Sir Thomas Fairfax was one of the outstanding military commanders of the English Civil War. Fairfax is best remembered as the man who commanded the New Model Army at the Battle of Naseby in June 1645. His overwhelming victory here effectively ended any chance Charles I had of winning the war.
Sir Thomas Fairfax was born in 1612 in Denton-in-Wharfedale. He was born into a well-known Yorkshire family. His father, Fernando Fairfax, was MP for Boroughbridge and witnessed the opening stages of the clash between Parliament and the King. In 1626, Fairfax attended Sir John’s College, Cambridge University. This university was very much associated with Puritan philosophy and this had a deep impact on the Anglican Fairfax. This was combined with the anger felt in Yorkshire – among other places – with regards to the forced loans raised by the King.
Fairfax, egged on by his grandfather, decided on a career in the army. In 1629, he joined Sir Horace Vere’s company and fought for the Prince of Orange in the Netherlands. In 1631, Fairfax went to France where he nearly died of smallpox. A year later he returned to his family’s estates in Yorkshire. In 1637, he married Vere’s daughter, Anne. In 1639, Fairfax raised a troop of men to fight for the King in the Bishop’s’ War.
During the crisis that led to Charles leaving London and raising his standard, Fairfax urged for moderation and he fought for an agreement between Parliament and the Crown. However, when it became clear that there would be no agreement, Fairfax opted to support Parliament. His father commanded Parliament’s forces in Yorkshire while Thomas was made General of the Yorkshire Horse. He quickly gained a reputation for bravery and being a daring leader of men. His forces captured Leeds and Wakefield. He also prevented Hull from falling into the hands of the Royalists.
In 1644, Fairfax achieved national fame when he relieved Nantwich and then returned to Yorkshire where he besieged York itself. In July 1644, Fairfax commanded the right wing of the Parliamentary army that fought at Marston Moor. He was severely wounded fighting at Helmsley Castle later in the year and could only resume his command in February 1645 when he was appointed Captain-General of the New Model Army.
Fairfax commanded the New Model Army to a series of victories. The most decisive of the whole war was at Naseby where the Royal army was routed. It was a defeat that Charles could not recover from. In June 1646, Fairfax led the New Model Army into Oxford – the de facto headquarters of the Royalist army.
Fairfax was a soldier and not a politician and he probably had little understanding of the complex political manoeuvring that took place after 1646. When he clashed with Parliament in 1647 over arrears of pay for his men, he led his army into London in a direct threat to Parliament. However, when the Second Civil War broke out in 1648, he led his men against the King and crushed Royalist forces at Maidstone and Colchester.
A moderate at heart, Fairfax refused to be one of the judges at the trial of Charles I. He unsuccessfully appealed for clemency when the King’s death sentence was announced.
In 1650 he resigned his commission. He spent the years after this in private life. Fairfax wrote verses and he left his collection to the Bodleian at Oxford. Despite his part in the defeat of Charles I, he was part of a commission sent out to invite the future Charles II back to England and he welcomed the Restoration. However, Fairfax expressed his anger at the disinterment of Cromwell’s body.
A highly accomplished military commander, Fairfax never fully grasped politics and Oliver Cromwell overshadowed his career.
He died in 1671.