Hugo Grotius (Dutch: Hugo de Groot) was born in Delft in 1583. He soon began to astonish everyone with his intelligence and knowledge, and was admitted to Leiden University to study law at only 11 years of age. He earned his doctorate five years later.
Hugo is regarded as one of the founding fathers of international law. Two of his most famous works include Mare Liberum (The Freedom of the Seas) and De Juri Belli ac Pacis (On the Law of War and Peace).
A religious dispute between the Remonstrants and the Counter-Remonstrants became increasingly heated during the Twelve Years’ Truce (1609–1621), a cessation of hostilities during the Eighty Years’ War. The Remonstrants (Arminians) supported the views associated with Professor Jacobus Arminius (Dutch: Jacob Hermanszoon) and their adversaries, the Counter-Remonstrants (Gomarists), supported the views of Professor Franciscus Gomarus (Dutch: François Gomaer).
Serious riots broke out between the two factions. Maurice, Prince of Orange, and his army were granted far-reaching powers to maintain law and order. A national synod, the Synod of Dort, was convened to settle the dispute and in 1619, it outlawed Arminianism.
Remonstrant members of the States of Holland were immediately arrested and imprisoned. Johan van Oldenbarnevelt (Land’s Advocate of Holland), Hugo Grotius (Pensionary of Rotterdam), Rombout Hogerbeets (Pensionary of Leiden) and Gilles van Ledenberg (Secretary of the States of Utrecht) were all put behind bars.
After half a year in remand, sentences were passed. Van Oldenbarnevelt was sentenced to death and was beheaded in 1619. Grotius and Hogerbeets were sentenced to life imprisonment and transferred to Loevestein Castle. Van Ledenberg did not wait for sentencing; he committed suicide instead.
Hugo Grotius read a lot of books during his imprisonment. Piles of books were delivered and collected in a huge chest. Prison guards used to inspect the chest thoroughly on every delivery. Only books were allowed. However, because guards never found anything untoward in the chest, they soon became lax and stopped checking the chest as frequently as they used to. This prompted Maria van Reigersberg, Grotius’ wife, and their housemaid, Elsje van Houweninge, to devise a cunning plan.
On 22 March 1621, Hugo Grotius successfully escaped from Loevestein in his book chest. With the help of the Daetselaar family in Gorinchem, he disguised himself as a mason and escaped the town. Grotius fled to Paris and then submitted a request to the States of Holland – supported by the King of France – to allow his wife and children to leave for France. His request was granted on the condition that Grotius never return to the Low Countries.
In 1634, Hugo Grotius was appointed as the Queen of Sweden’s ambassador to France. On a return trip from Sweden in 1645, Grotius was shipwrecked during the voyage. He initially survived the ordeal, washing up onshore near Rostock ill and weather-beaten, where he soon died. His body was returned to Holland and buried in the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft.