Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Vandals and Thieves - The Crown Jewels (part 2 of 2)

During the turbulence of the English Civil War, (1640's), Charles I had the gold and silver plate used in ceremonial banquets smuggled out of the Tower and melted down to bolster his depleted finances. When Oliver Cromwell eventually seized power he had what remained of the crown jewels melted down as symbols of:

"The detestable rule of kings".
Henry V prays before the battle of Agincourt.

 The precious metals were minted into Cromwell's Commonwealth coinage, but in the process many precious artefacts were destroyed. Two ancient Saxon crowns, reputedly worn by King Alfred the Great and Queen Edith were consigned to the furnace, and to their credit MPs protested at the time that this was wanton vandalism - but to no avail.  

A handful of artefacts were saved by monks who hid items such as a coronation anointing spoon, the Black Prince's ruby (worn in Henry V's helmet at Agincourt and reputed to have deflected a near fatal blow to the head) and a silver salt cellar belong to Elizabeth I, were saved.
Centre piece - The Black Prince's Ruby.

Much later, with the monarchy restored, some of the gems were recovered and mounted in a third set of Crown Jewels, ready for Charles II coronation in 1661. The Black Prince's ruby was one of these stones - which had apparently been sold for just four pounds, a derisory sum even at the time. The jewel was mounted in the new king's state crown by, Sir Robert Vyner, court jeweller. In the name of continuity Vyner was instructed to make the new jewels as close to the original as possible - work which cost an eye-watering 32,000 pounds.

Celebrated Jewel Thief.
However such profligacy didn’t go unnoticed by a man known to posterity as Colonel Thomas Blood (although he never rose above the rank of Lieutenant).
'Colonel' Thomas Blood.
Born in Ireland, in 1618, Blood refused to accept the return of the monarchy and was active in many Republican plots. In the 1660's he even tried to storm the Tower, and through good luck got away scot free. An adventurer in the truest sense of the word, Blood went on to rescue a co-conspirator, Captain John Mason, as he was moved to York for trial and execution, and attempted the abduction of the Duke of Ormonde.

But it was Blood's audacious plan in 1671 that he is remembered for: stealing the crown jewels. Dressed as a cleric and accompanied by a woman he described as his 'wife', Blood bribed the Assistant Keeper of the Jewels, Talbot Edwards, to let them view the jewels. Having gained access to the jewel room Blood's wife fainted and Edwards went to fetch a glass of water, thus leaving Blood alone to case the joint.
After that, a series of visits then took place where Blood 'groomed' Edwards and gained his confidence. When Blood returned with two friends to view the jewels, Edwards smelt trouble and in the ensuing struggle was stabbed in the stomach with a long knife.
The Sovereign's Orb - hidden by Blood's conspirator in his trousers!
The thieves had thought of every detail; Blood carried a mallet to hammer the St Edward's crown flat and then conceal it under his clothes, another conspirator hid the Sovereign's Orb down his trousers and the other cut the Sceptre with the Cross in half. However it was at this moment that Edwards' son returned to visit and seeing the crime in progress, tried to apprehend the villains. The cry was raised,

"Treason! Murder! The crown is stolen!"

The thieves were eventually caught by guards as, weighted down with loot, they passed under the archway of the Bloody Tower.
Laiden with swag Blood nearly escaped under the Bloody Tower
Colonel Blood and his gang were imprisoned in the vaults beneath the White Tower to await the king's pleasure and since theft of the royal jewels was akin to kidnapping the monarch himself, a sentence of being hung, drawn and quartered was expected.
However the plot thickens because Charles II was astonishingly lenient and rather than punishing Blood, the felon was awarded a pension of 500 pounds a year. Rumours started that Blood was actually acting for Charles to raise much needed cash…

Larry - the Downing Street cat - suitably attired for the recent Royal Wedding

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