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On the 350th anniversary of this audacious attempted heist, a guest post by London Historians Member Stanley Slaughter. This article first appeared in our Members’ Newsletter for May 2021. 

Early in Spring, 1671 – some 350 years ago – Colonel Thomas Blood (1618-80) abandoned his regular occupation of hatching plots to dethrone Charles II and turned his energies to an altogether more fascinating project.

The self-styled colonel from County Meath, Ireland, son of a prominent landowner, grandson of an MP, and a committed Presbyterian, was not one to shirk a challenge or to imagine that any risk was too large. Overloaded with chutzpah and ever ready to embrace notoriety, Thomas Blood could have been born for the job he had in mind: stealing the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London.

From his twenties, Blood had lived a reckless life. Despite being appointed a JP at the age of 20, he had little time for the intricacies of the law or the restraints of loyalty. He first took arms against the instigators of the Irish Rebellion in 1642 and later joined the Royalist forces of Charles I in the English Civil War. After a series of defeats, Blood sensed the need to change sides and by 1650 was fighting in the Parliamentary Army, possibly in Ireland.

When the battles ended, Blood found to his horror that his estates were confiscated. He blamed the Earl of Ormond, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and led a hopeless attempt to storm the Irish seat of government at Dublin Castle in 1663. His anger grew as he was forced to flee to Holland while several of his followers were executed.

While in Holland, Blood was suspected of being involved in planning the Pentland Rising by Scots Presbyterians in 1666, another doomed enterprise.

He slipped back into England in 1670 and set up with his eldest son, also Thomas, as fake apothecaries in Romford under the name of Ayliffe (sometimes Ayloffe). It was cover for his real, burning intent to capture and kill Ormond.

This was attempted in quite startling fashion in December, 1670 when Blood, son Thomas and two or three others pulled Ormond from his coach just off Piccadilly. The aim was to take him to Tyburn and hang him. Again this did not go well. Ormond was tied up and put on a horse with Blood junior who rode off at speed towards Tyburn. Despite his 60 years, Ormond managed to unseat himself and Thomas from the horse and disarm him as they rolled on the muddy ground.

As Ormond’s rescuers, alerted by his coachman, rode up, Blood remounted his horse and sped off, leaving a fuming Ormond plastered in mud. The bungled kidnap was the talk of the court and Col Blood high on the list of likely suspects. Even this did not dissuade him to opt for a quieter life.

By spring he was already well into planning his next escapade and in mid-April 1671, 350 years ago, he began to put it into action.

Now Charles II was very proud of his Crown Jewels. After the unpleasantness of 1649 when Oliver Cromwell had melted down the gold and silver and sold off the gems of the Crown Jewels after the execution of Charles I, new ones were needed for the coronation of the restored king in 1661. The usually careful Charles II had splashed out more than £12,000 on a new crown, a sceptre with a cross and a sovereign’s orb. The King Edward’s Crown, named after Edward the Confessor, was made of solid gold and weighed 2.23kg; the sceptre was three feet long, weighed 1.17kg and sported 333 diamonds, 31 rubies, 15 emeralds, seven sapphires, six spinels and one amethyst.

Charles_II_of_England_in_Coronation_robes

Charles II, early 1660s, in full regalia including the Crown Jewels, by John Michael Wright.

The Jewels were held behind a heavy metal grille in the basement of the Irish Tower (now Martin Tower) and were available for viewing by the public for a fee. In late April, early May, with the whiff of a healthy profit in his nostrils, Blood and his “wife” went along to case the joint. (The real Mrs Blood was many miles away and ill at her home in Lancashire. The “wife” was an Irish actress and by all accounts a very good one called Jenny Blaine, hired for the occasion.)

Blood must have been astonished by what he saw. The Master of the Jewel House, Sir Gilbert Talbot was nowhere to be seen. Instead he had hired Talbot Edwards, a 77-year-old family retainer, to keep an eye on the Jewels. Edwards lived in a flat above the basement with his wife, his daughter Elizabeth, his son Wythe (when home from the army) and his daughter-in-law. There was no guard outside the Jewel Room and next to no security. The Tower was next to the Royal Menagerie which attracted hundreds of visitors so strangers in the area would not have attracted suspicion. It seemed a job done.

Blood’s plan was a simple but good one: to win the trust of the Edwardses. Dressed as a parson on this first visit, Blood, in a long clerical cloak, a cassock and a long false beard, cut a convincing and compassionate figure. So when his wife “fell ill”, Edwards was happy to respond to Blood’s request for spirits to aid her. A concerned Mrs Edwards also arrived and offered ‘Mrs Blood’ a bed to rest on while she recovered. After a surprisingly quick return to health, the Bloods left, profusely thanking their hosts.

Blood was back within a few days with six pairs of white gloves to thank Mrs Edwards for her kindness. Regular visits followed and the Edwardses and the charming parson became firm friends. It seemed the Edwardses were looking for a suitable husband for Elizabeth and it just so happened that Blood had a nephew who stood to gain an income of £300 a year on marriage. No doubt borne down by an avalanche of blarney plus the prospect of £300, Mrs Edwards agreed. The nephew, of course, did not exist.

A dinner was held to celebrate the engagement, with the parson not forgetting to say a long grace, and it was agreed that he would bring the fortunate young man to meet his bride on May 9. On the appointed date, Blood turned up at 7am with some rather rough looking companions. Young Thomas was there, a man able to turn his talents to grocery, fake pharmacy and, when times were especially tough, a spot of highway robbery, an activity of which his moralist father sternly disapproved. Making up the gang were three Fifth Monarchists, extreme Puritans who believed in the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of Christ on earth: Richard Halliwell, Robert Perrot and William Smith, this last man staying outside to have the getaway horses ready at St. Catherine’s Gate.

All were heavily armed, with rapiers secreted in their walking canes, daggers and pocket pistols. One had also brought a large wooden mallet.

As they awaited the arrival of Mrs Edwards to meet her prospective son-in-law, Blood innocently asked Edwards if they could view the Crown Jewels. The old man was happy to do so and led them down to the basement. As Halliwell hung outside to keep watch, the two Bloods and Perrot followed Edwards into the Jewel Room. No sooner were they inside than Edwards was attacked.

A cloak was thrown over him, he was hit on the head with the mallet and then bound, gagged and for good measure stabbed.

The theft may have been prepared with great thought, but its execution smacked of rank amateurism. As Col Blood needed to hide King Edward’s Crown beneath his clerical cloak, he began flattening it with the mallet. Blood junior had trouble getting the sceptre into his bag, so he started to file it in half. Meanwhile Perrot began stuffing the Orb, the great symbol of the monarch’s temporal power, down his trousers.

Amid this frantic activity, Edwards got up, raised the alarm, shouting “Treason! Murder! The Crown is stolen!” and began fighting all three of the gang. Utterly astonished by this unforeseen turn of events, the gang fled.

Like so many of Blood’s escapades, this did not go well either. Edwards’ soldier son Wythe was at home on leave that day and with him, his fellow officer and brother-in-law Capt Martin Beckman. Halliwell was brushed aside as the two soldiers set off in hot pursuit. Blood junior abandoned the sceptre and the three of them got past some sentries, passed through the Water Gate and ran along Tower Wharf towards their waiting horses.

Col Blood, no doubt impeded by his long clerical cloak, was caught by Beckman at the Iron Gate, at the east end of the Tower. As they wrestled to the ground, the flattened Crown spilled out and Blood was arrested. Perrot was also detained and Blood junior was knocked off his horse as he tried to ride away. Halliwell and Smith left him on the ground as they escaped.

As Col Blood was led away, he apparently cried out, “It was a gallant attempt, however unsuccessful. But it was for a crown.”

blood

George White: artist’s impression of Col. Thomas Blood, early 18C. National Portrait Gallery, London.

Anyone attempting to steal the Crown Jewels in the 17th century was more than likely to be executed. Blood not only avoided this but was granted land and a job by Charles II. Blood seems boldly to have relied on his swagger to insist he would only answer to the king. For his part, Charles II, the man whose ruthlessness had seen the regicides of his father hunted down and often hung, drawn and quartered, was apparently easily won over. He was even said to be amused by Blood’s claim that his cherished Jewels were not worth anywhere nearly as much as he thought. Having mangled them, Blood was probably right here.

But there is surely more to it than this. It has never been clear why Blood tried to steal the Jewels. Perhaps solely because he thought he could. However he could not have expected to have got off. Here perhaps is the hand of Sir Henry Bennet, earl of Arlington, one of Charles’s secretaries of state and a spymaster.

Soon after Blood was arrested, the tough, no nonsense judge Sir William Morton was unexpectedly refused permission to question him about the attempt to murder Ormond. The historian Robert Hutchinson, in his book The Audacious Crimes of Colonel Blood, suggests that behind the scenes, Arlington was working hard for a royal pardon, having rather surprisingly calculated that Blood was worth more alive than dead.

A third Anglo-Dutch War was looming and Arlington did not want an alliance between religious dissenters in England and their co-religionists in Holland. Arlington saw Blood as a man with good contacts with these dissenters and therefore of potential value as an agent – if he could be turned.

There was not much trouble there with Blood seeing this opening as a chance to negotiate terms. Charles agreed to give Blood land in Ireland, including his forfeited properties, that would bring in £500 a year and to pardon and free Blood junior and Perrot. In return Blood agreed to apologise to Ormond and spy for the government.

If Charles hoped his new spy would henceforth live a life of discretion, he would have been disappointed. Instead Blood became a well known and often seen figure around Whitehall and the Court. John Evelyn, the great Restoration diarist, was appalled at attending a dinner party at which Blood was a fellow guest. He wrote that he could “never come to understand” how Blood got away with it. He concluded that Blood must be a spy for the king.

Talbot Edwards fared less well. The king offered to give him £300 for his injuries in protecting the valuable jewels. Not a penny was ever paid.

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