This article was first published in the June 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine
Colonel Thomas Blood, that infamous Irish “bravo and desperado”, tried to steal the crown jewels from the Tower of London on 9 May 1671, escaping with the imperial state crown and the coronation regalia secreted in the breeches of one of his accomplices. When he was captured on the wharf outside the fortress, he cheekily acknowledged that the outrage “was a gallant attempt, however unsuccessful… [but] it was for a crown”.
That Blood should attempt to pull off one of the greatest crimes of English history is remarkable in itself. That King Charles II should pardon the daring thief following his capture, and then offer him a job, is more extraordinary still – especially when you consider Blood’s colourful past. He had, after all, already been involved in an abortive coup d’état in Ireland, countless conspiracies against the crown and the attempted murder of the former Irish viceroy James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormond, in St James’s Street, London. Hidden in the reeds alongside the Thames at Battersea, he had also intended to shoot Charles II while the king was skinny-dipping in the river, but had held his fire as his “heart [stopped] him, out of awe for his majesty”.
The king lived in constant fear of assassination from a succession of plots involving veteran republicans and religious extremists. London 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 the colonel not executed immediately for high treason? The plain truth is that this brash Irishman was more useful to Charles alive than being hanged, drawn and quartered – the fate of all traitors. Smooth-talking and brim-full of Irish charm, he demanded a personal interview with the king at Whitehall Palace to seek his reprieve from the scaffold. Astonishingly, on 12 May 1671, Charles granted him an audience and asked him: “What if I should give you your life?” The colonel pledged: “I would endeavour to deserve it.”
Three months later, he and his accomplices were pardoned for “all treasons, murders, felonies [and] assaults” committed by them. But the monarch’s munificence did not end with wiping Blood’s sheet clean of all crimes. The king also granted him property in Ireland, providing an income of £500 a year and a pension for life.
His story reveals the treacherous political intrigue and conspiracy surrounding the ‘Merry Monarch’. The colonel 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.
Politicians also employed him as a freelance agent to help destroy their rivals’ reputations. From his headquarters in the backroom of White’s coffee house, near London’s Royal Exchange, he arrogantly declared: “It’s no matter if one lets me fall, another takes me up. I’m the best tool they have.”
Shortly after his release from the Tower, a courtier saw Blood idling in the precincts of Whitehall Palace, wearing a “new suit and periwig… [and being] exceedingly pleasant and jocose. He is a tall, rough-boned man, with small legs, a pock-[marked] face with little hollow blue eyes.”
This eccentric rogue, with his fraudulent army ranks and a wardrobe full of disguises, had become the greatest of all 17th-century adventurers, pursuing his self-professed aim of making “a noise in the world”. The diarist Samuel Pepys owned a copy of Blood’s own account of scores of his escapes or ‘deliverances’ from arrest, now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.
A very stout fellow
Predictably, Blood had fought on both sides during the Civil War. The dashing royalist cavalry commander Prince Rupert recalled him as a “very stout bold fellow”, and Cromwell awarded him grants of land in Ireland in 1653 as payment for his services as a lieutenant in the parliamentary army.
But after the restoration of the monarchy, he lost all his property and plotted to seize Dublin Castle, the seat of English government in Ireland, and kidnap Ormond, the lord lieutenant. The conspiracy was betrayed on the eve of the coup and he fled, only to daringly visit his wife in the Irish capital and stroll nonchalantly out through its gates under the noses of the sentries. He then lived rough in the Irish mountains under several disguises, before escaping to the Netherlands.
After returning to England in the 1660s, he was recruited for a secret mission – to persuade the republican regicide Edmund Ludlow to quit his exile in Switzerland and join in a plot to overthrow the monarchy, a conspiracy backed by the Dutch government.
After apparently fighting in the failed Scottish Covenanters’ Pentland uprising of November 1666, he went to ground under the aliases ‘Dr Ayliffe’ and ‘Dr Allen’ in Romford market, east of London, practising as a physician, although he had no medical knowledge whatsoever. His son (also called Thomas) was apprenticed to an apothecary in Southwark but later became a highwayman, preying on travellers in Surrey.
Blood also rescued his old roundhead comrade, Captain John Mason, from custody at an inn at Darrington, near Doncaster, in July 1667 by ambushing the military escort taking him for trial for treason and probable execution at York. Blood was badly wounded in the face and arm but escaped with Mason. A £100 reward was offered for their arrest, but Blood, now employing the alias ‘Thomas Allen’, lived quietly in Kent.
On the evening of 6 December 1670, Blood (now self-promoted to colonel), with four accomplices, stopped the Duke of Ormond’s coach in St James’s Street, intending to murder him. They planned to drag him off to the gallows at Tyburn and hang him like a common criminal. But after being pulled from his carriage, old Ormond fought back. The assailants fired their pistols at him lying on the ground – but in their panic, all missed.
Was this attack mere revenge for Blood’s lost Irish estates and his penury? Or were there darker forces at play?
George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham was probably behind the plot. He hated Ormond “mortally”, and their feuds at court were often violent. Perhaps this ruthless courtier had paid Blood to kill his rival.
Ormond’s son, Thomas Butler, Earl of Ossory certainly believed so. Seeing Buckingham standing by the king at court, he became red-faced with anger, and told him: “My Lord, I know well that you are at the bottom of this late attempt of Blood’s upon my father. Therefore I give you fair warning [that] if my father comes to a violent end by sword or pistol; if he dies by the hand of a ruffian, or by the more secret way of poison… I shall consider you the assassin. Wherever I meet you, I shall pistol you, though you [might] stand behind the king’s chair.”
Even though the government put a price of £1,000 on the heads of Blood and his comrades, he did not lie low. Early on the morning of 9 May 1671, the colonel, disguised as a parson, with his son and three confederates, arrived at the Tower of London, armed with swordsticks, daggers and pocket pistols. Their plan was to steal the crown jewels, secured in the basement of the 13th-century Martin Tower. Brutally, they stabbed Talbot Edwards, the 77-year-old assistant keeper of the jewels, and made off with the regalia.
Edwards’ son Wythe, who had been in Flanders on military service, fortuitously arrived home at this very moment and found his father lying in a pool of blood on the floor. The old man staggered to his feet, ripped off his gag, and shouted: “Treason! Murder! The crown is stolen!”
Shots were fired and the colonel – along with Robert Perrot, one of his accomplices – was captured as they raced towards the Tower’s Iron Gate. Young Blood fell from his horse in nearby Gravel Lane and was apprehended. The crown was recovered, as were the sceptre and orb.
The diarist John Evelyn met the colonel in Whitehall shortly after his pardon and was far from impressed: “How he ever came to be pardoned and ever received into favour, not only after this but several other exploits almost as daring, both in Ireland and here, I never could come to understand. This man not only had a daring, but a villainous, unmerciful look, a false countenance but very well spoken and dangerously insinuating.”
Evelyn was unaware that Blood was on the payroll of Charles II’s government as a spy and agent, willing to undertake the more disreputable but necessary tasks that the administration could afterwards cheerfully deny any involvement with. The king, always short of money, could even have employed Blood to steal his own crown jewels. Joseph Williamson, operational head of Charles II’s shadowy secret service (see box on page 44), afterwards claimed that the agent was worth “10 times the value [of the] crown”.
Edwards, the injured keeper of the jewels, was promised £300 compensation by the king but never received it and died from the effects of his wounds two years afterwards.
Blood died, aged 62, at his home in Bowling Alley, Westminster. Given his reputation for disguise and intrigue, the government had to exhume his body to dispel the widespread belief among Londoners that he had faked his own death. But the jury, made up of men who knew him, could not recognise the corpse and he was only identified by his enlarged thumb, the result of an old wound.
Blood ranks high in the pantheon of true adventurers, with his madcap escapades frequently the excited talk of three kingdoms. He was an eccentric gambler who was never afraid of the odds against him, taking a reckless delight in staging an outrage purely for its own sake.
Charles II’s secret service
The king employed an army of spies – most of them criminals and misfits – to seek out potential enemies of the state…
Charles II needed an efficient secret service to defeat the ever-present threats posed by dissident nonconformists and adherents to the republican cause.
The state monopoly of a General Post Office was established in 1660 and this nationwide mail delivery system became the main weapon of Stuart counter-espionage through the regular interception, reading or copying of letters.
Of course, most letters written by conspirators would not be in plain text – the risk of such vital information falling into the wrong hands was too great. Ciphers were often employed, based on the simple principle of letter or symbol substitution. Without a key for decoding, these letters appeared to be gibberish.
Sir Joseph Williamson ran the Restoration spy network for 19 years. During that time he employed a team of code-breakers such as the Oxford mathematician Dr John Wallis and the German diplomat Henry Oldenburg, who translated letters in foreign languages.
In 1664, the king spent three hours in a late-night visit to the mail interceptors’ ‘secret room’ at Cloak Hill. Charles watched demonstrations of various primitive mechanical machines that could open letters without trace, replicate wax seals, forge handwriting, and copy a letter (possibly by pressing dampened tissue paper against the inked handwriting) “in little more than a minute”.
Years later, cipher expert Sir Samuel Morland would reminisce: “With these [machines] the king was so satisfied that he immediately put [them] into practice as they were and competent salaries appointed for the same and this practice continued with good success till the fire of London consumed both the post house and all the engines and utensils belonging to the premises.”
Just as important to Charles’s intelligence gathering were informers, who comprised an army of social misfits, criminals and turncoats. They were prepared to risk their lives supplying information about the internal enemies of the state, in return for the grant of a royal pardon for past delinquencies or simple monetary gain.
The penetration and reach of this ever-changing group of spies and informers was extraordinary throughout the three kingdoms, particularly so in England. No man could believe himself entirely immune from arrest for any injudicious words spoken drunkenly in a rowdy tavern, or for being seen in the company of suspected persons in the street.
Blood’s lethal weapons
Two daggers carried by the crown jewels gang suggest that these were men who meant business…
Among evidence recovered from Blood and his fellow desperadoes after their attempt to steal the crown jewels were a pair of thin-bladed stilettos, called ‘ballock’ or ‘dudgeon daggers’, with their sheaths.
The weapons are dated 1620 and were probably made in Scotland, as they bear marks of the Edinburgh cutlers Alexander Bruce (known to be active after 1593) and Alexander Thomson, who operated from 1588.
Both are traditionally associated with Colonel Blood, who may have acquired them secondhand during his reported time in Scotland during the Pentland Rebellion in 1666. The larger knife has a blade 11.4 inches (29cm) long and the smaller weapon’s blade is 9.2 inches (28.7cm) in length. The latter is specifically linked with Robert Perrot, one of Blood’s accomplices.
These are fearsome weapons, designed to be tucked into the top of a riding boot and drawn quickly for lethal use.
Both daggers were deposited in the Armouries by the Royal Literary Fund in 1926. They had been bequeathed by Thomas Newton, a descendent of the scientist and mathematician Sir Isaac Newton in 1807. Sir Isaac may have acquired them when he was warden (1696) and later master of the Royal Mint (1699) in the Tower of London. The larger weapon remains in the Royal Armouries at Leeds but the smaller one was declared lost in 2002.
Robert Hutchinson has written six critically acclaimed books on Tudor history including Young Henry: The Rise of Henry VIII (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2011).
(Illustration: Ben Jones for BBC History Magazine)