance and intolerance in past societies. Beginning with religious dissenters in the late Middle Ages and (officially) ending with the Toleration Act of 1689, we will investigate evolving attitudes toward religious minorities, alongside the differing ways they responded to the intolerance they were subjected to, and how this in turn shaped their mentality and outlook. Students will explore these developments by engaging with a range of primary sources including music, material objects, literature, and polemic.

Students will also examine secondary sources, and the scholarly controversies that have crystallised around the themes of persecution and toleration by interrogating the models of progress that underpinned much earlier historical discussion of these topics, and consider the strengths and weaknesses of newly emerging perspectives.

Seminar topics may include:

    • Heterodoxy and Religious Dissent: Lollards in Late Medieval England
    • Religion and the State: Uniformity, Loyalty and Resistance
    • Responses to Persecution: Equivocation, Conformity and Co-existence
    • Responses to Persecution: Martyrdom
    • Responses to Persecution: Exile
    • Confessional Identities and Popular Stereotypes: Puritans and Papists
    • Radical Religion in the 1640s and 1650s
    • Radicalism and Restoration: The Origins of Toleration?


Preliminary reading   

    • Coffey, John. Persecution and toleration in Protestant England, 1558-1689. New York: Longman, 2000
    • Gregory, Brad. Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998
    • Kaplan, Benjamin K. Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007
    • Walsham, Alexandra. Charitable Hatred: Tolerance and Intolerance in England, 1500-1700. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006


For more detailed information, please visit the module catalogue.