Stealing The Crown Jewels
What was behind Colonel Thomas Blood’s failed attempt to steal the Crown Jewels during the cash-strapped reign of Charles II and how did he survive such a treasonable act? Nigel Jones questions the motives of a notorious 17th-century schemer.
Money was always a problem for the merry monarch. Generous with courtiers, supporters and mistresses, the pensions that Charles II (r.1660-85) actually owed to lesser mortals were often either in arrears – or never paid at all. But Charles knew the value of majesty to monarchy and after his penurious years of exile did not stint in putting on a show. He spent the huge sum of £32,000 on remaking the Crown Jewels, which had been broken up, melted down or sold off by Cromwell’s Commonwealth. A couple of silver spoons and the famous egg-sized ‘Black Prince’s Ruby’ (actually a spinel, which adorned the state crown and was worn on the helmet of Henry V at Agincourt in 1415 and by Richard III at Bosworth in 1485) were all that survived. Fortunately, however, detailed descriptions of the vanished jewels remained in their former home, the Tower of London, from which they were accurately reconstituted.
A courtier, Sir Gilbert Talbot, was appointed keeper of the jewels. Allocated a generous annual salary of £50, Talbot had his own rent-free apartment at the Tower as well as rooms in other royal palaces. He also received free food of ‘fourteen double dishes per diem’. On top of this he was given a cut of £300 from the king’s New Year’s gift money, a tax on the nobility in the form of a compulsory cash ‘gift’ that Talbot collected. He received another £300 annually in tips from foreign ambassadors to whom he presented royal gifts. And, as if this was not enough, Talbot also creamed off a hefty £800 yearly in bribes and sweeteners from the silversmiths and goldsmiths who executed royal commissions. Talbot’s perks included his own coronation robes and the right to precede all the judges of the land in formal processions. As the cherry on his cake Talbot had the singular honour of placing upon and removing the crown from the king’s head whenever he was required to wear it.
Talbot’s assistant keeper at the Tower, confusingly named Talbot Edwards, was not nearly as well-off as his boss. Since Gilbert preferred the roomier Whitehall Palace as his chief residence, it fell to Edwards to live at the Tower. After the Restoration in May 1660, the new Crown Jewels had been housed in the Martin tower in the north-east corner of the fortress. Edwards and his wife and daughter occupied the floors immediately above the jewel house, a fortified basement vault. Edwards officially drew a state salary, but his wages were years overdue. Since in 1671 he was 77, it appeared unlikely that he would ever see his money. He relied instead on the fees he charged visitors who came to view the jewels.
Thomas Blood (1618-80), or ‘Colonel’ Blood as he is popularly known (he constantly promoted himself and never actually rose above the rank of lieutenant), was not only the most celebrated jewel thief in history, but one of the most outlandish, outrageous and lucky rogues never to swing from a gibbet. His life story reads like a piece of far-fetched fiction from the pen of Daniel Defoe, but it is well-documented reality.
Blood was born into a family of English Protestant settlers in County Meath, Ireland. Blood’s father, also Thomas, though a humble blacksmith, owned some 230 acres around Sarney, county Meath, his son’s birthplace. In 1641 the simmering tension between Ireland’s Catholic and Protestant communities exploded into violence when the Catholics rose in rebellion. Hundreds of Protestants were massacred; thousands more driven from their homes to Dublin, held for Charles I by the moderate Anglican James Butler, Duke of Ormond (1610-88). Politics was reaching boiling point; 1642 saw the outbreak of civil war. Urgently needing troops Charles I ordered Ormond to reach a truce with the Irish rebels. Outraged, Blood switched support from king to Parliament and began a lifelong grudge against Ormond, whom he saw as a traitor to the Protestant cause. After various plots against Ormond came to nothing, Blood travelled to England, joined the Parliamentary army and in 1650 married Maria Holcroft, the daughter of a landed Lancashire family.
The Restoration in 1660 changed everything for Blood. He refused to accept the return of the monarchy and was deeply involved in several republican plots throughout the decade – one even aimed at seizing the Tower. Showing an extraordinary talent for evasion, he somehow managed to avoid arrest. Blood sank into the murky depths of London’s political and criminal underworld. Under a variety of aliases he flitted between ill-lit inns and basement cellars, where spies, government provocateurs, religious maniacs, pimps, prostitutes and thieves mingled. In such a world it was difficult to tell a principled plotter from a treacherous rogue or government plant.
In July 1667, hearing that one of his former republican co-conspirators, John Mason, was being transferred from the Tower of London to York for trial and probable execution, Blood resolved to rescue him. Travelling north with Mason was William Leving, a former rebel who had turned King’s Evidence and was due to testify against Mason. At an inn near Doncaster Blood sprung an ambush. Despite falling from his horse three times and sustaining a wound to the face and a sword thrust through his arm, he won the brawl, grabbing Mason and escaping. Leving was found poisoned in his jail cell in York, a short time later, a murder probably arranged by George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, Blood’s principal patron.
Buckingham (1628-87), the archetypal Restoration rake, has been long suspected as the eminence grise behind Blood. A convinced anti-Catholic, he sympathised with Blood’s religious stance, if not his republican politics. Descended from royalty on his mother’s side and brought up from infancy with Charles II after his father’s assassination, Buckingham had pretensions to succeed the childless Charles himself and even on his deathbed referred to himself as ‘a prince’. A ruthless libertine, who skewered one aristocratic love rival in a duel and then eloped with the widow, Buckingham used Blood as a hitman to carry out crimes with which he did not wish to sully his own hands. He was behind Blood’s next audacious crime, the attempted abduction of their mutual enemy, the Duke of Ormond, who was waylaid by Blood’s gang on December 6th, 1670 while riding in his carriage in central London. Although wounded, Ormond managed to escape, but it was a close shave. His son, Lord Ossory, publicly accused Buckingham of the crime – a grave charge that Buckingham, a noted duellist, tellingly failed to answer.
The strong suspicion must be that Buckingham, who had himself survived four brief bouts of imprisonment in the Tower, was also behind Blood’s next and even more sensational crime: the theft of the Crown Jewels. Because of his close ties with the king, Charles repeatedly forgave his childhood friend his many betrayals and crimes. But Buckingham was an inveterate intriguer and committed Nonconformist, who disapproved of Charles’s Catholic sympathies. Eventually he fell permanantly out of favour with the king. However, there is evidence that, just as Buckingham used Blood to carry out some of his dirtier deeds, so the cunning Charles used Buckingham to perform disreputable – and deniable – services that could be distanced from the Crown. I believe that Blood’s theft of the jewels was one such service.
In spring 1671, just a few months after the abortive abduction of Ormond, Talbot Edwards received an unusual visitor at the Tower. He was dressed as an Anglican clergyman, appeared about 50 years old and had fierce, penetrating eyes above a hawkish Roman nose with a notable scar (a relic of Blood’s rescue of John Mason). Although the cleric’s appearance was slightly outlandish – he sported a long beard, a cassock and cloak and a cap with ‘ears’ – Edwards, scenting a fee, was only too happy to show the reverend gentleman and the lady accompanying him, whom he introduced as his wife, the jewels in his care.
Edwards led the couple to the basement of Martin tower, unlocked the reinforced door and let them into the vault where the jewels were kept behind a metal grille inside a recess in the thick walls. As Blood feasted his eyes on the glittering regalia, his ‘wife’ (in reality, a hired actress named Jenny Blaine) staged a fainting fit, or in Edwards’ words, ‘a qualm upon her stomack’. The old gentleman hurried away to fetch a reviving glass of water, leaving Blood to case the joint. Jenny, invited to rest in the Edwards’ apartment, made a rapid recovery. Blood took the opportunity to deepen his intimacy with Edwards and his wife, returning a few days later with a gift of gloves in appreciation for their kindness.
Blood now began to groom the elderly couple and their unmarried daughter: a softening-up process for the crime he was planning. After several visits the relationship had progressed enough for Blood to make a proposal. He had, he said, a very eligible nephew to introduce to the Edwards’ spinster daughter, Elizabeth. Would it not be a fine thing, he asked, if the young people were joined in holy matrimony? Naturally, he added, he would conduct the ceremony. The Edwards were overwhelmed by this generous offer, particularly after Blood threw in the information that his nephew had a couple of hundred acres of good land in Ireland. A dinner was held in Martin tower to celebrate the betrothal, at which Blood offered fervent prayers for the wellbeing of the royal family. Afterwards Edwards gave his guest a detailed tour of the Tower, even selling him a pair of pistols that Blood had admired. Having thus literally and metaphorically disarmed his ‘mark’, Blood departed to make final preparations for his heist.
Blood had arranged to bring his ‘nephew’ to meet the Edwards at seven in the morning of May 9th, 1671; the Tower was unlikely to be crowded. He arrived accompanied by his son, another Thomas Blood, a professional highwayman. He played the part of the nephew, ‘Tom Hunt’. Also in the party were two regular Blood gang members, Robert Perrot, a fierce Baptist and former parliamentarian trooper turned silk dyer; and Robert Halliwell, who was to act as lookout. All were armed to the teeth with concealed pistols, stiletto daggers and swordsticks. A fourth gang member, William Smith, a stalwart of the eschatological Fifth Monarchy religious sect, remained outside the Tower, holding their horses. Halliwell loitered outside the Martin tower, trying not to look furtive, while the Bloods went inside with Perrot. Elizabeth Edwards, eager to see her fiancé but shy of making a premature appearance, sent her maid to take a peek. The maid saw Halliwell at the door of the tower, assumed he was her mistress’s intended and returned to make her report.
Meanwhile Blood suggested that, while awaiting the arrival of Mrs Edwards and her daughter, still at their toilette, Talbot Edwards could show the jewels to the ‘nephew’ and Perrot. The old man led the men below. As soon as Edwards had unlocked the door to the jewel house and admitted the trio, he was set upon as he bent to lock the door behind them. A cloak was thrown over his head and a home-made gag – a wooden plug with an air-hole drilled through it – was thrust into his mouth and secured with a leather thong. Immediately Edwards began to struggle. Blood produced a wooden mallet and bludgeoned Edwards to the ground. As the keeper continued to resist, he stabbed him in the stomach.
Leaving Edwards for dead, the gang set about their task. Blood removed the metal grille and flattened the king’s state crown with his mallet. This made it easier to conceal in a bag he wore under his cassock. Young Blood started to saw the long sceptre in half with a file so he could hide it, while Perrot stuffed the heavy orb into his breeches. The blows of Blood’s mallet dislodged some of the jewels encrusting the crown, including the Black Prince’s Ruby. As Blood scrabbled on the floor grabbing the precious stones there was an unwelcome interruption.
It was exactly at this moment that the Edwards’ son, Wythe, who had been a soldier in Flanders for ten years, returned to witness his sister’s betrothal, accompanied by his friend and fellow soldier Captain Marcus Beckman. As Wythe went upstairs to greet his mother and sister, Halliwell hurried down to the jewel house to warn his companions. With no time to finish sawing the sceptre in half, the rod was left lying on the floor as the thieves made off with the crown and orb.
As soon as they had gone old Talbot Edwards spat out his gag and shouted ‘Treason! Murder! The crown is stolen!’ Hearing his cries his daughter rushed downstairs to find her father in a pool of blood. Wythe Edwards and Captain Beckman gave chase across the courtyard. Beckman, a Swedish-born military engineer, was already familiar with the Tower having once been imprisoned there as a suspected spy.
In the time it took the two soldiers to catch up with the thieves young Blood and Halliwell had reached their horses and made off. Blood and Perrot, weighed down with their loot, passed under the archway of the Bloody Tower and turned right into Water Lane, heading towards the Byward Tower exit. Edwards and Beckman shouted to the yeoman warder manning the drawbridge over the moat to stop them. As he attempted to do so Blood drew a pistol and fired hitting the warder. The two miscreants evaded a second warder at the Middle Tower. Had they then turned right up Tower Hill they might have got away, but instead they tried to lose themselves in the early morning crowds thronging the riverside wharves.
The two soldiers, younger and fitter, were gaining on them. Blood resorted to the old ploy of yelling ‘Stop thief!’ as he ran, pointing to his two pursuers. Momentarily fooled, some upstanding citizens laid hands on Edwards and Beckman but the deception did not last long. Blood and Perrot managed to reach their horses held by Smith at the Iron Gate and were in the act of mounting when their pursuers finally caught up with them. Blood fired his second pistol at Beckman but missed. After a struggle, during which some of the jewels fell from his pockets, rolled away and were never seen again, Blood and Perrot were subdued and arrested. Blood’s son, whose horse had collided with a cart and thrown him during his hasty escape, was also detained and Halliwell was picked up later. As he was led away Blood was philosophical, remarking: ‘It was a gallant deed, although it failed.’
The crown and orb, minus some missing stones, were repaired and restored to their rightful place. Blood and his gang were imprisoned in the vaults beneath the White Tower, where prisoners had been tortured in Tudor times. Few doubted that their fate would be the traditional terrible death meted out to traitors of hanging, drawing and quartering. The theft of the Crown Jewels, with their sacral, religious symbolism, was akin to kidnapping the monarch himself. But astonishingly this was not the punishment that awaited Blood. In fact the episode was to mark the beginning of another stage in Blood’s amazing career. From republican rebel and buccaneering outlaw forever outwitting the state’s agents, he became one such agent himself. How did this transformation come about?
The motivation for Blood’s attempted robbery has been much debated. Though violent and ruthless, he was never a career criminal and despised his son’s activities. Blood senior’s crimes – from a plot to seize Dublin Castle to the attempted abduction of the Duke of Ormond – were of a different order. They always had a political and/or religious motive. If his aim was financial gain he would have used any monies obtained to further the cause of republican Nonconformism. It has also been plausibly suggested that the raid was an ‘inside job’, organised with the knowledge and secret approval of the king himself, who – as ever – was chronically short of cash.
Charles’ actions after the crime were certainly suspect. Blood remained remarkably calm in captivity, maintaining that he would only make a complete confession to the king himself. Although he was brought to Charles in irons and closely questioned by a royal inquisition consisting of the king, his brother James and their cousin Prince Rupert, he was never condemned, nor even punished, beyond his few weeks’ imprisonment in the Tower. Nor were any of his confederates. Even more astonishingly Blood was actually rewarded by the king for his crime, receiving lands in his native Ireland and a pension of £500 a year. Before bestowing this the king laughingly asked Blood what he would do if granted mercy and Blood boldly replied: ‘I would endeavour to deserve it, Sire.’ Cheekily he added that Charles owed him his life, since in his republican days he had once stalked the king with a musket, intending to assassinate him. But, observing Charles skinny-dipping in the Thames at Vauxhall, Blood, hiding in some nearby reeds, said he was so ‘awe-struck’ by the sight of his naked sovereign that he forebore to fire.
Charles’ lenient treatment of Blood astonished contemporaries. The diarist John Evelyn was outraged not long after the robbery to see the jewel thief sitting at the Treasury table at a dinner to honour a party of visiting French noblemen:
Blood ... that impudent bold fellow who had not long before attempted to steal the Imperial Crown itself out of the Tower ... How came he to be pardoned, and even received into favour, not only after this, but several other exploits almost as daring both in Ireland and here, I could never come to understand ... The only treason of this sort that was ever pardoned. The man had not only a daring but a villainous unmerciful look, a false countenance, but very well spoken and dangerously insinuating.
Whether Charles was moved merely by fellow feeling for a glib rascal like himself or whether, more plausibly, Blood was acting as his secret agent when he raided the Tower the fact is that he inexplicably escaped punishment and spent the rest of his murky life as a ‘cut-out’ link man between the government and his former colleagues in the Nonconformist underground. Alan Marshall, historian of the 1678 Popish Plot, has described Blood in the late 1670s as the court’s ‘special agent and gun for hire’, suggesting that he is the most likely candidate behind the murder of Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey, the JP investigating the plot, whose unsolved death in October 1678 was blamed on a Catholic conspiracy, leading to a frenzy that almost destroyed the Stuart monarchy.
In stark contrast to Blood’s undeserved good fortune, the victim of his crime – Talbot Edwards – was treated less generously. Although he recovered from the assault, he became infirm and applied for a pension, which was initially refused. Grudgingly the government eventually granted it shortly before he died. Elizabeth Edwards did find a husband as a direct result of that dramatic May morning, but it was not young Thomas Blood. The man she married was the gallant Captain Beckman, who was promoted to major for his courage in capturing Blood. The old rogue himself died in 1680, in bed, aged 62.