English Civil War: Sir Thomas Fairfax

Lord Thomas Fairfax
Sir Thomas Fairfax. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Early Life & Career:

Born at Denton Hall, Yorkshire on January 17, 1612, Thomas Fairfax was the eldest son of Ferdinando, 2nd Lord Fairfax and Mary Sheffield. Receiving his education at St. John's College, Cambridge, he also studied law at Gray's Inn between 1626 and 1628. Finishing his schooling, Fairfax elected to gain military experience by taking part in Sir Horace de Vere's expedition to Brabant in the Netherlands.

Fighting with the Protestants, he saw action during the Siege of 's-Hertogenbosch. Utilizing his connection to de Vere, Fairfax married his commander's daughter, Anne, in June 1637. Eager to continue his military pursuits, he led a troop of Yorkshire dragoons as part of King Charles I's army in 1639.

In this role, Fairfax took part in the First Bishops' War.  Riding north, the conflict ended before any major fighting occurred when the two sides concluded the Treaty of Berwick. Returning north in 1640, Fairfax marched with Royalist forces during the Second Bishops' War. Engaging a Scottish Covenanter army led by General Alexander Leslie, the English were badly defeated at the Battle of Newburn on August 28 when Scottish forces shattered their defenses at a crossing over the River Tyne. Routed, Fairfax's men were among those who fled south. Despite this setback, Charles knighted him in January 1641 in recognition of his services during the campaigns.

Over the next year, Fairfax and his father distanced themselves from Charles as they became angered by his use of royal prerogative. As the relationship between Charles and Parliament soured in 1642, the Fairfaxes, unlike many of the Yorkshire nobility, elected to oppose the king. On June 3, Charles summoned the gentry of Yorkshire to Heworth Mew and attempted to raise a force of personal guards with the intention of using it as the basis for a larger army.

At Heworth, Lord Fairfax was asked by Parliament to present a proclamation to Charles calling for reconciliation. Evading Fairfax's efforts, Charles finally took possession of the document when the younger Fairfax effectively forced it upon him.

The Civil War Begins:

Moving south to Nottingham in August, Charles raised his battle standard on the 22nd and opened the English Civil War. In the north, Lord Fairfax received command of Parliament's small Northern Association army with his son as second-in-command. While the Fairfaxes commenced operations in the north, Charles pushed south and engaged the Earl of Essex at the inconclusive Battle of Edgehill on October 23. The following March saw Sir Thomas Fairfax badly beaten by Lord George Goring at the Battle of Seacroft Moor in West Yorkshire. In the fighting, Fairfax's outnumbered horsemen were unable to mount a defense against Goring's cavalry which in turn decimated the Parliamentarian infantry.

Seeking to take Royalist prisoners that could be exchanged for the men lost at Seacroft Moor, Fairfax, known as "Black Tom" among his men due to his dark complexion, mounted a raid on Wakefield on May 21. Though outnumbered 2-to-1, Fairfax's men approached the town from two directions before launching their assault.

Striking Wakefield, his men carried the defenses in heavy fighting and captured an ill Goring as well as 1,400 prisoners and 28 Royalist colors. The victory temporarily tipped the balance of power in Yorkshire in Parliament's favor. Sent south, Goring was held at the Tower of London until 1644.

A Rising Star:

In an effort to regain the initiative for the Royalist cause, the Earl of Newcastle marched to attack the Fairfaxes at Bradford the following month. Though badly outnumbered, the Fairfaxes were not prepared to withstand a siege and marched out to battle Newcastle. Striking at Adwalton Moor on June 30, their initial attacks were successful but they were eventually overwhelmed by the Royalists. Forced to retreat, they effectively ceded all of Yorkshire to the Royalists except for the port of Hull and Bradford.

Realizing that Bradford could not be held, Lord Fairfax directed his remaining forces to move to Hull. During the course of the retreat, Lady Anne Fairfax was captured and Sir Thomas wounded in the wrist.

Fortifying Hull, the Fairfaxes were besieged by Newcastle that September. While Newcastle attempted to reduce the city, Charles was defeated by Essex at the First Battle of Newbury to the south. Though contained in the city, Fairfax's men were able to mount raids into the countryside and effectively prevented a sizable Royalist force from campaigning elsewhere. Resupplied by sea, the defenders of Hull continued to hold out against Newcastle into the fall. On September 26, the younger Fairfax ferried his cavalry and dragoons across the River Humber and moved to unite with the Eastern Association army.

Taking part in the victory at Winceby in October, Fairfax operated with Colonel Oliver Cromwell for the first time. The battle saw him lead the Parliamentarian reserve in critical flank attack that completed the Royalist rout. This triumph was followed by the capture of Gainsborough in joint operation with Sir John Meldrum. In December, Fairfax moved his men over the Pennines before conducting the relief of Nantwich in January 1644. Riding north in March, Fairfax re-crossed the mountains and reunited with his father for the capture of Selby on April 11 before joining the combined army of the Earl of Leven and Earl of Manchester.

The victory at Selby threatened the Royalist base at York which necessitated Newcastle move to defend the city.

Concerned about the situation, Charles dispatched an army north under Prince Rupert of the Rhine. On July 2, the two sides clashed at the Battle of Marston Moor. In the course of the fighting, Sir Thomas' cavalry was beaten by Goring, but the situation was rescued by Cromwell and Manchester. Though wounded in the action, Fairfax joined his compatriots as they moved to counterattack. Striking Goring from the rear, they drove the enemy from the field and shattered Rupert and Newcastle's army.

The New Model Army:

In the wake of the victory at Marston Moor, Parliamentary forces captured York and moved to eliminate other Royalist garrisons in the north. While besieging Helmsley Castle, Fairfax sustained a wound from a musket ball that broke his shoulder. Recovering, he joined Colonel John Lambert in attacks against Pontefract Castle late that year. In December, Parliament passed the Self-Denying Ordinance which prohibited members of Parliament from holding military command. Largely an attempt to prevent political quarrels from hampering military operations, the law compelled many of the senior Parliamentarian leaders, such as Essex, to relinquish command.

On January 6, 1645, the New Model Army was established in an effort to create a unified army to replace the local forces that had been utilized earlier in the conflict. Respected as a commander and lacking political office, command of the new army was given to Fairfax as captain-general. In this new role, he was supported by Major General Philip Skippon who led the infantry and Cromwell who served as lieutenant general of horse.

Possessing a strength of 22,000 men on paper, (6,600 cavalry, 14,400 infantry, and 1,000 dragoons), Fairfax's new command was issued a consistant set of regulations and drill. Additionally, promotion within the New Model Army as to be based on merit and proficiency rather than social standing.

Instilling a deep sense of discipline in his new command, Fairfax received orders from Parliament that directed him to first relieve the siege of Taunton before striking at Oxford. Increasingly frustrated by Parliament's meddling, he took strategic control of the New Model Army in May after Royalist forces sacked Leicester. Promptly going on the offensive, Fairfax moved away from Oxford and marched north. Meeting Charles' army at the Battle of Naseby on June 14, he won a decisive victory. A turning point in the conflict, Naseby saw the Royalist cause suffer major blow. Promptly moving west, Fairfax sought to eliminate a Royalist force led by Goring which had besieged Taunton. Re-taking Leicester, the New Model Army pressed towards the beleaguered town. Learning of Fairfax's approach, the outnumbered Goring broke off the siege and began retreating. Catching the Royalists on July 10, Fairfax effectively destroyed Goring's army at the Battle of Langport. Campaigning through the fall and into early 1646, he captured Bristol and Dartmouth as well as defeated Sir Ralph Hopton at Torrington. Returning east, Fairfax compelled the surrender of Oxford in June.

Later Commands:

Having surrendered himself to the Scots in May 1646, Charles was turned over to Parliament in early 1647. Meeting the king near Nottingham, Fairfax escorted him to captivity at Holdenby House. Named commander-in-chief of Parliament's forces in July, he quickly found himself overwhelmed by the political intrigue of his post. Aided by Cromwell and Henry Ireton, Fairfax attempted to guide the army through the situation. Forced to occupy London in June, he was named Constable of the Tower of London two months later. In March 1648, Fairfax's father died and he became 3rd Lord Fairfax of Cameron. Fighting resumed in early 1648 with the start of the Second Civil War after Charles allied himself with the Scots. Though suffering from gout, Fairfax led forces east to deal with an uprising in Kent. Attacking the Earl of Norwich at Maidstone, he won a victory in early June. Pressing on, Fairfax next laid siege to Colchester which fell after a two-month siege.

After the Royalists had been defeated, Fairfax again became entangled in political affairs. Despite this, he claimed to have been unaware of Colonel Thomas Pride's purge of those unfriendly of to the army from Parliament in December. The following month, Parliament moved forward with trying Charles for treason. Though appointed to the High Court, Fairfax was hesitant in regard to taking part in the trial. When he determined that Charles' guilt was preordained, he stopped attending and later attempted to delay the king's execution. Reappointed commander-in-chief, Fairfax put down several mutinies in late spring 1649. With the start of the Third Civil War a year later, he resigned his post rather than mount a

Final Years:

Command of the New Model Army passed to Cromwell who led it to victories at Dunbar, Inverkeithing, and Worcester. Retiring from military affairs, Fairfax spent time at his Yorkshire estate of Nunappleton Hall as well as served in Parliament. With the end of the Protectorate in 1659, he aided General George Monck in creating the conditions which allowed for the restoration of Charles II. Elected to the Convention Parliament in April 1660, Fairfax served on a Parliamentary commission to speed the king's return. Following coronation of Charles II in April 1661, he retired to Nunappleton Hall and took no further role in public life. Fairfax died on his estate on November 12, 1671.

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