On 9 May 1671, the Tower of London was infiltrated by a group of rogues with one mission – to steal the Crown Jewels. Masterminded by the ‘noted bravo and desperado’ Colonel Thomas Blood, the daredevil plot involved cunning disguises, slippery tactics, and taking a mallet to the now-priceless St. Edward’s Crown. Though the plot was a disaster Blood managed to escape with his life, becoming one of the most infamous figures at Charles II’s court.
Here are 10 facts about the incredible affair:
1. The plot was borne out of Blood’s discontent with the Restoration settlement
An Anglo-Irish officer and adventurer, Colonel Thomas Blood had initially fought on the side of the King during the English Civil War yet switched sides to Oliver Cromwell‘s Roundheads as the conflict progressed.
Following Cromwell’s victory in 1653 he was generously rewarded with lands and made a justice of the peace, however the tides soon turned in 1660 when Charles II was Restored to the throne, and Blood was forced to flee with his family to Ireland. The new King passed an Act of Settlement in 1662 that redistributed lands in Ireland from those who had supported Cromwell, to the ‘Old English’ Royalists and ‘innocent Catholics’ who supported him. Blood was all but ruined – and he sought revenge.
2. He was already a wanted man before he stole the jewels
Before Blood even set his sights on the Crown Jewels he had already been involved in a number of reckless exploits, and was one of the most-wanted men in the Three Kingdoms. In 1663 he conspired to storm Dublin Castle and kidnap for ransom James Butler 1st Duke of Ormonde – a wealthy Royalist and Lord Lieutenant or Ireland who had profited well from the Restoration.
The plot was foiled however and Blood escaped to Holland, with a number of his co-conspirators captured and executed. A vendetta was ignited in Blood, and in 1670 he returned to London disguised as an apothecary, intent on tracking Ormonde’s every move.
On the night of 6 December he and a group of accomplices violently attacked the Duke, dragging him from his coach with a plan to personally hang him at Tyburn. Ormonde managed to free himself however, and Blood yet again slipped away into the night.
3. He went into the Tower of London undercover
A mere 6 months later, Blood was back on his game and poised to set in motion the most audacious plot of his career. He enlisted an actress as his ‘wife’, and posing as a parson entered the Tower of London.
Though the original Crown Jewels had been largely destroyed during the Civil War, a sparkling new set had been created upon Charles II’s return to the throne, and could be viewed upon request by paying a fee to the Deputy Keeper of the Jewel House – at that time the 77-year-old Talbot Edwards.
With the fee paid and the pair inside, Blood’s ‘wife’ feigned a sudden illness and was invited by Edwards’ wife to their apartment to recover. Following this, the pair thanked the Edwardses and left – the all-important acquaintance had been made.
4. A slippery scheme saw his return into the Jewel House
The following few days Blood returned to the Tower to visit the Edwardses. He gradually befriended the pair, studying the interior of the Tower with each visit, and at a point had even suggested the marriage of his son to their daughter Elizabeth, though she was already engaged to a Swedish soldier – we’ll hear from him later.
Despite this a meeting was arranged, and on 9 May 1671 Blood arrived at the Tower with his son and a small entourage. While they waited, the silver-tongued Blood off-handedly enquired as to whether he and his friends may view the Crown Jewels again – this time with concealed stiletto blades and pistols at the ready.
As the door was closed behind them the gang descended on Edwards, throwing a cloak over him before he was bound and gagged. When he refused to give up the fight, Blood bludgeoned him with a mallet and stabbed him into compliance, before turning his attention to the precious treasures waiting behind the wooden grille.
5. The jewels were bashed and broken for a quick getaway…
When the grille was removed Blood feasted his eyes on the glistening jewels behind them – one problem however, was how to sneak them back out of the Tower.
A solution was quickly reached, with the bulbous St Edward’s Crown flattened and slipped inside Blood’s clerical cloak, while the Sovereign’s Orb was stuffed down one accomplice’s trousers. When the gang also found that the State Sceptre was too long to fit inside their sack, it was duly sawn in half.
6. …Which wasn’t quick enough as they were caught!
In another bizarre turn of events, as the heist was taking place Edwards’ son – a soldier named Wythe – unexpectedly returned home from his military duties in Flanders. He bumped into Blood’s lookout on the door and demanded to be let in.
As Blood and his gang tumbled out of the Jewel House, his father Talbot Edwards slipped his gag and let out a desperate warning of:
“Treason! Murder! The crown is stolen!”
The younger Edwards immediately set off chasing Blood down, as he raced through the Tower firing at will and letting out his own bamboozling cries of ‘Treason!’ in an attempt to confuse his pursuers. As he neared his escape however, he came face-to-face with Elizabeth Edwards’ fiancé Captain Beckman, a fleet-footed soldier who evaded Blood’s bullets and at last clapped him in shackles.
7. Blood was questioned by King Charles II himself
Upon his imprisonment in the Tower, Blood refused to be questioned by anyone but the King himself. Incredibly, Charles II agreed to this odd demand and Blood was sent to Whitehall Palace in chains.
Over the course of the interrogation Blood confessed to all his crimes, including attempting to steal the jewels and trying to kidnap and murder Ormonde. He also made a number of outrageous comments, including offering to pay £6,000 for the jewels – despite them being worth an estimated £100,000 by the Crown.
Shockingly he also confessed to trying to kill the King while he was bathing at Battersea, yet claimed he had suddenly changed his mind upon finding himself in ‘awe of majesty’. When the King at last asked him “What if I should give you your life?”, Blood humbly replied “I would endeavour to deserve it, Sire!”
8. He was pardoned and given lands in Ireland
To the bafflement of many at Court, including Ormonde himself, Blood was pardoned for his crimes and given lands in Ireland worth £500. The Edwards family themselves had only received around £300 – which was never even paid in full – and many believed the scoundrel’s actions to be beyond pardon.
The reasons for Charles’ clemency are widely unknown – some believe that the King had a soft spot for audacious rogues such as Blood, with his tenacity charming and amusing him into forgiveness.
Another theory suggests that the King saw Blood as a valuable ally worth more to him alive than dead, and that in later years Blood joined his network of spies throughout the country. Whatever the reason, Blood got off scot-free and in far better finances.
9. It made him an infamous figure at Court
Blood became a well-known and notorious figure amongst high Stuart society and was even accepted at Court, making many appearances there over the remaining 9 years of his life.
Restoration poet and courtier John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester wrote of him:
Blood, that wears treason in his face,
Villain complete in parson’s gown,
How much he is at court in grace
For stealing Ormond and the crown!
Since loyalty does no man good,
Let’s steal the King, and outdo Blood!
10. The Crown Jewels stolen by Blood are the same ones used by the Royal Family today
Though they took a rather tough beating, the Crown Jewels were eventually repaired and would go on to grace the regalia of many of Britain’s future monarchs, including Elizabeth II.
They remain on display in the Jewel House of the Tower of London, however Blood’s daring dice with the law certainly made their keepers rethink security measures at the Tower.
A Yeoman guard was installed outside the Jewel House, the wooden grille was replaced with a metal one, and more rigorous procedures were undertaken for those seeking to view them. Thus, though he failed to complete his daring mission, Blood assuredly left a unique and beguiling mark on Britain’s history.
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