447 years ago a small group of men actually stole the Crown Jewels of England from the Tower of London and came within a few feet of escaping with them.
The story of this audacious robbery is good enough to share all by itself.
There is just one problem with doing that. You can't tell the story without trying desperately to explain the bigger story of the man who was the mastermind of the robbery.
And once you try to explain HIS story you quickly come to the conclusion that he was, honestly, one of the most amazing chaps who ever lived.
Without hyperbole, this is the story of a man who in an extraordinary period of just over one decade played many roles upon the stage of British history- a veteran, a magistrate, a spy, a revolutionary, an action hero, a religious fanatic, a conman, and master of disguise; a highwayman, kidnapper, a secret agent, a criminal mastermind with a silver tongue and, finally, the man with the ability to seemingly get away with anything.
He sounds like some insane mix of James Bond, Kaiser Sozey, Captain Jack Sparrow, and Moriarty all mixed together. An Irish rogue whose tale is so fantastical there is no way that any of the following could possibly be true. Except... everything you are about to read is completely true.
This is the rather epic tale of Captain Thomas Blood. The man who stole the Crown Jewels of England...
(The Infamous Captain Thomas Blood) Boring stuff/Family history...
His is NOT a made up name. Seriously, it's a real surname (but just so damn cool). The Blood family were a long established group of Protestant Anglo-Irish, who owned land in County Clare and had a long history of service to the English crown.
Pillars of the community types. His father is variously described as a wealthy blacksmith, steel mill owner and landlord. Take it as read he was fairly well off.
Our hero, Thomas Blood, was born in Clare around 1618 but it is clear from a young age he was raised and educated over in Lancashire in England.
Please note Thomas was something you don't see any more. He wasn't Irish as we know it, but Anglo-Irish. These were Irish men and women born and raised who saw their homeland as just part of the greater kingdom of the islands.
They were proud to be Irish (often spoke Gaelic) but saw themselves not as separate from the rest of Britain. Best example of an Anglo-Irishman was the Duke of Wellington.
Anyways, Thomas is referred to as Irish throughout but he probably would never have used this to describe himself...
The war hero
This story begins sometime around 1642. Thomas Blood had grown up away from his family, being educated in England, where by all accounts he was very smart.
He had married an English woman called Margret Holcroft, whose father was a politician (MP for Liverpool to be precise). Thomas and Margret seemed destined for a quiet life, when the English Civil War broke out.
Thomas immediately answered the call and in the battle between the Crown and Parliament, the 24 year old joined the Royalist side, upholding the long family tradition of serving King and country. He fought with distinction apparently, but as time passed he eventually swapped sides.
The usual excuse was that he saw the Royalists were losing and he just jumped ship, but I think that misses another, more realistic reason. His father in law, the MP for Liverpool?
He had become a Colonel in the parliamentary army and there was a very real possibility that his wife/father in law actually convinced him of the righteousness of the parliamentarian cause.
Whatever the case, when Blood swapped sides, he served Cromwell bravely and well and was eventually granted the rank of Captain in the New Model Army.
He was seen as loyal enough to the military dictatorship established under Cromwell afterwards that he was awarded the position of Justice of the Peace and granted a large estate out of seized royalist land in England and Ireland.
He and his wife settled down after the fighting ended and they had at least five children. His life now seemed utterly content and set- a war hero made county magistrate, serving the Commonwealth. But aged 42 things began to go wrong for him...
(The Duke of Ormonde)
Regime change and the start of his adventures...
In 1660 the Crown was restored and Charles II was now ruling the country. Thomas fled with his family back to his estates in Ireland, as the King was in the mood for vengeance upon supporters of the old regime.
He tired to keep his head down for a bit but in 1662 the King passed a new Act of Settlement, which took back land previously seized by the Cromwellian state and returned it to its rightful owners. Bloods lands were taken from him and he was left destitute by this turn of events.
He was 44, bankrupt, unable to provide for his family and angry. His response was to immediately seek out other Old Cromwelian supporters in Ireland (contrary to popular myth, while Cromwell is utterly hated in Ireland to this day, he did have a large body of men who had fought for him living there also).
Many of these men, like Blood, had just lost everything, and they were angry and seeking to do something about it. By all accounts Thomas turned up like a whirlwind. Passionate, articulate, and intelligent.
Men of higher rank or those who had been planning something for longer quickly seemed to defer to Blood. Within a few months he was a leader of this rebellious group and was spearheading a plan to strike back. The plan was audacious and simple- a large group of armed men would storm Dublin Castle and kidnap/hold ransom the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, James Butler, 1st Lord Ormonde (later Duke Ormonde).
The thing was state intelligence had spies within the group, and what followed was a cat and mouse game as Blood tries to root out the spies, using disinformation to negate their usefulness.
He kept changing the date of the attack in a hope of catching Ormonde by surprise. His excellent tradecraft was to no avail however as when the attack took place he and his conspirators ran into an ambush and many were arrested.
Blood escape and fled into the wilds of the Irish countryside. Here he spent some time as a fugitive, donning a variety of disguises (catholic priest, anabaptist preacher, even a Quaker) always staying one jump ahead of Lord Ormond's men.
He apparently showed a real skill in making friends easily, and getting them to hide him from his pursuers. This battle of wits between Blood and Ormonde created a long running fued that would last for years between the two men apparently. Eventually Thomas was able to flee Ireland, evading his pursuers, and made his way by boat to the Netherlands...
(2nd Anglo-Dutch War)
Blood arrived in Holland, a fugative, but immediately doors seemed opened to him. Quickly he seemed to gain the trust of the most powerful men in the Dutch Republic; and this was significant.
While the Dutch Republic and England were not at war when he arrived, tensions between the two nations were high. Skirmishes between the Dutch and the Royal Navy were frequent, and the Dutch were desperate for reliable information/spies on the British.
Thomas Blood seemed to have served them in this capacity and he supposedly became friends none other than Admiral de Ruyter himself. De Ruyter is one of 'those' historical figures. Most folks hear his name and go 'who' and then wonder why naval historians look respectful and the people from the Netherlands grin.
Suffice to say- that in the glorious history of the Royal Navy no other enemy commander inflicted so much humiliation upon them as De Ruyter. This was the guy who launched the raid up the Medway river; who battled the English to a standstill and more.
A brilliant natural admiral, one of the finest in European history, it's fair to assume at this point Blood ends up working for him (formally or informally) with intelligence and espionage operations leading up to and during the outbreak of the 2nd Anglo-Dutch War.
While the Dutch under De Ruyter (by then admiral of their entire fleet) were busy destroying Royal Navy ships at port and coming remarkably close to raiding London itself, Blood seems to have been smuggled by the Dutch into England with the purpose of disrupting the enemy.
(Covenanters going into battle...)
Blood immediately located the remains of the apocalypse believing, extremist Christian group, The Fifth Monarchists.
These were extreme puritans who only four years previously had attempted to seize control of London; die hard supporters of the Commonwealth, Blood was admitted to their clandestine ranks and quickly rose in their estimation.
It must be remembered- Britain had spent decades under an extremist Christian military dictatorship. This regime had been replaced with a wild extravagant government led by a king. This was not a stable country. The fear of another civil war was very real indeed. Blood fitted right in.
He was appointed to the ranks of the movement in regard to internal security- the Fifth Monarchists believed they were riddled with spies and sought to 'court-martial' any member they thought was revealing secrets to the state.
This usually carried the death sentence. Blood became either a judge or defence advocate within the movement; probably both. He was in charge of policing the group, weeding out traitors and improving its internal discipline.
He quickly rose to become one of their main leaders, especially in planning another uprising against the King. This was London in the immediate aftermath of the Great Plague and Great Fire. All was chaos, all was frantic, the entire city was an unsettled mess.
He was in his element. Somehow, however, Blood realised the secret services were closing in on him, and again donning a bewildering variety of disguises, escaped into Scotland. Here he met with another extremist Puritan group, the Covenanters, and by all accounts worked behind the scenes to instigate an armed uprising on November 27th 1666.
They say he was part of the battle Rullion Green where the Covenanters (under the command of fellow civil war veteran, James Wallace) went head to head with elements of the Scottish army. The rebellion was crushed and somehow, again, Thomas Blood got away. As hundreds of his fellow conspirators were killed, Blood escaped into thin air...
The Action Hero
Blood fled south to England, but state security forces were hot on his trail.
He changed his disguise and fled back home to Ireland, landing close to the garrison town of Carrickfergus.
Someone tipped off the local noble (the newly created Viscount Dungannon) and Blood had to jump into another boat to escape an ambush. He returned to England and yet again managed to shake off his pursuers, probably in the Lancashire region where he grew up. At this point you'd think he'd maybe lie low for a while right? Nope.
Having evaded government agents, he then sought to rescue an old friend. Captain John Mason was an old parliamentarian soldier who in 1663 under the code name 'General Baptist' had been planning to lead an uprising in the north of England. Mason had been arrested however and held the formidable Clifford Tower in York.
Mason had then escaped there in '64 and had been on the run for years. But here in 1667 he had been arrested again. The Duke of York was determined to see this fugative brought back in chains, and Mason was being driven back to York with an escort of eight soldiers, each handpicked by the Duke for their loyalty and courage.
Mason and his escort were only a few miles north of Doncaster when Blood turned up out of nowhere with three others and despite being outnumbered two to one, attacked. A sharp gunfight erupted. Several of the soldiers guarding Mason were shot and Blood rescued and freed his old friend. Blood however was wounded (shot or stabbed I can't tell); possibly quite badly.
He needed time to recuperate. Badly injured, and now with a bounty of five hundred pounds on his head (roughly $115,000 in today's money), the 47 year old was now living, surely, on borrowed time.
(The court of Charles II)
Thomas Allen MD
In 1667 in Rumford, Kent, (a market town on the edge of London) a well read, articulate new doctor moved into the town and settled down to a quiet life.
Thomas Allen seems to have been a perfectly respectable doctor and gentleman, and for the next three years seems to have lived a quietly respectable existence.
Allen was, of course, Blood in disguise and while he allowed the dust settle somewhat, based on everything that had gone before, I believe it's fair to assume he was regularly travelling into London where he kept up with his own network of friends, old war companions and mysterious patrons.
Maybe he was in contact with his family back in Ireland- he'd been on the run for five years after all (they eventually relocated to his wife's family region of Lancashire). Or maybe he was living life to the full in the Restoration Underworld. Thomas Blood seemed ideally suited to this environment.
(The infamous Sir John Wilmott, 2nd Earl of Rochester)
The Underworld Figure
What many people do not get about London's Underworld was the way it mixed closely with the crowns spy agencies and enemy spies.
This had started back in the reign of Elizabeth- the great state spy masters (Cecil and Walsingham) has recruited agents from London's Underworld freely.
If you needed agents with skills in skullduggery, deception and occasional brutality? You could find no better place to gather them then the underbelly of London. Restoration London was considerably wilder than Elizabethan London.
The anything goes attitude was summed up best by Sir John Wilmott (2nd Earl of Rochester), the infamous libertine, whose poem 'A rumble in St James Park' describes a city where people of all classes would gather in public spaces at night for the chance of wild orgies... This was a hedonistic time, decedent, given to looking the other way and corrupt. Thomas Blood used his time well here well.
He got to know people, gathered intelligence, and did all this right under the noses of the Kings agents. He was a figure in the Underworld, probably one cloaked in shadow. How do we know this?
Because he wasn't passive; he was planning another attack, another strike against the state, and this time one that would allow him revenge upon his most hated foe, the Duke of Ormonde.
Blood had supposedly hated Ormonde since his original uprising back in Ireland.
He sought revenge against the noble (who was no longer Lord Lieutenant of Ireland but has returned to England).
For months he had watched Ormonde. He knew he liked to spend much time out drinking and socialising, returning home late at night, with only a small body of footmen at his side. On the 6th of December 1670, Blood struck out of the blue.
The Duke of Ormond was taking a carriage back to his home, Clarendon House, and was travelling down St James Street, when Blood, together with five other men (including his son in law Thomas Hunt) attacked the coach.
The attack was quick and brutal- the footmen were waylaid and Ormond was captured and bound. A note was pinned to his chest which explained why he was being executed, and the confederates sped along Piccadilly taking the Duke towards the infamous Tyburn tree, Londons great place of execution.
The plan was to drag him there, string him up and allow the authorities find him in the morning... the story goes Blood rode ahead to secure Tyburn while his companions took the Duke under armed guard to the place of execution. Ormonde's men regrouped however and a high speed chase now took place as the kidnappers raced down Piccadilly, Ormonde's men in pursuit. The Duke managed to free himself and got away; the pursuit was too close and the kidnappers had to flee rather than try to go after him again.
They had failed. The next day a reward of £1000 was listed for any and all information as to who the kidnappers were, and for now, because they were masked, Blood was not named as responsible. But the attempted kidnapping of Ormonde revealed a whole new dimension to Blood's story.
(Piccadilly- where the kidnapping was attempted)
The Discreet Servant
The next day Ormonde's son publicly stated that the kidnappers (whomever they were) had been working for/in the service of Lord Ormond's greatest courtly rival, The Duke of Buckingham.
In fact he actually said if his father was murdered, he would personally shoot Buckingham himself.
Oddly enough... he may well have been telling the truth. From all the notes on Blood we suspect he had met Buckingham around 1662 when he was over in the Netherlands. Either he met him there or met him during secret trips to London.
Buckingham seems to have been Blood's secret patron. One wonders how many of Blood's exploits had been possible because the Duke of Buckingham had been pulling strings behind the scenes for him.
The rumour was that whenever anyone annoyed Buckingham, he would have Blood seek them out to correct them/duel them. If Blood was a spy, then he was Buckinghams spy.
But when you realise who Buckingham was- that changes everything.
The 2nd Duke of Buckingham
George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham is often mistaken for his father, also called George.
THAT Duke of Buckingham is the one mentioned by Dumas in the Three Musketeers, with the whole jewels/secret affairs: Lady D'Winter stuff.
No, this is his son, also called George. He also is mentioned in Dumas musketeer books (The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later (the massive second sequel to The Three Musketeers, whose third part, The Man In the Iron Mask is most well known), but that is by the by...
The main thing about the 2nd Duke was he was a favourite at King James II court. He had come up with the 'Merry Gang'- a bunch of nobles famed for being very intelligent, able to drink most folks under the table, and with ferocious sexual appetites.
In this they reflected their King it should be said and they enjoyed royal favour and great influence. The Merry Gang included Sir John Wilmott and others and by all accounts Buckingham was a highly placed, attractive courtier who was the very embodiment of the wild and crazy times he lived in.
Above all things- Buckingham was loyal to the King. And this changes things. Why was Buckingham, ultra loyalist, be the patron of Thomas Blood, a man who for the last few years had been working diligently to undermine the rule of the King?
One could speculate any one of many reasons but ultimately two possibilities exist- either Buckingham was secretly working against King Charles II or Blood was a double agent this whole time, working FOR the state to infiltrate and take down the many militant groups who had been working against the king.
It would suggest the reason he was able to pull off so many escapes... why every time his plans for rebellions always seemed to fail. Imagine it- this dangerous and subversive radical is secretly working for the state/the Duke of Buckingham the whole time. Certainly the attempt upon Ormonde's life (Buckingham chief rival) and the accusation against Buckingham now makes more sense.
Double agent or not, it is now that Blood truly enters the history books- with the theft of the Crown Jewels.
OK so this was the plan. Blood would don a new disguise- in this case he would pose as a doctor of divinity with a middle aged wife.
He recruited an actress to pose as his wife (as his real wife was by now living up with her family in Lancashire and apparently unwell).
The couple would visit the Tower of London (which was allowed) posing as a respectable member of the public and ask to see the Crown Jewels. Understand the Crown Jewels at the time were brand new.
Oliver Cromwell had destroyed the old Crown Jewels some years previously, and James II had had this new set remade for his coronation. They were actually kept in a store room behind an iron grill; the man charged with protecting them (called Talbot Edwards) could earn some money on the side allowing people gaze at them from behind the grill.
When visiting Edwards, the actress would fake feeling unwell. Blood would asked for help. If they were lucky, Mrs Edwards would offer to help her. Either way, Edwards would help the wife and Blood would act grateful and tell the Edwards what awesome people they were and above all that he owed them for this kindness.
Then after a bit, they would leave. The plan was to then wait a few days and have Blood would turn up at Edwards house with four pairs of expensive white gloves as a gift to thank Mr & Mrs Edwards for their kindness and use this to begin a friendship with the couple. Blood was to gain the trust of the Edwards family and to seriously build upon it.
He was to even arrange for an engagement between Edwards daughter and an imaginary son. Basically, he quickly became a close friend of the family. When this was done the final stage of the robbery was to go into effect.
Late one evening, Blood was to turn up and say he had two friends visiting him and the friends had to return home early the next morning and would Edwards be willing to allow his friends just come have a quick look at the Crown Jewels- yes it was late, but it would be such a favour..
When Edwards agreed, Blood would turn up a little bit later with his 'friends' (actually a silk-dyer from Southwark called Parrot and his son in law Tom Hunt), with another member of the team (a young man called Richard Holloway) waiting outside with getaway horses. Chances are these guys were the crew who had tried to kidnap Ormonde.
The plan was to have Edwards open the room with the Jewels in, subdue him, snag the Crown Jewels, and make a break for it. This was the plan. And on May 9th 1671? The whole plan came together.
Right up until the last minute.
Parrot, Hunt and Blood got into the room; their definition of subduing Edwards however, was to throw a blanket over him, smash him on the head with a huge mallet and stab him with stiletto knives a few times. They were not pissing around.
They then discovered that the Jewels were too bulky to easily carry. So Parrot began sawing the Rod in half; Blood took the mallet and beat the Crown down flat so he could hide it under his cloak and Hunt took the Royal Orb and stuffed it down his trousers.
Supposedly according to some, they were having to shove gem stones into their boots in a mad rush to grab it all before fleeing.
Unfortunately, at the exact time this was happening? Edward's eldest son, Wythe, was returning home after a decade or so serving in the armed forces; young Wythe was coming back with his commanding officer (one Captain Beckman) and they happened to arrive JUST as Blood and Parrot and Hunt were leaving.
At the same time, Edwards recovered and began screaming and his daughter began screaming and the thieves panicked and ran. A mad chase started. Remember Edwards home was within the confines of the Tower of London. Blood and his crew still had to get passed two gates to get to the getaway horses. Both were guarded by armed soldiers.
Now being chased, Blood and co had to fight their way out. They came to the first gate and the soldier on duty moved to intercept them. Blood pulled a gun and shot.
The bullet missed but the soldier threw himself prone and the three thieves ran past him. As they came to the second gate the soldier there saw them but made no move to stop them.
He had just seen what appeared to be the first guard shot dead, so while he fired his rifle at the robbers, he missed and let them past... Blood and his team had made it out of the castle and onto the drawbridge... when Captain Beckman (who had been chasing him since he burst out of Edwards house) caught up with him... Blood pulled a second pistol, aimed it at the captains head and fired.
Blackman ducked under the shot and tackled Blood causing the now flat Crown to fall onto the floor... Parrot was seized and Hunt was only spared being run through with a sword wielded by Edwards son by Beckman clearly wanted them all alive... Eventually after a prolonged fist fight, Blood surrendered and was arrested.
Captain Thomas Blood was now locked up in the self-same Tower of London. This has to be it we think. His extraordinary adventure now has to end? Years on the run, wanted for a host of crimes, and now this?
Blood however refused to talk to anyone. Anyone that is, except the King himself. Which was of course absurd.
There is no way King Charles II, King of England and Scotland would ever agree to meet this known revolutionary/spy/duelist/thief right? Well, not unless the kings favourite, the 2nd Duke of Buckingham was basically telling the king, 'Look, you simply have to meet this guy- he is unbelievable' non stop for months.
Eventually the king relented and Blood was brought in chains to meet the King and Prince Rupert as well as others.
(King Charles II)
The Greatest Trick the Devil ever pulled...
What happens next is truly extraordinary. Blood impressed the King so much that Charles II forgave him.
He not only forgave him- he offered him lands worth 500 pounds a year in income. He not only gave him that, he gave him a pension which by itself would have been enough for him to live comfortably on.
By comparison Talbot Edwards received £300 in compensation and even that wasn't paid fully. To say the Duke of Ormonde was disgusted by this, would be an understatement.
Instantly the treatment of Blood caused huge gossip around London. How the hell did he get away with this? And the theories abounded. Some said it was his funny/roguish demeanour; he had joked with James, and his charismatic manner won the king over.
Others that the King was worried that executing Blood would cause a revolt. But in truth one has to ask- given that every single one of his schemes had failed, given that he was always loyal to Buckingham?
That behind the scenes Blood was identified as a secret agent, an agent provocateur, working for the English crown to infiltrate and subvert the many and varied threats against the newly restored monarchy.
Perhaps he was rewarded for a decades hard work as a double agent, seemingly walking between the raindrops, and living a life shrouded in shadow. It's not all this stuff we know about him that was the key to his story- but the huge mysterious gaps in his tale. Whatever the true reason, Blood had gone from criminal to mythic figure in a day.
The Legend Captain
Thomas Blood spent the next decade or so basically as a charismatic member of the royal court.
He specialised in being available for people who wished to petition the king, gaining influence and favour. In the end he seems to have fallen foul of court politics and eventually the Duke of Buckingham turned against him. Blood was jailed because of a £10,000 law suit unleashed upon him by his former patron and while released on bail, suddenly got sick and died on Wednesday August 24th 1680.
And thus the story ends.
Actually it doesn't. You see this is Thomas Blood we are talking about here. And by now his exploits were well known. And people began asking- 'wait a second; he suddenly gets sick and dies JUST as he was about to get hit by a massive law suit?
Are you sure he is actually dead?' So great was the skepticism, so famed with his skill at deception, that eventually they decided to check. So they dug him up just to make sure he had really, finally died... The body was his.
Secure in the knowledge that Blood was finally, unable to give them the slip anymore, they returned him to the ground and his epic tale finally ends.