For someone who craved public notoriety, the Crown Jewels seemed an irresistible temptation. That man, inevitably, was Colonel Thomas Blood.
In mid-April 1671, Blood arrived at the Tower ostensibly to view the Crown Jewels like any other innocent tourist up from the country, curious to see the fabulous sights of London. He was disguised as a parson, wearing a “long cloak, cassock and canonical girdle” and employing the alias of “Dr Ayliff.” Accompanying him was his respectable-looking “wife,” equally excited to have sight of the famous regalia. In reality, she was an imposter in more ways than one: his wife Mary was lying ill at her old family home in Lancashire and so Blood had hired a young Irish actress called Jenny Blaine to take her place.
His true purpose, of course, was to reconnoiter the layout of the Martin Tower, discover any weakness in the security protecting the regalia and to spy out the best escape route from the fortress, across its moat and into and into the anonymous safety of the surrounding teeming streets of East London. Unlike any other tourist, the colonel also needed a feasible excuse to return to the Jewel Tower on further occasions in order to hone his plans.
Blood’s strategy was remarkably simple, if not ingenious. It was based on the sound psychological principle of winning a victim’s trust in order to gain access to the desired objective.
It began with his “wife,” having admired the Crown Jewels, suddenly becoming ill and feeling faint with a distressing stomach “qualm” or convulsion. A worried and concerned Blood then asked Mr. Edwards to send for some spirits; Mrs. Edwards fetched them and invited their guest upstairs to repose herself upon a bed until she recovered. After that, the couple departed, thankful for the civility.
If ever there was a convenient illness, this was one. Three or four days later, Blood was back, bearing six pairs of fine white gloves as a generous gift to Mrs. Edwards as a token of his wife’s great appreciation for her kindness. Having thus begun the acquaintance, they made frequent visits to improve it, Mrs. Blood professing that she could never sufficiently acknowledge the kindness shown to her.
The honeyed trap was about to be sprung. The colonel’s tactic was no longer the expression of gratitude and the giving of gifts, but the temptation posed by a powerful bait indeed. This was the fulfillment of every mother’s secret dream: the prospect of her daughter’s socially advantageous marriage to a well-off young suitor.
Blood told a delighted Mrs. Edwards that her daughter Elizabeth was a “pretty gentlewoman” and suddenly added: “I have a young nephew who has £200 or £300 a year [income] in land [which] is at my disposal [to assign]. If your daughter be free and you approve of it, I will bring him hither to see her and we will endeavor to make a match.”
The steel jaws of Blood’s trap had snapped shut.
One can imagine the happiness his surprising words sparked in the hearts of Mr. and Mrs. Edwards. Overwhelmed, the keeper asked the “parson” to dine with him that day in celebration. That night, Blood was given a tour of their quarters in the Martin Tower. His real motive, of course, was to ensure there were no weapons available to Edwards when he next came calling. When he departed, Blood blessed the Edwards family and agreed the happy day and hour when he would bring his nephew to introduce him to his intended bride.
This was Tuesday, May 9,1671.
Curiously, Blood’s arrival at Martin Tower was set at seven o’clock in the morning, an usually early time for wooing, however ardent the bridegroom. Patently Blood wanted as few people for his exploit and old Edwards, doubtless cock-a-hoop at the forthcoming marriage and still naively harboring no suspicious whatsoever, meekly agreed to the arrangement.
At the appointed hour, his daughter was to be up betimes to put on her best dress to impress and charm her intending husband-to-be. While her toilette was nearing completion, her father was surprised to see the parson arrive with three men. In fact there were four, and, unknown to Edwards, all were heavily armed with swordsticks (with rapier blades hidden inside their canes), daggers and a pair of pocket flintlock pistols apiece. As well as Blood, there was his son and Messrs Perrot and Halliwell, the last-named soon to unwittingly play the part of the blushing groom.
The “parson,” Thomas Blood Jr., and Perrot entered the Jewel House tower, leaving Halliwell outside to maintain a lookout. Edwards’ daughter considered it would be very immodest for her to come down to greet the party before she was summoned, so Elizabeth sent her maid “to take a view of the company and to bring her a description of her gallant.”
Blood meanwhile told Edwards that he and his friends would not go upstairs until the wife arrived and apologized for her lateness. To pass the time while they were awaiting her, perhaps he would be kind enough to show the Imperial Crown to them? The keeper happily agreed, possibly considering pocketing of more fees.
[W]ithin seconds, the custodian had become the victim of a cruel and brutal assault.
As soon as the party gathered in the room housing the Crown Jewels, the door was slammed shut behind them and a cloak was thrown over Edwards’ head as he bent to unlock the wire door protecting the regalia. They “clapped a gag into his out which was a great plug of wood.”
Blood helpfully informed Edwards, his eyes bulging and now painfully gasping for air, that they intended to steal the Imperial State Crown, the globe and the scepter.
Edwards may have been elderly and possibly infirm, but he was no coward. After making “greater noise” he was thwacked by the robbers ‘”nine or ten” times and finally he was stabbed in the stomach with a dagger, causing a deep puncture wound that began to bleed copiously. After his barbarous treatment, he lay prone on the stone slabs of the floor, wisely pretending to be unconscious or dead.
Providence then took an extraordinary turn.
Edwards’ son Wythe unexpectedly arrived home on leave after his ten years’ soldiering overseas. The gang’s lookout rushed into the Crown Jewels chamber and warned Blood of the son’s arrival. The last thing they wanted was to contend with a fit, able-bodied soldier who knew how to handle himself in a fight. Blood was on the floor, trying to pick up the gemstones dislodged by his beating of the crown. The men ran out carrying the stolen regalia—but leaving behind the scepter. Thinking Edwards was dead, they had not bothered to tie his hands. After their departure, he struggled to his feet, clutching his stomach wound, and removed the wooden gag. Painfully he cried out, his voice rising in desperate urgency: “Treason! Murder!”
His daughter heard his cries and stumbled down the stairs to find her father bruised and collapsed on the floor in a widening pool of blood. After he stammered out what had happened, Elizabeth, with a commendable sense of duty, dashed outside and shouted repeatedly: “Treason! The Crown is stolen!”
Excerpted with permission from The Audacious Crimes of Colonel Blood:The Spy Who Stole the Crown Jewels and Became the King’s Secret Agent, by Robert Hutchinson. Reprinted by arrangement with Pegasus Books. All rights reserved.