Martin-Tower

London has been making headlines around the world recently thanks, in part, to the estimated £200 million  heist which took place in Hatton Garden last week. So we thought it was a good time to take a look back to one of London’s most famous robberies (or attempts at least)…

The attempt dates back to 1671 when a self-styled colonel, Irish adventurer Thomas Blood, made an attempt to steal the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London.

The Irishman – whose history included fighting on both sides in the English Civil War, first with the Royalists and then with the Parliamentarians when he saw the tide was turning – visited the Tower of London several times in the lead-up to the attempt as he, disguised as a parson, cultivated a relationship with Talbot Edwards, an elderly keeper of the jewels, and his family.

On the night of 9th May, he and a group of accomplices, including his son, attended a dinner put on by the Edwards at the Tower. While waiting for the meal, Blood asked to see the jewels which were housed behind a grille in the basement of the Martin Tower (pictured above) above which the Edwards had an apartment.

Edwards complied and once in the Jewel House, Blood and his accomplices attacked him, knocking him to the floor with a mallet and then stabbing him before binding and gagging him.

They then turned their attention to the jewels – Blood used a mallet to flatten St Edwards Crown so he could hide it beneath his coat while his brother-in-law Hunt filed the Sovereign’s Sceptre with Cross in two to fit it in his bag and a third man, Robert Perot, stuffed the Sovereign’s Orb down his trousers.

Things didn’t go smoothly after that and the alarm was raised before the gang could make their getaway. It has been suggested it was Edwards who raised the alarm – that despite efforts to shut him up he managed to remove his gag and raise the alarm  – but other versions say it was his son, returning from service in Flanders, who raised the alarm on seeing the gang.

In any event, the gang fled, evading efforts of the warders to stop them, before Blood, Hunt and Perot were captured on the Tower of London wharf. The crown, globe and orb were all recovered, albeit damaged.

Blood refused to speak after his capture and was eventually taken before King Charles II for interrogation. But he was evidently so impressed with his captive that he not only pardoned Blood but also rewarded him with land in Ireland.

Blood did later end up briefly in prison after a dispute with the Duke of Buckingham and died soon after his release in August, 1680, but in the intervening years he had become something of a celebrity around London including the Royal Court.

Security around the Crown Jewels, meanwhile, was upgraded somewhat in the wake of the attempt. While others have tried to steal them, none have ever been successful.

WHERE: Tower of London (nearest Tube station is Tower Hill); WHEN: 9am to 5.30pm Tuesday to Saturday, 10am to 5.30pm Saturday and Monday (last admission 5pm); COST: £24.50 an adult/£11 a child (5-15 years)/£18.70 concession/£60.70 a family of four (discount applies to online bookings); WEBSITE: www.hrp.org.uk/TowerOfLondon/.

Bedlam2

The remains of an astrologer believed to have been stoned to death by an angry mob, a former Lord Mayor of London and a member of Civil War era dissenting group, the Levellers, who was executed by firing squad may be among those exhumed from the former Bedlam burial ground in Liverpool Street in the City of London in a new archaeological excavation.

A research project carried out ahead of the planned excavation of the new eastern entrance of the Liverpool Street Crossrail Station has unearthed the names and backgrounds of more than 5,000 of the 20,000 Londoners who were buried on the site in the 16th and 17th centuries.

They include Dr John Lamb, an astrologer and advisor to the Duke of Buckingham, who a mob apparently stoned to death outside a theatre in 1628 after allegations against him of rape and black magic, Sir Ambrose Nicholas, Lord Mayor of London in 1575, as well as victims of riots by ‘Fanatiques’ (as noted in the diaries of Samuel Pepys in January, 1661) and, according to a report in The Independent, Robert Lockyer, a member of the Leveller movement who was executed by firing squad in 1649 during the English Civil War.

Some 3,000 skeletons will be disinterred in the excavation along with, it is expected, Roman and medieval artefacts. The dig will start next month and will be carried out by MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology). The skeletons will be analysed before they are reburied in consecrated ground.

The research into the backgrounds of more than 5,000 of those buried on the site – which was established in 1569 to help alleviate overcrowding caused by outbreaks of plague and other epidemics – has been carried out by 16 volunteers with the results compiled into a new online database – the Bedlam Burial Ground Register. Plague was the most common form of death followed by infant mortality and consumption.

“This research is a window into one of the most turbulent periods of London’s past,” said lead archaeologist Jay Carver. “These people lived through civil wars, the Restoration, Shakespeare’s plays, the birth of modern industry, plague and the Great Fire.”

Crossrail workers recently discovered the gravestone of Mary Godfree who died in September, 1665, as a result of the ‘Great Plague’ which reached its peak that year.

PICTURES: Courtesy of Crossrail.

We’re running a bit behind this week, so the next instalment in our Churchill series won’t appear until later this week.

Perhaps now best known as the most prominent of the many mistresses of King Charles II, Eleanor ‘Nell’ Gwyn – currently subject of a new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery – was a renowned actress in the years after the Restoration, known for her wit and beauty – “Pretty, witty Nell “as diarist Samuel Pepys called her.

Gwyn’s (variously spelt as Gwynn or Gwynne) origins remain something of a mystery – believed to have been born around 1651, her parents remain something of a mystery (some have suggested a Cavalier, Captain Thomas Gwyn, as her father) as does the place of her birth, variously claimed to be London, Hereford or Oxford – one source from 1715 claims she was born in Coal Yard Alley, off Drury Lane in Covent Garden.

Ascribed as having various jobs during her childhood – everything from helping at a bawdyhouse to a street vendor or cinder girl – around 1663, she was working as an “orange girl” at a theatre then known as the King’s Theatre in Bridge Street (now the site of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane).

She clearly made an impression for a year later she was working as an actress and is believed to have taken prominent actor Charles Hart as her lover. It has been suggested her first recorded stage appearance was in March, 1665. She wasn’t viewed as a brilliant dramatic actress but instead came into her own in comedies where her wit, as well as her beauty, could shine.

Having already been known to have had at least two lovers – Charles Hart and aristocrat Charles Sackville, Lord Buckhurst – by 1667 George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, had decided to bring her to the attention of the king as a possible new mistress and so increase his influence. By 1668 or 1669, Nell is believed to have succeeded in this, joining the growing number of women who could claim the title (Charles II ended up having at least 12 children by his many mistresses).

Her acting work gradually decreased and in 1670, she gave birth to Charles, her first son and believed to be the king’s seventh illegitimate child. She briefly returned to the stage in 1670-71 before retiring from the theatre for good.

In February, 1671, Nell moved into a townhouse at 79 Pall Mall (she was granted freehold of the property five years later and the property, which still stands, remains the only one on the south side of Pall Mall not owned by the Crown) and in December, she gave birth to her second child by the king, another son James (he died in Paris while attending school there 10 years later).

Both sons were given titles – Charles was later named Duke of St Albans – and given the surname Beauclerk. In the 1670s, Charles granted Nell Burford House in Windsor where she resided when the king was resident there.

In the 1670s, Nell – who continued to maintain her friendships with the likes of Villiers – successfully fought off several rivals for the king’s affection and by the 1680s, her position as the king’s mistress was not in doubt. It was during this period that the story goes when her coach was mistaken by an angry to be that of the unpopular Duchess of Portsmouth, she put her head out the window to tell them “Pray good people be silent, I am the Protestant whore”.

When King Charles II died on 6th February, 1685, he left instructions she was to be looked after – his brother King James II both paid her debts and continued to pay her an annual pension.

Nell died less than three years later – still only aged in her thirties – on 14th November, 1687, have suffered strokes in previous years. She was buried in the church of St Martins-in-the-Fields.

Gwyn is seen as a key figure in London during the period after the Restoration and a symbol of the hedonism of the court of King Charles II, and her rise from apparently humble origins to the royal court has been the subject of numerous books, plays and films.

Gwyn is currently featured in an exhibition currently being held at the National Portrait Gallery: The First Actresses – Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons. The exhibition runs until 8th January (an admission charge applies). For more information visit www.npg.org.uk.

PICTURE: Eleanor ‘Nell’ Gwyn, by Simon Verelst, © National Portrait Gallery, London

There’s several places along Victoria Embankment where it’s possible to see where the River Thames bank stood before the massive mid-19th century project to reclaim land. Not the least of them is located in the downstairs foyer to Somerset House, where looking through the glass floor, you can see the pebbles of the original riverbank.

Another is York Watergate, once the river entrance to the Duke of Buckingham’s London mansion, and now stranded some distance from the water in Victoria Embankment Gardens.

The mansion, known as York House, was originally located on the southside of the Strand. Originally built in the 13th century, it was later acquired by King Henry VIII and granted to the Archbishop of York, Nicholas Heath, in 1556 (hence its name). The house became the home of George Villiers, the first Duke of Buckingham and somewhat sycophantic favorite of King James I, in the early 1620s.

When the duke was stabbed to death in 1628, the property passed to his son, the second Duke of Buckingham (also George), who later sold it to a land developer. It was apparently as a condition of the sale that the streets there now include the duke’s full name – hence George Court, Villiers Street, Duke Street, the slightly ludicrous Of Alley, and Buckingham Street.

The impressive Italianate watergate, which stands below the junction of Buckingham Street and Watergate Walk just a short walk into the gardens from Embankment tube station, was designed by the irrepressible Inigo Jones and built in 1626. Though weathered, it still bears the coat of arms of the Duke of Buckingham on the front.