In Ireland feuds can last for generations.
We have long memories and, historically, when moved to vengeance there is very little to be done to dissuade us from that path.
My own family have conducted quite a few down through the ages; we have warred with the Talbots over politics, the Boleyns over titles, and with the Kavanaghs, O’Mores, Fitzpatricks, O’Byrnes, Powers, and a dozen others over land.
Our disputes with the two branches of the FitzGeralds were about authority and we warred for hundreds of years.
Yet none were as bellicose or as personal as the quarrel that erupted between two Irishmen: that most famous Butler, the first Duke of Ormonde, and one of the most notorious and audacious personalities to spring from the Restoration Era, Colonel Thomas Blood.
In his new novel, Blood’s Game, released on October 5th, Angus Donald begins the story of his ancestors, Thomas and his son Holcroft, as they plot a safe path through the dangerous world of Stuart London.
Both men will strive to survive and prosper in a world where power is vested in the hands of a just few well-connected court favourites; ruin can come quickly upon the whim of an unpredictable monarch.
Angus was kind enough to take some time out to talk to me about Thomas and Holcroft Blood and their time at the court of King Charles II where ‘fortune favours the brave, but one false step could prove fatal’.
The hats are big, but the intrigue is even bigger!
Angus, thank you so much for taking part. Your new novel, Blood's Game, stars a relatively unknown but criminally adventurous Irishman in Stuart London. What can you tell us about the real Thomas Blood?
I love the term “criminally adventurous” – it describes Colonel Thomas Blood perfectly. He was certainly adventurous and had a magnificent contempt for the law, and indeed for all authority. I believe he is one of those rare people who would have been a celebrity in any age, not just in the turbulent 17th century, just because of his abundant charm, self-confidence and sheer chutzpah. He genuinely seemed to fear nothing and deem nothing impossible. And I have to admit that, while he could be brutal, self-serving and distinctly unheroic at times, I love his ballsy can-do attitude.
Thomas Blood had a comfortable, middle-class upbringing. He was born in County Clare, Ireland, in 1618, the son of a successful iron-master and grandson of a member of the Irish Parliament and his family held lands in Counties Meath and Wicklow, too. At the age of 20, after an education in the northwest of England, he married an English girl, Mary Holcroft, from a Lancashire family of gentry, with whom he had at least seven children. But it was the brutal civil wars of the mid-17th century that forged Blood into the man he became – a common phenomenon, I think, in any era. A young man who experiences violence at close hand, perhaps killing enemies or seeing his friends killed, has a very different perspective on life thereafter.
When the English Civil War broke out in 1642, Blood like so many other high-spirited young men of good family joined the royalist side. Apparently, he fought bravely for the King in several bloody engagements. However, when it became clear to him that the Cavaliers were losing the war, Blood promptly switched sides and became a Roundhead. An early indication of his rather flexible approach to ethics.
And this unsentimental change of allegiance paid off handsomely – at least at first. At the end of the long and bloody wars, Oliver Cromwell’s triumphant soldiers were rewarded with lands taken from royalists and, in 1653, Blood received his share. He was given the manor of Sarney, near Dunboyne in County Meath, among other grants of land, and was made a justice of the peace. All was well for the Blood family for several years till the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. When Charles II returned from exile to ascend the thrones of the Three Kingdoms, he moved swiftly to punish supporters of the previous republican regime. In the incendiary Act of Settlement of 1662, those granted lands by Cromwell after the wars were stripped of them.
Blood was ruined. His estates were confiscated and he bitterly resented the government for his destitution, particularly the King’s representative the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, James Butler, Duke of Ormonde. Not the sort of man to take an injury without retaliation, Blood was part of a bold scheme in 1663 to storm Dublin Castle with a band of armed men and kidnap the Duke of Ormonde for ransom.
It was the first of many wild, improbable schemes that Blood was involved in. And, like most of them, it failed. The plot was betrayed by informers and several conspirators were captured and executed. Blood had to flee Ireland and take refuge in the Netherlands – then at war with the Three Kingdoms – leaving his wife and family behind to manage as best they could. One of the less attractive sides of Thomas Blood was the way he treated Mary Holcroft, his long-suffering and rather sickly wife, and their children, often leaving them penniless to fend for themselves for years on end.
If he is known for anything, it is an infamous event in 1671. What can you say about Colonel Blood's attempted theft of the Crown Jewels?
During the mid-1660s Thomas Blood was a wanted criminal with a price on his head. He flitted between England and Holland and Ireland, mixing with religious dissenters, ordinary criminals, secret agents and shady anti-government types, and using a bewildering variety of fake names. He was always only one or two steps away from discovery and an ignominious death on the gallows but, even so, he managed an impressive array of daring exploits, still plotting to bring down the royalist government and, at one point, rescuing a friend on the road who was being taken from London to York for trial by a squad of English soldiers. His exact movements during this time are unclear but we do know that by the end of 1670, Blood was back in England, living in Romford Market, a few miles northeast of London, under the alias Doctor Thomas Allen. Despite having no medical qualifications, he seemed to have settled down and was making a living treating the locals for their various ailments. However, this quiet quasi-respectable life was not to last long, for Thomas Blood was about to embark on his greatest exploit yet.
Sometime in April 1671, Blood, disguised as a well-to-do country parson, and now calling himself Thomas Ayliffe, accompanied by his beautiful “wife”, an actress called Jenny Blaine, paid a visit to the Tower of London. He presented himself at the door of the Irish Tower (now called the Martin Tower) and humbly asked if he might be allowed to see the famous Crown Jewels of England.
At that time, Talbot Edwards, the elderly Assistant Keeper of the Jewels, made a small income from showing visitors the King’s coronation regalia. He showed Blood and his charming companion the jewels and, when she feigned an illness and fainted, he kindly took them upstairs to his private apartments to recover under the care of his wife and daughter. A few days later Blood returned with a gift of four pairs of gloves – a thank-you for the Edwardses’ kindness. Over the next few weeks, Blood wormed his way into the affections of the family and dangling a rich “nephew” as bait, he began negotiations with the Edwardses for the hand of their ugly daughter Elizabeth.
Early in the morning on May 9, 1671, Blood and three companions arrived at the Irish Tower, entered the Jewel House, overpowered Edwards – smashing his head with a heavy mallet and stabbing him several times – and began helping themselves to the jewels. They believed the Assistant Keeper to be dead or dying – and certainly no longer a threat. But Edwards, a former soldier, was made of sterner stuff. While the thieves were cutting up the regalia and filling their pockets with precious items, he revived himself and began to scream loudly for help. By sheer chance, Edwards’s soldier son, Wythe, happened to be returning on leave from his regiment in Flanders that very day and he arrived with a friend called Captain Beckman at the exact time that Edwards senior was screaming blue murder from inside the Jewel House.
The thieves made a run for it, spilling treasures as they went, and were pursued by Wythe, Beckman and the Tower guards. There was a running fight, pistols, muskets and rapiers, as the gang tried to reach their horses which were tied up at the end of Tower Wharf at the Iron Gate. Blood was captured. As the soldiers seized him, he said: “It was a gallant attempt, however unsuccessful! ’Twas for a crown!”
Blood was imprisoned in the White Tower and questioned by the lieutenant of the Tower, Sir John Robinson, but the old outlaw refused to give away any details of the plot or the names of the other people involved. Quite outrageously, Blood insisted that he would only give an account of himself in a personal audience with the King.
After weeks of negotiations, with Blood still refusing to name names, he was granted a royal audience. I still find myself shocked by this: imagine Ronnie Biggs, the Great Train Robber, or a Kray twin or some other major 20th-century criminal demanding to speak with Queen Elizabeth II. Nevertheless, a private audience was granted, Colonel Thomas Blood met Charles Stuart, and while nobody living knows exactly what went on in that meeting, we do know that Blood emerged with a full royal pardon for all his crimes and a new grant of lands in Ireland worth £500 a year.
Who says crime doesn’t pay?
You have a familial link to Colonel Blood - can you tell us a little bit about that connection?
My mother’s maiden name was Blood and when I was growing up she told me that we were related to the infamous Colonel Thomas Blood, who stole the Crown Jewels and got away with it. That childhood story stayed with me – and while I have not yet been able to prove the connection beyond doubt – I have always claimed him as my ancestor. My mother’s late brother – a GP with a practice in Cornwall who rejoiced in the name Doctor Blood – was always adamant that we were descended from the infamous crown-stealer. He has a gold signet ring with a Blood crest that I remember him showing me. But whether connection is a direct one or not, really doesn’t matter, because ever since I was told the tale, I’ve also always been fascinated by it, particularly the end part – what did Thomas Blood say to King Charles in that secret meeting? How did he persuade the Merry Monarch to grant him a full pardon given the seriousness of his crimes? It was, partly, to address those questions that I began researching and writing Blood’s Game. I’m not going to give away the ending but I did discover some very surprising, perhaps even rather shocking things, in fact, I uncovered a secret that the British Government had managed to keep hidden for more than a hundred years after the event.
To say the least, Blood had a bee in his bonnet about one of my kinsmen, the Duke of Ormonde. What can you tell us about their relationship?
To be frank, my Blood ancestor hated your Butler kinsman. Blood blamed him, rather unfairly in my view, for stripping him of his Irish lands when the Duke of Ormonde was the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. The duke was merely carrying out government policy, following orders from King Charles in Whitehall and, as far as I know, there was nothing personal about his actions. Also, we must remember that Blood had been given these lands as a result of his years of military service for Oliver Cromwell, so, well . . . let’s just say that it doesn’t make him a wholly sympathetic victim.
However, Blood certainly did blame Ormonde for the loss of his lands and livelihood and as a man of spirit he was determined to get revenge. After the botched attempt to kidnap the duke at Dublin Castle in 1663, Blood laid low for several years but, in late 1670, he acted. On December 6 of that year, on a cold, rainy night, Blood and his confederates attacked Ormonde’s coach in St James Street, as it was heading up the hill to Piccadilly where the duke was renting a palace from Lord Clarendon.
Blood and his gang pulled Ormonde from the vehicle and hurled him into the mud of the street but, instead of killing him immediately – and they could have done so easily – they made a spur-of-the-moment decision to take him to Tyburn, west along Piccadilly, and hang him there like a common criminal. Blood believed that Ormonde had stolen his lands and so, as a thief, he should be executed, rather than murdered. It was a poor decision. Ormonde was tied to the back of a horse ridden by one of Blood’s accomplices but almost immediately the duke managed to wriggle free and fall to the ground. There was a fight, pistol shots were fired in the darkness but the elderly duke was saved by his own footmen coming out with lit torches from Clarendon House.
The Duke of Ormonde, who suffered no more than a few cuts and abrasions in the assault, and his fiery eldest son Lord Ossory, were convinced that it was their political rival the Duke of Buckingham who was behind the Piccadilly business. And this may well have been true: Blood and the Duke of Buckingham had an undeniable connection, and Buckingham may have encouraged Blood to make the attempt on Ormonde. Lord Ossory accused Buckingham of the crime in the presence of the King and threatened to shoot the rival duke with a pistol if his father was killed.
Eventually, after the episode with the Crown Jewels a few months later, Blood confessed that he was the man who had attacked Ormonde and apologised to him in writing. At Charles II’s insistence, the duke is said to have magnanimously accepted Blood’s apology and to have publicly forgiven him. He is reputed to have said: “If the King can forgive the theft of his crown, I believe I can forgive a few bruises.”
You are best known for your Robin Hood books – how different is Blood’s Game to the historical novels you have written before?
I thought when I finished the last of the Outlaw Chronicles (for those who don’t know, this is a successful series of eight novels about a morally ambiguous and gangster-like Robin Hood set in the 12th/13th centuries) that I would be writing about a completely different hero in Thomas Blood. But, oddly, I found many similarities: both men, my fictional Robin and the real Blood operate outside society, they are both outlaws, contrary men by nature, stubborn individualists.
They have their own sense of morality, a code they have devised for themselves and by which they live. Both are violent, ruthless types, who are not too concerned about spilling innocent blood to achieve their aims. Strangely this similarity hadn’t occurred to me until I finished writing Blood’s Game. It must be the kind of hero that I am attracted to.
Even the other main characters in both the Outlaw Chronicles and Blood’s Game resemble each other a little, Sir Alan Dale, Robin Hood’s sidekick, is a little bit slow on the uptake, and often grasps the wrong end of the stick. Sometimes even a completely different stick. And I have painted Holcroft Blood – Thomas’s third son, who is a major player in the aftermath of the Crown Jewels robbery in Blood’s Game – as very slightly autistic. Certainly a lot of people around him think he is a complete imbecile, although Holcroft is in fact quite brilliant in some very specific ways.
Having said all that, the new book is quite different from the Outlaw Chronicles – for a start there are no big gory battles in Blood’s Game, which was something of a trademark in my Robin Hood books. The new book is more focused on character than action. Another small conceit is that I have a fictional Welshman called Thomas ap Lloyd, which is the origin of the surname Blood, appearing in the Outlaw Chronicles who is supposed to be the ancestor of the infamous crown-stealer and, I guess, me. A descendant of Sir Alan Dale also makes a brief appearance in Blood’s Game.
Stuart London is, to my mind anyway, an incredible backdrop to any story - how did you go about researching that side of the book? You've been all over Europe (and further) for research purposes - where did you visit during the writing of Blood's Game?
Pretty much all of the action in Blood’s Game takes place in London, mostly in White Hall (it was spelled as two words back in the 17th century) and so I didn’t need to do much travelling to do the necessary research. That is good and bad – bad because I like travelling, and I’ve spent much of my life abroad, mostly in Asia. For one of the early Outlaw Chronicles (Holy Warrior) I went to Sicily, Cyprus and Israel in the space of a few months in the name of research. I was tracing the route of the Third Crusade, since you ask. But I didn’t have any excuse to dust off my passport and carry-on bag for this book – which was a shame but also good because travelling is expensive and it means leaving my wife to look after our two young kids on her own.
To research this book, I just made a lot of trips up to London from my home in West Kent – three to the Tower of London, where I was privileged to see the ancient Ceremony of the Keys, and several to Whitehall and St James St/Piccadilly, where I walked through the attack on Ormonde. The palace of White Hall, of Charles II’s day, was destroyed by a fire at the end of the 17th century and little remains except the Banqueting House. So most of the research was done using old maps of White Hall and the Tower and reading a pile of books, plus a lot of internet time. A bit dull really.
Your first series stretches to eight books, do you see this as the beginning of another series of that length?
No, I doubt very much it will go on that long. It will probably just be a trilogy. But you never know – if Blood’s Game sells really, really well . . . At the moment I have a contract with Bonnier Zaffre, my publisher, for three books: Blood’s Game, then Blood’s Revolution, about the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and then Blood’s Battle (title unconfirmed) about Holcroft Blood fighting the French with the Duke of Marlborough at the Battle of Blenheim. I also have three more Blood books in mind after those, if Bonnier asks me to do them. I guess I’d like it to be a six-book series, to be honest, but we will have to see how well it goes. A trilogy would be fine, too.
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