In spring 1671, just a few months after the abortive abduction of Ormond, Talbot Edwards received an unusual visitor at the Tower. He was dressed as an Anglican clergyman, appeared about 50 years old and had fierce, penetrating eyes above a hawkish Roman nose with a notable scar (a relic of Blood’s rescue of John Mason). Although the cleric’s appearance was slightly outlandish – he sported a long beard, a cassock and cloak and a cap with ‘ears’ – Edwards, scenting a fee, was only too happy to show the reverend gentleman and the lady accompanying him, whom he introduced as his wife, the jewels in his care.

Edwards led the couple to the basement of Martin tower, unlocked the reinforced door and let them into the vault where the jewels were kept behind a metal grille inside a recess in the thick walls. As Blood feasted his eyes on the glittering regalia, his ‘wife’ (in reality, a hired actress named Jenny Blaine) staged a fainting fit, or in Edwards’ words, ‘a qualm upon her stomack’. The old gentleman hurried away to fetch a reviving glass of water, leaving Blood to case the joint. Jenny, invited to rest in the Edwards’ apartment, made a rapid recovery. Blood took the opportunity to deepen his intimacy with Edwards and his wife, returning a few days later with a gift of gloves in appreciation for their kindness.

Blood now began to groom the elderly couple and their unmarried daughter: a softening-up process for the crime he was planning. After several visits the rel-ationship had progressed enough for Blood to make a proposal. He had, he said, a very eligible nephew to introduce to the Edwards’ spinster daughter, Elizabeth. Would it not be a fine thing, he asked, if the young people were joined in holy matrimony?

Naturally, he added, he would conduct the ceremony. The Edwards were overwhelmed by this generous offer, particularly after Blood threw in the information that his nephew had a couple of hundred acres of good land in Ireland. A dinner was held in Martin tower to celebrate the betrothal, at which Blood offered fervent prayers for the wellbeing of the royal family. Afterwards Edwards gave his guest a detailed tour of the Tower, even selling him a pair of pistols that Blood had admired. Having thus literally and metaphorically disarmed his ‘mark’, Blood departed to make final preparations for his heist.

Blood had arranged to bring his ‘nephew’ to meet the Edwards at seven in the morning of May 9th, 1671; the Tower was unlikely to be crowded. He arrived accompanied by his son, another Thomas Blood, a professional highwayman. He played the part of the nephew, ‘Tom Hunt’. Also in the party were two regular Blood gang members, Robert Perrot, a fierce Baptist and former parliamentarian trooper turned silk dyer; and Robert Halliwell, who was to act as lookout. All were armed to the teeth with concealed pistols, stiletto daggers and swordsticks. A fourth gang member, William Smith, a stalwart of the eschatological Fifth Monarchy religious sect, remained outside the Tower, holding their horses. Halliwell loitered outside the Martin tower, trying not to look furtive, while the Bloods went inside with Perrot. Elizabeth Edwards, eager to see her fiancé but shy of making a premature appearance, sent her maid to take a peek. The maid saw Halliwell at the door of the tower, assumed he was her mistress’s intended and returned to make her report.

Meanwhile Blood suggested that, while awaiting the arrival of Mrs Edwards and her daughter, still at their toilette, Talbot Edwards could show the jewels to the ‘nephew’ and Perrot. The old man led the men below. As soon as Edwards had unlocked the door to the jewel house and admitted the trio, he was set upon as he bent to lock the door behind them. A cloak was thrown over his head and a home-made gag – a wooden plug with an air-hole drilled through it – was thrust into his mouth and secured with a leather thong. Immediately Edwards began to struggle. Blood produced a wooden mallet and bludgeoned Edwards to the ground. As the keeper continued to resist, he stabbed him in the stomach.

Leaving Edwards for dead, the gang set about their task. Blood removed the metal grille and flattened the king’s state crown with his mallet. This made it easier to conceal in a bag he wore under his cassock. Young Blood started to saw the long sceptre in half with a file so he could hide it, while Perrot stuffed the heavy orb into his breeches. The blows of Blood’s mallet dislodged some of the jewels encrusting the crown, including the Black Prince’s Ruby. As Blood scrabbled on the floor grabbing the precious stones there was an unwelcome interruption.

It was exactly at this moment that the Edwards’ son, Wythe, who had been a soldier in Flanders for ten years, returned to witness his sister’s betrothal, accompanied by his friend and fellow soldier Captain Marcus Beckman. As Wythe went upstairs to greet his mother and sister, Halliwell hurried down to the jewel house to warn his companions. With no time to finish sawing the sceptre in half, the rod was left lying on the floor as the thieves made off with the crown and orb.

As soon as they had gone old Talbot Edwards spat out his gag and shouted ‘Treason! Murder! The crown is stolen!’ Hearing his cries his daughter rushed downstairs to find her father in a pool of blood. Wythe Edwards and Captain Beckman gave chase across the courtyard. Beckman, a Swedish-born military engineer, was already familiar with the Tower having once been imprisoned there as a suspected spy.

In the time it took the two soldiers to catch up with the thieves young Blood and Halliwell had reached their horses and made off. Blood and Perrot, weighed down with their loot, passed under the archway of the Bloody Tower and turned right into Water Lane, heading towards the Byward Tower exit. Edwards and Beckman shouted to the yeoman warder manning the drawbridge over the moat to stop them. As he attempted to do so Blood drew a pistol and fired hitting the warder. The two miscreants evaded a second warder at the Middle Tower. Had they then turned right up Tower Hill they might have got away, but instead they tried to lose themselves in the early morning crowds thronging the riverside wharves.

The two soldiers, younger and fitter, were gaining on them. Blood resorted to the old ploy of yelling ‘Stop thief!’ as he ran, pointing to his two pursuers. Momentarily fooled, some upstanding citizens laid hands on Edwards and Beckman but the deception did not last long. Blood and Perrot managed to reach their horses held by Smith at the Iron Gate and were in the act of mounting when their pursuers finally caught up with them. Blood fired his second pistol at Beckman but missed. After a struggle, during which some of the jewels fell from his pockets, rolled away and were never seen again, Blood and Perrot were subdued and arrested. Blood’s son, whose horse had collided with a cart and thrown him during his hasty escape, was also detained and Halliwell was picked up later. As he was led away Blood was philosophical, remarking: ‘It was a gallant deed, although it failed.’

The crown and orb, minus some missing stones, were repaired and restored to their rightful place. Blood and his gang were imprisoned in the vaults beneath the White Tower, where prisoners had been tortured in Tudor times. Few doubted that their fate would be the traditional terrible death meted out to traitors of hanging, drawing and quartering. The theft of the Crown Jewels, with their sacral, religious symbolism, was akin to kidnapping the monarch himself. But astonishingly this was not the punishment that awaited Blood. In fact the episode was to mark the beginning of another stage in Blood’s amazing career. From republican rebel and buccaneering outlaw forever outwitting the state’s agents, he became one such agent himself. How did this transformation come about?