We all used to learn at school how Thomas Blood tried to steal the crown jewels from the Tower of London in 1671. But strangely, this is only the tip of the iceberg of this mysterious man’s story…
Thomas Blood (also known as Thomas Ayliffe, and Thomas Allen) was probably born around 1618, the son of an Irish blacksmith.
Not much is known about his early life. The first that is really known is that he was involved in the English Civil War on the parliamentary side, where he appears to have been involved in espionage. He was rewarded for his services with large estates in Ireland (very likely seized from rebels or pro-royalist forces during the Cromwell’s campaign of genocide and repression there), and was appointed a member of a Commission of the Peace.
However, when the monarchy was restored in 1660, Blood lost his lands and his position, like many another parliamentarian veteran. He began to associate with plots against the restored king:
“Upon associating a little with the malcontents, he found his notions exactly justified, and that there was a design on foot for a general insurrection, which was to be begun by surprising the castle of Dublin, and seizing the person of the Duke of Ormond, then Lord Lieutenant. Into this scheme he entered without any hesitation; and though many of the persons involved in the dangerous undertaking were much his superiors in rank, yet he was very soon at the head of the affair, presided in all their councils, was the oracle in all their projects, and generally relied on in the execution of them. But, on the very eve of its execution the whole conspiracy, which had been long suspected, was discovered, His brother-in-law, one Lackie, a minister, was, with many others, apprehended, tried, convicted, and executed; but Blood made his escape, and kept out of reach, not withstanding the Duke of Ormond and the Earl of Orrery laboured to have him secured, and a proclamation was published by the former, with the promise of an ample reward for apprehending him.”
Escaping to Holland, Blood made contact with former republicans, exiled opponents of king Charles, and remnants of the Fifth Monarchy movement. The 1660s and 1670s saw a number of plots and conspiracies, plans for uprisings or assassinations. But most of them were heavily penetrated by spies working for the English government, and Blood realised this early on. He fled to Scotland, where he again became involved in a planned rising against the king in 1666, but this was disastrously routed by soldiers, and Blood had to flee again.
Blood next surfaces in an attempt to kidnap the powerful Duke of Ormonde, an Irish aristo, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, at Dublin Castle, who had already marked him down as being involved in the earlier Irish plot. Blood’s plan was to seize Ormonde from his carriage while he drove through London:
He actually put his design in execution on 6th of December, 1670, and very nearly succeeded… The terrified Duke was pulled from the coach by Blood and an accomplice and thrown onto the horse of another henchman – who rode as far as Tyburn before the cry went up that the nobleman had been kidnapped. Ormonde was dragged from his coach, bound to one of Blood’s henchmen, and taken on horseback along Piccadilly with the intention of hanging him at Tyburn. The gang pinned a paper to Ormonde’s chest spelling out their reasons for his capture and murder. However one of his servants gave chase on horseback, and with his help Ormonde succeeded in freeing himself and escaped.
However Blood was not recognised, and “himself and his associates escaped, though closely pursued. An account of this transaction was immediately published by authority, together with a Royal Proclamation, offering a reward of one thousand pounds for apprehending any of the persons concerned.”
This brings us to the event in 1671 for which Blood is best remembered; the theft of the Crown Jewels.
“He proposed to those desperate persons who assisted him in his former attempt to seize and divide amongst them the Royal Insignia of Majesty kept in the Tower of London —- viz. the crown, globe, sceptre and dove —- and as they were blindly devoted to his service, they very readily accepted the proposal, and left it to him to contrive the means of putting it into execution. He devised a scheme of putting himself into the habit of a Doctor of Divinity, with a little band, a long false beard, a cap with ears, and all the formalities of garb belonging to that degree, except the gown, choosing rather to make use of a cloak, as most proper for his design. Thus habited, he, with a woman whom he called his wife, went to see the curiosities in the Tower; and while they were viewing the regalia the supposed Mrs Blood pretended to be taken suddenly ill, and desired Mr Edwards (the keeper of the regalia) to assist her with some refreshment. Mr Edwards not only complied with this request, but also invited her to repose herself on a bed, which she did, and after a pretended recovery took her leave, together with Blood, with many expressions of gratitude. A few days after, Blood returned and presented Mrs Edwards, the keeper’s wife, with four pairs of white gloves, in return for her kindness. This brought on an acquaintance, which being soon improved into a strict intimacy, a marriage was proposed between a son of Edwards and a supposed daughter of Colonel Blood.
The night before the 9th of May, 1671, the doctor told the old man that he had some friends at his house who wanted to see the regalia, but that they were to go out of town early in the morning, and therefore hoped he would gratify them with the sight, though they might come a little before the usual hour. [In this enterprise Blood had engaged three accomplices, named Desborough, Kelfy and Perrot.] Accordingly two of them came, accompanied by the doctor, about eight in the morning, and the third held their horses, that waited for them at the outer gate of the Tower ready saddled. They had no other apparatus but a wallet and a wooden mallet, which there was no great difficulty to secrete.
Edwards received them with great civility, and immediately admitted them into his office; but as it is usual for the keeper of the regalia, when he shows them, to lock himself up in a kind of grate with open bars, the old man had no sooner opened the door of this place than the doctor and his companions were in at his heels, and without giving him time to ask questions, silenced him, by knocking him down with the wooden mallet. They then instantly made flat the bows of the crown to make it more portable, seized the sceptre and dove, put them together into the wallet, and were preparing to make their escape when, unfortunately for them, the old man’s son, who had not been at home for ten years before, returned from sea at the very instant; and being told that his father was with some friends who would be very glad to see him at the Jewel Office, he hastened thither immediately, and met Blood and his companions as they were just coming out, who, instead of returning and securing him, as in good policy they should have done, hurried away with the crown and globe, but not having time to file the sceptre, they left it behind them. Old Edwards, who was not so much hurt as the villains had apprehended, by this time recovered his legs, and cried out murder, which being heard by his daughter, she ran out and gave an alarm; and Blood and Perrot, making great haste, were observed to jog each other’s elbows as they went, which gave great reason for suspecting them. Blood and his accomplices were now advanced beyond the main-guard; but the alarm being given to the warder at the drawbridge, he put himself in a posture to stop their progress. Blood discharged a pistol at the warder, who, though unhurt, fell to the ground through fear; by which they got safe to the little ward-house gate, where one Still, who had been a soldier under Oliver Cromwell, stood sentinel. But though this man saw the warder, to all appearance, shot, he made no resistance against Blood and his associates, who now got over the drawbridge and through the outer gate upon the wharf.
At this place they were overtaken by one Captain Beckman, who had pursued them from Edwards’s house. Blood immediately discharged a pistol at Beckman’s head; but he stooping down at the instant, the shot missed him, and he seized Blood, who had the crown under his cloak. Blood struggled a long while to preserve his prize; and when it was at length wrested from him he said: “It was a gallant attempt, how unsuccessful soever; for it was for a crown!” Before Blood was taken, Perrot had been seized by another person; and young Edwards, observing a man that was bloody in the scuffle, was about to run him through the body, but was prevented by Captain Beckman.”
Locked up in a cell at the Tower, Blood insisted he would speak to no-one about the attempt unless it was the king… Possibly intrigued by this bold request, Charles II did in fact interview him. After this conversation, even more bizarrely, Blood was pardoned, and his confiscated estates restored to him, together with a pension. For a while he hung around the court, apparently high in the king’s favour… This raised eyebrows among many who had come into contact with Blood (especially Ormonde, who was outraged). But had Blood told the king something that helped him escape punishment… threatened an uprising of fifth monarchists in revenge of he was executed? or was Charles just capriciously attracted to the roguish bluster of the Irishman…? It is still unclear and likely to remain so.
Blood survived a number of years, seemingly part of the court, sometimes working for powerful figures, sometimes involved in murky plots. His patron for a while was the Duke of Buckingham, who was seen as an opposition figure within the court, (it has been suggested that Buckingham may have been behind the Ormonde kidnap plot) but Blood fell out with Buckingham, and jailed on charges of libeling him in 1679. Though he managed to get bail, he died shortly after, in August 1680.
Blood clearly had little allegiance to any religion or political group unless it suited his own ends. Was he just an adventurer, but Blood could also have been in the pay of some powerful figure. Many suspected him of being a spy – but a spy for whom? A double agent? He did tend to stay with rebellious groups until they were about to be eradicated or arrested. Perhaps he was always an infiltrator working for the government? In our own time we have seen numerous undercover operatives, involved in political and campaigning groups. And there have been hundreds of government agent provocateurs in the history of radical politics, betraying or even initiating uprisings or rebellious actions so as to destroy and divide movements. Blood could have been one – or he could have been something more complex, somewhere between wide boy, infiltrator and rebel.
An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.