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Sunday, 31 January 2016

Sir Thomas Fairfax, Parliamentary commander during the English Civil War



Thomas Fairfax was one England’s most successful army generals, being active during the English Civil War of 1642-9, on the Parliamentary side.

He was born on 17th January 1612, at Denton, Yorkshire. He was the son of Ferdinando Fairfax, second Lord Fairfax of Cameron, and his wife Mary Sheffield, who died when Thomas was seven. Thomas went to St John’s College, Cambridge, and then trained to be a lawyer.

Between 1629 and 1632 he travelled in Europe, which was engulfed at the time by the Thirty Years War, and came to know Horace Vere, who was considered to be the greatest professional soldier of his day. In 1637 he married Vere’s daughter, Anne, and they subsequently had two daughters of their own.

He fought for King Charles I against the Scots in 1639-40, and was involved in the defeat at Newburn. In January 1641 he was knighted by Charles. However, on the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642, Fairfax sided with Parliament by presenting a petition to Charles on behalf of the landowners of Yorkshire. Charles refused to accept the petition.

As second-in-command to his father, Fairfax fought at the defeats of Wetherby and Tadcaster in late 1642, but in January 1643 he drove the royalists out of Leeds. However, he was on the losing side again in March when his forces were routed at Seacroft Moor. He determined to take Wakefield, believing it to be poorly defended, but found himself attacking a much greater force than his own. Despite the odds he was completely successful, and his many prisoners included the royalist general, Lord Goring.

He was soon forced to turn his attention to the defence of other Yorkshire towns, particularly Leeds and Bradford, and suffered a defeat at the battle of Adwalton Moor. The Fairfaxes were forced to retreat to Hull, with Sir Thomas being wounded. He then took his cavalry to join Cromwell and the Earl of Manchester in Lincolnshire, where he displayed great courage at Winceby, and retook the town of Gainsborough. His exploits were very effective in preventing the northern royalist forces from uniting with those in the south.

At the end of 1643 he was called upon to help relieve the siege of Nantwich, in Cheshire, which meant taking an army across the Pennines in the middle of Winter. He had a huge victory and managed to capture all the royalist colonels who were besieging the town.

In March 1644 he returned to Yorkshire, planning with his father to join forces with the Scots at Durham. However, the Fairfaxes were met by a royalist army at Selby, but Sir Thomas’s cavalry was largely responsible for its defeat.

Events led swiftly to York being occupied by a royalist army, and the Fairfaxes laid siege. The attempts by Prince Rupert to raise the siege led in turn to the battle of Marston Moor on 2nd July, which was the largest battle ever fought on English soil. Sir Thomas was only a bit-player in the battle, which was a hugely significant Parliamentary victory, but he showed great courage and suffered further wounds. He was wounded again at the siege of Helmsley in August.

While recovering from these wounds, Fairfax was the beneficiary of a vote in Parliament that was known as the “self-denying ordinance”, which aimed to bar members of either House of Parliament from military command. The three existing Parliamentary armies were amalgamated, and Fairfax was voted commander-in-chief of the new entity, which became known as the New Model Army.

Considerable wrangling followed between the two Houses, with the Lords seeking to amend Fairfax’s list of officers. Eventually the House of Commons was able to ensure that his list was accepted. Fairfax was also frustrated at first by having his strategy dictated by Parliament, but after it became clear that military operations could not be decided by a committee, he was given free rein to direct operations himself.

The greatest victory for the New Model Army was at the Battle of Naseby on 14th June 1645. Fairfax and Cromwell commanded an army that was considerably larger than that of the royalists. It was the quick thinking and battlefield genius of Fairfax that won the day, coupled with the iron discipline of the Army that came from implicit trust in their general.

Having defeated the King’s army, Fairfax then marched west and was equally victorious at Langport against the only other royalist army in the field, that of Lord Goring. The rest of the First Civil War consisted of nearly a year of besieging and taking a series of towns and cities, the most difficult being Bristol. The New Model Army under Fairfax never lost as much as a skirmish.

Despite his courageous and energetic antics on the battlefield, Sir Thomas did not enjoy good health, and he was often too ill to be involved with the political matters that arose when the fighting was over. There were occasions when his illnesses appeared to others to be “diplomatic” in nature, in that he was not around when difficult decisions needed to be made.

There was no doubt that he was a far better soldier than a politician, and during the period 1646-9 he often found himself at the whim of decisions made by others, although he made efforts to support his rank and file soldiers when their pay came under threat. At one stage he offered to resign as head of the army, but he was refused permission to do so.

The fresh outbreak of violence that is usually termed the Second Civil War gave Fairfax work that was more amenable to him, namely leading troops into battle. Despite being in great pain from gout, he led his men against the royalists at Maidstone and then pursued them to Colchester and besieged the town for 75 days. At the end of the siege, he ordered the execution of two of the royalist commanders, which was within his rights so to do, but may strike us today as a black mark against his character.

It is clear that Fairfax was very reluctant to agree that King Charles should be tried for treason. He had always taken the view that the point of the Civil War had been to persuade the King to rule in a less autocratic way and to acknowledge the rights of Parliament. He did not set out with the intention of creating a republic. However, there were many in the Army who took a different view, and Fairfax found himself in a minority of one amongst his senior officers. The order to confine the King to Carisbrooke Castle was therefore signed by Fairfax.

When the King’s trial began, and it became clear that its purpose was to condemn Charles to death, Fairfax refused to have anything to do with the proceedings, and his wife interjected on more than one occasion to state his opposition, even calling Oliver Cromwell “a rogue and a traitor”. Fairfax made many efforts to prevent the King’s execution, although he refused to use force to do so, on the grounds that others might suffer as a result of such action.

Despite his profound disagreement with the regicides, he agreed to remain as commander-in-chief of the Army under the Commonwealth, and even became a Member of Parliament himself, although he never attended the House of Commons. In his Army role, he suppressed several mutinies and was nominated to lead a force against the Scots. However, he refused to cross the Scottish border and fight against his former allies. He therefore resigned his command, ostensibly on health grounds, but in reality for reasons of conscience.

In retirement, he devoted himself to literary and religious pursuits, including sponsoring the poetry of Andrew Marvell and translating several religious works from Latin and French, and to managing his estate. He had been granted a considerable amount of property by Parliament in gratitude for his services, and much of this had been seized from the Duke of Buckingham. However, in September 1657, Fairfax’s daughter Mary married the very same person whose property had been given to Fairfax. Cromwell had Buckingham arrested, and this led to a furious row between the former comrades-in-arms. It was only after Cromwell’s death in 1658 that Parliament could be persuaded to have Buckingham released.

After Oliver Cromwell’s son Richard proved unable and unwilling to continue the Protectorate, Fairfax was instrumental in helping the Restoration of King Charles II to take place without bloodshed. He did this by raising an army in support of General Monck, who had feared that his call for Charles to return would be opposed by Parliament.

With the new King Charles on the throne, Fairfax was able to retire once more. He had some fear that he might be included on the list of the regicides who suffered a terrible fate at the Restoration, on the grounds that he could have used the Army to prevent Charles I’s execution, but his fears were groundless. His last years were marked by increasingly poor health, and he died on 12th November 1671, at the age of 59. 

Like many great military men, Fairfax was less effective when not on the battlefield. His great skill was not so much in strategy as in command on the field, where he led by example and never lacked in personal courage. Despite being a stern disciplinarian, he was well liked and trusted by the people under his command. He shares the dual distinctions of being the man who did as much as anyone to bring down King Charles I, and also to restore his son to the throne as King Charles II.


© John Welford