The theft of the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom forms the comical plot of Johnny English (2003), but few people are aware that the crown jewels were indeed once stolen. This is the story of ‘Colonel’ Blood, the man who stole the crown jewels – and lived to tell the tale.
Born the son of a blacksmith in early 17th-century County Meath, Ireland, Thomas Blood had relatively humble beginnings. Aged 24, the self-styled ‘Colonel’ Blood set off to support King Charles I in the English Civil War, before swapping sides to fight for Oliver Cromwell’s parliamentary ‘Roundheads’. Cromwell rewarded Blood with land in his native Ireland, but the colonel lost this land almost as quickly when the monarchy was restored in 1660 and Charles II, son of Charles I, ascended the English throne. Disillusioned, Blood unsuccessfully tried to capture Dublin Castle and kidnap the Duke of Ormonde, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. The colonel briefly fled to Holland before he returned to England and practised as a doctor in Romford. Not content with one botched attempt to seize the duke, Blood tried again, this time with the intention to kill him – but once again he failed.
Undeterred by these fruitless endeavours, Blood decided to up the stakes and steal the crown jewels from the Tower of London. Firstly, he visited the tower under the guise of a parson and befriended Talbot Edwards, the man responsible for guarding the royal regalia. Blood then returned with a woman posing as his wife, who feigned aggressive stomach cramps as the couple were about to leave and was taken to Edwards’ quarters to rest. Such kind hospitality called for a gift, and Blood arrived a few days later with four pairs of white gloves in appreciation of Mrs Edwards’ help. Finally, as Blood lured Edwards into a false sense of friendship, he suggested that they should introduce Edwards’ daughter to Blood’s entirely fictional but nonetheless wealthy nephew with the prospect of marriage. Delighted, Edwards agreed and they set a date for the introduction.
On May 9, 1671, ‘Parson’ Blood arrived at the tower with his son, posing as his nephew, and two other plotters. While Blood’s ‘nephew’ and Edwards’ daughter were getting acquainted, Edwards led the other three men down to the basement to see the crown jewels. Just as Edwards unlocked the door to the room containing the jewels, Blood bludgeoned him with a mallet and stabbed him with a sword before he and his cronies set about stealing the primary components of the collection: the orb, the sceptre and the crown. All of these had been added during the reign of Charles II as most of the pre-abolition regalia had been sold off during Cromwell’s rule. Blood stuffed the orb down his trousers, flattened the crown with his mallet and, realising that the sceptre was too long to fit in his bag, had one of his co-conspirators attempt to saw it in half. Meanwhile, Edwards’ son, a soldier, happened to return home at this point and was looking for his father. Disturbed, the colonel and his accomplices abandoned the sceptre and attempted to escape the tower. ‘Treason! The crown is stolen!’ Edwards exclaimed, as the thieves fled. As he and his company bolted for the gate to escape the tower, Blood fired a shot at a guard, but the would-be thieves were hastily captured.
Intent on an audience with Charles II, Blood stated that he would answer only to the king. Charles was not like other sovereigns; he famously had a reputation as ‘the merry monarch’. This was partly due to his relatively relaxed regime compared with the puritanical extremes of the Commonwealth and Protectorate governments that preceded him during the interregnum years, but it was also the result of randy hedonism in his personal life and religious tolerance in political affairs. Clearly, Blood hoped his own radical audacity would appeal to the debonair monarch.
Blood was not wrong. While it’s not certain how the conversation between the monarch and the colonel played out, it is said that Blood confessed to the crime before regaling the king with tales of his fearless escapades – including one unexecuted plan to assassinate Charles II himself! When the king asked Blood what he would do if he was allowed to keep his life, the colonel wittily replied that he would endeavour to deserve it. If fortune generally favours the brave, it rained gloriously upon the bold in this instance: Charles not only pardoned Blood for his crime, he also provided him with land in Ireland worth £500 per year. The colonel also became a regular figure at court in London, no doubt to the frustration of the Duke of Ormonde, but a few years later, in 1680, an indebted Blood died. Such was the colonel’s duplicity in life that rumours quickly spread that he had faked his own death to avoid arrears. Blood’s body was exhumed to confirm his death before he was reburied with the epitaph: ‘Here lies the man who boldly hath run through more villanies than England ever knew’.
Why Charles pardoned Blood for a crime that was punishable by death is a matter of historical debate. Some say the king’s mercy was inspired by Blood’s bold audacity. Others, however, have suggested that the financially troubled Charles II was complicit and had planned to take a cut of the con and use public money to replace the regalia.