Colonel Blood—the man who stole the crown jewels

Published in Book Reviews, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 1 (Spring 2004), Reviews, Volume 12

David C. Hanrahan
(Sutton Publishing, £20)
ISBN 0750933275

Thomas Blood was born in County Clare around 1618, but he spent his early years in England until 1648, when he returned to Ireland to fight for Cromwell. Rewarded with land for his service—service which was rumoured to include several daring spying missions—he lost it all on the restoration of the monarchy and ended up taking a very different historical path.

 
First he attempted to kidnap the duke of Ormond, lord lieutenant of Ireland, but was the only one to escape capture. With a bounty on his head, he spent several years hiding in Holland before eventually returning to England. After rescuing one of his gang members he lay low for a while and then emerged with another attempt on Ormond.

 
Blood went on to orchestrate one of the most audacious crimes in history—stealing the crown jewels from the Tower of London in 1671. Amazingly, he got away with the treasonous plot and was never even charged, even though he was caught red-handed. He demanded a private audience with Charles II and the king ended up pardoning his gang, returning his land and giving him a handsome pension for life. Was this a reward from an impressed royal or simply a payment for a good job well done?

 

 

Years of life as a celebrity criminal—both feared and admired—meant that Blood lived well for some time; yet scandal never quite left him, and after his death in 1680 his body had to be exhumed when rumours circulated that he had even escaped from the Grim Reaper. Alas, this time it was not true.

 
Much has been written about celebrity worship, the cultural drug of choice that seems, at the moment, to be hopelessly addictive. However, the millions who vote for reality TV, pop schools and wannabee academies all know that, like any sweet thing, we’ll all get sick of it in the end. Around ten years ago the taste for thugs and gangsters was de jour, though it could be argued that this trend was timeless—and slipping easily into this category is Colonel Blood. He became the sort of celebrity criminal that people invited to dinner just so that they could hear his tall tales of spying and narrow escapes. One can only imagine what Blood, had he been alive today, would have done after his release from the Tower—no doubt he would have been a fixture on countless chat shows and ever-present at film premières and nightclub openings.

 
Hanrahan’s book is, unbelievably, the first in almost a century to look at Blood himself and how he came to be such an infamous man. There have been a handful of others and he is mentioned in many history books, but he has never been examined in so much depth before. This could be because many of his crimes were largely unsuccessful, so he was reduced to a footnote in history as just one of many notorious people at a time when revolution and civil war overshadowed his brief fifteen minutes of fame.

 
Colonel Blood looks at Blood throughout his life and examines at length the people who may (or may not) have been involved in his schemes. Sadly, this means that the book is not really focused on his family, children or criminal associates—which is what you would have hoped for—but more on the bigger picture around him, the people from the higher echelons of society with whom he was involved.

 
Blood’s strong religious convictions are also examined—something rarely mentioned in other references—and overall the book places him at the centre of a large circle and asks: in those turbulent times, was he a long-serving spy for the king and others, or was he, more romantically, an Irish rebel who wanted justice for the ills he and many of his countrymen had suffered?

 
The book concludes that it is likely that he was a spy for the man who offered the most money, and it is probably this—not his audacious wit or a superb double bluff—that saved him from the executioner. That said, the story behind most criminals and killers is rarely as exciting when examined in detail. The book compiles a huge amount of information about Blood—poems, quotes, letters and notes—and also adds many new details in several areas of minor and major interest, but it still does not really get to grips with Blood the man, how his family and his fellow gang members lived, and the beliefs they shared.

 
Hanrahan is a head teacher and lecturer in the philosophy of education at NUI Galway and his love of the subject is clear, although this means that it too often strays into unnecessary exclamation marks and can be rather academia-dry: for example, letters are reproduced in the original English of the time, which can be unreadable and distracting.

 
There are also some historical errors, but overall this book raises the bar far higher than ever before on a man from over 300 years ago who, whilst being famous throughout the kingdom when he was alive, is now only known for one day in his life. Still, it’s better than today’s z-list celebrities, who may not even be remembered at all.

James Bartlett

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