Finance in History: Blood and Treasurers

Those who guard the crown jewels need good internal controls.

Roget’s Thesaurus has made a bizarre word familiar to many college students who have found themselves at a loss for words. Compiled by Dr. Peter Mark Roget and published in 1852, Roget’s Thesaurus is a vast categorization of English words — and their friends, siblings, and relatives.

But how did he come up with a word like “thesaurus?” Simple. It’s the Latin word for “treasure.” Back in the 15th century in Scotland, treasurers were called “thesaurers,” and the royal thesaurer had the plum job of guarding the royal treasure trove.

To become thesaurer, a fellow clearly had to be known for his honesty, strength, courage, martial experience, suspicious mind, and self-restraint. One wonders how often the inventory of the royal thesaury (treasury) was conducted and whether the King and Queen were there to congratulate themselves on their fine thesaurus.

Besides the psychological comfort of knowing you have a pile of jewels in a vault nearby — and a trusted thesaurer to make sure they don’t wander off — the king’s jewels must have helped convince lenders of his creditworthiness. A bit like Fort Knox when the United States was on the gold standard.

The flaw in that idea, though, is that crown jewels are anything but a liquid asset. They represent, instead, the classic buy-and-hold strategy. The British gem collection is a 900-year long position in precious stones and metals.

Despite the manifold and elaborate precautions taken by the thesaurer, an audacious brigand almost got away with stealing Britain’s crown jewels in 1671. The perpetrator was an Irishman with the improbable name of Colonel Blood, and he did it by preying upon the Assistant Keeper of the Jewels, an elderly dupe named Talbot Edwards. Revenge certainly played a part in the bloody plot, seeing that the British had taken Blood’s land in Ireland.

Disguising himself as a humble man of the cloth, a parson, Blood made several preliminary visits to the Tower of London, intent on insinuating himself into the good graces of the assistant jewel keeper. Like so many visitors to London who were soon to follow, he took the Tower tour to give the crown jewels a good once-over. The jewels first went on display in the 1600s, and even back then the jewel keeper was allowed to make some money on the side acting as tour guide.

After several increasingly chummy visits, Blood went so far as to propose that his nephew marry Edwards’s daughter, a nice match considering he claimed the nephew was worth 300 pounds a year. The assistant jewel keeper and his wife thought this sounded like a bit of all right.

A few days later, Blood brought his “nephew” (actually his son), to meet Edwards, and they were accompanied by two of their friends. While supposedly waiting for Blood’s wife to join them, Blood persuaded the jewel keeper to show him, his nephew, and their two companions the jewels one more time.

Once Edwards unlocked the vault, they decided the time was especially opportune to bash him in the head with a mallet and stab him to death. Scooping up the jewels, Blood crushed the king’s crown, the better to hide it under his frock. Before they could make their pious exit, however, Edwards’s son stumbled in on them and raised a hue and cry. The plunderers were apprehended, probably by a cohort of the Tower guards, the Beefeaters. The lucky king reclaimed his jewels and dented crown.

Besides housing the crown jewels, the Tower of London was the home of many famous prisoners. Some, including Richard III’s two nephews, Anne Boleyn, Lady Jane Grey, Sir Thomas More, and Guy Fawkes, never left. Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Rudolph Hess, on the other hand, were only temporary residents.

Weirdly enough, Colonel Blood never joined their ranks. King Charles II met with him after his disastrously botched heist, gave him back his confiscated Irish estates, and is thought to have taken him into his service as a spy. The moral of the tale, apparently, is that the bold entrepreneur often ends up a whole lot better than the treasurer.

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