Colonel Blood: Stealing the Crown Jewels

Born in County Clare, Ireland, sometime in 1616, the descendant of English landowners who were protestant, prosperous, and proud Thomas Blood was a charlatan and a rogue even his title Colonel was doubtful, the likelihood being he never rose above the rank of Captain.

Educated in England he married young to the daughter of a wealthy Lancashire merchant enhancing considerably his financial well-being, always a priority of his especially when as a gentleman he had no intention of earning his living.

When the argument between Charles I and his Parliament descended into open conflict in August 1642, Blood pledged his allegiance to the King’s cause but defected once he saw which way the tide was turning and was thereafter deemed untrustworthy, though in his defence it wasn’t unusual for gentlemen to change sides during the war and some did so many times.

Accusations of being a turncoat aside, in other respects he had a good war commanding a troop of cavalry in Cromwell’s Ironsides and the future Lord Protector was enough impressed with his service to reward him with land grants in Ireland and appoint him a Magistrate. Blood enjoyed his elevated status if not necessarily the responsibilities that came with it, and with money in his purse and insignia on his lapel he did for a time cut a dashing figure – it wasn’t to last.

Although he hadn’t been a signatory to the defeated King’s Death Warrant and so wasn’t on the wanted list in 1660, upon the Restoration of the Monarchy, he chose to leave London and flee back to Ireland; but flight wasn’t enough to escape retribution and he was to lose his lands under the Act of Settlement in 1662 which annulled many of the land grants with which Cromwell and the Commonwealth had rewarded its supporters.

With the consent of the Monarch and at the stroke of a pen he had been reduced from prosperity to penury but unlike many who swallowed their poison, swore allegiance, and rebuilt their lives he wanted his money back and his status restored – he vowed vengeance.

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The target of his venom was the Duke of Ormonde, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, who he blamed for his plight but he was not just vengeful but ambitious and the simple elimination of a hated enemy would not be enough, he wanted to usurp his power also.

So he planned to assassinate the Duke and take control of Ireland, that he neither had the support nor the resources to do so did not seem to dampen his enthusiasm but he was not a man prone to secrecy and when the plot was revealed he was quick to flee into the bogs and mists of rural Ireland. Many of those who had allowed themselves to become entangled in his web of intrigue were not so fortunate and paid the ultimate price for their treason.

Blood evaded capture and eventually made his way to the Netherlands which at the time was at war with England so he made plain that he was a Commonwealth man, an exile, and an opponent of the King. In truth, he was desperate to ingratiate himself with the nobility back in England but his reduced status and the fact he remained a wanted man made this almost impossible.

In 1670, despite the dangers inherent in doing so he returned to England where adopting the alias of Thomas Ayloffe he became, despite no medical training, an apothecary and doctor dispensing advice on ailments of which he had no knowledge and potions that were no better than placebos from a market stall in Romford Market.

Still seethed with resentment however, he began a correspondence with George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, a no less disgruntled aristocrat though for reasons of thwarted ambition than perceived harsh treatment. They also shared a mutual loathing for James Butler, Duke of Ormonde.

With his combustible mix of charm and ambition Blood had little difficulty raising a gang from among old comrades who had never reconciled themselves to the Restoration and criminal elements with whom he had since made contact, though on the promise of riches not the vindictive desire for violent retribution that still drove him.

Ever since his return to London he had been closely monitoring the movements of the Duke of Ormonde and found that he would often return late at night to his residence at Clarendon House accompanied only by a small number of footmen and servants. Blood planned to abduct Ormonde, for reasons of ransom he told his men but with the real intention of hanging him from a tree at Tyburn, the place of public execution for traitors and murderers.

As the clock ticked towards midnight on 6 December 1670, Blood and his gang intercepted Ormonde’s entourage as it made its way down St James Street and after a brief struggle the Duke was dragged from his carriage, bound to a horse, and had a note pinned to his chest explaining the reasons for his execution but in the darkness and confusion he was freed by one of his servants before he could be carried off towards Tyburn.

Blood fled his desire for vengeance once again thwarted but relieved that Ormonde had failed to recognise him though there was little doubt in the Duke’s mind that those responsible for the attack were the Duke of Buckingham and his henchman that rogue, Thomas Blood.

With his benefactor Buckingham now under suspicion Blood sought to distance himself and there would be no further attempts upon Ormonde’s life instead his mind turned towards the plan that would write his name in history.

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In May 1671, he visited the Tower of London where it was possible, as it is today, to view the Crown Jewels for a small fee.

Disguised as a Vicar and accompanied by a woman he introduced as his wife Blood was at his most emollient talking at length to the Guardian of the Crown Jewels, 77 year old Talbot Edwards who held the keys to where they were kept and was responsible for their safety and upkeep.

At some point during their conversation Blood’s supposed wife complained of feeling ill and was invited to rest in Edward’s apartment above St Martin’s Tower where the Crown Jewels were kept.

Blood was to return several times over the next few days with gifts for Edwards and his wife as thanks for their kindness. During their many conversations Edwards would often speak with concern of his recently widowed daughter and Blood suggested that she might be interested in meeting his nephew who had likewise been recently widowed and was in search of a wife – he was a man of substance, he told him, and it would make a good marriage.

Edwards invited Blood and his fictitious nephew, along with several companions to dine with him. The invitation was eagerly accepted and on 9 May, the men sat down to a convivial dinner, to swapped stories, and discussed marriage proposals.

As time wore on and the wine and brandy flowed Blood (aware that when on public display the Crown Jewels were closely guarded) reminded Edwards that he had yet to see them and whether it was possible he could have a private viewing? It wasn’t normal procedure to allow a viewing unaccompanied but why not, what harm could it do.

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Edwards escorted Blood and his companions to the Jewel House, a sealed room where the Crown Jewels were kept in a locked cage unaware that they were armed with clubs, knives, and pistols.

One of Blood’s men remained outside the Jewel House to keep watch as Edwards and the others entered. Once they were inside a cloak was thrown over Edwards head but the old man did not yield meekly as expected but instead struggled furiously and had to be bludgeoned and stabbed into submission. The barely conscious Edwards was then trussed up and gagged.

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Blood and his men now encountered a problem, the sacks they had brought with them to remove the loot were too small and the Sceptre and Cross and various other items had to be sawn in two, Blood flattened St Edmund’s Crown so he could hide it beneath his clerical vestments, while the Sovereigns Orb was stuffed down someone’s trousers but before they could make their getaway the robbers were disturbed by the sudden arrival of the old man’s son Wythe, a serving soldier who could be heard calling for his father. The lookout rushed in to warn the others but as he did so Edwards, who had freed himself sufficiently to do so, cried out:

“Treason! Murder! The Crown Jewels are stolen.”

Adopting the pretence that it was they who were raising the alarm they made a dash for it running along Tower Wharf towards St Catherine’s Gate where their horses were being held as Blood shouted repeatedly that that the robbers were still in the Jewel House but Captain Beckman in charge of the Tower Guard was not to be fooled and shots were exchanged. As he closed in Blood turned and fired at Beckman but missed and was promptly seized.

He remained calm as he was being taken away saying:

“It was a gallant attempt, unsuccessful, but worth it for a Crown.”

Likewise, the others were apprehended and taken into custody.

Stealing the Crown Jewels was a treasonable offence as Blood was fully aware and he must have expected the terrible fate that awaited all traitors, to be hanged, drawn, and quartered with his severed head and body parts put on public display as a warning to others. But was this an act of Larceny alone, or part of a greater plot to overthrow the Monarchy? Given Blood’s history it might suggest the latter.

Sensing perhaps that his only chance for leniency lay in a personal audience with the King, Blood steadfastly refused to answer questions from anyone else. It would be a wise decision.

It was something of a trait of the Stuart Monarchs to engage with those who might seek to do them harm whether it be James I and his interrogation of suspected witches and Guy Fawkes or Charles I and his personal delivery of an arrest warrant to Parliament. So it would also be with his son Charles II, first interrogating the fraud Titus Oates, and now the rogue Colonel Blood.

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Dishevelled and manacled he was taken to the King’s residence where courteous and deferential he nonetheless remained defiant – there was after all little point denying what he had done.

After telling the King that in his opinion the Crown Jewels were overvalued he proceeded to relate how his plot to steal them had only come about as the result of an earlier failed attempt to assassinate the Merry Monarch at a garden party, the only reason he had not done so was because he found himself in Awe of Majesty.

The King appeared more amused than outraged by the revelation of Blood’s deadly intentions being impressed by the sheer audacity of this Irish adventurer. When Charles asked him:

“What if I should give you your life?”

Blood replied:

“I would endeavour to deserve it, Sire.”

Charles II, in that idiosyncratic way of his chose not to punish the miscreant Blood but instead awarded him a full pardon along with a land grant in Ireland valued at £500.

A livid Duke of Ormonde could barely contain his fury and disgust.

Following his pardon the by now notorious Colonel Blood became a familiar, if not always popular, presence around London and at the Royal Court where he would regale people with his adventures in a boastful and vainglorious manner considered unbecoming a gentleman; but arrogant and argumentative though he was rarely could he be described as dull. Even if being the source of gossip and scandal rarely blunted the offence it caused.

He spoke too much and too often however, and in 1679 was sued for slander by his old ally the Duke of Buckingham and imprisoned awaiting trial. He lost the case and was ordered to pay £10,000 in damages being released from his confinement in July 1680 on the promise of prompt payment.

No effort was made to fulfil the promise, he said because of ill-health.

For once he was telling the truth but few believed him and when he died on 24 August aged 62, such was the belief that this was just another scam that his coffin was disinterred to check that the body within was indeed that of Colonel Blood.

It was, dead in life it seemed but not to history.

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