Irishman’s great crown robbery is top of the list in the annals of historic heists

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Various stories about the film star Errol Flynn have been recounted here during recent weeks and further details are added today about the Hollywood icon whose dad Theodore was a Professor in Queen’s University, and about Captain Blood, the movie role that made Flynn famous.

Besides their Irish connections, the film star and Captain Blood both seem to have been emmeshed in a web of conspiracy and intrigue.

Flynn is supposed to have written uncomplimentary graffiti about one of his female co-stars on a Belfast wall.

He is said to have “behaved badly” in the Botanic Gardens, from which he was allegedly banned, and as was mentioned here a few weeks ago, he apparently “leaked” news of his impending visits so that local girls would be able seek him out in his favourite Belfast bars and dancehalls.

There is also an intriguing story about Flynn’s attempts to sign up as an American spy in Ireland during Second World War.

More about that in a moment, but first, the real-life drama in the Tower of London when Captain Blood, the film-character that launched Flynn into stardom in 1935, tried to steal the Crown Jewels in 1671.

Co Clare-born Thomas Blood’s grand Royal heist has been described by historians as equally noteworthy in the annals of crime as the Great Train Robbery.

Whilst his attempt to steal the Crown Jewels was unsuccessful, it was breathtakingly ingenious.

Accounts of the heist vary, but according to most reports Blood’s plan went into action in April or early-May 1671 when he visited the Tower of London disguised as a parson.

He was accompanied by a female companion pretending to be his wife.

‘Mrs Blood’ feigned an upset stomach and Talbot Edwards, the 77-year-old Master of the Jewel House, invited the two visitors into his private quarters where Mrs Edwards prescribed a tot of rum.

It was the least they could do for a poor parson’s poorly wife!

Blood came back to the Tower on several occasions with thank you presents for Mr and Mrs Edwards and suggested that their daughter might marry his fictitious, wealthy nephew.

On 9th May 1671 Blood persuaded Edwards to lay on a ‘private viewing’ of the jewels for himself, along with his alleged ‘nephew’ and two friends.

The aging Master of the Jewel House wasn’t suspicious of the clergyman and his wife, particularly when accompanied by a suitor for their daughter who might help finance the elderly 
couple’s impending retirement!

But Captain Blood and his co-conspirators carried canes concealing rapier blades, daggers, small pistols and various other unsavoury accoutrements.

Once inside the Jewel House a cloak was thrown over Edwards, who was then hit with a mallet, knocked to the floor, bound, gagged and stabbed.

The Crown Jewels were behind an iron grille which Blood removed.

The conspirators hadn’t reckoned on their Royal booty being so heavy and cumbersome and Blood had to use the mallet to flatten St Edward’s Crown so that he could hide it under his coat.

Another member of Blood’s gang frantically sawed the Sceptre and Cross in two with an iron file so that it would fit into their undersized ‘loot bag’.

In desperation a third man stuffed the Sovereign’s Orb into his trousers.

The only missing action was Michael Caine saying – “You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”

Whether it was the injured Edwards’ calls for help that disrupted their escape, or the fortuitous arrival of Edwards’ son at the scene of the crime, but Blood and his gang were confronted by guards as they ran to their get-away horses.

A chaotic gunfight ensued.

Captain Blood’s gang completely confused the guards by hiding in doorways, shouting to each other and letting on they were chasing the thieves and not running away!

But the guards got the upper hand and as the gang ran around in increasingly smaller circles various parts of the Crown Jewels fell to the floor.

After a struggle Blood and his conspirators were captured and their precious booty was retrieved, relatively intact though requiring some cosmetic repairs.

His treasonable act should have led to his death but as mentioned on Wednesday’s page Blood found favour with King Charles and had his Irish Estates restored to him, along with a substantial pension.

There has been much speculation about the reasons for the King’s pardon though it has been suggested that Blood’s eloquence (or Irish blarney!) wooed sympathy from the palace.

While his first major film success was based on the smooth-talking Irish brigand, Errol Flynn’s attempts to sway the authorities were less successful than Captain Blood’s!

The swashbuckling star of the silver screen harboured a secret ambition to be a real-life sleuth.

“Put me in uniform, send me to Ireland and make me a spy,” he asked US President Franklin D Roosevelt during Second World War.

The movie star, with his legendary sex appeal and family connections in Belfast, hoped to charm wartime secrets from unintentional informants in Dublin.

Flynn’s letter to the CIA in 1938, discovered recently in the Presidential Library in New York, was written when Churchill desperately needed Ireland’s ports.

The actor claimed that his fame, eloquence and good looks would help him prise information from the great and the good in Ireland and he could help bring their vital ports back under Allied control.

But he wasn’t offered the part!