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date: 25 September 2022

Dorislaus, Isaacfree


Dorislaus, Isaacfree

  • Margo Todd

Dorislaus, Isaac (1595–1649), scholar and diplomat, was born at Alkmaar in Holland, the son of Lieven Dorislaer (1555–1652), burgher and later Calvinist minister of Hensbrock (1627), then Enkhuizen (1628). The second of three sons (tellingly named Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), he was educated from 1610 at Leiden, where he took the degree of LLD in 1627. He taught as conrector of the Latin school while studying law. By 1622 he was married to Elisabeth Pope of Maldon, Essex; the couple lived in his father's Leiden household, together with three English students.

In 1627 Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke, appointed Dorislaus the first incumbent of his newly founded history lectureship at Cambridge, though only after failing to secure the eminent Leiden scholar Gerhardus Vossius for the post. Dorislaus moved to England in October; lacking accommodation in Cambridge, his family settled with his father-in-law in Maldon while he himself became the houseguest of Samuel Ward, master of Sidney Sussex College.

An admirer of Francis Bacon's Of the Proficience and Advancement of Learning, which he owned and annotated (CUL, LE 7.45), Dorislaus must have found the ordinances establishing the lectureship much to his liking. Brooke's avowed aim was that 'humane learning, the use and application thereof to the practice of life, [be] the main end and scope of this foundation' (CUL, MS Mm.1.47, fol. 146). But it was just that possibility of practical application that brought the history lecture to an early demise. Dorislaus gave just two lectures on Tacitus's Annals before the master of Peterhouse, Matthew Wren, led a successful movement to silence him as a danger to monarchical government.

Dorislaus's first lecture, on the origins of regal authority in ancient Rome, delineated two types of monarchy, both founded on the voluntary transferral of natural sovereignty from the people to the ruler. In one form, the body of people transfers its power to a monarch without retaining sovereignty to itself; in the other, which Dorislaus clearly preferred, the people reserve particular rights for themselves, bestowing strictly limited powers upon a king. A king who by force usurps the people's rights is a tyrant and liable to deposition; his case in point was Junius Brutus's expulsion of Tarquin. His second lecture recounted at greater length the ancient tyrant's abuses of law, his deposition, and the replacement of monarchy with consular government—an act that won Brutus 'the applause of gods and men' (TNA: PRO, SP 16/86/no. 87.I, fol. 177). The lecturer identified popular consent with liberty, royal disregard of law with slavery; Matthew Wren identified the lecturer with republicanism and regicide, complaining that 'he seemed to acknowledge no right of kingdoms, but whereof the people's voluntary submission had been the constituting principle' (ibid., fol. 175). Wren found the lectures 'stored with such dangerous passages, … and so appliable to the exasperations of these villanous times', that he brought formal complaint to the vice-chancellor, Thomas Bainbridge. He was disappointed to find that the majority of the vice-chancellor's court had taken no offence at the lectures, but found that Dorislaus had spoken, as Samuel Ward reported, 'with great moderation' in 'defence of the liberties of the people' and 'with an exception of such monarchies as ours' (Whole Works of … James Ussher, 1843, 15.403). As it happens, Dorislaus's defenders on the university court were without exception his Calvinist co-religionists, while his opponents were, like Wren, defenders of Arminian theology and the ceremonial worship associated with William Laud. The lines of division suggest that differences in political theory paralleled and may have been exacerbated by religious differences.

When the Cambridge heads declined to condemn Dorislaus, Wren pursued his complaint through bishops Laud and Richard Neile to the king, meanwhile delaying until 1631 Dorislaus's incorporation as a doctor of Cambridge University. Ward led the defence, marshalling the majority of the vice-chancellor's court to send letters to Brooke, the duke of Buckingham, and Laud indicating their approval of the lecturer. Wren's letters seem to have carried more weight, however, and the king prohibited Dorislaus from lecturing again. Lord Brooke declined to challenge the opposition. He offered his lecturer lodging in London, then on his own estate near Doncaster, where Dorislaus continued to collect his stipend while living, he complained, 'sunk in provincial solitude' (Bodl. Oxf., MS Tanner 72.132, fol. 284).

After Brooke's murder in September 1628, a codicil to his will was found to make Dorislaus's tenure of the lectureship lifelong and to guarantee his annuity. He took advantage of the terms of his settlement to travel extensively during the following decade, and in 1630 was resident in the Sorbonne. His scholarly interests turned for a time to military history: in 1632 he secured through Sir Kenelm Digby and the secretary of state, Coke, access to state papers to do the research for his single publication, an account of the 1600 battle of Nieuwpoort, and especially the role of Sir Francis Vere, published in 1640 as the Praelium Nuportanum. His family life during this period was troubled by illness: his eldest son, John, died in 1632 aged four, and by 1634 his wife was on her deathbed.

Dorislaus's principal occupation during the final decade of his life was legal advocacy. He had been admitted a commoner of the College of Advocates in 1629 and in 1640 served as judge advocate in the bishops' wars. In 1642 he threw in his lot with parliament, serving as advocate of the army. He attempted to prosecute under martial law two of Waller's accomplices in the 1643 plot to recover London for the king, but failed due to the Commons' concern about violation of parliamentary privilege. In 1644 his investigation of another royalist plot threatened to expose a link between the plot's sponsor, John Lovelace, Lord Lovelace, and Sir Henry Vane, commissioner of parliament to the army. Vane retaliated by charging Dorislaus with price-fixing in the sale of prize goods taken at Weymouth; Dorislaus, who had overseen the sale, cleared himself of the charge by a deposition before the Commons, who clearly held him in high regard: an ordinance of April 1648 made him one of the judges of the court of admiralty. This position led to his first diplomatic mission, with Walter Strickland, to the states general of the United Provinces concerning privileges being accorded 'revolted ships' by Dutch provinces sympathetic with the royalists. Cromwell's regard for the intelligence reports that the envoy brought back to England in December led to his intervention with the master of Trinity Hall to secure for Dorislaus and his remaining children chambers in Doctors' Commons in London, the residence of civil lawyers attached to the high court of admiralty.

In January 1649 the commissioners for the trial of Charles I appointed Dorislaus one of the counsel for the prosecution. He helped to draw up the charge of high treason, the preamble of which echoes the language of his Cambridge lectures, arguing for lawful deposition of tyrants who deprive subjects of their freedom and privileges. Dorislaus did not speak during the trial, but he explained to a correspondent that he would have, had the king acknowledged the court and answered the charge.

In the spring following the execution Dorislaus sought from the council of state the position of keeper of the library of St James, but agreed first to perform one last diplomatic mission as resident of parliament at The Hague. The mission proved fatal for the envoy. On 2 May 1649 a group of royalists led by Walter Whitford, son of Bishop Walter Whitford of Brechin, entered Dorislaus's inn at De Swaen and stabbed the envoy to death. The assassins were never brought to justice. Parliament had Dorislaus's body brought to Worcester House and laid in state, and issued a Declaration on their Just Resentment of the Horrid Murther … of Isaac Dorislaus, identifying the perpetrators as 'that party from whom all the troubles of this nation have formerly sprung' (Acts of Parliament (1648–50), 1.92). On 14 June, after an elaborate funeral provided by parliament at a cost of £250, Dorislaus was buried in Westminster Abbey; after the Restoration he was reinterred in St Margaret's churchyard. An act of parliament awarded £500 to each of his surviving two daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret, and an annuity of £200 to his son, Isaac [see below] (JHC, 6.209). English complaint about Dutch failure to apprehend his murderers was one of the issues brought by an English delegation to the states general in 1651; among the plaintiffs was Dorislaus's son.

The younger Isaac Dorislaus (d. 1688) was educated at the Merchant Taylors' School from 1639. In 1649 he became a registrar for the probate of wills in Ely and Cambridgeshire. His linguistic skills led to employment by Thurloe as a translator and intelligence agent in the 1650s. In 1653 he was appointed solicitor to the court of admiralty; in 1660 he became one of the managers of the Post Office, a position he retained after the Restoration. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1681. He died in 1688, survived by three children, Isaac, James, and Anne, and was buried in St Bartholomew by the Exchange, Bartholomew Lane.


  • M. Todd, ‘Anti-Calvinists and the republican threat in early Stuart Cambridge’, Puritanism and its discontents, ed. L. Knoppers (2002)
  • P. A. Maccioni and M. Mostert, ‘Isaac Dorislaus (1595–1649): the career of a Dutch scholar in England’, Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society, 8 (1981–5), 419–70
  • Wren on Dorislaus's lectures, TNA: PRO, SP 16/86/no. 87, 16/86/no. 87.I
  • Dorislaus to Sir Francis Nethersole, 1626, TNA: PRO, SP 16/527/no. 28
  • Dorislaus's correspondence, Bodl. Oxf., MSS Tanner 71, 72, 114, 144
  • ordinances of the history lecture, CUL, MS Mm.1.47, 143–52
  • Gerardi Joannis Vossii et clarorum virorum ad eum epistolae (1690)
  • Briefwisseling van Hugo Grotius, ed. B. L. Meulenbroek and P. P. Witkam, 4 vols. (The Hague, 1981)
  • ‘The informacion of … servants to Dr. Dorisalus deceased, who were present at his death’, CUL, Mm.1.46 [read to Commons, 14 May 1649]
  • CSP dom., 1631–3; 1644–5; 1649–52
  • The manuscripts of the Earl Cowper, 3 vols., HMC, 23 (1888–9), vol. 1


  • BL, Add. MSS 29960, 29974 (2), 5873
  • Hunt. L., MS HM 371


  • engraving, pubd 1649, repro. in S. van Stolk, Woedende wraeck van Isack Dorislaen [1649]
  • engraving, pubd 1652 (Isaac Dorislaus?), repro. in Dr Dorislaw's ghost (1652)
  • W. Richardson, engraving, pubd 1792 (after anonymous drawing, 17th), BM, NPG
  • I. Buys, line engraving, NPG

Wealth at Death

will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/334, sig. 142, 14 Nov 1645

Isaac Dorislaus (d. 1688): will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/393, sig. 134; probate act book, TNA: PRO, PROB 8/81, fol. 151

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A. Wood, , 2 vols. (1691–2); 2nd edn (1721); new edn, ed. P. Bliss, 4 vols. (1813–20); repr. (1967) and (1969)
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