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Family of Hugo de Groot

On this day exactly 400 years ago – 22 March 1621 – a man fled from his imprisonment in Loevestein Castle. His name was Hugo de Groot or Hugo Grotius, one of the greatest legal scholars of all time. His escape became world famous: he hid in a book chest and was smuggled out of the castle. It was his wife Maria van Reigersberch who came up with the plan. Who was he and what do we know about his family?

Built in the 14th century, Loevestein Castle was a state prison for centuries. (photo credits: Wikimedia Commons, user Niels)

Religious disputes

Hugo de Groot studied law at the University of Leiden and obtained a doctorate from the university in Orléans, France. He then became a lawyer, first in The Hague and later in Rotterdam. In 1610 religious disputes arose between followers of Jacobus Arminius on the one hand and those of Franciscus Gomarus on the other. Grotius belonged to the Arminian camp, and was a strong supporter of religious tolerance. He found a companion in Johan van Oldenbarneveldt, but an opponent in Prince Maurice of Orange. The prince had both Van Oldenbarneveldt and De Groot arrested in 1618. The first died on the scaffold, the second was sentenced to life.

Hugo, his wife Maria and their maid Elsje van Houweningen stayed at Slot Loevestein from June 1619 onwards. Because the scholar was allowed to continue to study, he often received a chest with books. Soldiers picked it up from a family in Gorinchem. This gave Maria the idea of hiding her husband in the chest and smuggling him out of the castle. This succeeded on 22 March 1621. Hugo fled from Gorinchem to Antwerp, and then to Paris.

More about Grotius’ life and work: Wikipedia, Brittanica Encyclopedia, Maastricht University.

Hugo de Groot says goodbye to his wife Maria, while he steps into the book chest. Illustration from a 19th century children’s book, a simplified copy of a print by Simon Fokke. (photo credits: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, object no. RP-P-OB-80.948)

Family life

Hugo de Groot was born in Delft on 10 April 1583 as a son of Johan de Groot and Aaltje van Overschie. He married Maria van Reigersberch in July 1608. According to literature Grotius had nine children, but only four survived him. We have found the following children:

  • Pieter (1610-1610)
  • Cornelia (1611-1687), who married Jean Barton de Montbas.
  • Cornelis (1613-1661), unmarried
  • Pieter (1614-1614)
  • Pieter (1615-1678), who married (1) Agathe van Rijn and (2) Aleida de Groot.
  • Francesca (1616-1617)
  • Maria (1617-1635)
  • Dirk or Diederik (1618-1661), umarried
  • Francoise (1626-?)

Hugo de Groot died on his way back home from Sweden. After a shipwreck, he died in Rostock (Germany) on 28 August 1645. His grave is located in the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) in Delft.


Grotius is best known for his books Mare Liberum (The Free Seas) and De Jure Belli ac Pacis (On the Law of War and Peace). Both are considered to be the foundation of (current) international law. While imprisoned in Loevestein Castle, he wrote the book Inleidinge tot de Hollandsche Rechts-Geleerdheid (The Introduction to the Jurisprudence of Holland). We have a copy of this book in our own library. We use it frequently to understand the Dutch legal system in the 17th and 18th century.

The Peace Palace in The Hague houses the Grotius Collection. Their website says: “The Peace Palace Library in The Hague holds one of the greatest collections in the world of the works of Hugo Grotius [1583-1645], founder of a systematic modern doctrine of international law and universally called the “Father of International Law”.