Thomas Blood tried to steal the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London on this day, May 9, 1671. He failed, but remains the only would-be thief to attempt such an audacious robbery.
At various times Blood, who called himself either “Captain” or “Colonel”, was an adventurer, a rebel, a master of disguise, a con-man and a spy but, above all, a likeable rogue.
Born in Ireland in 1618, the son of a blacksmith, he came to England to fight for King Charles I when the English Civil War broke out in 1642.
However, when it became apparent that Oliver Cromwell was going to win, he promptly changed sides and joined the Parliamentarians.
He was granted land in Ireland for his services.
But as so often for him, it all turned out badly: when Charles II came to the throne in 1660 with the restoration of the monarchy, Blood was out of favour and lost all his lands.
Thus, he came up with a plan to kidnap the Duke of Ormonde for ransom.
The abduction was to take place at Dublin Castle in 1663 but the plot was discovered and Blood had to flee.
He then travelled around Ireland and Europe, under various disguises, until he settled in England, passing himself off as a doctor under the name of Ayliffe. In 1670 he tried again to kidnap Ormonde, who was in London. Blood and five accomplices waylaid him in a street, but there was such an outcry that people rushed to help the Duke, who was rescued.
Thwarted, Blood settled on an audacious new plan to both strike it rich and to strike a blow at the monarchy: he would steal the Crown Jewels.
Disguised as a clergyman, he became friendly with the newly appointed Master of the Jewel House at the Tower of London, 77-year-old Talbot Edwards, and made a number of calls on him.
On this day, Blood appeared with three associates and asked the unsuspecting Edwards if they could view the royal regalia. Of course they could!
But when Edwards opened the door they threw a cloak over his head, hit him with a mallet, knocking him to the floor, then bound and gagged him.
The gang then made off with the royal crown, orb and sceptre. Stories vary as to what happened next but it seems that Edwards freed himself, removed his gag and raised the alarm shouting: “Treason! Murder! The crown is stolen!”
The thieves were apprehended but Blood refused to answer any questions, repeating stubbornly: “I’ll answer to none but the King himself.”
In his book, “The Audacious Crimes of Colonel Blood”, historian Robert Hutchinson, an expert on the period, writes that King Charles II lived in constant fear of assassination from a succession of plots involving veteran republicans and religious extremists.
London, according to the author, was a hotbed of sedition as nonconformists struggled to win freedom to worship outside the strictures of the Anglican church. Blood was deeply involved in most of these stratagems, if not frequently the ringleader.
But why was he not executed immediately for high treason? The plain truth, the historian writes, is that this brash man, smooth-talking and brim-full of Irish charm, who had demanded a personal interview with the King to seek his reprieve from the scaffold, was more useful to Charles alive than being hanged, drawn and quartered, the fate of all traitors.
Astonishingly, says Hutchinson, Charles granted him an audience and asked him: “What if I should give you your life?” Blood pledged: “I would endeavour to deserve it.”
He and his accomplices were pardoned for “all treasons, murders, felonies and assaults” committed by them. The King also granted him property in Ireland, providing an income of £500 a year and a pension for life.
Blood, says Hutchinson, became a spy for the King, “eavesdropping on the whispers and gossip within the feverish atmosphere at court – and worked as a double-agent in the dark, stinking alleyways of London, regularly informing on those conspiring to kill Charles and return England to the austere, God-fearing republic it was under Oliver Cromwell.”
In any case, the intrigue surrounding Thomas Blood did not end when he died in 1680. His body was later dug up to check stories that he had faked his own death.