It would be difficult to conceive of a more hopeless situation than the one facing Colonel Thomas Blood in 1671. At a time when treason was punishable by a certain and gruesome death he had committed the supremely symbolic and perhaps most overtly treasonable act of all: he’d half-inched the crown jewels.
What’s more, he’d been caught red-handed and faced a personal audience with King Charles II, the ‘Merry Monarch’, who would no doubt cheerfully condemn the wretched Blood to an even more wretched end. To cap it all, poor Thomas had no legal representation. Blood was certainly on the carpet.
No sane betting man would have put money on his walking away unscathed. Yet he was granted a complete pardon, had all his forfeited estates restored and lived a prosperous and influential future life at the heart of the King’s court with a personal pension of £500 per annum thrown in. Blood’s great escape was an audacious one indeed.
Thomas Blood was born in Ireland around 1618 and, by the time Oliver Cromwell defeated Charles II at Worcester in 1651, sending the monarch into exile in France, he had become fiercely antiroyalist and game for a scrap in support of that cause whenever the opportunity arose. His reward for sundry acts of treachery was a handsome portfolio of Irish landed estates, formerly the property of the King. The rental returns were substantial. When Charles regained the throne by the Restoration in 1660, Blood’s ill-gotten gains were promptly taken back from him. He was dispossessed at a stroke, and in turn became possessed by the undying desire to wreak vengeance on the monarchy for condemning him to such poverty and loss of face.
He harboured the grudge for fully eleven years and early in 1671 he decided to commit the most scandalous crime of all. He first befriended the rather elderly deputy keeper at the Tower of London, a man named Talbot Edwards, whose job it was to guard the crown jewels. Early in the morning of 9 May, Blood used his acquaintance with the gullible Edwards to gain access to the strongroom. While his accompanying gang made off with the orb, sceptre and other regalia, Blood took the supreme prize, the crown itself.
But the escape wasn’t well planned. With the crown stuffed under his cloak, Blood got no further than a few hundred yards before his getaway horse slipped and fell. He was quickly arrested and taken back to the tower, this time as a prisoner rather than a souvenir hunter.
Never had a man’s future looked grimmer. But Blood was a cheeky so-and-so, and his cockiness in the face of certain personal disaster amazingly paid handsome dividends.
His capture was the talk of all London. Everybody looked forward to a sensational trial and celebrity execution. But Blood played it cute. As soon as he was arrested he refused to say anything to any of his interrogators, except that he would speak only to the King himself.
Charles was amused and intrigued by such an uncon ventional request and Blood was duly ushered before the royal presence. He admitted all in a charming and smarmy manner. He then warned His Majesty in the most helpful tone of the consequences of an execution: ‘Consider, Your Majesty, that my accomplices are still at large,’ he said, ‘and may well wreak the ultimate vengeance upon your person.’
Then he played his master stroke, explaining to Charles that he had once been at the very point of assassinating him but had held back at the last moment: ‘Although you were at my mercy, bathing unprotected in the Thames at Battersea, the sight of Your Majesty filled me with such awe I was unable to do you any harm.’
More syrupy pronouncements from this consummate licker followed in quick succession and Charles, suitably impressed by such a bold approach and with his ego massively boosted, promptly gave Blood a full pardon. His estates and income were swiftly restored and the only court Thomas Blood appeared in was that of the King, where he swanked for all he was worth and became the talk of all London yet again.
As a demonstration of the art of self-defence, with not a lawyer in sight, Blood’s performance was one of the most masterly in history. The Irishman who stole the crown jewels had employed nothing more than a touch of the blarney to escape from the tightest corner in legal history.