Thomas Fairfax

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The Lord Fairfax of Cameron
General Thomas Fairfax (1612-1671) by Robert Walker and studio.jpg
Nickname(s) Black Tom
Rider of the White Horse
Born (1612-01-17)17 January 1612
Denton Hall, Yorkshire
Died 12 November 1671(1671-11-12) (aged 59)
Nunappleton, Yorkshire
Allegiance Parliamentarian
Rank Lord General
Battles/wars Battle of Marston Moor, Battle of Naseby, Siege of Oxford, Siege of Colchester, Suppression of Leveller mutiny

Thomas Fairfax, 3rd Lord Fairfax of Cameron (17 January 1612 – 12 November 1671) was a general and Parliamentary commander-in-chief during the English Civil War. An adept and talented commander, Fairfax led Parliament to many victories, notably the crucial battle of Naseby, becoming effectively military ruler of the new republic, but was eventually overshadowed by his subordinate Oliver Cromwell, who was more politically adept and radical in action against Charles I. Fairfax became unhappy with Cromwell's policy and publicly refused to take part in Charles's show trial. Eventually he resigned leaving Cromwell to control the republic. Because of this, and also his honourable battlefield conduct and his active role in the Restoration of the monarchy after Cromwell's death, he was exempted from the retribution exacted on many other leaders of the revolution. His dark hair and eyes and a swarthy complexion earned him the nickname "Black Tom".[1]

Early life

Thomas Fairfax was born at Denton Hall, halfway between Ilkley, and Otley in Yorkshire, on 17 January 1612, the eldest son of Ferdinando Fairfax, 2nd Lord Fairfax of Cameron. (His family title of Lord Fairfax of Cameron was in the peerage of Scotland, then still independent from England, which was why he was able to sit in the English House of Commons after he inherited it.) He studied at St John's College, Cambridge,[2] and Gray's Inn (1626–28), then volunteered to join Sir Horace Vere's expedition to fight for the Protestant cause in the Netherlands. In 1639 he commanded a troop of Yorkshire dragoons which marched with King Charles I against the Scots in the First Bishops' War which ended with the Pacification of Berwick before any fighting took place. In the Second Bishops' War the following year the English army was routed at the Battle of Newburn. Fairfax fled with the rest of the defeated army but was nevertheless knighted for his services in January 1641.[3]

Pre-Civil War events

Sir Thomas Fairfax, Knight, line engraving, 1680. National Portrait Gallery, London

The Fairfaxes, father and son, though serving at first under King Charles I, were opposed to the arbitrary prerogative of the Crown, and Sir Thomas declared that "his judgment was for the Parliament as the king and kingdom's great and safest council". When Charles endeavoured to raise a guard for his own person at York, intending it, as the event afterwards proved, to form the nucleus of an army, Fairfax was employed to present a petition to his sovereign, entreating him to hearken to the voice of his parliament, and to discontinue the raising of troops. This was at a great meeting of the freeholders and farmers of Yorkshire convened by the king on Heworth Moor near York. Charles evaded receiving the petition, pressing his horse forward, but Fairfax followed him and placed the petition on the pommel of the king's saddle.[4]

The Civil War

When the civil war broke out in 1642, his father, Lord Fairfax, was appointed general of the Parliamentary forces in the north, and Sir Thomas was made lieutenant-general of the horse under him. Both father and son distinguished themselves in the campaigns in Yorkshire.[lower-alpha 1][4]

Sometimes severely defeated, more often successful, and always energetic, prudent and resourceful, they contrived to keep up the struggle until the crisis of 1644, when York was held by the Marquess of Newcastle against the combined forces of the English Parliamentarians and the Scots, and Prince Rupert hastened with all available forces to its relief. A gathering of eager national forces within a few square miles of ground naturally led to a battle, and Marston Moor (2 July 1644) proved decisive for the struggle in the north. The younger Fairfax bore himself with the greatest gallantry in the battle, and though severely wounded managed to join Oliver Cromwell and the victorious cavalry on the other wing. One of his brothers, Colonel Charles Fairfax, was killed in the action. But the Marquess of Newcastle fled the kingdom, and the Royalists abandoned all hope of retrieving their affairs. The city of York was taken, and nearly the whole north submitted to the Parliament.[4]

In the south and west of England, however, the Royalist cause was still strong. The war had lasted two years, and the nation began to complain of the contributions that were exacted, and the excesses that were committed by the military. Dissatisfaction was expressed with the military commanders, and, as a preliminary step to reform, the Self-denying Ordinance was passed. This involved the removal of the Earl of Essex from the supreme command, along with other Members of Parliament. This was followed by the New Model Ordinance, which replaced the locally raised Parliamentary regiments with a unified army. Sir Thomas Fairfax was selected as the new lord general with Cromwell as his lieutenant-general and cavalry commander. After a short preliminary campaign the New Model Army justified its existence, and "the rebels' new brutish general", as the king called him, proved his capacity as commander-in-chief in the decisive Battle of Naseby (14 June 1645). The king fled to Wales. Fairfax besieged Leicester, and was successful at Taunton, Bridgwater and Bristol. The whole west was soon reduced.[4]

Doublet worn by Fairfax at the Battle of Maidstone in 1648

Fairfax arrived in London on 12 November 1645. In his progress towards the capital he was accompanied by applauding crowds. Complimentary speeches and thanks were presented to him by both houses of parliament, along with a jewel of great value set with diamonds, and a sum of money. The king had returned from Wales and established himself at Oxford, where there was a strong garrison, but, ever vacillating, he withdrew secretly, and proceeded to Newark to throw himself into the arms of the Scots Covenanter army there. Oxford capitulated in June 1646 following the final siege of Oxford, and by the end of September 1646 Charles had neither army nor garrison in England, following the surrender of Thomas Blagge at Wallingford Castle after a siege conducted by Fairfax. In January 1647 he was delivered up by the Covenanters to the commissioners of England's parliament. Fairfax met the king beyond Nottingham, and accompanied him during the journey to Holdenby, treating him with the utmost consideration in every way. "The general", said Charles, "is a man of honour, and keeps his word which he had pledged to me."[4]

With the collapse of the Royalist cause came a confused period of negotiations between the Parliament and the king, between the king and the Scots, and between the Presbyterians and the Independents in and out of Parliament. In these negotiations the New Model Army soon began to take a most active part. The lord general was placed in the unpleasant position of intermediary between his own officers and Parliament. To the grievances, usual in armies of that time, concerning arrears of pay and indemnity for acts committed on duty, there was quickly added the political propaganda of the Independents, and in July the person of the king was seized by Cornet Joyce, a subaltern of cavalry — an act which sufficiently demonstrated the hopelessness of controlling the army by its articles of war. It had, in fact, become the most formidable political party in the realm, and pressed straight on to the overthrow of Parliament and the punishment of Charles,[4] something Fairfax was increasingly uncomfortable with.

Gold medal depicting Thomas Fairfax in profile, 1645. National Portrait Gallery, London

Fairfax was more at home in the field than at the head of a political committee, and, finding events too strong for him and that his officers were rallying around the more radical and politically shrewd Cromwell, he sought to resign his commission as commander-in-chief. He was, however, persuaded to retain it. He thus remained the titular chief of the army party, and with the greater part of its objects he was in complete, sometimes most active, sympathy. Shortly before the outbreak of the Second Civil War, Fairfax succeeded his father in the barony and in the office of governor of Hull. In the field against the English Royalists in 1648 he displayed his former energy and skill, and his operations culminated in the successful siege of Colchester, after the surrender of which place he approved the execution of the Royalist leaders Sir Charles Lucas and Sir George Lisle, holding that these officers had broken their parole. At the same time Cromwell's great victory of Preston crushed the faction of the Scots Covenanters who had made an engagement with the king, the Engagers, and the Independents became practically all-powerful.[5]

John Milton, in a sonnet written during the siege of Colchester, called upon the lord general to settle the kingdom, but the crisis was now at hand. Fairfax was in agreement with Cromwell and the army leaders in demanding the punishment of Charles, and he was still the effective head of the army. He approved, if he did not take an active part in, Pride's Purge (6 December 1648), but on the last and gravest of the questions at issue he set himself in deliberate and open opposition to the policy of the officers. He was placed at the head of the judges who were to try the king, and attended the preliminary sitting of the court. Then, convinced at last that the king's death was intended, he refused to act. Fairfax had never desired the death of the King. In calling over the court, when the crier pronounced the name of Fairfax, a lady in the gallery called out that the Lord Fairfax was not there in person, that he would never sit among them, and that they did him wrong to name him as a commissioner. This was Lady Fairfax, who could not forbear, as Bulstrode Whitelocke says, to exclaim aloud against the proceedings of the High Court of Justice.[5] In February 1649 Fairfax was elected Member of Parliament for Cirencester in the Rump Parliament.[6]

Fairfax's last service as commander-in-chief was the suppression of the Leveller mutiny at Burford in May 1649. He had given his adhesion to the new order of things, and had been reappointed lord general. But he merely administered the affairs of the army; when in 1650 Scots Covenanter Kirk Party eventually declared for Charles II, and the Council of State resolved to send an army to Scotland in order to prevent an invasion of England, Fairfax resigned his commission. Cromwell desired to see him continue as commander-in-chief, as did those planning the war, but Fairfax could not support the war. Cromwell was appointed his successor, "captain-general and commander-in-chief of all the forces raised or to be raised at authority of Parliament within the Commonwealth of England."[5]

After the fighting

The Most Excellent Thomas Fairfax, Captin Generall of the Armyes etc, etching, 1640s. National Portrait Gallery, London

In 1654 Fairfax was elected MP for the newly created constituency of West Riding in the First Protectorate Parliament.[6] He received a pension of £5,000 a year, and lived in retirement at his Yorkshire home of Nunappleton until after the death of the Lord Protector in 1658. Nunappleton and Fairfax's retirement there are the subject of Andrew Marvell's country house poem, Upon Appleton House. The troubles of the later Commonwealth recalled Lord Fairfax to political activity, and in 1659 he was elected MP for Yorkshire in the Third Protectorate Parliament. For the last time his appearance in arms helped to shape the future of the country, when George Monck invited him to assist in the operations about to be undertaken against John Lambert's army. In December 1659 he appeared at the head of a body of Yorkshire gentlemen, and such was the influence of Fairfax's name and reputation that 1,200 horse quit Lambert's colours and joined him. This was speedily followed by the breaking up of all Lambert's forces, and that day secured the restoration of the monarchy. For these actions, along with his honourable conduct in the Civil War, he was spared from the wave of Royalist retributions. In April 1660 Fairfax was re-elected MP for Yorkshire in the Convention Parliament.[6] He was put at the head of the commission appointed by the House of Commons to wait upon Charles II, at the Hague and urge his speedy return. Fairfax provided the horse on which Charles rode at his coronation.[5]

The remaining eleven years of the life of Lord Fairfax were spent in retirement at his seat in Yorkshire. Fairfax died at Nunappleton, and was buried at Bilbrough, near York.[5]


Fairfax had a taste for literature. He translated some of the Psalms, and wrote poems on solitude, the Christian warfare, the shortness of life, etc.[7] During the last year or two of his life he wrote two Memorials which have been published – one on the northern actions in which he was engaged in 1642–1644, and the other on some events in his tenure of the chief command. At York and at Oxford he endeavoured to save the libraries from pillage, and he enriched the Bodleian with some valuable manuscripts. His correspondence were edited by GW Johnson and published in 1848–1849 in four volumes.[8]

The metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell authored "Upon Appleton House, To My Lord Fairfax", nominally about Fairfax's home, but also his character as well as England during his era.


Lead bust of Thomas Fairfax, c.1650, National Portrait Gallery, London

He married Hon. Anne de Vere, daughter of Horace Vere, 1st Baron Vere of Tilbury and Mary Tracy, on 20 June 1637. They had a daughter, Hon. Mary Fairfax (b. 30 July 1638 – d. 20 October 1704),[9] who married George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham.[5]

Sir Thomas was succeeded as Lord Fairfax by a cousin, Henry Fairfax, 4th Lord Fairfax of Cameron.


As a soldier he was exact and methodical in planning, in the heat of battle "so highly transported that scarce any one durst speak a word to him",[10] chivalrous and punctilious in his dealings with his own men and the enemy. Honour and conscientiousness were equally the characteristics of his private and public character. But his modesty and distrust of his powers made him less effectual as a statesman than as a soldier, and above all he is placed at a disadvantage by being both in war and peace overshadowed by his associate Cromwell, who was politically talented and able to manipulate public antipathy against Charles to lead to his execution, something Fairfax never wanted.[5]

In fiction

Fairfax, played by actor Dougray Scott, is a pivotal character in the 2003 Film To Kill a King, as well as in Rosemary Sutcliff's historical fiction Simon, being portrayed as inspiring and fair. He is also a central character in Sutcliff's novel 1959 "The Rider of the White Horse", which gives an account of the early stage of the Civil War from the point of view of his wife,[lower-alpha 1] and Howard Brenton's 2012 play 55 Days. Douglas Wilmer portrayed him in the 1970 Ken Hughes film Cromwell. He appears in Michael Arnold's novel "Marston Moor" (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2015), which includes an account of Fairfax's adventures in the eponymous battle. He was also a central character in the 1988 BBC Radio production of Don Taylor's play, God's Revolution. Fairfax was played by Nigel Anthony.


  1. 1.0 1.1 In the winter of 1642/43 Parliamentary victories were few and far between. One of the more notable was the capture of Leeds on 23 January 1643 by Parliamentary forces under the command of Sir Thomas Fairfax. The London news broadsheets published the exploits and one of them suggested that Fairfax was "the Rider of the White Horse", the allegory was immediately clear to those of a Puritan leaning as it was a passage in the Book of Revelation 19:11 "And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war", and hence implying to the Puritan supporters of Parliament that Fairfax was a hero doing God's work (Hopper 2007, p. 174)
  1. Cotterill 2004, p. 110 footnote 22, cites Gibbs 1938, p. 4
  2. "Fairfax, Thomas (FRFS626T)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Plant 2005, Sir Thomas, Lord Fairfax 1612–1671.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 Chisholm 1911, p. 130.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 Chisholm 1911, p. 131.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Helms & Cruickshanks 1983
  7. Fairfax & Reed 1909.
  8. Firth 1889, p. 149.
  9. Lundy 2012, p. 1293 § 12929 cites Mosley 2003, p. 1373
  10. Chisholm 1911, p. 131 quotes Whitelocke


  • Cotterill, Anne (2004), Digressive voices in early modern English literature, Oxford University Press, p. 110, ISBN 978-0-19-926117-8<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> cites
    • Gibbs, M. A. (1938), The Lord General: A life of Thomas Fairfax, Drummond, p. 4<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Fairfax, Thomas; Reed, Edward Bliss (1909), The poems of Thomas, third lord Fairfax from Ms. Fairfax 40 in the Bodleian library, Oxford, New Haven, Conn.: Pub. under the auspices of Yale university<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Helms, M. W.; Cruickshanks, Eveline (1983), "Fairfax, Thomas, 3rd Lord Fairfax of Cameron [S] (1612–71), of Nun Appleton, Yorks.", in Henning, B.D. (ed.), The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1660–1690, Boydell and Brewer<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Hopper, Andrew (2007), Black Tom: Sir Thomas Fairfax and the English Revolution (illustrated ed.), Manchester University Press, pp. 174, ISBN 9780719071096<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Lundy, Darryl (23 September 2012), Thomas Fairfax, 3rd Lord Fairfax of Cameron, The Peerage, p. 1293 § 12929 External link in |publisher= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> cites:
    • Mosley, Charles, ed. (2003), Burke's Peerage, Baronetage & Knightage, 1 (107th ed.), Wilmington, Delaware, U.S.A.: Burke's Peerage, p. 1373<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Plant, David (21 June 2005), Sir Thomas, Lord Fairfax 1612–1671, British Civil Wars & Commonwealth website, retrieved 17 May 2011 External link in |publisher= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.[better source needed]
  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainFirth, Charles Harding (1889). [ "Fairfax, Thomas (1612-1671)" ] Check |ws link in chapter= value (help). In Stephen, Leslie (ed.). Dictionary of National Biography. 18. London: Smith, Elder & Co. pp. 141–149.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). [ "Fairfax of Cameron, Thomas Fairfax, 3rd Baron" ] Check |ws link in chapter= value (help). Encyclopædia Britannica. 10 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 130–131.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
Parliament of England
Title last held by
Sir Theobald Gorges
John George
Member of Parliament for Cirencester
With: Nathaniel Rich
Succeeded by
Nathaniel Rich
Honorary titles
Title last held by
The Viscount Savile
Custos Rotulorum of the West Riding of Yorkshire
Succeeded by
The Duke of Buckingham
Head of State of the Isle of Man
Preceded by
James Stanley
Lord of Mann
Succeeded by
Charles Stanley
Peerage of Scotland
Preceded by
Ferdinando Fairfax
Lord Fairfax of Cameron
Succeeded by
Henry Fairfax