2021 is Grotius Year, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Hugo Grotius’ famous escape in a book chest from Loevestein Castle in 1621. While most Dutch people know about the escape – it is said to be one of those things you learn at primary school and never forget – few will remember why Grotius was imprisoned or what happened to him after his escape. In this small exhibition, nine students from Leiden University College The Hague, Leiden University’s international liberal arts and sciences college, sketch the story of Grotius’ life through a selection of books, prints, maps and letters from his alma mater’s Special Collections.


As its title indicates, the exhibition takes its lead from Leiden University Libraries’ 2020 thematic programme ‘Oppression and Freedom’. Freedom, as this programme demonstrated, cannot be taken for granted and although the Dutch Republic is often perceived as a highly tolerant place, this toleration was only achieved through great struggle. Grotius was a key figure in this fight in the first half of the 17th century, in terms of his theoretical discussions on what toleration entails and how religious co-existence should be put into practice as well as his active role in the Arminian Crisis and his persistent refusal to stop advocating the necessity of religious toleration.


The exhibition is explicitly intended to be accessible to a wider audience and to provide a first introduction to Grotius’ life and works beyond the story of the book chest. To those who want to know more about Grotius, we recommend Henk Nellen’s excellent biography, published in English as Hugo Grotius. A Lifelong Struggle for Peace in Church and State, 1583 – 1645 (Brill, 2014) and for those who want to put on their walking shoes and explore Grotius’ life in Leiden, Jan Waszink’s bilingual Grotius in Leiden: a Walking Tour (Leiden University Press, 2017).