Slot Loevestein: Presenting Grotius to the Wider Public   

by Keri van Douwen and Tanja Aalberts   

Slot Loevestein, a medieval fortress and castle in the center of the Netherlands, is advertised online as ‘an amazing adventure for young & old alike.’ The castle was built in 1358, paid for by a knight called Dirc Loef van Horne, and is now supposedly the most famous castle of the Netherlands, open to the public nearly every day of the year. Apart from being a museum with multiple exhibitions, there are two cafes, a Bed & Breakfast, as well as a conference/wedding location. Slot Loevestein offers ‘the perfect setting for any event’, in spite of or thanks to its earthen walls, double canals, bombproof shelter and soldiers’ houses which exude the atmosphere of an eighteenth-century soldiers’ village.

The most famous person who ever stayed at Slot Loevestein, albeit unwillingly, is Hugo Grotius.

The most famous person who ever stayed at Slot Loevestein, albeit unwillingly, is Hugo Grotius. In his home country, Grotius is known as Hugo de Groot, and for his imprisonment and escape, rather than his scholarly work. His story has turned Slot Loevestein into a lucrative site which attracts large numbers of sightseers each year. Perhaps this is the place where most people get to know Grotius. Yet, here, he is not the alleged founding father of international law,[1] but a prisoner of the young Dutch republic: accused of crimen laesae maiestatis, sentenced to spend the rest of his life at Slot Loevestein.

404 years and a day after Grotius first entered the castle, a group of international legal scholars follows in his footsteps. We had met for an intensive doctoral retreat – Critical Research in International Law (CRIL) –  and had spent two days doing what academics usually do: presenting and discussing draft papers on a range of different topics. In one paper, 17th century international law is presented as being ‘of’ Grotius and Vattel; one participant of the seminar spends their working days at the Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies. Being international legal scholars, we tend to think that we know Hugo Grotius quite well; he is always with us somehow. As I contact employees of Slot Loevestein to prepare our visit, I tell them this too. ‘Yes we would like a guided tour but please, be prepared. You will be guiding a group that knows Hugo Grotius.’ But do we, really? Or do we just know one particular presentation of Grotius? The scholar, the learned jurist, the father of a discipline?

After dinner, we take a ferry across the Waal, the river along which Slot Loevestein was built. If you book a guided tour, sightseeing can happen privately so we arrive after opening hours. To access the gates, we cross the first moat and ring a doorbell. Once inside we walk along the street with soldiers’ houses, now deserted, the castle standing tall in early-evening summer light.

The ferry may have been a portal: we have left our (semi-)formal academic roles on the other side of the river. Here, we joke around with pillories placed in front of the castle. Professors locking themselves in, supervisees trying to capture the moment on camera. More laughter as a professor is asked to open the castle with a key, but fails. ‘If you want to keep your enemies out, you can build a castle with thick walls or outsmart them’, we are told. The solution: turning the key upside down.

Stepping into the open space that used to be Grotius chambers, we are presented with a video that briefly explains the political-religious struggle that led to his imprisonment. The video ends with the well-known portrait of Hugo Grotius by Michiel Janszoon van Mierevelt. Only in this frame his mouth is covered with a black bar: at the moment, Slot Loevestein has an exhibition on the silencing of political prisoners (Monddood in Dutch, literally translated as ‘mouthdead’). A book written by Grotius at the time of his imprisonment is unironically placed right underneath the beamer that projects this image of him.

As we are guided through the castle that housed Grotius for 22 months, it becomes increasingly clear that it is thanks to women (three in particular) that he was never truly silenced, and could one day be considered the founding father of international law.

With him at Slot Loevestein are Maria Reygersbergh (also known as van Reygersberch, or van Reigersberch) – Grotius’ wife – and Elsje van Houweningen – his maid. Research has indicated that Reygersbergh was very much involved in Grotius’ work. She took care of the finances, advised him about the distribution of his writings, and pleaded with high (political and judicial) officers to ensure her husband was given a fair trial.[2] During their time at Slot Loevestein, Maria made sure that Hugo received books so that he could continue his studies. These books would arrive in a bookchest by boat, every week or so. The new books would be taken out of the chest, the old books taken away in it again. When, at some point, the bookchest was no longer diligently checked, Maria came up with Hugo’s escape plan. On March 22, 1621, Hugo hid in the bookchest, and was dropped off at Gorinchem – a town across the river – accompanied by Elsje. Upon their arrival at the place where the bookchest would normally be emptied and filled with books, Hugo got out. Here again, he was helped by a woman. The man of the house wanted nothing to do with his escape, knowing that he, rather than his wife, would be the one questioned by authorities. Thanks to these women (and 17th century gender inequality), Hugo Grotius safely made his way to Paris where he would write his famous works Mare Liberum and De Jure Belli Ac Pacis for which we know him. Lesser known is the honorary poem he wrote for his wife in the days before he knew that she would be allowed to join him in Paris.*

It has been powerfully argued elsewhere that it matters who we view as founding father of our discipline.[3] Yet it seems to matter equally as much how we view those figures. International legal scholars may think that they know Hugo Grotius, but we know (of) him only in this one specific role that we recognize and share: the one of legal scholar. At Slot Loevestein, and to the wider public, Grotius is presented first as a silenced political figure turned prisoner of the state, and only second as a learned man, who (heavily) relied on his wife. It is here that we get to see the great woman who stood by (rather than behind) the ‘great man.’ While Grotius himself compared his wife to Greek mythological figures who threw themselves in the flames for love – focusing on her wifely devotion to him – we might instead view Maria Reygersberch as Grotius’ condition of possibility. Without her bravery and quick thinking, there may not have been a Hugo Grotius for us to know or write about today.   

*The poem is long[4], and although written in Dutch only somewhat recognizable to me I have tried to translate a few lines:

1. Een onvergancklijck lof sult ghy voorwaer verwerven.
2. Indien Evadnes naem soo groote lof bequam,
3. Om dat sy haren man naesprongh tot in de vlam;
4. Indien Alcestis eer ten hoogsten is verheven,
5. Om dat sy met haer doodt kocht hares liefstens leven:
6. Waerom en sou dan niet daer neven zijn genoemt
7. Maria Reygersbergh, en eeuwelijck geroemt?
8. Die hebbend’ uytgestaen soo hooge en felle baren,
9. Om, en oock met haer man, ses maenden en twee jaren,
10. Oock niet en heeft geschroomt te blijven in den noodt,
11. Verlossende haer man van eene lange doodt,
12. Die hem besloten hiel in hoogh verheve muren,
13. Als in een graf, gemaeckt om eeuwelijck te duren:
14. Nochtans soo wist sy wel, wat voor een bitt’ren haet
15. Dat haer te lyden stondt om dese vrome daet.
16. Maer ghy Regeerders ‘s landts, wat roem meent ghy te dragen,
17. Dat ghy bestaet een vrouw, en sulcken vrouw te plagen?
18. Daer sullen Rechters zijn, die tusschen u en haer
19. Recht sullen spreecken nu, en noch nae hondert jaer;
20. Niet vier-en-twintigh, niet eenzydelijck verkoren,
21. Maer hondert duysenden en hoogh en laegh geboren;
22. Die sullen u ter schandt, en haer ter eer verstaen,
23. Dat ghy seer qualijck hebt, en sy seer wel gedaen.
1. An imperishable praise you shall receive.
2. If Evadnes name received such great honor,
3. Because she followed her husband in the flame.  
4. If Alcestis’ honor is the highest,
5. Because she bought her love’s life with her death:  
6. Why would we not say the same about
7. Maria Reygersbergh, so she be eternally renowned?
8. She has born such sorrows,  
9. To be with her husband, six months and two years,  
10. Not to leave but stay in times of emergency,  
11. Saving her husband from a long death,
12. That held him captive behind lofty walls,  
13. Like in a grave, made to last forever:  
14. All the while knowing the kind of bitter hate  
15. She would receive for such a noble deed.  
16. But you governors of the land, what honor do you think to bear,
17. That you torment such a woman?  
18. There will be judges, who between you and her,  
19. Will judge now, and in a hundred years;  
20. Not twenty-four, not chosen unilaterally,  
21. But hundred thousands, high and low born;  
22. Who will condemn you, and honor her,  
23. For you have done wrong, and she has done only good. 

[1] Martine Julia van Ittersum, ‘Hugo Grotius: The Making of a Founding Father of International Law’, in Anne Orford and Florian Hoffmann (eds), The Oxford Handbook of the Theory of International Law, 2016.

[2] Casper Brandt, Historie van het Leven des Heeren Huig de Groot, 1727; Hendrik Cornelis Rogge, Brieven van en naar Maria van Reigersberch, 1902. See also Henk Nellen, ‘Maria van Reigersberch: Wife of Hugo Grotius’, in Immi Tallgren (ed.), Portraits of Women in International Law: New Names and Forgotten Faces, 2023. 

[3] Anthony Anghie, Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of International Law, 1987; Immi Tallgren (ed.), Portraits of Women in International Law: New Names and Forgotten Faces, 2023. 

[4] Verscheiden Nederlandse Gedichten, deel 1, p. 103.

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