London, May 1671.
A motley group of conspirators are making their final preparations for a robbery that will become the most widely-known crime of the age. As his accomplices ready themselves, self-appointed ‘Colonel’ Thomas Blood, an Irish ‘adventurer’, offers a final prayer for his safety and the success of his plot. This is no ordinary, run-of-the-mill score. If they succeed ‘Colonel’ Blood and his gang will have stolen the most famous symbol of the British monarchy. The famous Crown Jewels themselves are now up for grabs…
Jewel thieves are nothing new in and of themselves. Precious gems have always exerted a particular allure over thieves and not always for purely financial reasons. For Thomas Blood, stealing the Crown Jewels was said to be an act of political protest against the sitting monarch Charles II. Or was it..?
‘Colonel’ Blood is one of crime’s less-remembered and certainly more mysterious characters. An Irish Protestant, Blood started off as a Royalist before the Civil War, changed sides when serving Parliament became more convenient, turned to freelance crime and, some historians firmly believe, returned to the Royalist fold and did various dirty work for the King that His Majesty needed done but couldn’t be linked to publicly. He was a rake, a self-appointed Colonel, a thief. a murderer, a liar and quite possibly a spy and hitman as well. A man of self-serving duplicity, considerable cunning and guile, occasional violence and, in short, a crook through and through.
In 1660 Oliver Cromwell died. Cromwell had ruled as Lord Protector after winning the Civil War and executing Charles I in 1649. Thomas Blood suffered considerably as a result. Having changed sides from the Royalists to the Parliamentary forces, Blood had been awarded lands and considerable financial benefits when the Parliamentarians won the war. The Coronation of Charles II meant the Restoration of the monarchy and that was bad news for anybody who’d profited from supporting Cromwell. Blood’s lands and perks were confiscated by the Crown as a result of his changing sides leading him to turn to crime to make a living.
It was also in 1660 that the new monarch King Charles II ordered a lavish Coronation ceremony which included spending the then-staggering sum of £32,000 on a new set of Crown Jewels. The medieval originals had been confiscated by Cromwell and sold to raise funds so Charles ordered exactly similar, equally lavish replicas to replace them. The Imperial Crown was solid gold and held over 400 precious stones, the Royal Sceptre was also solid gold and so was the Royal Orb. Both the Sceptre and the Orb were also encrusted with gems, albeit not as heavily as the Crown itself. Charles II had inherited an impoverished country whose national coffers were seriously over stretched but, being a man of flamboyant (some would say decadent) tastes, money was seemingly no object and Charles felt it necessary to make the Crown Jewels not only a set of ultra-lavish trinkets, but also a symbol of the newly-restored monarchy itself. According to the conventional historical interpretation, it was for their symbolic value (and in protest at his own treatment by the Royalists) that Thomas Blood decided he was going to steal them.
Before he could steal the jewels Blood needed a good look at where they were kept and how well they were guarded. They were kept at the Martin Tower within the Tower of London (not the easiest place to get into or out of) but were protected by only a locked door and a single custodian named Thomas Edwards. To add to the somewhat serious security deficiencies Edwards was an unpaid custodian making a living entirely by charging visitors to come and view the jewels in the Jewel Room. Visitors couldn’t enter the Jewel Room itself, but they could get a clear view of the Royal treasure through the single, locked metal grille that stood between them and the swag of a lifetime, a grille to which Edwards had the key. Edwards was a thoroughly honest man, but he was also poor and, being 77-years old at the time, not the type of custodian you might expect for something so valuable. When a friendly country vicar and his wife dropped by asking to view the jewels Edwards (also far too trusting a man for such a job) was only too happy to earn some extra money. The ‘vicar’ was really Colonel’ Thomas Blood. The ‘wife’ was an actress. Edwards was in harm’s way and didn’t know it.
While his supposed ‘wife’ feigned illness and Edwards went to get her a glass of water Blood had the time he needed to case the Jewel Room thoroughly. He noticed the single metal grille and realised that Edwards was almost certainly the keyholder. He also noticed a case of pistols which Edwards kept in the Jewel Room, presumably for protection, but which had never been out of their case and were all unloaded. Once his ‘wife’ had recovered from her sudden bad spell and Edwards had returned Blood made a show of admiring the pistols and offered to buy them. Edwards, probably thinking that if you can’t trust a priest then you can’t trust anybody, sold them to him. Edwards was now totally disarmed in every sense by the very type of man he’d been employed to stop. He didn’t have a clue of Blood’s real identity or criminal intent. He would become very painfully aware of both in due time.
Blood had the custodian completely fooled. Now was the perfect time to propose a wedding between his supposed son and the custodian’s daughter, carefully mentioning the large cash dowry Edwards would receive just to soft-soap him a little more. Now for the master-stroke. Blood suggested that he return with his ‘son’ and a couple of friends to finalise the wedding plans and asked Edwards if they could view the jewels as well. Edwards agreed instantly and, in that single moment, the greatest robbery of the time was finally set in motion.
A couple of days later Blood and his confederates returned. They arrived at 7am (a time they chose to avoid early-morning crowds and so leave clearer escape routed when the job was done). Edwards greeted the pilfering ‘parson’, his friends and his prospective son-in-law (actually Thomas Blood Junior the ‘Colonel’s’ own son, known as ‘Young Blood’) and left his wife and daughter while he led Blood and his accomplices to the Jewel Room. Edwards unlocked the outer door, ushered his paying guests in for their viewing and suddenly everything moved very quickly.
Edwards suddenly found himself with a hessian sack over his head. Blood smashed him on the skull with a wooden mallet while ‘Young Blood’, Robert Halliwell and Robert Perrot restrained him. Edwards, despite his age and being outnumbered by several armed men all younger than him, gamely resisted when they demanded the key to the grille. Blood hit him a couple more times and he still struggled to free himself. One of the gang then stabbed him in the stomach and Edwards, while not fatally wounded, finally decided to play dead and buy himself time to figure out what else to do. With Edwards out of commission and the key taken from him Perrot stuffed the Royal Orb into his breeches. Halliwell busied himself trying to saw the solid-gold Royal Sceptre in two for easier concealment while Blood used the blood-stained mallet to flatten the Imperial Crown before stuffing it under his coat. The security had been bypassed, the custodian was out of action and the Crown Jewels were literally in the hands of the thieves. What could possibly go wrong?
Plenty. What Blood and his crew didn’t bank on was the unexpected return of Edwards’ son Wythe. Wythe Edwards had just returned from fighting as an officer in the Dutch Wars and he’d also brought a friend with him, Captain Marcus Beckman. Both were hardened, experienced soldiers and neither was the type to back away from a fight. As they walked into the Martin Tower Wythe’s father managed to remove the gag he’d been muzzled by and bellowed ‘Treason! Murder! The Crown is stolen!’
Edwrads and Beckman instantly ran towards the noise, Wythe immediately recognising the sound of his father’s voice and guessing that something was seriously wrong. They drew their pistols and pursued the thieves at full speed, demanding their surrender in the name of the King. Blood fired a pistol at Edwards and missed while he and Perrot fled towards their horses, being held at the Iron Gate by another accomplice, William Smith. All three were caught as they tried to mount their horses and escape. Halliwell and’Young Blood’ managed to leave the Tower before ‘Young Blood’ crashed his horse into a passing cart and was immediately arrested. Halliwell was picked up not long afterward, leaving the robbers all arrested and the Crown Jewels recovered. In Thomas Blood’s opinion “It was a gallant deed, although it failed…” History doesn’t record the opinion of Captain Beckman and especially the Edwards family.
Despite facing the particularly hideous death meted out to traitors (namely being hung, drawn and quartered before a public audience) Blood remained curiously (and, some say, suspiciously) calm and relaxed while under arrest. The outlaws were held in the ‘White Tower’ of the Tower of London (site of the alleged murder of the ‘Princes in the Tower’) to await their trial and ultimate fate. Nobody seems to have doubted that they would all be providing entertainment for the general public in short order, especially considering that, by stealing the Crown Jewels, they wouldn’t have been charged with robbery or theft, but with treason (then a capital offense).
Time for another twist in the tale. No less a visitor than King Charles II arrived and visited Blood privately where thief and victim spent some time in very private conversation. The most widely told version of their conversation has Blood not only not begging for his life, but even admitting that after the Restoration he had spent a morning looking at Charles through the sights of a musket while finally deciding not to squeeze the trigger. Not only was Blood arrogant enough to rob the King of England, he’s also supposed to have then joked with the King about previously attempting to assassinate him. Charles, so it’s said, was so impressed by Blood’s sheer audacity and his remarkable crimes that, rather than simply sending him for trial and execution like any other prospective regicide and violent thief, he pardoned Blood, awarded him extensive lands in Ireland and even a pension of £500 a year for life. Pretty good going from Blood’s point of view, considering that he could have ended up being dismembered before a jeering mob instead.
Charles could easily have ensured that Blood and his accomplices were tried, convicted and publicly executed. He could certainly have ensured that all of them either spent the rest of their lives in English jails or the penal colonies in modern-day Georgia or Virginia. What he didn’t have to do was heavily reward the leader of the gang and allow the others their freedom and to disappear into obscurity, which is exactly what he did do. The question has to be ‘Why?’ Why would Charles not only give up the chance to make an example of Blood and his colleagues? Why would he spare the gang and reward their leader after they’d committed treason and inflicted so personal an insult to the monarchy?
According to Alan Marshall, a leading historian on the period, the answers are simple. The first involves money. Charles was by nature an ostentatious man with a strong taste for high living and lavish excess. The fact that he’d inherited a country whose finances were heavily depleted and whose credit was over-extended hadn’t curbed his expensive tastes. Marshall believes that the robbery was an inside job, ordered by the King and given to Blood by one of Charles’ chief hatchet men, the Duke of Buckingham. The Duke was a devoted ally of Charles with a long-established record of arranging dirty deeds that Charles profited from in various ways but could never be seen to involve himself with personally. Buckingham often acted as his middleman, making sure that Charles’ less savory activities were done discreetly, without any direct links to the King himself. Charles could easily have used Buckingham to arrange the robbery, pocket the proceeds privately (the Jewels had originally cost a staggering £32,000, a vast sum for that time) and then ordered that taxes be levied to provide replacements at public expense. All of which raises the distinct possibility that the robbery was an inside job and Blood not only surviving but being richly rewarded was really a payment for services rendered.
Marshall also provides evidence that Blood, while seemingly a solid member of the London underworld after losing the lands he gained after the Civil War, also acted as a hitman and spy for Buckingham, performing a number of illegal services on Buckingham’s behalf (and, by extension, the King’s). This would account for Blood having evaded capture for so long during his criminal career prior to the robbery. It would also explain why he made such incredible gains from a crime that would normally have cost him his life. The last thing Buckingham (and especially Charles) would have wanted was one of their former spies playing such a trump card in open court. Blood would very likely have done that if he’d found himself facing the headsman’s axe. Far better to publicly show mercy, claim to be utterly charmed by the sheer audacity of the crime and then seal his own reputation as the ‘Merry Monarch’ by letting Blood and his accomplices off the hook and provide a huge payoff for Blood’s previous work under the cover of Charles’ own well-known eccentricity.
Was the notorious ‘Colonel’ Blood’ really a disaffected soldier making a political protest or was he merely the inside man? Was the ‘Merry Monarch’ really a common thief, stealing his own national treasures to further fund an unsustainably lavish lifestyle? Was the most audacious robbery of its time, involving the theft of the most famous jewel collection in the world, merely a put-up job?
Historians and crime buffs can (and still frequently do) debate these questions. But, of all the questions raised by this remarkable raid, only one entirely solid truth emerges.
We’ll probably never really know for sure.