"For God has given conscience a judicial power to be the sovereign guide of human actions, by despising whose admonitions the mind is stupefied into brutal hardness."

Hugo Grotius

Hugo Grotius made invaluable contributions to legal theory in general, and international law in particular by proposing workable theories, some rule of law and justice to a then-mostly anarchical world of international relations. He is recognized as a founder of international law.

He was born a Protestant in Delft, Netherlands on April 10, 1583. His name at birth (and real name) was Huig de Groot (also spelled Huigh) but after a long tenure out of the Netherlands, including many published works, he became known as Hugo Grotius.

Hugo GrotiusHis father was a scholar and Hugo took to books with a vengeance, entering university at Leiden at the tender age of 11. In 1599, he received a law degree from the Universite d'Orleans in Orleans, France.

He was registered as a lawyer in the Netherlands when only 16. In 1604, he became involved in international law litigation, maritime law to be precise. A Dutch ship seized a Portuguese ship and kept it. At the time, much of maritime law concerned legalized piracy with ships regularly capturing each other - later known as prize law. The title of his work: the law of the prize (De jure praedae).

Even in England, lords and their captains, such as Walter Raleigh, committed acts of piracy under the auspices of law known as prize law.

But circa 1600, Grotius had occasion to pause on this phenomena intellectually and his writings initiated an international rethinking of this policy of legal piracy, and the consequences to trade and passenger traffic, even as new worlds were opening up and markets for travel and transport. In the result, he published Mare Liberum (Free Ocean) in 1609 arguing that the ocean belonged to no one state all were free to use it for trade or passenger traffic.

On of the many remarkable features of Grotius' fabric of legal writing is the thorough use and reference of other jurists, living or dead, as he drew from an eclectic mix of sources including Roman law, ancient Greek law and domestic civil law.

Not everybody agreed with his theories. By contrast, England claimed sovereignty over the waters that surrounded the British Islands. But for how far? And to what extent could foreign ships access the ports of others?

In 1608, Grotius married Maria van Reigerberch.

Meanwhile, Grotius earned further promotions within the judicial and government apparatus of the Dutch state. By 1613, he was an active politician and he was again called upon to resolve a dispute over the ever-pressing religious demands upon the organs of state, and vice-versa. Grotius' theory was to separate the two except to the extent to maintain peace and order. As far as esoteric religious rituals went, though, he proposed that the defence or protection of these be left to the church and not the state. But these were bold suggestions for a still deeply religious population.

In 1618, Grotius was arrested when a political group adverse to his ideas took power. He narrowly avoided the gallows, instead, on May 18, 1619, receiving a sentence of life imprisonment in Loevestein Castle.

This led to Grotius' famous prison escape when, in 1621, he hid in a box and was secreted out of jail. He quickly left the country and resurfaced in Paris, for an exile that would last the rest of his life. Louis XIII took him into his royal court and gave him a pension, allowing Grotius to resume his intellectual work. He took, first, to religious themes but he could not avoid noticing and commenting on the state of seemingly perpetual war between one and another European states.

In 1625, he published (and dedicated to Louis XII): De jure belli ac pacis, translated as The Law of War and Peace. It was a brave foray into what has become known as natural law, an attempt to articulate a body of law as natural to man; as inherent to human society when left to its own devices - a law that was obvious from the nature of things, and not as interpreted within alleged divine revelations of religion, or the man-made dictates of governments.

Hugo Grotius stampIn De jure belli, Grotius condemned the complete lack of restraint and inhuman conduct of victorious Christian states in the waging of war: the pillaging of towns, the rape of woman, and the wanton torture and murder of civilians and captured soldiers. In Prolegomena, he wrote:

"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."

He argued that there could be a "just war"; that there existed three justifications for war: to intimidate (punish), self-defense or retaliation. De jure belli also took up a theme with which international law struggles with even today: that there ought to be basic rules governing even warfare (for example, the Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War).

In the conscience of international relations and international law, Grotius' ideas fused with those of Francisco de Vitoria to jump start international law specifically, but also giving political leaders a foundation of reason and law as they relate to justice in what was then still a Wild West of conquest and international relations.

Regularly, Grotius published books on his theories of state responsibility within international affairs and on religious themes.

In 1631, the Dutch government invited Grotius back on the simple condition that he ask for a pardon. Grotius returned and lived in Holland from 1631 to 1632 but he felt he had done nothing wrong and that he had been wrongfully sentenced. In 1631, he published Introduction to the Jurisprudence of Holland.

As principled as Thomas More, Grotius ultimately refused to ask for a pardon and when he heard of his imminent arrest, he again fled, first to Germany and later, Paris.

The King of Sweden was another admirer of De jure belli and he asked Grotius to serve as ambassador to Sweden in Paris. Grotius accepted and served to 1645.

In 1627, he published The Truth of the Christian Religion (De veritate religionis Christianae) in which he argued for unification of Christian religions. He made one last in-person report to the Swedish government and on his return sail to France, his ship was wrecked at Rostock, German. He was rescued but he died soon after, on August 25, 1645. His body was returned to Delft where he was buried.


  • Bettati, M., "Grotius (Hugo de Groot, dit), 1583-1645", published in Encyclopedia Universalis, Corpus 10 (Paris: Encyclopedia Universalis, 1989), page 967
  • Duhaime, Lloyd, Law's Hall of Fame
  • Eliade, M., The Encyclopedia of Religion, Vol. 6 (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987), page 135-136.
  • Knight, S. M., The Life and Works of Hugo Grotius (1925)
  • Rowen, H., "Grotius", published in The McGraw-Hill Encycolopedia of World Biography, Volume 4 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973), page 560
  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Hugo Grotius
  • Van Miereveld, Michiel Jansz, painter (re image)

Thanks to Michiel Zeevaarder for suggesting Hugo Grotius for inclusion in the Law's Hall of Fame.