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Sir Thomas Fairfax – an Ilkley man bringing discipline and integrity to the English Civil War

Playing a significant role in the Parliamentarian victory in the English Civil War, Sir Thomas Fairfax is still far less well known than the other key character Oliver Cromwell, (he is often said to have lacked Cromwell’s political nowse).

I thought it time to shed some light on this interesting Yorkshire character.

Thomas Fairfax was born in 1612 near Ilkley in Denton Hall. His father was Baron Ferdinando Fairfax, MP for Boroughbridge.

Fairfax gained the nick name “Black Tom” because of his dark eyes, black hair and swarthy complexion. He was Cambridge educated and has been described as a “gentle, learned man, with a daring streak”.

Joining the military, he actually fought with King Charles I (commanding a Yorkshire militia) against the Scots in the Bishop’s Wars and was knighted by him becoming Sir Thomas.

Bust of Fairfax in the National Portrait Gallery.

The English Civil War is a whole subject in itself, but King Charles I believed in the divine right of the King to govern. Parliament had a much reduced role from what we know today, but in simple terms when Charles decided to ignore parliament it caused resentment eventually leading to an uprising against the King.

Thomas’s father Ferdinando and Thomas sided with the Parliamentarian cause and Thomas claimed that he was had made the decision because he was “Fighting for Magna Carta”.

At the start of the Civil War in 1642 Sir Thomas Fairfax was put in charge of the Yorkshire Cavalry with his father in charge of the Parliamentarian forces in the North. They had mixed success and he ended up retreating with his father to Hull. This wasn’t all bad as he had tied down the Royalist forces in the North (helping stop any royalist marches on London).

During the Civil War, Cromwell and Thomas Fairfax decided that they were not going to win unless they had a better trained military force. Sir Thomas Fairfax was tasked with putting together an army of highly trained soldiers. He recruited and trained a crack team of well trained, professional soldiers known as “the New Model Army” and was made Commander in Chief.

He sieged royalist York, eventually gaining control of the city and played a huge roll in York Minster, the jewel in its crown, still being the iconic building it is today. After taking control of York and being a proud Yorkshireman, he warned his troops under pain of death that they were not to loot or damage the Minster.

This probably has a lot to do with why York Minster has over 60% of ALL of England’s Medieval Stained glass.

Sir Thomas Fairfax and his New Model Army gained a significant victory at Marston Moor,

ending Royalist control in the North.

This victory was put down to Fairfax’s meticulous organization and tactics.

He then lead the Parliamentarian forces to Victory at the Battle of Naseby in Warwickshire

with the royalist army surrendering in Oxford, effectively ending the Civil War.

He insisted on discipline and during his time as leader of the New Model Army his treatment of civilians and prisoners was commended, in contrast to the lawlessness and plundering of Royalist troops.

Thanks to The National Portrait Gallery for use of the engraving above.

After the capture of King Charles I – Sir Thomas Fairfax put down many minor royalist uprisings. But when he heard of Cromwell’s wish to try and execute the king, he

refused to serve on the commission that condemned Charles I to death.

Oliver Cromwell even detained Fairfax during the King’s execution in case he tried to stop it.

After this Fairfax resigned his status as Lord Commander of the army, but he did once more mobilise the Yorkshire militia again when Scotland invaded England.

After the death of Oliver Cromwell, and the ineffectual leadership of his son Richard Cromwell, Sir Thomas Fairfax went to The Hague to persuade Charles II to return to throne.

Charles II returned and the monarchy was re-instated in 1662. Fairfax was spared of any retribution because of his conduct on the battlefield and his role in the restoration.

In his retirement Sir Thomas Fairfax lived in Yorkshire and gained pleasure from writing poetry. He died in 1671 at Nun Appleton near York.

He was seen as a man of integrity and a highly accomplished military leader – a true Yorkshireman.


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