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The legendary intrigues of Thomas Blood

May 22, 2019

If I were to mention the name Captain Blood to you, I would guess many of you would think I’d either made it up or I was referring to some comic book hero. Having said that, I’m sure some of you will be familiar with the 1935 movie of that name, starring Errol Flynn and the novel that preceded it. It was an epic tale of wrongful conviction, blood-curdling piracy on the high seas and an inevitable romance.

What is probably less well known is that the novel was loosely based on a real person, a man who wasn’t a pirate, although his name really was Blood.

Thomas Blood was born in County Clare, Ireland, sometime around the year 1618. He came from a well-to-do family, his father was a blacksmith who owned several large tracts of land and his grandfather had been a member of the Irish Parliament. He was educated in England and married a girl called Maria Holcroft, the daughter of a prosperous gentleman, when he was just 20.

After his marriage, Blood returned to live in Ireland for a time but, in 1642, the First English Civil War broke out and he crossed the Irish Sea again to serve as a volunteer, fighting for King Charles I against Parliament.

It appears as though Blood wasn’t fighting out of any sense of loyalty to the crown; however, when the war began to swing in Parliament’s favor, he quickly switched sides and got himself a commission as a lieutenant in Oliver Cromwell’s roundhead forces.

He was given the task of raiding the Royalist army’s supplies, something he proved to be good at, keeping a portion of what he captured for himself and handing the rest over. At the end of the war, a grateful parliament made him a Justice of the Peace and gave him several land grants as a reward for his services.

Blood was prospering but then, in 1660, King Charles II returned to take over his late father’s throne. He enacted laws to punish those who’d prospered from the war and Thomas Blood was forced to abandon everything and escape to Ireland.

Financially ruined, Blood set his heart on revenge. He began to gather other dispossessed ex-parliamentarians with a view to storming and seizing Dublin Castle, at that time the seat of English government in Ireland. That idea petered out and instead Blood decided to kidnap and ransom the 1st Duke of Ormond, who was serving as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Not only did that attempt also fail but some of the conspirators were caught and later executed. Blood himself managed to evade his pursuers and hid in the mountains before eventually slipping away to the United Dutch Provinces — present-day Holland.

While he was there, Blood was implicated in a rising in Scotland, but he didn’t stay away from England for long. In 1670 he changed his name to Ayloffe, sneaked back into Britain and, despite having no training, began practicing as a doctor in Romford, just to the east of London.

The Duke of Ormond was also back in England and Blood again decided to try to snatch him, this time with a view to killing him.

Ormond was in the habit of riding home in his carriage late at night; Blood knew this and, on Dec. 6, 1670, he and his accomplices attacked the coach. They succeeded in capturing the duke and rode off with him toward Tyburn, London’s place of public executions, where they intended to hang him.

Ormond managed to escape and once again, Blood was thwarted, but he didn’t flee this time; instead, he launched his most audacious plot.

In late April of 1671, he dressed as a parson and, together with a female accomplice pretending to be his wife, he visited the Tower of London. Once inside he bribed the custodian to allow the pair of them to view the crown jewels and, during the visit, the woman pretended to be taken ill.

The custodian’s quarters were above the jewel house and his wife invited Blood and his “wife” in, so the woman could recover.

The next day, Blood returned and gave the custodian’s wife some gloves as a thank you for her kindness. He then made other visits and became so friendly with

the unsuspecting man that there was some discussion of a supposed nephew of Blood’s marrying the custodian’s daughter.

On May 9, 1671, Blood, his “nephew” and two friends were invited to dinner at the custodian’s quarters and, while they waited, Blood persuaded the man to show them the jewels again.

You can probably guess what happened next. Once inside the jewel house, the custodian was hit over the head, bound, gagged and stabbed.

Blood removed the grille that protected the crown jewels and used a mallet to smash St. Edward’s Crown flat so he could hide it in his coat. One of his companions cut the Sceptre with the Cross, part of the coronation regalia, in half to hide it in a bag whilst another actually stuffed the Sovereign’s Orb into his pants. They almost got away with it, but the custodian’s son happened on them and the custodian himself recovered enough to yell to the guards.

A chase on horseback ensued. Pistols were fired, a guard was wounded but Blood and his co-conspirators were captured and the crown jewels were recovered, albeit with several of the jewels missing.

Blood could have been tried and executed for treason but he refused to speak to anyone except the king so he was dragged to the palace in chains. No one is sure what was said between King Charles II and Thomas Blood, but the outcome was that the Irishman was not only pardoned for all his crimes, the king, who was something of a rogue himself, also gave him an estate in Ireland that was worth a lot of money.

Following his pardon, Blood stayed openly in London and was frequently employed by people wanting to petition the crown for something. In 1680, he was successfully sued by the Duke of Buckingham for damages over disparaging remarks he’d made but he didn’t pay the damages. Instead he died, although the authorities, knowing his character, actually had his body exhumed to make sure he was really dead and hadn’t just faked it.

Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at tallderek@hotmail.com.

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