Bad Blood – Frank McNally on the Irish man who nearly stole England’s crown jewels
Thomas Blood: “very well spoken and dangerously insinuating”, said one contemporary
It has long been customary, on both sides of the Irish Sea, not to speak ill of the dead. But when a Meath man called Thomas Blood expired in London back in 1680, no such delicacy was considered necessary.
An anonymous poet of the time even supplied an epitaph, suitably damning, for the departed: “Here lies the man who boldly hath run through/More villainies than England ever knew;/And ne’re 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.”
That wasn’t the only dubious tribute paid to Blood. Contemporaries also saw fit to exhume his body after the original burial, to confirm it was really him. Such was his reputation for trickery, there were grounds for suspicion he might have faked his death to avoid creditors.
The stunt for which Blood is now most remembered, however, had happened nine years earlier, on this date – May 9th – in 1671. It was his attempt to steal the English crown jewels from the Tower of London. And although it failed, narrowly, this was not for want of ruthless planning on his part.
According to the Victorian almanac Chambers’ Book of Days, the jewels were then under the watch of an elderly gentleman called Talbot Edwards, who as part of his job was allowed exhibit them to curious members of the public.
So Blood befriended Edwards and his wife, gaining their affections over a period, eventually to the point of suggesting a marriage between their daughter and his nephew, a young man whose supposed attractions included an income of “two or three hundred a year in land”.
A day was appointed on which the suitor would present himself, for which event the daughter donned her best finery. But instead of bringing a future husband, Blood turned up with three heavily armed henchmen. And instead of a request for his daughter’s hand, the would-be father of the bride was hit on the head with a mallet and tied up.
The scoundrelly visitors then fled with crown and orb, and would probably have got away, at least in the short term, had they not been surprised by the ill-timed arrival of Edwards’s son, just home from Flanders, along with a Captain Beckman, who engaged in hot pursuit.
Blood fired shots but was caught and overpowered.
Whereupon he is quoted as expressing his disappointment, as if from a press release: “It was a gallant attempt, however unsuccessful, for it was for a crown.”
Modern readers may assume he then made a return trip to the tower, one way.
It wasn’t his first offence, after all. Previous misdemeanours had included attempts on the life of a fellow Irish man, his arch-enemy the Duke of Ormond, who he had once kidnapped with a view to hanging him at Tyburn.
But Blood somehow survived the jewel heist by means of appealing directly to King Charles II, who seems to have fallen for his rakish charms, not only pardoning him, but also granting him lands worth £500 a year.
The English diarist John Evelyn met the reformed jewel thief at a royal dinner soon afterwards and wrote: “How he came to be pardoned, and even received into favour […] I could never come to understand.”
He added his own impressions of Blood: “The man had not only a daring but a villainous unmerciful look, a false countenance, but very well spoken and dangerously insinuating.”
In a history of the Irish Bloods compiled by a latter-day descendant, ironically, it is suggested that the founder of the local branch was a military captain brought from England to Co Clare circa 1595, to introduce law and order “among the wild and unruly”.
But in fairness, many generations of law-abiding Bloods have succeeded the desperado who died in 1680. Recent branches include, for example, several illustrious engineers. One of these, William Bindon Blood, was responsible for the Boyne viaduct, then the world’s longest, while his nephew Bindon Blood Stoney constructed Dublin Port.
Some married famous engineers too. Those included a Vera Blood, who as the wife of Sir Claude Inglis of British India, became Lady Inglis. The couple were back in Dublin by 1916, for the birth of their only son Brian.
Thus it is Brian Inglis (1916-1993), a distinguished journalist and broadcaster of the 20th century, was also a descendent of the notorious Thomas Blood, although the nearest thing he himself took to a wrong turn in life was a dark period in the late 1940s when he became chief writer of An Irishman’s Diary.