Thomas Fairfax was born at Denton Hall, near Otley, Yorkshire, on 17 January 1612, the eldest son of Ferdinando, 2nd Lord Fairfax. He studied at St John’s College, Cambridge, and Gray’s Inn (1626-28), then volunteered to join Sir Horace Vere’s expedition to fight for the Protestant cause in the Netherlands. Fairfax married Vere’s daughter Anne in June 1637. Two years later, he marched with King Charles I against the Scots in the First Bishops’ War, commanding a troop of Yorkshire dragoons. The First Bishops’ War (1639) ended with the Pacification of Berwick before any fighting took place; in the Second Bishops’ War (1640), the English army was routed at the battle of Newburn. Fairfax fled in the general panic that swept through the defeated army. Nevertheless, he was knighted for his services in January 1641.
In the escalating dispute between King Charles and Parliament, most of the Yorkshire gentry supported the King, but Sir Thomas and his father Lord Fairfax sided with Parliament. When Charles summoned the gentry to attend him on Heworth Moor near York on 3 June 1642, Sir Thomas attempted to present a petition urging a reconciliation with Parliament. The King refused to accept it and almost rode Fairfax down as he moved away. When the First Civil War broke out in August, Lord Fairfax took command of Parliament’s small Northern Association army, with Sir Thomas as second-in-command.
Known as “Black Tom” for his dark complexion, Sir Thomas gained a reputation as a gallant and courageous commander in the struggle to control Yorkshire — but his fortunes were mixed. In March 1643, the Fairfaxes were routed by Lieutenant-General Goring at the battle of Seacroft Moor near Leeds; then in May, Fairfax took Goring prisoner in a spectacular victory at Wakefield against heavy odds. The Marquis of Newcastle attacked the Fairfaxes at Bradford and inflicted a major defeat at the battle of Adwalton Moor in June 1643, which left the Royalists in control of all of Yorkshire except the port of Hull. After an epic fighting retreat from Bradford, during which Sir Thomas was shot through the wrist and suffered serious loss of blood, the Fairfaxes fortified themselves in Hull. From here they mounted lightning raids on Royalist positions, which kept Newcastle’s army occupied in the north and prevented a Royalist advance towards London.
In September 1643, Fairfax left his father in command at Hull and crossed the River Humber into Lincolnshire with a body of cavalry to join forces with the Eastern Association army. At the battle of Winceby (October 1643) he collaborated for the first time with Oliver Cromwell, who was a Colonel in the Eastern Association. On 20 December, Fairfax joined Sir John Meldrum to recapture Gainsborough for Parliament. He then led a relief force across the Pennines in the middle of winter to relieve the siege of Nantwich in January 1644. The following March, Fairfax returned to Yorkshire and joined forces with Lord Fairfax and Colonel Lambert to defeat Colonel Belasyse and seize the town of Selby on 11 April. The capture of Selby threatened the Royalist stronghold of York, which forced the Marquis of Newcastle to fall back to its defence and enabled the Fairfaxes to join forces with the Scots in the campaign that culminated in the decisive Allied victory at Marston Moor (2 July 1644). After the subsequent fall of York, Fairfax besieged Helmsley Castle, where he was dangerously wounded by a musket ball that broke his shoulder. Towards the end of 1644, he had recovered sufficiently to join Lambert at the siege of Pontefract Castle.
Lord General ‘Black Tom’ FairfaxBy January 1645, Fairfax’s military reputation had grown to the extent that Parliament voted to appoint him Lord-General of the New Model Army. Fairfax had no involvement in politics and was one of the few senior Parliamentarian commanders not affected by the Self-Denying Ordinance. Although he was initially reluctant to accept the responsibility, Fairfax quickly moulded the New Model into an efficient, disciplined fighting force. His personal integrity did much to establish the high code of conduct for which the New Model became famous.
At first, Parliament tried to direct Fairfax’s strategy, sending him to relieve the siege of Taunton, then abruptly redirecting him to attack Oxford. After the King’s army stormed and sacked Leicester in May 1645, however, Fairfax was granted independent operational control, to lead the New Model in the field as he judged best. Going straight for the attack, he marched north from Oxford to confront the Royalists at the battle of Naseby (14 June 1645), the deciding battle of the First Civil War. During the battle, Fairfax headed several charges, and captured the colours of Prince Rupert’s Bluecoat regiment. He then marched into the Royalist-held West Country, defeating Lord Goring at Langport in July and taking Bristol in September 1645. Fairfax’s clemency towards the civilian population and the discipline of the New Model Army stood in marked contrast to the plundering and lawlessness of Royalist commanders like Lord Goring and Sir Richard Grenville. After storming and capturing Dartmouth in January 1646, Fairfax sent his prisoners home to spread the word that Parliament’s army had not come to plunder. In February 1646, Fairfax defeated Lord Hopton and the last remnants of the Royalist western army at Torrington, accepting Hopton’s surrender at Truro on 13 March 1646. Finally on 24 June 1646, the Royalist headquarters of Oxford capitulated to Fairfax, bringing the First Civil War to an end.
Under Fairfax’s leadership, the New Model Army had not lost a single battle, siege or storm. But the rigours of his years of campaigning, and the many wounds he had sustained, had a detrimental effect on his health. At various times, he suffered from rheumatism, kidney stones and gout. His infirmities never prevented him from fighting, but Fairfax increasingly used them to excuse himself from participation in the difficult political situations that followed the King’s defeat.
Fairfax continued as Lord-General of the Army throughout the political crisis of 1647-8, when the New Model came into conflict with the Presbyterians in Parliament, and was split internally by the influence of Levellers and Agitators. Fairfax was out of his depth in political intrigue and his actions were largely prompted by Cromwell and Ireton during this period. He remained deeply respectful of Parliament’s authority but was persuaded to lead the Army’s occupation of London during the summer of 1647 because Presbyterian MPs were risking a new war by plotting to bring a Scottish army into England. When he was appointed Constable of the Tower of London in August 1647, Fairfax declared that the Army had always fought to maintain and defend the principles enshrined in the Great Charter (Magna Carta). He fell ill when the Leveller-inspired Putney Debates began in October 1647, leaving Cromwell to chair the discussions and Ireton to lead the argument against the Army radicals.
Sir Thomas succeeded as the 3rd Lord Fairfax of Cameron on the death of his father, Ferdinando, in March 1648.
When the Second Civil War broke out in the spring of 1648, Cromwell went to suppress the rebellion in Wales, Lambert rode north against the Engagers, and Fairfax marched to crush the Royalist uprising in Kent. Although suffering badly from gout, Fairfax defeated the Earl of Norwich at Maidstone, then marched north and crossed the River Thames to drive the Essex Royalists into Colchester, where he became bogged down in a long and difficult siege. Uncharacteristically, Fairfax authorised a number of atrocities against the Royalists as the siege grew increasingly bitter. After Colchester’s surrender, he ordered the execution of the Royalist commanders Sir Charles Lucas and Sir George Lisle, controversially asserting that they had broken their parole and committed treason by taking up arms against Parliament.
Fairfax became increasingly concerned at events leading up to the King’s trial because, as Lord-General, all the Army’s actions were carried out in his name. It is probable that Henry Ireton was directing the course of events at this time; Fairfax claimed to have had no knowledge of Pride’s Purge until after it had taken place. Although he was appointed a commissioner of the High Court of Justice, Fairfax did not attend the King’s trial. When his name was called, his wife Anne famously cried out: “He hath more wit than to be here,” before being forcibly removed from the courtroom. After the death sentence on the King had been passed, Fairfax attempted to postpone the execution, but his efforts were ineffective. During the execution itself, Fairfax is said to have been detained at a prayer meeting by Cromwell and Colonel Harrison.
In March 1649, Fairfax was reappointed Lord-General of Commonwealth forces in England and Ireland. He dealt firmly with the Leveller Mutinies of April and May 1649, insisting upon the execution of Robert Lockier after the Bishopsgate mutiny, and that of three Leveller ringleaders arrested at Burford. Fairfax remained in England during Cromwell’s Irish campaign of 1649. In 1650, he resigned as commander of the New Model Army after declining to lead a pre-emptive invasion of Scotland against Charles II and the Covenanters during the Third Civil War. Fairfax stated that he would fight to the death to resist any invasion of England, but was reluctant to attack a country linked by the Solemn League and Covenant. Command of the New Model Army passed to Oliver Cromwell and Fairfax played no part in the great victories of Dunbar and Worcester.
Fairfax lived quietly in retirement during the Commonwealth and Protectorate years at his Yorkshire home of Nunappleton Hall, where he applied himself to literary pursuits and religious devotions. In 1657, his daughter Mary married the Duke of Buckingham. Cromwell’s government regarded the marriage with suspicion because of Buckingham’s connections with the exiled Charles II, and ordered Buckingham’s arrest in 1658. Fairfax travelled to London to intercede for him. He quarrelled bitterly with Cromwell a few days before the Protector’s death.
After the collapse of the Protectorate in 1659, Fairfax entered into communication with General Monck and agreed to raise the county of Yorkshire on his behalf when Monck marched against Lambert. Fairfax seized York from Colonel Robert Lilburne on 1st January 1660, the day that Monck marched from Coldstream. Fairfax’s support brought most of the Army over to Monck and enabled him to march unopposed to London. Although Fairfax and the Earl of Manchester attempted to impose conditions on Charles before agreeing to the Restoration, Monck insisted that he alone would negotiate with the King. Elected as MP for Yorkshire in the Convention Parliament, Fairfax provided the horse that Charles II rode at his coronation.
After the Restoration, Lord Fairfax took no further part in public life. He lived quietly in Yorkshire until his death at Nunappleton on 12 November 1671. He was buried alongside Lady Fairfax at Bilborough parish church near York.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Sir Thomas, Lord Fairfax 1612-1671" https://englishhistory.net/stuarts/civil-war/thomas-fairfax/, January 17, 2022