Hugo Grotius

Published Apr 28, 2010
Hugo Grotius

A scholar's life is supposed to be uneventful, is it not--without threat more serious than a tumbling stack of books? On August 29, 1618, Hugo Grotius may have wished this were so. Moments earlier he had arrived at the Hague to attend a meeting. The doorkeeper directed him to Prince Maurices' rooms. He added, "Barnevelt is already there." Grotius went up. Barnevelt was there all right--a prisoner.

The captain of the guard seized Grotius also. In a stunning coup, the Netherlands' Calvinists had captured the Arminian political leaders. As happened so often in history, religion had gotten mixed with power politics. In its simplest terms, the controversy amounted to this: the Arminians believed a man had some say in his salvation; strict Calvinists said it was entirely God's decree. In politics, the Arminians were for states' rights, the Calvinists for more centralized authority.

Brought to Trial
A packed tribunal--the same men were both accusers and judges--sat against the prisoners. Barnevelt was beheaded. Grotius prepared for his own head to roll, refusing to request a pardon which would be an admission of guilt. He wrote his wife of his trust in God and turned the Lord's prayer into verse.

A Rigged Trial
In this frame of mind he went to trial. His accusers produced no written charges, permitted him no counsel, allowed him but one sheet of paper to prepare his defense. The tribunal pronounced him guilty. At 36 he was given a life sentence and locked in Loevestein castle. Not until a year later was he notified of the last charge: high treason!

He Was an Incredible Kid
How had his scholarship gotten Grotius into this pickle? Hugo Grotius was born in 1583. A child prodigy, he mastered Latin by age eight. Amazingly, at age eleven he was admitted to study at the University of Leyden. When he was only 15 he took his doctorate. That same year this teenage wonder accompanied a diplomatic mission to France. King Henry IV was so impressed by him he pronounced him "The Miracle of Holland." None of this went to the young man's head. He took a law degree in France and came home at 16 to publish a revision of Capella's encyclopedia. Every page showed him a master of ancient writings. He went on to write plays, histories, poems, legal works--all of high quality.

On the Fast Track in Politics
Grotius would have been content to remain a scholar. But his father pressed him to become a lawyer. He did and gained such a reputation that at 24 years of age he was appointed Attorney General for Holland, Zeeland and West-Friesland. This position involved prosecution of crime and oversight of state property. Soon he was awarded a seat in Holland's legislature and then on the national legislature and before long on the Committee of Councilors which ran the nation. His scholarship was devoted to nation and faith. Holland and Utrecht were Arminian; the other provinces Calvinist. Grotius, who had held no opinion on the issue, studied and became Arminian. Yet he struggled to unite the two factions, drafting a formula of reconciliation. His efforts failed. Thus he was locked away for life. But Grotius' opponents permitted him books and he used them to write On the Truth of the Christian Religion. They also allowed his wife, Marie, and their children, to share his two rooms, coming and going by permission. This would soon lead to a wild idea -- one loaded with risk.

This Could Be a Movie!
Grotius' books were brought in a wooden chest four feet long. This came and went. The guards became careless and no longer examined it. Marie noticed. Here might be a means of escape! Grotius found that by doubling over he could squeeze into the box. Its keyhole admitted a little air. A plan was made and a maid was sworn to secrecy and enlisted to assist. Grotius prayed on his knees an hour, then, in only his underwear, crept into the box. Marie asked the guards to carry it down. Her husband was ruining his health on studies, she said; his books must go. The guards saw Grotius' clothes on a chair and his bed curtains pulled. Supposing him in bed, they heaved up the chest. "What makes it so heavy?" they asked. "The Arminian must be in it." "Only heavy Arminian books," replied quick-witted Marie. All the same the guards checked the box for air holes and asked the wife of the commandant if they should open it. "Marie says it is books," replied the woman -- so the box was not opened.

The maid brought it to Gorcum by boat. One of the men who lugged the chest ashore cried out that there was something alive in it. "Oh, yes, Arminian books are full of life and spirit," answered the maid, and the bearers said no more. Disguised as a bricklayer, Grotius fled. Some weeks later Marie joined her husband in Paris. At this time the horrific Thirty Years' War was raging across Europe. A vicious, Machiavellian pragmatism governed the relations of states and behavior of war. Grotius was appalled at its cruelty and lack of faith, so out of line with Christianity. He composed The Rights of War and Peace, a cry for international justice. In it he appealed to natural law, showing that the heathen had often behaved better than Christians. The reception of his book was mixed. The Roman Catholic church placed it on the prohibited list. Gustav Adolphus, the Swedish king adopted its principles. A copy was found in his tent when he died--with orders that Grotius be employed by Sweden.

He Thought His Life a Waste
Grotius became Sweden's ambassador to France where he negotiated for many years with Richelieu and Louis XIII. Tender of conscience, he hated the compromises he was forced to make and resigned, sailing to Germany. A storm lashed his ship. It was de-masted and driven ashore. Weakened by exposure, he took to his bed. His last words were, "By undertaking many things, I have accomplished nothing." He could not foresee that in just three years the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years' War, would bear the imprint of his ideas.

The importance of Christian scholarship often goes unseen. But men saw in his book a turning point in law. No one before him had stated so clearly and consistently a basis for international conduct. It was nothing short of a major milestone in defining minimal human decency among nations. Grotius showed the value of Christian scholarship by changing the world for everyone. His work, not Machiavelli's, is the acclaimed standard of international conduct -- however much ignored in practice. History has given this great Christian scholar a title: Father of International Law.

Grotius on the Bases of International Law
Arguing against the theory that utility makes right, Grotius says that men may not simply seek their own advantage because we are social creatures and need one another. He then shows that we are also bound to limit our behavior because of God:

"Since we are assured [of the existence of God] partly by our reason and partly by constant tradition, confirmed by many arguments and by miracles attested by all ages, it follows that God, as our creator to whom we owe our being and all that we have, is to be obeyed by us without exception, especially since He has in many ways shown himself to be supremely good and supremely powerful. Wherefore, he is able to bestow upon those who obey Him the highest rewards, even eternal rewards, since He himself is eternal; and He must be believed to be willing to do this, particularly if He has promised to do so in plain words; and this is what Christians believe, convinced by the indubitable faith of testimonies.

"And here we find another origin of law, besides the natural source of which we have spoken; it is the free will of God, to which our reason indisputably tells us we must submit ourselves. But even natural law--whether it be the natural social law, or law in the looser meaning of which we have spoken--might yet be rightfully ascribed to God though it proceed from the principles of man's inner nature; for it was in accordance with His will that such principles came to exist within us . . . . It may be added that God has made these principles more manifest by the commandments which He has given in order that they might be understood by those whose minds have weaker powers of reasoning. And He controlled the aberration of our impulses, which drive us this way and that, to the injury of ourselves and of others; bridling our more vehement passions, and restraining them within due limits."

Fascinating Facts from the Legendary Lawyer's Life
  • 14 year old Hugo converted his mother from Catholicism to Protestantism by reasoning with her and encouraging her to read the Scriptures.
  • Grotius revered his teacher Junius who, he said, taught him more about righteousness by his devout life than all the pious books he had read.
  • A coach in which Grotius was riding was shot at by Frenchmen who thought he was coming to rescue a convicted thief. The coachman was killed and a bullet barely missed Grotius. Grotius helped obtain pardon for the shooters.
  • His wife, Marie Grotius, refused to accept the small allowance the government offered her husband for food while he was in prison, insisting on supporting him herself.
  • In exile Grotius held church services in his own house when he could not find a Protestant church.
  • Reminded on his deathbed that his recourse must be to Christ, Hugo Grotius replied that all his hope was in Jesus Christ.
  • What moved this man? "I saw in the whole Christian world a license of fighting at which even barbarous nations might blush. Wars were begun on trifling pretexts or none at all, and carried on without any reference of law, Divine or human." (from Hugo Grotius' Prolegomena)
  • The Rights of War and Peace remained on the Catholic prohibited list until 1901, when its removal became a condition for the church to participate in certain international conferences.


  1. Butler, Charles. The Life of Hugo Grotius: with brief minutes of the civil, ecclesiastical, and literary history of the Netherlands. London, J. Murray, 1826.
  2. Dumbauld, Edward The Life and Legal Writings of Hugo Grotius. Norman, Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1969.
  3. Edwards, Charles S. Hugo Grotius, the miracle of Holland: a study in political and legal thought. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1981.
  4. Hearnshaw, F. J. C. The Social & Political Ideas of Some Great Thinkers of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries; a series of lectures delivered at King's College, University of London, during the session 1925 - 26. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1967.
  5. Hugo Grotius and International Relations. Oxford [England]: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
  6. Knight, William Stanley Macbean. The Life and Works of Hugo Grotius. London, Sweet & Maxwell, Ltd., 1925.
  7. The World of Hugo Grotius (1583-1645): proceedings of the international colloquium. Amsterdam: APA: Holland University Press, 1984.
  8. Vreeland, Hamilton. Hugo Grotius, the Father of the Modern Science of International Law. New York, Oxford University Press, American Branch, 1917.
  9. White, Andrew Dickson. Seven Great Statesmen in the Warfare of Humanity with Unreason. New York: The Century Co., 1919, 1910.


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