Sir Thomas Fairfax, 3rd Lord Fairfax, 1612-1671

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

Portrait of Sir Thomas FairfaxThomas Fairfax was born at Denton Hall, near Otley, Yorkshire, on 17 January 1612, the eldest son of Ferdinando, 2nd Lord Fairfax and his first wife, Mary. Thomas attended 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. He married Vere's daughter Anne in June 1637, with whom he had two daughters.

In 1639, Fairfax fought for King Charles I against the Scots in the Bishops' Wars. He commanded a troop of Yorkshire dragoons in the First Bishops' War (1639), which ended with the Pacification of Berwick before any fighting took place. In the Second Bishops' War, Fairfax commanded 150 horse under Lord Conway. However, the English army was routed at the battle of Newburn in August 1640 and Fairfax fled in the general panic that swept through the defeated army. Nevertheless, he was knighted for his services in January 1641.

The Northern Association

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 was chosen to present a petition urging a reconciliation with Parliament. The King refused to accept it and almost rode Fairfax down as he moved away. On the outbreak of civil war in August 1642, Lord Ferdinando Fairfax took command of Parliament's small northern 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 Lord 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 for the port of Hull. After a spectacular 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 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 with a body of cavalry to join forces with the Eastern Association in Lincolnshire. At the battle of Winceby (October 1643) he co-operated for the first time with Oliver Cromwell, who was colonel of an Eastern Association cavalry regiment. 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, with the Scottish Covenanters threatening the Royalists from the north, Fairfax returned to Yorkshire and joined his father and Colonel Lambert to defeat Colonel Belasyse and seize the town of Selby on 11 April. The capture of Selby left the Royalist stronghold of York vulnerable and forced the Marquis of Newcastle to fall back to its defence. The Fairfaxes joined forces with the Covenanters and the Eastern Association to besiege York in the campaign that culminated in the decisive Allied victory at Marston Moor (2 July 1644).

After its surrender, Lord Ferdinado was appointed governor of York, where the Fairfaxes are remembered with gratitude for intervening to prevent Puritan zealots from destroying the stained glass windows and other treasures in York Minster. Meanwhile, Sir Thomas 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.

The New Model Army

Lord-General 'Black Tom' FairfaxSir Thomas Fairfax, Captain-General of the NMA

By January 1645, Fairfax's military reputation had grown to the extent that Parliament voted to appoint him commander-in-chief of the newly-formed 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.

At first, Parliament's Committee for Both Kingdoms 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 onto the offensive, he marched north from Oxford to confront the Royalists at the battle of Naseby (14 June 1645), the deciding battle of the English Civil War. During the battle, Fairfax headed several charges, and personally captured the colours of Prince Rupert's bluecoat regiment. He then marched into the Royalist-held West Country, defeating Goring at Langport in July and taking Bristol in September 1645. 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 and would pay for all supplies. In February 1646, Fairfax defeated Lord Hopton and the last remnants of the Royalist western army at Torrington, where Fairfax had a narrow escape when eighty barrels of gunpowder in the Royalist magazine exploded nearby. He accepted 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 complex political situations that followed the King's defeat.


Fairfax was appointed commander-in-chief of all Parliament's land forces in July 1647. He continued as commander throughout the political crisis of 1647-8, when the New Model Army came into conflict with the Presbyterian faction in Parliament, which wanted to disband the army without first settling the soldiers' arrears of pay, leading to the emergence of Levellers and Agitators amongst the soldiers. Fairfax was out of his depth in political intrigue and his actions were largely prompted by Cromwell and Ireton during this crisis. 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. In August 1647, he was appointed constable of the Tower of London. On his first tour of inspection, Fairfax specifically asked to view the Great Charter (Magna Carta) and declared that the Army had always fought to maintain and defend the principles enshrined in that document. 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 commander-in-chief, all the Army's actions were carried out in his name, though Henry Ireton was largely directing the course of events at this time. Fairfax claimed that he 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 in the courtroom, his wife Anne famously cried out: "He had more wit than to be here." 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 re-appointed Lord-General of Commonwealth land forces in England and Ireland. He dealt firmly with the Leveller Mutinies of April and May 1649, insisting upon the executions of Robert Lockier after the Bishopsgate mutiny, and of the three Leveller ringleaders arrested at Burford.

Fairfax remained in England during Cromwell's invasion of Ireland in 1649. He declined to lead a pre-emptive invasion of Scotland against Charles II and the Covenanters in 1650, and subsequently resigned his commission as commander-in-chief. Fairfax declared that although he would fight to resist any invasion of England, he was reluctant to attack a nation linked by the Solemn League and Covenant. It was generally believed that Lady Anne and the Presbyterian clergy influenced his refusal to invade Scotland. Command of the Commonwealth army passed to Oliver Cromwell, and Fairfax played no part in the great victories of Dunbar and Worcester.

The Restoration

After his resignation, Fairfax lived quietly in retirement at his Yorkshire home of Nunappleton Hall. He applied himself to literary pursuits and religious devotions, and employed the poet Andrew Marvell as tutor to his surviving daughter Mary during 1651-2. In 1657, Mary was married to the Duke of Buckingham, whose estate had been granted to Fairfax by Parliament. The Protectorate 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 and quarrelled bitterly with Cromwell a few days before the Protector's death.

Fairfax sat as MP for Yorkshire in the Third Protectorate Parliament where he was highly regarded for his oppositon to military rule. In the turmoil that followed 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's army marched south to secure the rule of Parliament, and ultimately the restoration of the monarchy. Fairfax seized York from Colonel Robert Lilburne on 1st January 1660, the day that Monck marched from Coldstream. Fairfax's intervention brought most of the army over to Monck and enabled him to march to London unopposed, while support for General Lambert and the military junta melted away. Although Fairfax and the Earl of Manchester wanted 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.


C.H. Firth, Thomas Fairfax, 3rd Baron Fairfax, DNB, 1888

C.H. Firth, Cromwell's Army (London 1902)

C.H. Firth & G. Davies, The Regimental History of Cromwell's Army vol. ii (Oxford 1940)

Ian Gentles, Thomas Fairfax, 3rd Lord Fairfax of Cameron, Oxford DNB, 2004


Fairfax and the Civil War in the West Riding of Yorkshire