On May 9, 1671, five men stole the crown jewels from the Tower of London. The leader of the party, an experienced criminal dressed as an Anglican priest, grabbed the imperial state crown and used a wooden mallet to flatten its raised bows in order to fit it in a small bag. Another stashed the gold orb in his breeches. With the elderly keeper of the jewels lying on the floor—brutally beaten and stabbed—they would have had a clean escape, except that, with providential timing, the keeper’s son chose that moment to return home after ten years overseas. The criminal party hurried away to the sound of the rising hue and cry. What followed was a cinematic chase. When finally taken prisoner, the “priest” told his captor that “It was a gallant attempt, however unsuccessful! It was for the crown.”
This was not the first violent crime attempted by the Irish-born Colonel Thomas Blood (1618–1680). Under a variety of aliases, Blood had engaged in a series of intrigues against the restored Stuart monarchy, including attempts to capture Dublin Castle, to seize the city of Limerick, to foment an uprising in Scotland, and to assassinate both the Duke of Ormonde and the King himself. Blood gained renown throughout the kingdoms of England, Ireland, and Scotland for his violent adventures. Nevertheless—for reasons that baffled his contemporaries and later historians—instead of a death sentence, Blood received a royal pardon and a pension. Robert Hutchinson’s The Audacious Crimes of Colonel Blood tells the story of Blood’s extraordinary career against the tumultuous backdrop of seventeenth-century England.
Royalists and Anglicans saw in the new king a chance to return to power and influence.
When King Charles II, whose father died on the scaffold at the hands of a regicidal parliament, returned from exile in 1660, the streets of London were filled with good cheer. John Evelyn, the Restoration diarist, described a triumph of twenty thousand on horse and foot, streets filled with flowers, bells ringing, and fountains running with wine. To Evelyn, the Restoration was the “Lord’s doing. . . . For such a restoration was never seen in the mention of any history, ancient or modern, since the return of the Babylonian Captivity, nor so joyful a day, and so bright, ever seen in this nation.”
Following the rule of Oliver Cromwell’s commonwealth government, during which power rested in the hands of non-conformist Christian sects, royalists and Anglicans saw in the new king a chance to return to power and influence. Charles’s court developed its own brand of notoriety as the King surrounded himself with influential mistresses and cunning figures like Barbara Palmer, First Duchess of Cleveland, and her cousin George Villiers, Second Duke of Buckingham. The colorful intrigues of the court at Whitehall, however, were unable to distract from the lingering religious and political animosities that had previously driven the kingdoms to civil war.
During the English Civil Wars, Blood fought for the King, at one point being identified by the cavalier general Prince Rupert as a “very stout, bold fellow in royal service.” Yet as parliament appeared more and more the likely victor, he switched sides, possibly serving briefly under Cromwell in Ireland. Blood became a beneficiary of Oliver Cromwell’s brutal campaign to suppress a confederation of Irish Catholics who had rebelled against protestant rule. When Cromwell forced the Irish from their homes and redistributed their property, Blood found himself in possession of profitable confiscated lands—which he soon lost when the Restoration Irish Parliament passed an act in 1662 to restore lands to the old English royalists and Irish Catholics who had played no role in the earlier uprising. Bereft of his lands and poverty-stricken, Blood began to pursue a violent campaign to limit Catholic influence in Ireland, to undermine Stuart rule, and to resist the imposition of the established Anglican Church. Blood joined a network of non-conformist revolutionaries who felt disenfranchised and persecuted under the new regime and who worked to advance their own political and religious interests at any cost. It was this network that later made Blood useful to the King: the price of clemency was ultimately a commitment to serve as part of the King’s intricate web of spies. Yet because of his notoriety and capriciousness, Blood seems to have been even less successful at espionage than he was at revolution.
Blood seems to have been even less successful at espionage than he was at revolution.
Hutchinson presents Blood as a sort of dissenting Scarlet Pimpernel whose adventures he describes vividly and cites with scholarly detail. Throughout the book, the reader is torn between fleeting admiration for the chutzpah of the non-conformist revolutionary, and scorn at his continuing opportunism and buffoonery. Alas, the book’s frenetic pace, although perhaps appropriate for the peripatetic and ever-scheming Colonel, may pose a challenge to readers unfamiliar with the complicated politics of Restoration England.
Blood’s notoriety grew after his death (his body was even exhumed to prove that he had, in fact, died). One author wittily thanked the “kind fates for your last favour shown/ Of stealing blood who lately stole the Crown.” The same author then suggested, on perhaps a more dour note, the following epitaph:
Here lies the man who boldly has run through
More villainies than ever England knew
And nere to any friend he had was true
Here let him then by all unpitied lie
And let’s rejoice his time has come to die.
Hutchinson admires Blood’s drive, stating that “[w]hat drove him on was the same irrepressible motivation that later forced people to climb mountains purely because they were there.” He views Blood as having been a “different kind of desperado” than the “grim-faced religious fanatics” with whom he associated. Readers may be unconvinced, however, that Blood was indeed an “eccentric gambler” driven by a sense of adventure rather than just a failed, self-centered, and violent revolutionary.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 2, on page 73
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