On May 9, 1671, at a little before 7am on a chilly spring morning, a tall, handsome, middle-aged man calling himself Thomas Ayliffe, and dressed in the severe black gown and square white collar of a humble country parson, presented himself at the door of the Irish Tower in the northeast corner of the Tower of London.
He had with him three companions, two tough-looking former soldiers of about the same vintage as Parson Ayliffe, and a younger fellow, who claimed to be the nephew of this respectable man of God as well as a gentleman of private means worth £300 per annum. The four men were admitted to the Irish Tower – now called the Martin Tower – by Talbot Edwards, the Assistant Keeper of the Crown Jewels, who resided there and who had Charles II’s coronation regalia in his charge. Indeed, Edwards kept the Crown Jewels – worth an estimated £100,000 pounds, a truly vast sum in those days equivalent to tens of millions today – on a stack of wooden shelves behind a cage of iron bars in a windowless, locked room below his shabby chambers on the first and second floors.
Edwards, an elderly man and former soldier in the service of the noble Talbot family, had invited “Parson Ayliffe” and his “nephew” to breakfast with his wife and daughter and, as a treat, had promised them a sight of the famous royal jewels. The Assistant Keeper desperately wished to curry favour with the parson and his family, particularly with his nephew, as an engagement had been proposed by Parson Ayliffe between that apparently wealthy young man and Edwards’s daughter Elizabeth.
Once the four visitors were inside the Jewel House, with the bars of the cage open and regalia in full view, their masks of amiability vanished. The gang attacked Edwards, knocking him down with a blow to the head from a heavy wooden mallet and stabbing him with foot-long stiletto daggers. Having subdued the old soldier – indeed, leaving him lying in a spreading pool of his own blood – the four men began helping themselves to the Crown Jewels, perhaps the largest collection of portable wealth in the Three Kingdoms, filling their coat pockets with priceless gold objects, cramming their boot-tops with handfuls of precious gem stones, seizing everything of value that they could carry.
For Parson Ayliffe was not some mild-mannered country cleric; he was in fact the notorious desperado Colonel Thomas Blood, a hunted outlaw with a price on his head, and the wealthy nephew was his eldest son, also called Thomas, a highwayman.
As a child, my mother, whose maiden name was Blood, told me that Colonel Thomas Blood was an ancestor of mine. I grew up with colourful stories about his derring do and, naturally, when I became a writer, I wanted to research and tell his extraordinary story. The result is Blood’s Game, the first novel in my new 17th-century series.
In middle-age, while I’m no longer sure that I’m directly descended from him – I think he may be only a distant cousin of some kind – I still find Thomas Blood to be a compelling character. But, after a great deal of research, I have found that he is by no means an easy man to admire: some of his acts were shockingly violent and even needlessly brutal. He was nakedly self-serving and often rather depressingly incompetent. But he did have a quality of fearless, can-do optimism that I do find inspiring. All too often our 21st-century existences can be tame, risk-averse, coddled. I’m not suggesting that anyone should go out and pull on a ski mask and attempt a daring bank job but I do sometimes think of Thomas Blood’s extraordinary exploits and ask myself: would you ever have the balls to risk it all for wealth and glory?
Thomas Blood was born in County Clare, Ireland in 1618, the son of a successful iron-master and grandson of a member of the Irish Parliament. At the age of 20, he married a pretty English girl called Mary Holcroft who came from an old family of Lancashire gentry and with whom he had at least seven children.
When the English Civil War broke out in 1642, Blood initially joined the royalist side as a cavalryman and apparently fought bravely for the King in several bloody engagements. But when it became clear that the Cavaliers were losing the war, he switched sides and became a Roundhead. He rose to the rank of captain (his later colonelcy was self-appointed) and was duly rewarded for turning his coat at the end of the wars with a gift of lands in Ireland. Thomas Blood then settled down during the austere rule of Oliver Cromwell to enjoy a gentlemanly life of moderate wealth and leisure with his growing family.
All was well for the Bloods until the Restoration to the thrones of the Three Kingdoms of Charles II in 1660, which was followed by the Act of Settlement of 1662, an incendiary piece of legislation that stripped lands and large properties from Cromwell’s supporters and handed them over to the resurgent royalists.
Blood was ruined. His new estates were confiscated and he blamed the Irish government for his sudden destitution, and particularly the restored King’s personal representative, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, James Butler, Duke of Ormonde.
Not the sort of man to take an injury without retaliation, Blood was part of a scheme in 1663 to storm Dublin Castle and kidnap the Duke of Ormonde and hold him for ransom. The plot was betrayed, however, and several conspirators were captured and executed. Blood was forced to flee Ireland and find refuge in Holland, leaving his penniless wife and family behind to manage as best they could.
Blood vowed to have his revenge on Ormonde for this fresh indignity but was unable to take direct action against the duke for the next six or seven years during which Blood lived the desperate life of a hunted outlaw. At some point during this time he became associated with Charles Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, a rising power at Charles II’s court. In Blood’s Game, I imagine Blood doing Buckingham a small violent service, but I don’t know what truly brought the two men together.
By 1670, Blood was back in England, living in Romford Market, a few miles northeast of London, under the alias Doctor Thomas Allen. Despite having no medical qualifications at all, he made a good living treating the people of Romford for their various ailments. On December 6 of that year, on a foul, rainy night, Blood and his confederates attacked the Duke of Ormonde’s coach in St James Street, as it was heading up the hill to Piccadilly where the Duke lived in the rented palace of Clarendon House. Blood and his gang pulled Ormonde from the vehicle but, instead of killing him immediately, they decided to take him to Tyburn, west along Piccadilly and approximately where Marble Arch now stands, and hang him there like a common criminal. Ormonde was tied to the back of a horse – but managed to wriggle free and he was rescued by footmen coming out with torches from Clarendon House.
Ormonde suffered no more than a few cuts and bruises but he and his fiery son Lord Ossory were convinced that the Duke of Buckingham was behind the attempt. They may well have been right, for Thomas Blood was a protégé of Buckingham’s by this time, and the two dukes were bitter rivals for King Charles’s favour. Ossory openly accused Buckingham of the attempt on his father’s life in the presence of Charles himself and threatened to pistol Buckingham if his father was killed – an incident I have faithfully reproduced in the book, using Ossory’s exact words.
After the failure of the Ormonde assassination attempt, Blood laid low, probably in Romford, planning his next move. Sometime in April 1671, Blood, disguised as a well-to-do country parson, calling himself Thomas Ayliffe, and accompanied by his beautiful “wife”, an actress called Jenny Blaine, paid a visit to the Tower of London and asked if he might be allowed to see the famous Crown Jewels of England.
At that time, Talbot Edwards, the elderly Assistant Keeper of the Jewels, made a small income from showing visitors the King’s coronation regalia. He showed Blood and his charming companion the jewels and, when she feigned an illness and fainted, he kindly took them upstairs to his private apartments to recover under the care of his wife and daughter. A few days later Blood returned with a gift of four pairs of gloves – a thank-you for Edwards’ kindness. Over the next few weeks, Blood wormed his way into the affections of the family and, dangling a rich “nephew” as bait, began negotiations for the hand of Edwards’ daughter Elizabeth.
Early in the morning on May 9, 1671, Blood and three companions arrived at the Irish Tower, entered the Jewel House, overpowered Edwards and began helping themselves to the jewels. They believed the Assistant Keeper to be dead or dying – and certainly no longer a threat. But Edwards, a former soldier, was made of stern stuff. While the thieves were cutting up the regalia and filling their pockets with jewels, he revived himself and began to scream for help. By sheer chance, Edwards’ soldier son Wythe happened to be returning on leave from his regiment in Flanders that very day and he arrived with a friend, Captain Beckman, as Edwards was screaming blue murder from inside the Jewel House.
The thieves made a run for it, spilling treasures as they went, and were pursued by Wythe, Beckman and the Tower guards. There was a running fight, pistols, muskets and rapiers, as the gang tried to reach their horses which were tied up at the end of Tower Wharf at the Iron Gate. Blood was captured. As the soldiers seized him, he said: “It was a gallant attempt, however unsuccessful! ’Twas for a crown!”
Blood was imprisoned in the White Tower and questioned by the lieutenant of the Tower, Sir John Robinson, but the old outlaw refused to give away any details of the plot or the names of the other people involved. Quite outrageously, Blood insisted that he would only give an account of himself in a personal audience with the King.
After weeks of negotiations, with Blood still refusing to name names, he was granted a royal audience. I still find myself shocked by this: imagine Ronnie Biggs, the Great Train Robber, or a Kray twin or some other major criminal demanding to speak privately with Queen Elizabeth II. Nevertheless, a private audience was granted, Colonel Thomas Blood met Charles Stuart, and while nobody living knows exactly what went on in that meeting, we do know that Blood emerged with a full royal pardon for all his crimes and a grant of lands in Ireland worth £500 a year.
Who says crime doesn’t pay?
Some historians have suggested that King Charles was so amused by this charming Irish rogue that he decided to pardon him. That doesn’t ring true for me. I think there was something darker going on. Blackmail, perhaps. The threat of a secret that would be revealed if Blood received his just deserts on the gallows. And when I began to research the background for the novel, I did, in fact, discover a genuinely shocking secret, a royal secret of explosive proportions, something the British government kept hidden for more than a hundred years afterwards. This secret forms basis for my telling of this incredible tale about an extraordinary man . . . but I’m not going to say any more. If you want to find out, you’ll have to read Blood’s Game.
Angus Donald is the author of the bestselling Outlaw Chronicles about Robin Hood and his loyal lieutenant Sir Alan Dale. The books take place in a meticulously researched historical background in the reigns of Henry II, Richard the Lionheart, and King John. Blood’s Game is the first in a new 17th century series and is out now.
- Early 18th-century portrait of Colonel Thomas Blood by George White.
- Illustration of Blood’s attempt to steal the jewels. Source: Telegraph
- James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormonde, by William Wissing © National Portrait Gallery
- Charles II’s regalia, British school unattributed © Museum of London