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Sir Thomas Fairfax

Sir Thomas, Lord, Fairfax 1612-1671

Leading Parliamentarian general of the First and Second Civil Wars and Lord-General of the New Model Army. Refused to fight against Charles II in the Third Civil War and supported the Restoration.

Born at Denton Hall, near Otley, Yorkshire, 17 January 1612, son of Ferdinando, 2nd Lord Fairfax. He studied at St John's College, Cambridge 1626-29 after which he volunteered to join Sir Horace Vere's expedition to fight for the Protestant cause in the Netherlands. Fairfax married Vere's daughter Anne on his return to England in 1637. Two years later, he served with King Charles I against the Scots in the First Bishop's War. Although the war ended with the Pacification of Berwick before any fighting took place, Fairfax was knighted for his services in January 1640.

In 1642, while most of the Yorkshire gentry sided with the King, Sir Thomas and his father Ferdinando, Lord Fairfax, declared for Parliament and fought many engagements in the north of England. Known as "Black Tom" for his dark complexion, Sir Thomas gained a reputation as a gallant and courageous commander, though his fortunes were mixed.

The Fairfaxes were defeated by the Marquis of Newcastle at Adwalton Moor in June 1643, which temporarily left the Royalists in control of Yorkshire. Fortifying themselves in Hull and mounting enterprising and energetic raids on Royalist positions, the Fairfaxes kept Newcastle's army occupied in the north and prevented a Royalist advance into East Anglia.

Fairfax left his father to command Hull and crossed the Humber into East Anglia with a body of cavalry in September 1643. He collaborated for the first time with Oliver Cromwell, who was a colonel in the Eastern Association army, at the battle of Winceby in October 1643. Fairfax's victory over Lord Byron at Nantwich in January 1644 opened North Wales to the Parliamentarians. He had a principal role in the decisive victory at Marston Moor in July 1644.

In 1645, Fairfax was appointed Lord General of the New Model Army because he was one of the few senior Parliamentarian commanders not affected by the Self-Denying Ordinance.

Fairfax was a strict disciplinarian and did much to establish the high code of personal conduct for which the New Model became famous. He commanded at Naseby, June 1645, the deciding battle of the First Civil War and then marched into the Royalist-held West Country. He defeated Lord Goring at Langport in July and took Bristol from Prince Rupert in September 1645.

Fairfax’s clemency towards the local population in the West and the discipline of the New Model Army stood in marked contrast to the plundering and lawlessness of Royalist commanders such as Goring and Sir Richard Grenville. After storming and capturing Dartmouth in January 1646, Fairfax sent his Cornish prisoners home with two shillings each to spread the word that Parliament's army had not come to plunder. In February 1646, Fairfax defeated Lord Hopton and the remnants of the Royalist western army at Torrington, accepting Hopton's surrender at Truro on 13 March 1646.

Finally in June 1646, the Royalist headquarters of Oxford surrendered to Fairfax.

Fairfax continued as Lord-General of the Army throughout the political crisis of 1647-8, supporting the Independents against the Presbyterians, and the Grandees against the Levellers.

Although his actions were largely prompted by Cromwell and Ireton, Fairfax's integrity was never in doubt. He sympathised with the grievances of his soldiers against Parliament's high-handed treatment, but he remained deeply respectful of Parliament's authority. He led the Army's occupation of London in 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 fought to maintain and defend the principles enshrined in the Great Charter (Magna Carta).

When the Second Civil War broke out in 1648, Fairfax marched to crush the Royalist uprising in Kent. Although suffering badly from gout, he then drove 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 worried at events leading up to the King's trial because, as Lord-General, all the Army's actions were carried out in his name. Although he was appointed one of the commissioners 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. During the execution of the King, Fairfax is said to have been detained at a prayer meeting by Cromwell and Colonel Harrison.

He succeeded as the 3rd Lord Fairfax on the death of his father, Ferdinando, in March 1648.

Fairfax remained in England during Cromwell's Irish campaign of 1649. He resigned as Lord General of the Army in 1650, declining to invade Scotland against Charles II and the Covenanters during the Third Civil War. Fairfax stated that although he would fight to the death to resist any invasion of England, he was reluctant to invade a country with which there still existed a Solemn League and Covenant. In any case he believed that strategically it made more sense to await a Scottish invasion and defeat it in England. Command of the New Model Army passed to Oliver Cromwell and Fairfax played no part in the great victories of Dunbar and Worcester.

Fairfax was granted a pension and lived quietly in retirement during the Commonwealth and Protectorate at his Yorkshire home of Nunappleton Hall. His only daughter, Mary, married the Duke of Buckingham in 1657. Buckingham was in secret communication with Charles II and when Buckingham was arrested and sent to the Tower in 1658, Fairfax came to London to intercede for him, quarrelling bitterly with Cromwell a few days before the Protector's death.

When General Monck marched against Lambert in 1659, Fairfax raised the gentry of Yorkshire in support of Monck. 1,200 of Lambert's cavalry came over to Monck on hearing that Fairfax supported him. Fairfax seized York from Colonel Robert Lilburne on 1st January 1660, the day Monck set out from Coldstream. Fairfax handed York over to Monck and urged him to restore the Monarchy. Elected as MP for Yorkshire in the Convention Parliament, Fairfax provided the horse which Charles II rode at his coronation.

After the Restoration, Lord Fairfax took no further part in public life. He retired to his Yorkshire Estates.

Amidst the destruction of the Civil War Fairfax remained a moderate. He prevented the desecration of many of England's treasures particularly the stained glass in York Minster and other churches in York.

He lived quietly in Yorkshire until his death at Nunappleton on 12 November 1671.

David Plant.


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