Colonel Blood: Stealing the Crown Jewels
Posted on 16th March 2023
Thomas Blood was a man of great charm and persuasion but also a charlatan and a crook who was modest neither in speech nor criminal intent.
Born in Ireland in 1618 to a family of Protestant landowners of English descent his father was a prosperous blacksmith, his grandfather had been a Member of Parliament and he had a suitably high opinion of himself as a result. Educated in England and married to a wealthy Lancashire merchant’s daughter at an early age he should have been content with his life, but it was never going to be enough.
When in August 1642, the dispute between King Charles and his Parliament escalated into open warfare Blood pledged his allegiance to the Royalist cause but defected when he saw the tide was turning. It was an act of bad faith but in his defence, it wasn’t unusual for gentlemen to change sides during the war, and some did so many times. Disloyalty aside, in other respects he had a good war commanding a troop of cavalry in Cromwell’s Ironsides and the future Lord Protector was impressed with his service enough to reward him with land grants in Ireland and appoint him a Magistrate.
Blood enjoyed his elevated status if not necessarily the responsibility that came with it and with money in his purse and insignia on his lapel, he did for a time at least cut a dashing figure but 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 as a Regicide upon the Restoration in 1660, he left London in haste and fled 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 vowed vengeance.
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 also 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. However, as a man more prone to bravado than secrecy the plot was soon revealed, and he once more disappeared into the bogs and mists of rural Ireland. He would later make his way to the Netherlands. Others 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 had evaded capture for now but remained desperate to return to England and regain his lost status. Yet to do so would place his life in peril. Yet, despite the dangers inherent in doing so in 1670 he did return to England where adopting the alias of Thomas Ayloffe he became an apothecary selling potions from a stall at Romford Market and dispensing advice on ailments of which he had no knowledge. In the meantime, still seething with resentment he began a correspondence with George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham a disgruntled aristocrat who shared Blood’s loathing for the Duke of Ormonde. Their communication revived in Blood his yearning for retribution, and he had little difficulty raising a gang from among his old comrades and other malcontents unwilling to reconcile with the restored Monarchy.
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 thirst for vengeance once again un-slaked 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 his enemy Buckingham and that rogue, Thomas Blood. With his benefactor Buckingham now under suspicion Blood sought to distance himself and so there would be no further attempts upon Ormonde’s life instead his mind turned towards the plan that would write his name in history.
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 Minister of the Church 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, the 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. It was in a basement of the aforesaid tower where the Crown Jewels were kept behind a heavy and locked metal grille.
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 in due course invited Blood and his fictitious nephew, along with several companions to dine with him. The invitation was eagerly accepted.
So, on 9 May, the men sat down to a convivial dinner to swap stories and discuss 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?
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 put up a furious struggle and had to be bludgeoned by Blood wielding a mallet. Beaten and stabbed into submission the barely conscious Edwards was trussed up and gagged.
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. In the meantime, 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.
Before they could make their getaway however, the robbers were disturbed by the sudden arrival of the old man’s son Wythe, a serving soldier who was 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! They are trying to kill me; 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. 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 was to remain calm as he was taken away simply remarking: “It was a gallant attempt, unsuccessful, but worth it for a Crown.”
Stealing the Crown Jewels was a treasonable offence and Blood must have feared the worst particularly as given his history some might suspect it was part of a larger plot to overthrow the Monarchy. 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 for it was characteristic of the Stuart Monarchs to engage with those who would seek to do them harm - from James I and his interrogation of suspected witches and Guy Fawkes to Charles I and his personal delivery of an arrest warrant to Parliament, and his son Charles II’s questioning of the fraud, Titus Oates. So, it would be with Colonel Blood.
Manacled he was taken before the King 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 attempt to assassinate the Merry Monarch at a garden party had failed. He could not in the end fire his pistol so in awe had he been of his majesty. The King appeared more amused than outraged by the revelation of Blood’s deadly intentions. Rather, he was impressed it seemed by the sheer audacity of this Irish adventurer. When the King asked him “What if I should give you your life?” Blood relied, “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. Blood’s two accomplices also went unpunished which alone served as their reward while old man Edward’s having recovered from his injuries returned to work having received little of the compensation he was awarded. He did enjoy being able to regale visitors of his great adventure, however.
The great and the good of the Stuart Court who were also present were left uncertain how to react. All except the Duke of Ormonde who stormed out in fury.
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. Yet rarely could he be described as dull.
Still, he spoke too much and too often and in 1679 he 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 to the world but not to history.
Tagged as: Tudor & Stuart
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