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Colonel Blood and the Crown Jewels


In May 1671 four armed men headed by Colonel Thomas Blood walked into the Tower of London and stole some of the Crown Jewels. With the Keeper of the Jewel House left for dead, the gang made off with the crown and the orb, leaving the partly filed sceptre behind on the floor. The London Gazette for 8-11 May 1671 carried the following account of what was surely one of the most remarkable crimes of the century:

Whitehall, May 9. This morning about seven of the clock, four men coming to Mr. Edwards, Keeper of the Jewel House in the Tower, desired to see the Regal Crown remaining in his custody; he carries them into the room where they were kept, and shows them; but according to the villainous design they it seems came upon, immediately they clap a gag of a strange form into the old man’s mouth; who making what noise and resistance he could, they stabbed him a deep wound in the belly with a stiletto, adding several other dangerous wounds on the head with a small beetle they had with them, as is believed, to beat together and flatten the Crown, the make it more easily portable; which having, together with the Ball, put into Bags, they had to that purpose brought with them; they fairly walked out, leaving the old man grovelling on the ground, gagged and pinioned...¹

To contemporary readers this account of the daring robbery must have seemed incredible. Who would have the audacity to walk in and remove such precious items from a place as secure as the Tower of London? A deed like this had never been attempted before. These were audacious thieves who surely intended to be noticed. However, readers would have been less surprised at the boldness of the enterprise as they read on and it became clear that the leader of this gang was ‘that notorious traytor incendiary’, Thomas Blood. 

Blood, a Protestant rebel with a rough face, a large nose and an oversized thumb, had long been the scourge of the kingdom. Since he had successfully managed to evade arrest for many years and had been involved in a number of daring enterprises, it would have appeared quite possible that he might attempt this defiant act of stealing the King’s own crown from the Tower.

Extracted from Colonel Blood: The Man Who Stole the Crown Jewels by David C. Hanrahan

Who was Colonel Thomas Blood?

A celebrity in his lifetime and one of the most audacious rogues in history, Irishman Thomas Blood was a self-styled colonel who was born around 1618 and raised in County Meath. The son of wealthy blacksmith and grandson of a Member of the Irish Parliament who resided in Kilnaboy Castle, County Clare, Blood seemed destined for a bright future. 

At the outbreak of the First English Civil War in 1642, Blood rushed to England and initially took up arms with the Royalist forces loyal to Charles I. However, as the conflict progressed he switched sides and became a lieutenant in Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads. There we was assigned to the Commission of Peace, a body of spies responsible for subverting Royalist activities. Blood’s natural talent for duplicity and deceit soon made itself apparent as played both sides against the middle, waylaying Royalist shipments of arms, supplies and gold, skimming off a hefty profit for himself before turning the rest over to his superiors – Blood was a master of the art of profiteering. 

When Charles I was defeated, Cromwell awarded Blood land grants as payment for his service and appointed him a Justice of the Peace. However, following the Restoration of King Charles II to the throne in 1660, Blood fled with his family to Ireland. Confiscations and restitutions under the Act of Settlement 1662 (which sought to cancel and annul some of the grants of land and properties allocated as reward to new holders being Cromwellians) brought Blood to financial ruin and as result Blood sought to unite his fellow Cromwellians in Ireland to cause insurrection.

As part of this expression of discontent, Blood conspired to seize Dublin Castle and take the Governor, Lord Ormonde, prisoner. The plot was foiled on the eve of the attempt and whilst some of his collaborators were captured and executed, Blood managed to evade the authorities by hiding in the mountains and escaping to the United Dutch Provinces in the Low Country. It is commonly thought that Blood swore vengeance against Ormonde as a result.

While in the Dutch Republic, Blood gained the favour of Admiral de Ruyter, an opponent of the English forces in the Anglo-Dutch Wars, and was implicated in the Scottish Pentland Rising of 1666 by the Scottish Presbyterian Covenanters. During this period he also became associated with the wealthy George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham.

Despite being one of the most wanted men in England, Blood returned in 1670 and is believed to have taken the name Ayloffe and practised as a doctor or apothecary in Romford, east of London. A second attempt on the life of Lord Ormonde followed.

Since his return to England, Ormonde had taken up residence at Clarendon House. Blood had tracked Ormonde’s movements and noted that he frequently returned late in the evening accompanied by a small number of footmen. On the night of 6 December 1670, Blood and his accomplices attacked Ormonde while he travelled along St James’s Street. Ormonde was dragged from his coach, bound to one of Blood’s henchmen and taken on horseback along Piccadilly with the intention of hanging him at Tyburn. The gang pinned a note to Ormonde’s chest detailing their motive for his kidnap and murder. In the ensuing chaos. one of Ormonde’s servants had given chase on horseback and was able to help Ormonde free himself and escape. Once again Blood evaded capture and slipped through the government’s fingers, despite the offer of a handsome reward. 

Yet Blood did not lie low for long, and within six months he decided upon and carried out his now notorious attempt to steal the Crown Jewels.

What happened to Blood after his attempt to steal the Crown Jewels?

According to popular accounts, Edwards’s son, Wythe, returning from military service, happened upon the attempted theft. At around the same time, the elder Edwards managed to free his gag and raised the alarm, shouting, ‘Murder! Treason! The Crown is stolen!’

As Blood and his gang fled towards their waiting horses at St Catherine’s Gate, they dropped the sceptre and fired at the warders who attempted to stop them, wounding one. As they ran along the Tower wharf, they were chased down by Captain Beckman, the brother-in-law of the younger Edwards and head of the day’s watch. Blood was captured before reaching the Iron Gate. The crown was found after falling from Blood’s cloak and the globe and orb were recovered, although several stones were missing or had become loose. 

Following his capture, Blood stubbornly refused to answer to anyone but the King so was taken into custody at the Palace in chains. He was questioned by King Charles, Prince Rupert, The Duke of York and other members of the royal household. Within days of this strange meeting, Blood was not only pardoned, but also given lands in Ireland worth £500 a year, much to the disgust of Ormonde. 

Inevitably, the strange treatment of Colonel Blood set tongues wagging with theories and rumours swirled. Whilst the reasons for the pardon remain unknown, some have speculated that the King may have feared a revenge uprising from Blood’s followers; others have suggested that King Charles, who was chronically broke, was in on the plot from the beginning. There is also a suggestion that the King was amused at this gutsy man and intrigued by his audacity, especially Blood’s claim that the jewels were only worth £6,000 as opposed to the £100,000 at which the Crown had valued them. Whatever the case, Blood quickly became a familiar face around Court. 

In 1679, Blood’s luck ran out. He fell into dispute with his former patron the Duke of Buckingham, and Buckingham sued Blood for £10,000 for insulting remarks that Blood was said to have made about his character. In the proceedings which followed in 1680 Blood was convicted by the King’s Bench and granted bail, but the Duke never received the damages as shortly after being released from prison in July 1680 Blood fell into a coma. He died at his home in Bowling Alley, Westminster on 24 August 1680 at the age of 62. His body was buried in the churchyard at St Margaret’s Church (now Christchurch Gardens) near St. James’ Park. According to reports, such was his reputation for trickery, his body was exhumed by the authorities for confirmation as it was suspected that he might have faked his own death and funeral in order to avoid paying his debt to Buckingham. 

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