Freedom of the Seas, Part 5

Freedom of the Seas, 1609: Grotius and the Emergence of International Law
An exhibit marking the 400th anniversary of Hugo Grotius’s Mare Liberum
Part 5

England’s own claims to maritime sovereignty ran counter to both Spain and Portugal’s and to Holland’s. Even during the reign of Queen Elizabeth – and notwithstanding her rebuke to the Spanish ambassador – England claimed sovereign rights seaward. During her reign these rights extended to the waters immediately adjacent to its coast, but her successors extended them out into the Atlantic, from Cape Finisterre in Spain around the British Isles, and in the North Sea to the coast of Norway.

The first British treatise on the law of the sea appeared in 1590. Written by William Welwood (fl. 1566-1624), a professor of mathematics and then law at St. Andrews (Scotland), The Sea Law of Scotland defended royal dominion over the seas out to a distance of eighty miles off the Scottish coast. The work pleased the king of Scotland, James VI, who had objected strongly, though ineffectively, to what he regarded as the intrusion of the Dutch herring fleet into Scots waters, and who happily rewarded Welwood for lending legal support to his cause.

When James succeeded to the crown of England, following Queen Elizabeth’s death in 1603, he issued a proclamation claiming all fisheries along the British and Irish coasts, and prohibiting foreign vessels from fishing in these waters without a royal license. To support his position, he asked Welwood to refute Mare liberum directly.

This Welwood did in two treatises: An Abridgement of All the Sea-Lawes (1613) and, in an amplified Latin version inspired in part by James’s wife, Queen Anne of Denmark, De dominio maris (1615). Quoting extensively from biblical sources and Roman lawyers, Welwood rejected Grotius’s claim that the waters of the world had always been regarded as indivisible; and defended the right of a coastal state to fish and to navigate – and to impose taxes with respect to either – in the waters adjacent to its coasts. Welwood is said to have been the first to clearly enunciate a coastal state’s authority over living resources adjacent to its shores. What is more, and of more than passing interest, he based his argument, at least in part, upon the risk of exhaustion of fisheries posed by otherwise unregulated promiscuous use.

– Notes by Edward Gordon

Welwood, William (fl. 1578-1622). An abridgement of all sea-lawes (London, 1613).
Rare Book Collection, Lillian Goldman Law Library.

“Freedom of the Seas, 1609: Grotius and the Emergence of International Law,” curated by Edward Gordon and Michael Widener, is on display October 2009 through January 2010 in the Rare Book Exhibition Gallery, Level L2, Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School.

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