Biography of Hugo Grotius1
Hugo Grotius2 was born in Delft in 1583, an exciting time of social, economic, religious and political transformation. The Netherlands had just declared their independence from Spain, and many skilled immigrants were moving from the Spanish-controlled southern Netherlands (present-day Belgium) and elsewhere, primarily for the religious tolerance of the north. The Netherlands were booming economically and demographically, and this was reflected in the flowering intellectual and cultural life.
Grotius’ father Jan was a doctor of laws who became mayor of Delft and later curator of Leiden University, established as the first university in the Netherlands in 1575. Grotius commenced his university studies at Leiden when he was eleven, focussing on classical languages as well as Hebrew and Arabic in addition to mathematics and physics. At the university, Grotius befriended the famous scholar Scaliger, who helped him publish an edition of Martianus Capella’s Satyricon, a rare achievement for a boy not yet fourteen years old. Concluding his university studies, Grotius joined the 1598 embassy to the French court headed by prime minister Oldenbarnevelt. There, he was presented to King Henri IV, who hailed him as the "miracle d’Hollande." Grotius remained in France for a few months after the conclusion of the embassy, earning the diploma of doctor from the Université d’Orléans. By April 1599, he was back in the Netherlands and, at sixteen years of age, ready to start a professional career. At the end of 1599 he took the oaths as advocate before the courts at The Hague.
The busy legal practice in no way dampened Grotius’ literary activity, and he published a number of his own Latin poems as well as some translations. With a grant from the States of Holland and the States-General, Grotius wrote De Antiquitate Reipublicæ Batavicae, a history of the origins of the Dutch Republic and, in the autumn of 1604, became historiographer of Holland.3 He was also busy with a comparative study of constitutions and, in 1607 (at the age of 24!) was appointed to be Advocate-Fiscal of Holland, a position which included the functions of Attorney-General, Public Prosecutor and Sheriff. Some time earlier, Grotius had also become employed by the Dutch East India Company as its advocate.4
The chief event on which Grotius was asked to justify the Company’s position was the seizure by one of the Company’s admirals, Jacob van Heemskerk, of the Portuguese ship ‘Catharina’ in the straits of Malacca. He engrossed himself in the study of the matter of prize and, by 1606, had completed a book on the subject. The book was not published until the 19th century, however, though a single chapter of the book was distributed as the essay Mare Liberum, on the freedom of the seas.
In 1608, a few months after Grotius was named Advocate-Fiscal of Holland, he married nineteen-year-old Maria van Reigersberch, who came from a prominent Zeeland family. During the next few years, Grotius maintained his high level of activity, writing literary works as well as legal tracts and becoming ever more heavily involved in politics. In 1613, he was part of a mission to England which centred on discussions relating to freedom of navigation and commerce in the Indian seas. The English were claiming the same freedom from the Dutch as the Dutch had claimed a few years earlier from the Spanish and Portuguese. A second, more delicate, aim of the mission was for Grotius to apprise King James I of the ecclesiastical situation in the Netherlands and to encourage him to take a position favourable to the States of Holland.
Both missions seem to have been generally unsuccessful. Before leaving for England, however, Grotius had already accepted the office of Pensionary of the city of Rotterdam, and he applied himself to this new challenge. Nominally the servant of the town council, the Pensionary often actually directed its policy. Since Rotterdam was the second-most influential city in the Netherlands, the thirty-year-old Grotius’ new office guaranteed him a prominent role in Dutch politics. The position included a place in the executive council of the Province and in the States-General, and the holder of the office could not fail to play an active part in the controversies which were dividing state and nation.
The controversies concerned, on the surface, a difference of opinion between conservative and liberal Calvinists about predestination. Rotterdam was the only city in the Netherlands in which the liberals had a majority and, during the course of the summer of 1613, Grotius published Ordinum pietas, defending the leadership of the province of Holland against the aspersions of conservative preacher Sibrandus Lubbertus. Lubbertus responded with a pointed attack entitled Responsio ad Pietatem Hugonis Grotii, which the liberals condemned as a scandalous libel. The province of Holland favoured moderation and, early in 1614, passed a resolution (drafted by Grotius) calling for greater liberty of discussion in the universities, while conceding that the clergy were to avoid teaching anything outside the prescribed limits. The resolution, which attempted to find common ground between the two positions, reflected Grotius’ earlier attempts to bring together Gomar (leader of the conservatives) and Arminius (leader of the liberals).
The resolution had little effect, however, and the conflict rapidly evolved into much more than a simple difference of opinion about an obscure theological point. It became intertwined with the political question of the relative power of the provinces and the States-General within the Dutch federation. The "controversy between Arminius and Gomar, spreading from the university to the pulpit, and from the pulpit to the street and the tavern convulsed the United Provinces with a fury of contending animosities. The political issue and the religious issue became inextricably mixed, and the pivotal point of each was the Province of Holland."5 Holland was the most powerful province in the federation, and also the only one in which the liberals were in the majority. Prince Maurits, with his strong centralising aspirations, saw in the religious issue a chance to focus the anger felt over Holland’s predominance towards his political gain. Thus the ecclesiastical dispute fed and was in turn subsumed by the political struggle between the smaller provinces and Holland.
Something akin to a ‘civil cold war’ started around July 1617 when the conservative Calvinists, excluded by decree from using State churches, invaded the Cloister Church in The Hague and established themselves in possession. Prince Maurits attended their service two weeks later, sending a clear signal. Caught up in his dispassionate legal analysis, however, Grotius failed to see the political reality of the situation. Towards the end of June 1618, against the protestations of the province of Holland, the States-General issued a summons to the various provinces to attend a national synod to decide the religious question. A flurry of negotiations followed (Grotius, characteristically, was right in the middle of things), culminating in a secret resolution of the States-General (clearly illegal, as far as Grotius’ dispassionate legal analysis went) authorising Prince Maurits and others "to take any measures which they might judge necessary in the public interest. This was followed one day later [on August 29, 1618] by another secret resolution ordering the arrest of Oldenbarnevelt, Grotius and Hogerbeets, the Pensionary of Leiden."6 Oldenbarnevelt was executed, while Grotius and Hogerbeets were imprisoned.
Thus, at the age of 36, Grotius was arrested and imprisoned in the castle of Loevestein on no substantive charge other than being on the losing political side. His meteoric rise to fame and glory was over. Having much free time, and reading books sent by his friends from Leiden, he produced a large number of new literary works including Annotations on the Gospels, part of his Commentary on the New Testament. In Dutch, he produced Bewys van den Waren Godtsdienst, a Proof of the True Religion designed primarily as a handbook for Dutch seafarers travelling in non-Christian countries. He also composed a legal tome, the Inleiding tot de Hollandsche Rechtsgeleertheyd (Introduction to the Jurisprudence of Holland), which became the foundation of Dutch law until replaced by Napoleonic code in 1809.7
Two years after his imprisonment Grotius succeeded in a fabled escape planned by his wife, in which he was placed in a chest which was purportedly filled with books. Via Antwerp, he fled to Paris with his brother Willem, where he was joined after five months by his wife and elder children. From 1621 to 1631, Grotius fostered the hope of an honourable return to the Netherlands. In 1623, he began writing De Jure Belli ac Pacis. As the years went on, Grotius devoted more and more of his time to the study of theology. In 1631, he returned to Holland for a few months, but was forced to flee to Hamburg, returning to Paris in 1635 as ambassador of the young Queen Christina of Sweden. As ambassador, Grotius' time was filled with negotiations and visits. In 1637, he entertained the young John Milton, who was passing through Paris. Grotius maintained his ambassadorial post in Paris until a few months before his death ten years later.
1. Much of the biographical information in this section is drawn from the British Academy's Annual Lecture on a Master Mind: R.W. Lee. Hugo Grotius (London: Proceedings of the British Academy, 1930).
2. "Hugo Grotius" is the Latin version of the Dutch name Huig de Groot.
3. Grotius seems to have been a 'popular' rather than 'professional' historian: his history seems to embellish and glorify as much as it reports and interprets.
4. Think of Microsoft's (or some other massively dominant corporation's) top lawyer as a twenty-three year old...
5. R W Lee. Hugo Grotius, pp.25, 26.
6. Ibid, p.32
7. It also became a key legal text of Ceylon, British Guyana and other formerly Dutch colonies as well as Transvaal and the Orange Free State, and was cited in South African law until early in this century. Kahn notes that "[r]eferences to the work of Grotius by [South African] courts are legion." Ellison Kahn. The Life and Works of Hugo Grotius. Address delivered to the South African Law Commission on 26 July 1983 to commemorate the 400th birthday of Hugo Grotius, p.17.