The Attempted Theft of the Crown Jewels!

The Other Gwyn Girl by Nicola CornickNicola here, delving into a historical mystery behind my latest book The Other Gwyn Girl. A number of people who have read the book have asked if the attempted theft of the Crown Jewels really happened or whether it was novelistic licence. Well, I can confirm it really did happen although the involvement of Rose and Nell Gwyn is my imagination filling in the gaps in history.

Here’s the story. In May 1671 a most extraordinary attempt was made to steal the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London. Never before or since had anyone attempted such an audacious theft although over the years various parts of the collection had been lost, sold or destroyed. King John had lost some of them in the waters of The Wash in 1215 (that’s another story!) but the most notable loss was in 1649 when Oliver Cromwell ordered them to be “totally broken” as a symbolic step after the execution of King Charles I. Some items were sold off, others melted down and only the 12th century coronation spoon remained from the medieval period.

When King Charles II was restored to the throne of England in 1660, he commissioned a whole new set of regalia from the royal goldsmith Robert Vyner for his 1661 coronation. As now, the Crown Jewels were stored in the Tower of London and people could view them by paying a fee to the custodian. In 1671 the Master of the Jewel House was 77-year-old Talbot Edwards whose domestic quarters were right next to the jewels in the Martin Tower (pic by Ethan Doyle White, Wikimedia).

Step forward the aptly-named Thomas Blood, a self-styled “colonel” who had fought for Charles I in the English Civil War then changed sides and fought for Cromwell. He had a long and complicated history of rebellion and causing trouble and even though he was a wanted man, he was living in London in 1670. In April of 1671 he visited the Tower disguised as a parson with an actress pretending to be his wife. She pretended to feel ill whilst they were viewing the jewels, and was invited by Edwards to recover in his lodgings. This gave Thomas Blood the opportunity to check out the lie of the land and the level of security for the jewels – or lack of it. He returned with a gift of four pairs of gloves for Mrs Edwards and ingratiated himself with the family, even going so far as to suggest a marriage between his supposed “nephew” and the Edwards’ daughter.

On 9 May 1671, Thomas Blood and his accomplices struck, having persuaded Talbot Edwards to show the “nephew” the crown jewels. They threw a cloak over Edwards, hit him with a mallet, stabbed him and tied him up, then they flattened the Imperial state crown and Blood stuck it under his coat. One of his gang sawed the sceptre in half and another stuffed the orb down his trousers.  You really couldn’t make it up! (Picture By Cyril Davenport (1848 – 1941) – G. Younghusband; C. Davenport (1919). The Crown Jewels of England.)

Could such a slapstick plot succeed? Well, no. Talbot Edwards managed to get loose of his bonds and shout a warning whilst the fortunate arrival of his son, a soldier, foiled the thieves, who were captured. Critically to the story of The Other Gwyn Girl, a number of jewels came loose and were lost in the attempted theft. Where are they now, I wonder?

You might imagine that having committed such an act of treason, Thomas Blood and his associates would be executed but they were pardoned by the King. Charles II even gave him land in Ireland worth an income of £500 a year. The reasons for the king’s generosity are mysterious and have led to a lot of speculation. Some say he liked a reckless rogue and pardoned Thomas Blood on a whim; others, including Winston Churchill, put forward a different explanation which is at the centre of my story so I won’t post a spoiler here…

Predictably, Thomas Blood came to a bad end. Swanning around London after he had been pardoned, he made plenty of enemies. Finally, he upset his patron the Duke of Buckingham who sued him for defamation. He was imprisoned and died in 1680. His epitaph clearly was  written by someone who didn’t like him at all:

“Here lies the man who boldly hath run through
More villainies than England ever knew;
And ne’er 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.”

After the attempted theft, security for the jewels was increased and no one ever managed to get close enough to try to steal them again. These days they are under armed guard!

The Restoration era is full of larger-than-life characters such as Thomas Blood and Nell Gwyn, which I try to reflect in The Other Gwyn Girl. In some ways the book is like the outrageous Restoration comedy plays that Nell starred in; quite mad and yet somehow reflecting real life!

I don’t have any jewellery that could rival the Crown Jewels (all 100 items and 23,000 gemstones of them!) but I do have a little portrait necklace of someone in my family that is to me as special as I’m sure the Crown is to the King! Do you have a favourite piece of jewellery, of real or sentimental value?

25 thoughts on “The Attempted Theft of the Crown Jewels!”

  1. What a wonderful story, Nicola! I love when real but not widely known bits of history and be incorporated into a great story, which is something you do so well. Now that The Other Gwyn Girl has landed in my reader, it’s time for me to read it!

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  2. At times it is surprising to me when people think they have a perfect plan….cause it generally seems they have no clue. Thanks for this post. And the picture of your ancestor is lovely.

    I wear a ring that one of my aunts gave me years ago. It is a gold ring that has a cross within a fish shaped outer ring. Did not explain it well but for me it represents love and safety.

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    • How lovely to have a ring with family connections that has such a strong symbolic meaning to you, Annette. That’s very special.

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  3. I didn’t realize most of the crown jewels were “new” for Charles II and his 1661 coronation. No wonder they were hot tickets for stealing, as everyone would have heard of it. I loved the book Nicola, a great read and keepsake, thankyou so much!

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    • I’m thrilled you enjoyed it, Jenni. Thank you! Yes, that’s a good point – all those lovely newly-made and valuable pieces of jewellery must have been quite a temptation!

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  4. Thank you, Nicola, for such a riveting post of danger and adventure.

    I have a locket my mom wore when she was a young woman of mother of pearl that I like very much with my parents photos in it.

    I look forward to reading “The Other Gwyn Girl” as soon as it comes to me.

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  5. Fascinating history, Nicola! I’ve seen the jewels at the Tower, but never knew they were “replacements”! So excited to see “The Other Gwyn Girl’ hit my library and have planned my weekend around it, and this blog post just makes me more interested in reading it.

    I have a pendant my husband designed for me with a jeweler friend that includes a garnet from my maternal grandmother’s engagement ring, a topaz from my aunt’s engagement ring, and the diamond from my mother’s ring. It is my most treasured possession and will go to my niece, as she, my sister and I are the end of the family line.

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    • Thank you so much, Constance. I do hope you enjoy it!
      Having a special piece of jewellery designed for you is a very lovely thing, and full of family significance.

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  6. That is a really wild story! You couldn’t make up anything that crazy.
    I do have some jewelry handed down from my mother and grandmother, but no precious stones, alas!

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    • LOL, Karin, those of us who have more modest things handed down than the Crown Jewels (most of us!) probably appreciate them even more!

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  7. I had my mother’s engagement ring which they bought in a pawn shop in London because they had no money. It’s marquisate. I gave it to my daughter when my mother died six years ago as they were very close. She wears it everyday. So looking forward to your book Nicola. Would have had it read by now but I’m up to my eyes in ARC’s!

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    • So often it’s the stories and the circumstances connected to items we own that is important, isn’t it. The objects themselves may not be of great monetary value but the family history is so special!

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  8. What a fascinating story, Nicola — that Blood fellow was certainly bold. I love his epitaph — so scathing. I wonder who drew it up and paid for the tombstone.

    “King John had lost some of them in the waters of The Wash in 1215 (that’s another story!”
    I can’t wait to hear about that one as well.
    Looking forward to reading The Other Gwyn Girl.

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    • Thanks, Anne! I love that epitaphs can be so revealing and in Blood’s case it was definitely justified. Maybe it was his wife who paid for it!!

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  9. Are you happy to see me or is that a royal orb/scepter in your trousers? Nothing to see here. Just my large codpiece. Who flattens an imperial crown? What a story and what an epitaph! Please do share the story of King John losing some of the royal jewels in the Wash next.

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  10. I’m not sentimental about jewelry. Growing up, I didn’t ever really have any. Real jewelry was for the rich girls. My mother had hocked her wedding rings during the Depression and my dad never replaced them, for whatever reason. She wore a diamond ring that had belonged to one of her sisters who died young; she gave it to me but it never fit. I passed it on to one of my nieces, as the only bit of family history that I could give her. She wears it now.

    Some years ago I won a lottery prize; it was the first time I ever played. I used part of it to buy myself a real gold ring with a real pearl in it, which I still wear sometimes. That was the first piece of real stuff that I ever had.

    The only piece of “jewelry” I really treasure is a little redwood pin of a pony which my father bought for me when we were on vacation in Monterey (California) when I was 8 or so. I was fascinated by their charming gift shops; I had never seen anything like them before. I think it cost him maybe a dollar at the time. I still have the little pony. I see it every time I open my jewel box, and I think of that time.

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    • Janice that’s a wonderful story about the pony pin and illustrates beautifully how pieces with a special meaning are so much more important than all the wealth in the world!

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  11. In Farnborough Hants, just off the A 30 which goes into London, we have a pub called the Crown and Cushion. It’s been said that this is where Cot. Blood was arrested. It certainly was an ale house from before that time.

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