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Friday, June 16, 2017

The Audacious Crimes of Colonel Blood. Robert Hutchinson. Weidenfeld & Nicolson (2016)

A wildly entertaining and very gripping history of an extraordinary man whose career would strain the limits of fiction. Thomas Blood was a Protestant Irishman who fought for the Parliament in the English Civil Wars and discovered that he had chosen the wrong side with the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy. He was stripped of his estates in Ireland and effectively impoverished. In response Thomas Blood became one of the most constant and dangerous plotters against the restored regime. He was deeply involved in a plot to storm Dublin Castle, centre of English rule in Ireland and later the astonishing rescue of a fellow plotter being escorted to a court in York. Captured after an attempt to steal the Crown Jewels, Thomas Blood carried out his most breathtaking and scarcely credible exploit and continued to be trouble to a lot of people up to and beyond his death.
Robert Hutchinson has a swashbuckling tales to tell and he does it full justice while never loosing the critical perspective of a historian. Thomas Blood was genuinely extraordinary, he was also alive and active in extraordinary times and Robert Hutchinson carefully brings out the man and his context. There is a swaggering bravado about Thomas Blood that would make him entirely comfortable in the Three Musketeers, he never plotted in the shadows, being known for his actions was clearly vital to him. This vanity did not make him any less serious, his basic carelessness did that, a failure to saddle a horse properly nearly proved fatal in an ambush.
Much like Charles II, the Merrie Monarch, who on any closer inspection was a deeply dangerous man who had a gambler's heart and and a set of secret agendas that he pursued with force and steely will, Thomas Blood had a personal charisma that no written account can fully capture. It is visible only by the otherwise inexplicable results and loyalty of others who were not fools or easily fooled. Thomas Blood moved among a groups of bitterly disappointed and revengeful men who were perfectly willing to risk terrible torture to kill the King. These men were naturally secretive yet they embraced the flamboyant Thomas Blood, however much they may have agreed in principal it is hard to see how they would practically cooperate with each other absent some significant personal factor.Thomas Blood was one of the most wanted people in the country yet he was never betrayed while living under different names and in different places. He was never invisible, he was drawing on the unspoken loyalty and complicity of people who knew him and very likely had a strong suspicion as to who he was.
Robert Hutchinson has a wary respect for this charisma, he clearly is hugely enjoying the the exploits of Thomas Blood while not being wholly seduced by the man. This makes the book very readable, the distance that Robert Hutchinson maintains allows for the brutal and nasty aspects of Blood's actions to emerge along side the more cinematic ones.
Thomas Blood is one of the small group of people whom it is wonderful to know at a distance, the safely read about them from the perspective of history. They bring a distanct context vividly to life by their actions and remind us that the forces of history are never impersonal, they always have a beating heart. This book is a deep pleasure.

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