A big day in history: Thomas Blood steals the crown jewels

Dominic Sandbrook explores the events of 9 May 1671

Dressed as a parson, Irish-born adventurer Thomas Blood flees the Tower of London with St Edward's Crown, part of the English Crown Jewels, hidden under his coat. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the May 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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For Talbot Edwards, the morning of 9 May 1671 was one he would never forget. Now aged 77, he had his fair share of war stories, and his current position, as master of the Jewel House at the Tower of London, was nothing to be sniffed at. But this was a special day: his daughter’s wedding day. And at seven o’clock that morning, as he saw the groom’s party arriving at the Martin Tower, where he and his family lived above the crown jewels, he must have been one of the proudest men in London.

At the head of the approaching party was a man Edwards knew well, even though they had only met weeks before. One day in April, a parson called Dr Ayliffe had brought his wife to view the crown jewels. This was nothing unusual: Edwards’s contract allowed him to charge visitors a small fee for the privilege of seeing them. But while the visitors had been inspecting the treasure, Mrs Ayliffe was taken ill. Playing up to his role as the gallant ex-soldier, Edwards offered her some spirits and even invited her up to his apartment, where his wife and daughter helped her to recover. Such Christian charity made a great impression on Dr Ayliffe, who returned a few days later with a gift of white gloves for Edwards’s family. So the two men became friends. And at last, one day, Dr Ayliffe suggested that Edwards’s daughter would make a fine match for his nephew, Thomas, who was on the lookout for a wife.

At first the wedding morning seemed to be going swimmingly. While they were all waiting for Mrs Ayliffe, the parson suggested that Edwards let his friends look at the famous jewels. So down they went to the basement – and then, as soon as the door closed behind them, Dr Ayliffe grabbed the old man, threw a cloak over him and jammed a wooden plug into his mouth, hissing that he would come to no harm if he stayed quiet. But Edwards struggled so much that his assailant was forced to give him some “unkind knocks on the head” with a mallet.

The gang was wasting no time. While Dr Ayliffe was flattening St Edward’s Crown so that he could stuff it under his clerical robe, one of his friends was sawing the royal sceptre in two so that it would fit under his clothes, while a third man, comically, stuffed the orb down his trousers. But now their plan began to unravel. Spitting out his gag, Edwards shouted: “Treason! Murder! The crown is stolen!”

Dropping the sceptre, the robbers tried to make a run for it, guards firing at them across the Tower complex. In the confusion of the chase, they dropped the orb and the crown, too, and at last the king’s men had them. At the centre of the melee was the so-called Dr Ayliffe, apparently quite undaunted by his failure. “It was a gallant attempt, however unsuccessful!” he loudly remarked. “It was for a crown!”

By the time the ringleader was dragged before Charles II, his real identity had been revealed. Far from being an ordinary country parson, he was the splendidly named Colonel Thomas Blood, an Irish-born adventurer who had fought for both sides in the Civil War and engaged in various conspiracies since the Restoration. And far from feeling sorry for his adventure, he seemed positively proud of it, telling his captors that he would answer only to the king in person. Indeed, when Charles interrogated him, three days after the attempted robbery, Colonel Blood cut a gloriously unrepentant figure. He had even once tried to assassinate the king while Charles was swimming in the Thames, he confided, but “his heart misgave him out of awe of His Majesty”.

At that, some kings would have had Blood executed on the spot. But that was not Charles II’s style. The Merry Monarch rather liked this suave Irish adventurer. By early August one courtier spotted the colonel strolling around Whitehall, wearing a “new suit and periwig”. Blood was “extraordinary pleasant and jocose,” the observer wrote; “he has been at liberty this fortnight”.

Two weeks later, Charles handed him a full pardon. Blood even went on to become a secret agent for the royal administration. Crime, it seemed, did pay after all. We can only imagine what Talbot Edwards made of it.

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Dominic Sandbrook’s series The Seventies is showing on BBC Two. You can catch up with it on BBC iPlayer: www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer