Wednesday, December 06, 2006

By David C. Hanrahan

He was a daring Irish rogue who plotted the overthrow of kings, organized daring escapes, and even dared steal the crown jewels. Though this prince of outlaws lent his name to the most famous fictional pirate swashbuckler, he was a real flesh and blood man. Yes Virginia, there is a Colonel Blood.

Captain Blood is better known. Rafael Sabatini’s swashbuckler hero set a standard for pirate antics unmatched until Jack Sparrow hove into view. Where Johnny Depp modeled his character on an outlandish, drug-addled, English rock star, Sabatini borrowed from an outlandish, religion-intoxicated, Irish rebel.

Thomas Blood was the offspring of English settlers in Ireland. They were Presbyterians in a Catholic County Meath, and Blood was of a decidedly Puritan bent. During the English Civil Wars Blood served first as a Royalist soldier suppressing Irish rebels and later as a Parliamentarian fighting to overthrow the king. Oliver Cromwell, England’s military dictator, rewarded Blood’s service with land confiscated from Irishmen accused of being rebels. Usually an accusation was enough to cost a Catholic his land. The era of the English Commonwealth was a good one for Blood.

When Cromwell died and King Charles II was restored to the throne the good times ended. Irishmen deprived of their lands petitioned the king for their return. Charles’ deputy in Ireland, the Duke of Ormonde had the nearly impossible task of doing right by Irishmen loyal to the king, judging who had actually been a rebel, and not antagonizing the powerful radical Protestant faction.

In 1663 Blood took matters into his own hands. He plotted to seize Dublin Castle and effect a coup against royal authority in Ireland. His method to distract the guards was to have a gang member confuse them by dropping baked goods at their feet. This novel approach was never tested, an informer gave away the plan and Blood went on the lam. He became an overnight hero to the Puritans, Levellers, and Fifth Monarchy men who despised Popery and monarchism.

Over the following years Blood’s legend grew. He freed imprisoned comrades by means of a bold attack on their military guards. Blood attempted to assassinate the Duke of Ormonde by kidnapping him and taking him to Tyburn for a public hanging (the Duke escaped). He even planned to shoot King Charles. Blood suffered tribulations as well. His son became a highwayman. In Blood’s eyes (and possibly God’s) political violence was one thing, robbing people for money was sinful.

Ironically Blood is best remembered as a jewel thief. In 1671 Blood and his gang befriended the keeper of the crown jewels. When the man’s suspicions were lulled away, Blood struck. The keeper was stabbed and bludgeoned (but survived) and the gang seized the state crown, the royal orb, and nearly got away with the scepter. In the process Blood hammered the crown flat to hide it and his son tried to file the scepter in half. Blood and his gang were caught immediately. Death by hanging was a foregone conclusion.

Blood had one last trick. He asked to meet King Charles himself. After an interview with his majesty Blood was pardoned, with a royal handshake. Blood began a new career as a consultant to law enforcement on Protestant extremists.

Hanrahan sets down Blood’s career in all its grime and glory. Along the way he provides pen portraits of the era’s notable men: the Duke of Ormonde, the duke of Buckingham, and of course, Charles II. For anyone longing to get at the grips of the seamy side of history where son men, fanatics, and high nobility played their dangerous games, Colonel Blood is a good place to start.
-Dave Hardy

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