Daring and fearless, Irish con artist Thomas Blood (1618–1680) was famously known as the mastermind behind a nearly successful attempt to steal the English monarch's crown jewels from within the protective walls of the Tower of London. Caught during his escape, Blood talked King Charles II into a pardon, adding further mystique to his name.
Thomas Blood was born into a well-to-do Protestant family in Sarney, County Meath, Ireland, in 1618. His father, also named Thomas Blood, was a blacksmith who prospered in the iron manufacturing industry, mostly by exporting iron ingots to England. It was thought that Blood had a younger brother and sister. While Thomas Blood, Sr., was known as an upstanding citizen, the Blood family had a long history of engaging in questionable livelihoods. For example, Edmund Blood—the grandfather of the jewel thief—earned extra income by stopping ships that were sailing along the Irish coast, taking money in exchange for safe passage through the area. It was not exactly piracy, but it was definitely corrupt.
Blood spent a portion of his adolescence in England and probably attended school in Lancashire. When he was about 20, he married Maria Holcroft, the daughter of a Lancashire landowner. After the marriage, Blood took his bride back to Ireland. In 1641, tensions in Ireland mounted as the Catholics and Protestants feuded. In a rebellion, the Catholics killed thousands of Protestants (also known as Rebel Puritans), with whom Blood was aligned. In 1642, a civil war broke out in England between the Parliamentarians and the Royalists and stemmed from a conflict between Charles I and Parliament. Charles I believed in an absolute monarchy and wanted the ability to make decisions on his own without the support of Parliament.
In general, the landowners and Anglicans (also known as the Royalists) supported Charles I. Thomas Blood joined the fray, initially joining forces on the side of the Protestant king. As the war progressed, Blood saw that his side was losing. In addition, Blood became frustrated when King Charles I, needing more soldiers, asked James Butler, Duke of Ormond and leader of the Royal Irish Army, to negotiate a truce between the Catholics and Protestants. The king wanted the Protestants then fighting in Ireland to join his fight in England. As the leader of the Royal Irish Army, Butler led the war effort against the Irish Catholics.
Butler tried to oblige the king in reaching a truce, and this infuriated Blood. In his eyes, Butler was nothing but a traitor to the Protestant cause. At this point, Blood switched allegiances and began fighting on the side of the Parliamentarians in their quest to unseat the king. He quickly rose to the rank of lieutenant. It was thought that Blood worked as a spy, using his connections with both sides for espionage.
Oliver Cromwell led the Parliamentarians, and in 1649 they captured and executed Charles I, thereby ending the English monarchy. After Cromwell became head of state—or Lord Protector—of the Commonwealth of England, Blood returned to Ireland and was granted land and property for his service in the war. By 1650, he had taken to calling himself a colonel, though no records exist indicating that he earned the rank and he likely did it to inflate his status. Then, in 1658, Cromwell died and England once again descended into turmoil. Two years later, the English monarchy was restored: Charles II, the king of Scotland until 1651, returned from exile and was installed as King of England in 1661.
After gaining power, Charles II had lands and other property stripped from the Parliamentarians who had defeated and executed his father. Because he feared an uprising, he calculated that if his dissenters were poor, they would be less likely to plot an effective revolt. As the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the duke of Ormond was responsible for taking back these lands and properties from the Parliamentarians. At this point, Blood was stripped of all his lands and he focused his mounting resentment on Butler.
After lying low for a while, Blood returned to England and worked with dissident groups to unseat Charles II. He served as a spy and hitman, concocting plots to remove the monarch from power. In 1667, Blood learned that one of his co-conspirators, Capt. John Mason, was being transferred for trial. Fearing that Mason would be executed, Blood decided to rescue him. He ambushed the officials transporting his friend, and after a bloody battle in which Blood was wounded, the rescue was made.
In December of 1670, Blood became involved in another plot to kidnap Butler. In the light of midday, in the middle of a bustling London street, Blood's gang held up Butler's carriage. Some accounts reported that Butler made a narrow escape; others suggest that Blood succeeded in kidnapping Butler but set him free a few days later as government officials closed in. Although Blood escaped capture, another bounty was added to his head.
In 1671, Blood set his sights on stealing the king's gemencrusted crown jewels from the heavily guarded Tower of London fortress. Under Cromwell, the crown jewels used by Charles I had been either melted down or sold. When Charles II came to power, he commissioned a new set of state regalia, including a scepter, orb, and jeweled crown to restore the splendor of the monarchy. He hired a jeweler to duplicate the old jewels, and these new, costly jewels were stored in a fortified basement vault inside the tower.
In April of 1671, Blood disguised himself as a Church of England clergyman by donning a false beard and cassock like the ones worn by Anglican parsons. He hired a young Irish actress named Jenny Blaine to accompany him, and the couple visited the Tower of London. The job of guarding the crown jewels fell to a warden named Talbot Edwards, who lived in an apartment in the tower. An aging military officer, Edwards guarded the jewels and supplemented his income by showing these prized articles to visitors in exchange for a small admission fee.
Meeting Edwards, Blood introduced himself as a country parson named Dr. Ayliff and introduced Blaine as his wife. The couple asked to see the jewels. Once inside the jewel room, Blaine faked a fainting illness and asked for “spirits” to calm her down. When Edwards ran upstairs to his apartment to fetch a drink, Blood was left alone to case the joint. Edwards then invited the purported Mrs. Ayliff upstairs to his apartment to rest, where she soon recovered.
A few days later, Blood returned to the tower with a gift of embroidered gloves for Edwards's wife as a thank you for her hospitality. This visit led to a dinner invitation, and the couples became friends. Soon, Blood and his “wife” were visiting the tower apartment of the Edwards family on a regular basis. These visits provided him with the opportunity to study the layout of the tower and discover access routes through the property. Over the course of their conversations, Blood learned that Edwards had an unmarried daughter and was concerned for her future. He was getting on in years and worried that after his death, his daughter would become poor and homeless. Blood told Edwards he had a young, unmarried nephew who was searching for a wife. Delighted, Edwards agreed that the two should meet.
At 7 a.m. on the morning of May 9, 1671, Blood arrived at the tower with an entourage of four. Among the group was his grown son, whom he introduced as eligible bachelor Tom Hunt. Blood told Edwards that the other men were friends who were passing through London and wanted to see the crown jewels. Edwards agreed to take them.
Once inside the jewel room, Blood threw a cape over Edwards's head and placed a gag in his mouth. Then the group went to work. In their cloaks, the men had concealed a wooden mallet, a file, some pistols, and several daggers. Although gagged, Edwards called out for help and made enough of a racket that the gang stabbed him in the stomach with a dagger to silence him. Blood used the mallet to smash down the gold crown, flattening it enough that he could conceal it under his cloak. Another accomplice stuck the orb in his pants and a third attempted to saw the scepter in half so it could be removed without notice.
Meanwhile, Edwards's son, Wythe Edwards, returned home unexpectedly from duty in the Royal Navy, bringing along a friend, Captain Marcus Beckman. After discovering that Wythe was home, a lookout warned Blood's group to flee and they ran, leaving the half-sawn scepter behind. Soon, Edwards wriggled free and, despite his injuries, started shouting something on the order of “Treason! Thief!” Wythe and Beckman alerted the guards and the chase began. When Blood approached the tower guards, he raised his pistol and shot his way out.
Blood nearly got away. As Beckman pursued him, Blood called out, “Stop, Thief!,” while pointing at his pursuer. This slowed Beckman down, but he eventually caught Blood. The colonel was taken to the tower and imprisoned, but he refused to talk to anyone but the king. Charles II agreed to meet with him, and Blood was escorted to Whitehall Palace, where he was given a private audience with the king. On August 1, 1671, Charles signed a pardon for Blood and also pardoned his co-conspirators.
Whatever the motivations for Blood's pardon, he died on August 24, 1680, at his home in Westminster, London. After his burial at the Tothill Fields chapel graveyard in London, rumors spread that the colonel had faked his death and was on to another daring adventure. About six days after the funeral, the coroner had Blood's body exhumed and brought in a jury of citizens to identify it. Because of the decomposition and swelling of the face, a positive ID was not made, although an army captain insisted it was Blood because the corpse had a disfigured thumb corresponding to an old injury. In another twist of fate, Captain Martin Beckman, the soldier who captured Blood, eventually married Edwards's daughter.
Diehl, Daniel, and Mark P. Donnelly, Tales from the Tower of London, Sutton Publishing, 2004.
Hutchinson, Robert, The Audacious Crimes of Colonel Blood, Pegasus Books, 2015.
Jones, Nigel, Tower: An Epic History of the Tower of London, St. Martin's Press, 2012.
History Today, October 2011, Nigel Jones, “Blood, Theft, and Arrears,“pp. 10–15.□