Hugo Grotius – “Le Miracle de Hollande” – Part Three

By Traci Emerson Spackey

This is part three of a three-part series on Hugo Grotius. Parts one and two are already available.

In the last two installments, I had the privilege of introducing the first two-thirds of one Hugo Grotius’ life, a famous scholar and father of modern international law. Hugo was in his day—and remains still—one of the most learned men of modern history. His education began young, as did his state career, which ended bitterly through his embroilment in great political and religious controversy that took place in Holland in the early 17th century. After discussing this controversy last week and telling the tale of his imprisonment and escape, I now move on to the last chapter of his life, almost the entirety of which is spent abroad.

Paris & Diplomacy

“Unappreciated as an irenist, famous among scholars, exiled from his homeland, and sidelined in diplomacy: that is a summary of the final years of Grotius’ life.”[1] This unfortunately sums up the last decade of Hugo’s remarkable (yet tumultuous) life. After his prison break to Paris, Hugo was well received by the French, who generally supported Grotius’ side of the political implications of the great Dutch controversy of the time.[2] Later that year, his family joined him in Paris and he was granted a small pension. It was right around this time that Hugo penned one of his most famous and landmark works: De jure belli ac pacis.

Front page of book De jure belli ac pacis

De jure belli ac pacis – Credit: The original uploader was Sarvodaya at English Wikipedia. / Public domain

De jure belli ac pacis (On the Law of War and Peace) is known as the first to discuss at length the principle of natural law, and therefore lay the foundation for much thought in international jurisprudence. Though the volume mostly discusses war, Grotius’ intent was to promote peace through the text. He drew from the Stoics and many other scholars before him. In it, he asked the question whether war could ever be just, and drew from natural law, human law, and even divine law to draw a resoundingly affirmative conclusion. Thus, De jure belli ac pacis is the origin of the just war theory. It was May 9th, 1625 when Hugo presented this work to the King of France, Louis XIII, dedicating it to him.[3]

A few years later, having never truly given up on his homeland, Hugo tried unsuccessfully to return to Holland in 1631.[4] Being poorly received and again “chased off”, he fled once more, this time briefly to Hamburg.[5] During his brief stint in Hamburg, Grotius was solicited by the state of Sweden and offered the position of Ambassador to France.[6] He accepted.

The family thence found themselves back in Paris in early 1635, where they were to remain for another 10 years or so.[7] Certainly, this position significantly helped the family financially, and they naturally enjoyed the lifestyle and company of diplomats during this time.[8] But while their financial position was improved, over the years Hugo became disappointed–if not disillusioned–by his career, and suspicious of opposition and animosity toward him.[9] During his diplomatic tenure, Hugo helped Sweden and France navigate some significant diplomacy, but among other slights was overlooked when delegates were chosen for a peace congress between Sweden and France in 1642.[10]

The End

The end of his time in France came to a rather unceremonious halt when he received a letter from Queen Christina of Sweden in March 1945, recalling him to Sweden to “attend more closely to the Queen.”[11] The recall, while not unexpected, is still murky as to motive. Nonetheless, Hugo dutifully made leave of his friends and business in Paris and left it for Sweden a month later.[12] He knew the voyage would be risky, and in preparation for it penned his last will on March 27, 1645, naturally naming his beloved Maria as universal heir.[13] Maria accompanied her husband on part of the journey then returned to take care of leasing the home, and then later to Spa, in southern Netherlands. Meanwhile Hugo was trying to negotiate a new post with Sweden—for though he did not want to live in Sweden, Sweden had “preference” and right of first refusal, in his mind, for any employment.

From Spa, Maria sent her husband a letter on July 19, 1945 that regrettably never reached him. Grotius reached Stockholm on June 26, 1645 and met with the Queen, finally, shortly thereafter. Hugo tendered his resignation to the Queen, who in turn invited his family to take residence in Sweden—which he declined. Regrettably Sweden, struggling financially, was downsizing its number of diplomats, and essentially offered the scholar a severance, until he found other employment. This, too, he declined.[14] Hugo then left Sweden in style, generously gifted (notwithstanding the refusal of severance) and honorably discharged. [15] Though unemployed, there were rumors of other potential job offers.[16]

Grotius and his troupe departed Stockholm for nearby Dalarö on August 12, 1645 in favorable sailing conditions. Conditions rapidly worsened and a frightful storm began. After a few days, they had the fortune of eventually dropping anchor near the shore of East Pomerania and getting help. Once safe again, Grotius set off (by land) for Lubeck and swiftly fell ill on the journey.[17] The illness quickly turned grave and Hugo passed away on August 28, 1645, leaving his dear wife and children behind.

Long spurned by the country that birthed him, his bitterly beloved Holland finally accepted him back upon his payment of debt to nature. His funeral took place in Delft where he remains buried today.

Hugo’s Legacy

In Hugo Grotius, history tells the story of an incredibly fascinating, complex, slightly egotistical, but indisputably influential man. I learned much about the man and the contributions that he made to international law. Along the way, I was also astonished to learn that he was considered almost as influential in the theological realm for the same contributions to Church history that landed him in prison and led him to Paris. I had no idea. After reading many pages about the man, I can echo the sentiments of the French monarch and say, “voilà le miracle de Hollande!”

As far as his personal legacy to me, I am actually going to go enroll in a Latin course (not kidding.) I have been wanting to do it for years. Thank you, Hugo, for the impetus!

[1] Henk J. M. Nellen & J. C. Grayson, Hugo Grotius: A Lifelong Struggle for Peace in Church and State, 1583-1645, 661 (2014).

[2] Id. at 313.

[3] Id. at 371–372.

[4] Id. at 323.

[5] Id. at 317.

[6] Id. at 474.

[7] Id. at 477, 487-488.

[8] Id. at 488.

[9] Id. at 669.

[10] Id. at 664–665.

[11] Id. at 716.

[12] Id. at 718.

[13] Id. at 717.

[14] Id. at 724-726.

[15] Id. at 728.

[16] Id. at 729.

[17] Id. at 731.

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