by Tom Clavin
As so often happens, recently I was researching one thing and found another—in this case, a reputed pirate’s real story. In 1671, a man known to history as “Captain Blood” tried to steal the crown jewels of England. Movie buffs will probably think of the 1935 film with that title which introduced Errol Flynn to the world as well as the catnip combination of Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. The film was based on Rafael Sabatini’s 1922 novel about a fictional Irish physician turned pirate. But the real story is quite different.
Thomas Blood was born in 1618 in County Clare in Ireland. He was the son of a successful Blacksmith of English descent who held lands in the Counties Clare, Meath, and Wicklow. His grandfather was a member of the Irish Parliament and had lived at Kilnaboy Castle. Young Blood received his education in Lancashire, England. At the age of 20, he married Maria Holcroft and, with his bride, he went home to Ireland.
At the outbreak of the First English Civil War in 1642, Blood returned to England and initially took up arms with the Royalist forces loyal to Charles I. As the conflict progressed he switched sides and became a lieutenant in Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads. In 1653, at the cessation of hostilities, Cromwell awarded now-Colonel Blood land grants and appointed him a justice of the peace. However, following the ascension of King Charles II to the throne in 1660, Blood fled with his family to Ireland. The subsequent confiscations and restitutions brought Blood to financial ruin. Understandably miffed, Blood sought to unite his fellow Cromwellians in Ireland in an insurrection.
He planned to storm Dublin Castle, usurp the government, and kidnap James Butler, Duke of Ormonde and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, for ransom. But on the eve of the attempt, the plot was foiled. Blood managed to evade the authorities by hiding with his countrymen in the mountains. Ultimately, he managed to escape to what is now the Netherlands, but a few of Blood’s collaborators were captured and executed. In 1670, despite his status as a wanted man, Blood returned to England and is believed to have taken the name Ayloffe and practiced as a doctor or an apothecary in London.
His next plan also involved Ormonde. The latter had taken up residence at Clarendon House. Blood followed Ormonde’s movements and noted that he frequently returned late in the evening accompanied by a small number of footmen. On the night of December 6, 1670, Blood and his accomplices attacked Ormonde. He was dragged from his coach and taken on horseback 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, with the help of one of his servants who had given chase on horseback, Ormonde succeeded in freeing himself and escaped. The plot’s secrecy meant that Blood was not suspected of the crime, despite a reward being offered for the capture of the attempted assassins.
Blood did not lie low for long, and within six months he made his notorious attempt to steal the crown jewels. In May 1671, he visited the Tower of London dressed as a parson and accompanied by a female companion pretending to be his wife. While viewing the crown jewels, Blood’s “wife” feigned a stomach complaint and begged the newly appointed Master of the Jewel House, 77-year-old Talbot Edwards, to fetch her some spirits. Given the proximity of the jewel keeper’s domestic quarters to the site of the commotion, Edwards’s wife invited them upstairs to their apartment to recover, after which Blood and his wife thanked the Edwardses and left.
Over the following days, Blood returned to the Tower of London to visit the Edwardses and presented Mrs. Edwards with four pairs of white gloves as a gesture of thanks. As Blood became ingratiated with the family, an offer was made for a fictitious nephew of Blood’s to marry the Edwardses’ daughter, who, Blood alleged, would be eligible, by virtue of the marriage, to an income of several hundred pounds a year.
In furtherance of the deception, Blood convinced Edwards to show the jewels to him, his supposed nephew, and two of his friends before dinner. Reports suggest that Blood’s accomplices carried canes that concealed rapier blades, daggers, and pocket pistols. In entering the Jewel House, one of the men made a pretense of standing watch outside while the others joined Edwards and Blood. The door was closed and a cloak thrown over the hapless Edwards, who was struck with a mallet, knocked to the floor, bound, gagged, and stabbed to subdue him.
Blood used the mallet to flatten St. Edwards Crown so that he could hide it beneath his clerical coat. Another conspirator filed the Sceptre with the Cross in two (as it did not fit in their bag), while the third man stuffed the Sovereign’s Orb down his trousers. Meanwhile, Edwards refused to stay subdued and fought against his bindings. Popular reports describe Edwards’s son, Wythe, fortuitously returning from military service in Flanders and happening upon the attempted theft. At the door of the Jewel House, Wythe was met by the impromptu guard, who challenged him before the young Edwards entered and went upstairs. The “guard” then alerted his fellow gang members. At around the same time, the elder Edwards managed to free his gag and raised the alarm, shouting, “Treason! Murder! The crown is stolen!”
As Blood and his gang fled, they dropped the scepter and fired on the warders who attempted to stop them, wounding one. One drawbridge guard was struck with fear and failed to discharge his musket. As they ran along the Tower wharf it is said they joined the calls for alarm to confuse the guards until they were chased down by a Captain Beckman, brother-in-law of the younger Edwards. Although Blood shot at him, he missed and was captured before reaching the Iron Gate. Having fallen from his cloak, the crown was found while Blood refused to give up, struggling with his captors and declaring, “It was a gallant attempt, however unsuccessful! It was for a crown!” The globe and orb were recovered although several stones were missing.
Following his capture, Blood refused to answer to anyone but the king and was consequently taken to the palace in chains, where he was questioned by King Charles II, Prince Rupert, and others. The king asked Blood, “What if I should give you your life?” Blood replied, “I would endeavor to deserve it, Sire!” To the disgust of Ormonde, Blood was not only pardoned but also given land in Ireland worth £500 a year. In contrast, Edwards’s family was awarded less than £300 by the king, a sum which was never paid in full, but at least he got to return to his duties at the Tower of London and regale visitors with his tales of the attempted theft. Edwards died three years later and his tomb rests in the chapel of St. Peter’s Ad Vincula, at the Tower of London.
The reasons for the king’s pardon are unknown. Some historians have speculated that King Charles II may have feared an uprising by followers of Blood, who were thought to have taken an oath to their leader. Others speculated that the king had a fondness for audacious scoundrels such as Blood. Another possible reason was Blood promised to keep quiet about the crown jewels being worth only £6,000 as opposed to the £100,000 at which the Crown had valued them. There is also a suggestion that the king was flattered and amused by Blood’s revelation that he had previously intended to kill him while he was bathing in the Thames but had been swayed otherwise, having found himself in “awe of majesty.”
In any case, following his pardon, Blood became a familiar figure around London and made frequent appearances at Court, where he was employed to advocate in the claims of suitors to the Crown.
In August 1680, some ailment caused Col. Blood to fall into a coma. He soon died at his home in Bowling Alley, Westminster. His body was buried in the churchyard of what is now Christchurch Gardens. It is believed that his body was exhumed by the authorities for confirmation—such was his reputation for trickery, it was suspected he might have faked his death and funeral to avoid paying debts. An epitaph written about him was not too flattering:
Here lies the man who boldly hath run through
More villainies than England ever knew;
And ne’er to any friend he had was true.
Here let him then by all unpitied lie,
And let’s rejoice his time was come to die.
By the way, since we’re sort of on the subject: Errol Flynn was only 50 when he died in 1959, and he was buried in the Forest Lawn Cemetery in California with six bottles of his favorite whiskey. His frequent on-screen lover, de Havilland, died two years ago at the age of 104.
Originally published on Tom Clavin’s The Overlook.
Tom Clavin is a #1 New York Times bestselling author and has worked as a newspaper editor, magazine writer, TV and radio commentator, and a reporter for The New York Times. He has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, and National Newspaper Association. His books include the bestselling Frontier Lawmen trilogy—Wild Bill, Dodge City, and Tombstone—and Blood and Treasure with Bob Drury. He lives in Sag Harbor, NY.