A child prodigy
Hugo Grotius is born in 1583 into an influential family residing in Delft. Only eleven years old, he enrols in the newly founded university in Leiden to read law. Young Grotius turns out to be an intellectual all-rounder, writing Latin verses with the same ease as arranging the publication of writings from classical antiquity. At the age of fifteen, Hugo Grotius accompanies Grand Pensionary Johan van Oldenbarnevelt on a diplomatic mission to the French court, in order to garner support for the Dutch revolt against Spain. The French King speaks very highly of him.
Imprisonment and escape
During the Twelve Year Truce (1609-1621), a political and religious conflict in the newly established Dutch Republic escalates. Johan van Oldenbarnevelt takes a stand against stadtholder Prince Maurice. As Van Oldenbarnevelt’s advisor, Grotius becomes one of the leading figures in this conflict. In 1618, Maurice has his opponents imprisoned. By Maurice’s order, Van Oldenbarnevelt is sentenced to death, whilst Grotius is imprisoned for life in Loevestein Castle, near the town of Gorinchem, where his family joins him.
In 1621, his wife Maria van Reigersberch devises a plan to help Grotius escape. He is regularly provided with books from Gorinchem, which are delivered and collected in a chest. On 22 March, Maria and her maidservant Elsje van Houweningen place the delivered books in Grotius’s bed, making it seem as though he is lying there. Grotius climbs into the chest, which is carried out the castle and taken to Gorinchem. Subsequently, he flees to Antwerp, dressed as a bricklayer. He spends the rest of his life in exile abroad and dies in 1645 in Rostock.
His escape marks the end of Grotius’s time in Holland, but not the end of his intellectual activities and reputation as a scholar. In addition to literary works, he writes a large number of treatises on theological, historical, and especially legal topics, among which is De iure belli ac pacis (“On the Law of War and Peace”), which explains the principles of international law. With his work, Hugo Grotius lays the foundation for international law as we know it. For example, he describes the circumstances under which a state is justified in declaring war on another state, and what means are permitted in battle. Furthermore, in his opinion, any violence exerted must always be proportional to its purpose.
Throughout the ages, Grotius’s escape in a book chest continues to fire imaginations. As a victim of the stadtholder, he joins the ranks of Van Oldenbarnevelt and the brothers Johan and Cornelis de Witt in personifying opposition to the Oranges. During the Patriot period, several objects turn up that are claimed to have been his, among which are several book chests. One such chest is on display in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam; others are held by Museum Het Prinsenhof in Delft and Loevestein Castle.