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Thomas Blood, the Irishman who Stole the British Crown Jewels
On 24 August 1680, one of Ireland’s most daring thieves passed away. Notorious troublemaker Thomas Blood of Co Meath fought in a civil war and tried to seize Dublin Castle by force, but he’s most famous for his daring attempt to steal the crown jewels of England – and getting away scot-free.
Blood was born in Co Clare, and raised in Co Meath. His family were part of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, and fought on the side of Oliver Cromwell and the Parliament in the English Civil War. His finances were severely affected in the aftermath of the civil war, and in the years that followed he, alongside fellow Cromwellian supporters, conjured unsuccessful plans to storm Dublin Castle by force and hold the Lord Lieutenant (or viceroy) of Ireland hostage.
This plot failed and he had to flee to Holland, now with a price on his head. in spite of being one of the most wanted men in England, Blood returned in 1670 taking the name Ayloffe and practised as a doctor in Romford!
After another botched attempt to kidnap Lord Ormonde in 1670, where Blood narrowly escaped capture, Blood decided on a bold scheme to steal the Crown Jewels.
The Crown Jewels
The British crown jewels were considered the property of the monarch, and a symbol of the nation. They included St Edward’s Crown, the Sovereign’s Orb, and at least one of the Sceptre of the Cross or the Sceptre with the Dove.
Images: Wikimedia Commons
In 1671, it was possible to see the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London by paying a fee to the custodian. The tower, naturally, was well-guarded and the crown jewels secured behind a metal barrier.
Blood visited one day with a female accomplice, who came down with a sudden stomach-ache.
The Keeper of the Jewels, a man named Talbot Edwards, had a family apartment in the tower, and was willing to help the supposed Mr and Mrs Blood – a gesture which became the foundation of a short-lived friendship between the two men, which Blood was all too happy to encourage. As a thank-you for the kindness of Mr Edwards, Blood returned with a gift to cement the relationship, and, eventually, proposed that his ‘wealthy nephew’ should meet Edwards’ daughter with a view to courtship.
And so on 9 May that year Edwards and some friends arrived in the morning with his ‘nephew’ in tow. The men asked if they might see the crown jewels while in the tower, and Edwards obliged – beginning the raid.
After the door to the jewels’ chamber was opened, Blood struck Edwards with a mallet he had carried in, concealed, and the men set about stealing the contents.
With Edwards bound and gagged, the men removed the metal grille protecting the crown jewels. Bulky as they were, Blood decided to shrink St Edward’s crown – by hammering it flat with the same mallet he used as a weapon. The Sovereign’s Orb, being smaller, was easily concealed down one of the men’s breeches, but the sceptre would need to be cut in half.
But before they could saw through the sceptre, the alarm was raised:
At that point Edwards regained consciousness and began to shout "Murder, Treason!". Blood and his accomplices dropped the sceptre and attempted to get away but Blood was arrested as he tried to leave the Tower by the Iron-Gate, after unsuccessfully trying to shoot one of the guards.
Another version of the story holds that Edwards’ son happened to arrive and disturb the theft in progress.
... one of those extraordinary coincidences, which a novelist would scarcely dare to use, much less to invent, gave a new turn to the proceedings. The Keeper's son, who had been in Flanders, returned at this critical moment ...
A general flight ensued, amidst which the robbers heard the voice of the Keeper once more shouting Treason! Murder! which being heard by the young lady, who was waiting anxiously to see her lover, she ran out into the open air, reiterating the cries.
– 'London' by Charles Knight, 1884.
In either version, the men made an attempt to flee, but failed to make it past the Tower’s guards.
A Free Man
What happened next is perhaps more interesting. Blood refused to speak to any of his captors, and demanded to be brought before King Charles himself – and was. Despite his reputation and his crime, Blood was pardoned by the King for reasons unknown. In an even stranger turn, the king granted him an income of £500 per year, and no-one is quite sure why.
Following his extraordinary escape, Blood became somewhat of a figure around London town. He died, aged 62, on 24 August 1680. He is believed to be buried in Christchurch Gardens, where a plaque recalls his epitaph as:
Here lies a man who boldly hath run through
More villanies than England ever knew
The plaque goes on to say that his body was supposedly exhumed after his death, as it was feared he may have faked his own death to avoid paying debts he owed, so notorious was his reputation.