Fairfax was a commander in King Charles I’s armies during the bishop’s wars against the Scots in 1639 and 1640, including their humiliating defeat at Newburn. The following year the king bestowed a knighthood upon Fairfax; however, the two men soon found themselves in opposing camps. As tensions mounted between king and Parliament, Fairfax supported the parliamentarians who charged him with delivering a petition to the king to request that he cease raising a personal army.
Charles refused to accept the petition, his horse nearly trampling Fairfax underfoot as he rode away. Britain slid into open civil war and Parliament raised their forces. Thomas’ father became commander of the northern army with Thomas as his second-in-command and general of horse. Father and son commanded with great distinction despite being outnumbered by royalist forces.
In 1643, while his father defended Hull, Sir Thomas took the cavalry to join up with the forces of Oliver Cromwell and the earl of Manchester in Lincolnshire, since the mounted soldiery would be of little use defending a city. By this time, Sir Thomas had achieved a reputation as one of the Parliamentarian’s most able commanders entrusted to command important campaigns across the North of England, including the command of 4000 troops at the battle of Marston Moor in July 1644, which proved to be a key parliamentarian victory.
The following December, Parliament passed the self-denying ordinance, an act that excluded all members of both houses from all military commands. Parliament created a new force from their three existing armies, which was soon to be known as the New Model Army. The House of Commons also voted that the thirty-two year old Sir Thomas Fairfax should be its commander-in-chief.
Sir Thomas’ decisive victory at the battle of Naseby in June 1645 was instrumental in the collapse of the king’s cause. Thomas then became embroiled in the political negotiations that occupied the various parties that had fought the war, including his own officers, who were becoming a potent political force in their own right. Injuries sustained in battle and general ill-health caused him to retire to Bath to recuperate, sparing him from some of the political machinations.
In spite of his position of authority, Sir Thomas found himself at odds with his subordinate officers and the republicans within the Parliamentarian camp. While he agreed that the king should be forced to surrender or resign, he did not support the execution of Charles I and was troubled by the war between Parliament and the Scots, who had taken up the royalist cause. Resolved to resign his post, his last act as commander-in-chief was to suppress a mutiny of radicals within the New Model Army in at Burford May 1649.
Now the 3rd Lord Fairfax of Cameron (his father having died the year before), he retired to his home in Nun Appleton in Yorkshire on a sizable pension of £5000 per year. Following the death of Oliver Cromwell and the ending of the Protectorate, the Rump Parliament sat again with Fairfax representing Yorkshire. Tensions grew between the Rump and the army under General John Lambert resulting in General George Monck bringing his army south from Scotland to defend Parliament.
In his last military command, Fairfax accepted Monck’s invitation to join his army at the head of a force of Yorkshiremen. When news reached Lambert’s forces of Fairfax’s appearance, 1200 cavalrymen deserted Lambert to join up with the Rump’s forces. Monck’s victory paved the way for the restoration of the British monarchy.
Fairfax returned to his retirement at Nun Appleton avoiding the vengeful punishment meted out to the regicides by King Charles II’s government. He spent his retirement reading, writing and engaged in religious duties. Ill-health marred the remaining eleven years of his life, which ended on 12th November 1671.
A biography of Sir Thomas Fairfax at David Plant’s excellent British Civil Wars, Commonwealth and Protectorate, 1638-60 site.