The Grotian moment: Hugo Grotius and the invention of international law

Hugo Grotius (1583-1645)

A lawyer serving a life sentence escapes from prison hidden in a bookcase: as a plot point it would have the sort of ironic neatness that gives novelists and screenwriters a bad name. In this instance, however, it is true.

It happened on 22 March 1621. The prison was the 14th Century castle of Loevestein, which stands at the meeting of the Meuse and Waal rivers in the Dutch United Provinces. And the lawyer in question was Huigh de Groot (better known then and now as Hugo Grotius). The charge? We shall come to that later.

But to describe Grotius as merely a lawyer is to do him scant justice. In an age when polymaths were less rare he was considered exceptional. He was a philosopher, a diplomat, a historian and a poet (in Latin and in Dutch); he was hailed as ‘the miracle of Holland’ when just 15 by Henri IV of France; Milton met him and admired his dramatic poem Adamus Exul (‘Adam in Exile’); Sweden’s Gustavus Adolphus carried his writings with him wherever he went.

And yet it is on his work as a legal theorist that his reputation now rests. He is, simply, the father of international law. To this day, whenever international lawyers discuss great leaps forward in their field, they describe them as Grotian moments. The establishment of the UN at the end of World War II was one such moment; the abolition of slavery another.

At the time of his incarceration, however, all this is beside the point. In 1621, his greatest work was ahead of him. Had he remained in Loevestein for the rest of his life, it is debatable what he would have achieved – and what, if anything, he would be remembered for.
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