1671 was a year of unlimited opportunity for two of history’s greatest adventurers. In the West Indies that year, the Welsh buccaneer Sir Henry Morgan was made Deputy Governor of Jamaica, while in England, self-styled ‘Colonel’ Thomas Blood was putting a plan into action that would result in the most daring robbery of all time; the theft of the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London!
Thomas Blood (alias Ayliffe, aka Allen) was born in 1618, the son of an Irish blacksmith. Information on his early life is very scant, but it is known that he served the parliamentary cause during the English Civil War. Just exactly what Blood’s role was during the war isn’t known, but he seems to have been involved in espionage, and he was rewarded for his services with considerable estates in Ireland. However, when the monarchy was restored in 1660, Blood lost his lands and his position, and the Irishman became an embittered terrorist with a dark genius for ruthless schemes designed to disrupt and intimidate his aristocratic enemies. But long before he fell on hard times, Blood was a mysterious individual who expressed no particular allegiance to any religion or political wing unless it suited his own ends. It is easy to dismiss him as an adventurer, but Blood seems to have been in the pay of someone. Behind all of his ‘who dares wins’ exploits, there are tantalizing glimpses of a man who was somebody’s agent. Many suspected him of being a spy – but a spy for whom?
In 1633, Blood and a group of abettors tried to kidnap the Duke of Ormonde, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, at Dublin Castle, but the conspirators were betrayed, and all but Blood were captured and thrown into prison. A reward was offered for Blood’s capture – dead or alive but the Colonel wasn’t worried about the price on his head, and he attempted – unsuccessfully – to free his co-conspirators, and was forced to flee to Holland.
In 1639, Blood was active among the Fifth Monarchy Men, an extreme Puritan sect who literally believed that the ‘fifth monarchy’ – foretold in the Book of Daniel – was at hand. The Biblical prophecy claimed that a fifth monarchy of Christ would succeed the rule of the Assyrians, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans. The sect was led by Thomas Venner, a religious fanatic, who launched two abortive risings in 1657 and 1661. Venner was subsequently captured and executed. Blood got away Scot free. The Irishman had an uncanny habit of staying with rebellious groups until they were about to be eradicated. It was the same story when he joined the Covenanters – the Scottish Presbyterians who opposed the introduction of Charles I’s religious policies into Scotland. Blood was right behind the movement and sat at the table with the counsel. But days before the going got tough, and a confrontation with the King’s troops was imminent, Blood was suddenly nowhere to be seen. In 1667, Blood heard that an old militant acquaintance, a Captain Mason, was being taken under guard to a prison in York. With three accomplices, Blood rode up to the soldiers and opened fire on them. Captain Mason was rescued, and a badly-wounded Blood led him to safety. The price put on Blood’s head was trebled, but the Irishman still managed to evade capture, and in 1670, he turned up in the middle of London, where he perpetrated another audacious crime.
He rode up to the coach carrying the Duke of Ormonde and yanked open the door. The terrified Duke was pulled from the coach by Blood and an accomplice and thrown onto the horse of another henchman – who rode as far as Tyburn before the cry went up that the nobleman had been kidnapped. The Duke was soon rescued, but Blood and his men escaped without harm.
This brings us to the event in 1671 for which Blood is best remembered; the theft of the Crown Jewels.
For several weeks, Thomas Blood, disguised as a parson, had been getting regularly acquainted with Talbot Edwards, the 77-year-old keeper of the Crown Jewels, in order to win his confidence. After just a few visits, the old man succumbed, and the ‘parson’ became thoroughly trusted and was completely above suspicion.
On May 9th at seven in the morning, Blood turned up in his clergyman guise for the last time with three accomplices. Again, the aged keeper greeted Blood with respect.
The keeper’s daughter was around, so to keep her attention diverted, Blood introduced her to his ‘nephew’ – who was in fact the youngest accomplice, a fairly handsome man of about twenty-five. As the couple began to chat, Blood steered the small-talk to the subject of the Jewels, and the keeper excitedly told Blood and his accomplices to follow him to the chamber of Martin Tower, where the jewels were kept. Upon reaching the chamber, the old man turned to lock the door behind him and the visitors, when Blood suddenly pulled a cloak over his head. The keeper struggled, so a gag was rammed into his mouth. Still, the old man protested, so one of the thieves battered his head with a mallet before callously plunging a dagger into his stomach.
The Colonel grabbed the mallet and used it to flatten St. Edward’s Crown so he could stuff it in his coat. Another thief filed the sceptre in two, while the robber who had murdered the keeper was putting the orb down his trousers as he laughed.
Then the unexpected happened. The son of the dead keeper turned up, and bumped into Blood’s ‘nephew’, who was acting suspiciously like a lookout. The son attacked Blood’s accomplice, but was coshed and gagged by him.
The lookout then raced to the chamber and warned the others. Blood and his men instantly made a dash out of the chamber, and in the panic, the sceptre was dropped and left behind. The son of the murdered keeper regained consciousness, tore the gag from his mouth, and raised the alarm, shouting, “Treason! Murder! The crown is stolen!”
Within seconds, the keeper’s daughter arrived and clung to her brother with fear. One of the yeoman warders also answered the alert and challenged Blood squarely. The Colonel levelled his flintlock at him and blasted a hole in his chest, killing him instantly. As the fleeing gang headed for the Tower Wharf, they encountered another guard, but when he saw Blood and his men approaching, the yeoman got cold feel, dropped his musket and stepped aside, letting the thieves pass unchallenged.
The Tower was suddenly swarming with soldiers, and Blood’s three accomplices were soon captured. The Colonel’s escape route was blocked by Captain Beckman, a fearless Civil War veteran, and he was the only man who managed to subdue the Irish daredevil. Blood was escorted to a cell in the Tower and interrogated for hours. But the prisoner insisted he would talk to no one but the king about his deeds.
Two days later Blood’s request was granted, and the miscreant was taken to Whitehall, where he had a lengthy conversation with King Charles II. Blood was taken back to the Tower, but was later inexplicably released and given a Royal pardon – as well as a ‘pension’ of œ500. Blood’s confiscated estates in Ireland were also restored. Not long after all this, the English author and diarist John Evelyn was invited to dine at the king’s table. When he arrived at the dinner, he was astounded to see Thomas Blood seated near the king. This didn’t make sense to Evelyn, who knew that the Irishman had served as a parliamentarian in the Civil War and had made numerous kidnap attempts on the nobility. Yet, despite these crimes of treason, and the attempted theft and damaging of the Crown Jewels and the murder of the old keeper who looked after them, Blood was apparently still held in favour by the king. And therein lies the mystery that has baffled generations of historians.