In researching the history behind Rafael Sabatini’s swashbuckling “Captain Blood” (click here to check out that episode) I came across a story that is as weird as it wild. Although Sabatini never said explicitly what inspired him to dub his pirate with the moniker “Blood” it would not be outside the realm of reason to presume he borrowed it from one Thomas Blood. While not a pirate, Thomas was certainly a rogue, brigand, and a thorn in the side of authority. His most notable exploit, and the one for which he is most remembered, is his sensational (and nearly successful) attempt to steal the Crown Jewels of Great Britain from the Tower of London. For punishment Blood earned himself a royal pardon and a royal pension. And if that sounds improbable, just keep reading.
The year was 1673. Thomas Blood had already achieved a well-deserved reputation in royal circles as a nuisance at best and at worst a downright scoundrel. He had been a lieutenant in the army of Oliver Cromwell and thereafter, true to character, referred to himself as “Colonel”. With the reinstatment of the monarchy he was now a devoted royalist. Having powerful friends at court, he exerted some measure of influence and was well known as a man who would loyally serve the highest bidder and never hesitate to get his hands dirty. No one was more possessed of this opinion than the Duke of Ormonde whom Blood, following a slight disagreement wherein he maintained the Duke seized his estate in Ireland, had recently kidnapped and attempted to hang.
Several years earlier the Crown Jewels has been moved out of the Temple and into the Martin Tower in the northeast corner of the Tower of London. They were under the watchful eye of the Master of the Regalia, a humble octogenarian named Talbot Edwards. Edwards lived in the Martin tower with his wife and daughter where he would show the Jewels to anyone who wished to see them, for a small sum. Edwards also had a son, currently abroad but expected home any day.
One evening a country curate came by the Tower with his wife and expressed his interest in seeing the Jewels. After the viewing his wife took ill and was brought by the kind-hearted Edwards into his home where Mrs. Edwards gave her a resorative and allowed her to rest until she regained her strength. In the meantime the curate and Mr. Edwards found that they got along quite well and a friendship was quickly struck up. After several visits the curate made Edwards a proposal. Edwards had a lovely daughter and the curate a fine nephew worth two or three hundred pounds a year. Perhaps there could be a marriage between the two?
Mr. and Mrs. Edwards were delighted with the idea of pairing their daughter with such a husband, and from a fine, upright family no less. They agreed to the curate’s idea and a date was set for the introductions.
The curate, of course, was none other than Thomas Blood. As to the identity of his “wife”, no one knows. She played her part and has since been lost to history.
Blood came to the Martin Tower on the appointed date, accompanied by three other men, all equally unscrupulous theives. Theif 1 was to keep watch outside the Tower and give a holler if something went sideways. Blood, maintaining the guise of a curate, would introduce one of the others as his nephew and make excuses for the absence of his wife, whom (he said) would be along shortly. In the meantime would Mr. Edwards care to show the Jewels to his guests?
Edwards, still believing his friend to be an honest man, graciously agreed. No sooner had he unlocked the door to the Jewel room than he found a cloak thrown over his head and a gag tied in his mouth. He was warned not to make a sound lest his captors take more firm action to ensure his silence. Edwards was a braver man than then anticipated and attempted to raise an alarm, a valiant act for which he quickly found himself knocked unconscious.
Believing Edwards no longer a factor, the thieves set to work. Thief 2 stashed the Orb in his breeches while Thief 3 broke the Sceptre into pieces. Blood himself took charge of the Crown, hiding it under his cassock (in one version of the story he flattened it with a hammer to make it more easily concealed). Just as the goods were gotten a cry was heard from Thief 1 outside.
If all of this sounds rather theatrical, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Blood and his cohorts were flush with victory when, at the moment of success Edwards the younger, recently abroad, spoiled everything. Thief 1, had be been of a more even temperment, might have been able to buy enough time for Blood to make it out with the loot. The young Edwards mistook Theif 1 for someone having business with his father and offered to make him an introduction. Perhaps criminal activity just wasn’t his forte or perhaps he had simply had too much coffee that day and was a little jumpy but whatever the reason Thief 1 took that moment to raise an alarm to his fellows and head for the hills.
Mrs. Edwards, mistaking Thief 1 for her daughter’s future lover, had been watching this whole scene from her window and, now suspicious herself, began to raise her own alarm. Old Edwards, recovering his senses and not wishing to be left out of the screaming, also started yelling. Blood and his fellows, taking the hint that they were no longer welcome, politely excused themselves and headed for the door.
They stepped out into daylight just in time to see a curious crew of guards rounding the corner. Not a man who easily lost his head, Blood, who it will be remembered was still dressed in religious garb, hollered to the guards that theives (his compatriots!) were attempting to steal the Jewels and must be stopped!
While the guards were busy tackling his confederates Blood dashed across the inner ward. Had he maintained his religious persona he may have gotten away but, rather than continue in the guise of a man of peace he removed a pistol from his cassock and pulled the trigger right in the face of a guard whose suspicions he had aroused. Unfortunately for Blood the pistol misfired. The guard, taking some slight offense to so ungentlemanly an introduction, promptly redressed his grievance by tackling Blood to the groundand placing him under arrest.
The sensational tale would only get stranger after Blood’s capture. All of London was thrilled with news of his exploits and eagerly awaited a decision regarding Blood’s fate. As if the facts of the case weren’t unusual enough Blood’s personality only served to add fuel to the fire. Refusing to acknowledge his captors’ authority he maintained that as a loyal subject of King Charles II, he was only accountable to and would only speak with the king himself. Old Talbot Edwards and Blood’s old friend the Duke of Ormonde were certain the king would have nothing to do with Blood and ultimately he would be hung.
Thus, all of London was stunned when good ol’ Charlie 2 decided to personally visit Blood. A notorious character in his own right, Charlie had previously visited sensational criminals and others of ill-repute out of curiousity. So while shocking, his call on Blood was not entirely without precident. What truly turned all of London on it’s ear was that Blood walked out of his private meeting with the king not only bearing a royal pardon for his crimes but with a pension worth £500 a year! Until his death in 1680 Blood remained a fixture at court, never straying far from his regal meal ticket.
If the thought “What the…?!” has crossed your mind, fear not, you are not alone. No one at the time could figure it out either and since then all we have are rumors to explain how a man can be captured with royal gold on his person and not only escape punishment but find reward! The most prevalent rumor (and one which seems to fit the known facts) is that Blood was hired by none other than Charlie 2 himself. Following his ascension Charlie found himself in a pile of debt and, in an effort to raise money, commisioned Blood to steal the Crown Jewels and sell them piece by piece overseas. It sounds outrageous (mostly because it is!) but certainly seem plausible given Charlie’s reaction. True or not, we may never know, but it certainly makes for one heck of a story.