‘Black Tom’: Sir Thomas Fairfax, Creator and Commander of the New Model Army


Ask who was the parliamentary general who created and commanded the all-conquering New Model Army during the Civil Wars, and the most likely answer will be Oliver Cromwell.  But in fact, it was Sir Thomas Fairfax, known to his enemies as Black Tom, who emerged as the most successful military commander of the 1640s.  So why has Fairfax’s reputation and importance been overshadowed by that of Oliver Cromwell?

In this programme, Fairfax’s most recent biographer, Professor Andrew Hopper of the University of Oxford, addresses this question and provides a balanced picture of the differing contributions and strengths of the two men.


Mike Gibbs:  Andy, you’re the biographer of Black Tom, Sir Thomas Fairfax, a critically important person in the Civil Wars and in the English Revolution.  But I’d never heard about him, and I guess I can speak for many other people.  What brought you to Black Tom?

Andy Hopper:   Well, yes, I was writing my doctoral thesis at the University of York in the 1990s about the extent of support for Parliament in Yorkshire, and of course, Thomas Fairfax played such a big role in the course of the war in Yorkshire that when I was looking to produce my first academic book, it was a natural progression to shift from Yorkshire on to Sir Thomas Fairfax.


Mike Gibbs:  Who was Black Tom, Sir Thomas Fairfax, and why have I not heard about him but heard so much about Oliver Cromwell?

Andy Hopper:  Considering Sir Thomas Fairfax was the founding general of England’s first standing army, and may be even the forefather of the British Army today, he has been a figure curiously neglected by historians.  He was called Black Tom by his Royalist enemies.  It wasn’t a complimentary nickname.  The English have two heroes in what historians called the early modern period – Elizabeth I and Oliver Cromwell – and their shadow leaves no room for others.  With the possible exception of Shakespeare, Cromwell has become the most intensively studied Englishman of the early modern world. The 20th century alone generated hundreds of biographies, novels, poems and films. Even the period is labelled Cromwellian.

It is rarely remembered today that Sir Thomas Fairfax, not Cromwell, was the creator and commander of Parliament’s New Model Army in 1645.  It is also because Fairfax retired in 1650, and Cromwell was able to succeed him as Lord General and then go on to become head of state three years later as Lord Protector in 1653.


Mike Gibbs:  So, let’s begin at the beginning.  Tell us about the young Fairfax and his upbringing.

Andy Hopper:   Well, he was born into one of Yorkshire’s oldest gentry families at Denton near Ilkley in Wharfedale in 1612. He was brought up in a very martial and Puritan environment dominated by his grandfather who had very trenchant views on limited monarchies (or earthly ‘stewardships’ as he would have termed them).  His grandfather also feared an international Catholic conspiracy headed by the King of Spain to exterminate Protestants.

Young Fairfax was sent to serve in the Low Countries at the age of 17, where he began to learn the art of soldiering. He returned to England and he accepted a royal command alongside his father during the Bishops’ Wars against Scotland. His father was Ferdinando, who succeeded as 2nd Baron Fairfax in 1640, and became drawn into the parliamentary opposition against Charles I.


Mike Gibbs:   So, what role did Fairfax and his family play in the outbreak of the Civil War?

Andy Hopper:  This is the least known part of Fairfax’s Civil War, its outbreak in Yorkshire.   Sir Thomas Fairfax presented an oppositionist petition to Charles I at the great county meeting on Heworth Moor, just outside York, on 3 June 1642. But the King spurred his horse forward and Fairfax was almost trampled underfoot as he thrust the petition on to the King’s pommel. Their next physical confrontation was at Naseby three years later.

Fairfax and his father sought to avoid a war with their fellow Yorkshire gentry neighbours and, in September 1642, they championed the failed treaty to maintain neutrality in the county. Thereafter, they struggled to raise 1,000 men in the West Riding, with whom they blockaded York from their headquarters at Tadcaster and Wetherby in November 1642.  It was then that Parliament named Ferdinando Parliament’s general in command of the northern counties, and his son, Sir Thomas, as his General of Horse.


Mike Gibbs:  And in Yorkshire there was a popular uprising that transformed the Fairfax’s army.

Andy Hopper:  Yes.  This occurred Sunday 18 December 1642 when the inhabitants of Bradford rose up without a gentleman to command them to repel a royalist attack on their town.  They were armed with cudgels, clubs, pitchforks and scythes laid on poles.  Many of them were Bradford’s clothworkers, and they unhorsed the royalist gentry, beating some of them to death in the streets. Within days, London’s newsbooks were urging the people ‘to rise up and execute Bradford Club Law upon the Cavaliers.’  This excused common people executing violence upon gentlemen, a very scary prospect for the 17th century social hierarchy.

And the Puritan propagandist, John Vicars, in his tract God in the Mount, devoted more pages to this skirmish at Bradford than to the entire battle of Edgehill, the first major confrontation of the war. Other tracts represented Bradford’s defenders as ‘the Lamb’s followers and servants’, the ‘poor and off-scouring of the world’, when the ‘Kings and captains, merchants and wise men, give all their strength to the Beast.’

Sir Thomas Fairfax rode to Bradford and requested his father’s permission to ‘join with the readiness of the people’, as he put it, to break the royalist blockade that prevented trade and provisions from reaching the West Riding’s clothing districts. Within weeks, Fairfax had recruited double the numbers serving under his father further east.  He recruited from the populous cloth-working valleys around Leeds, Bradford and Halifax. These districts were facing a food shortage in 1642, partially owing to having billeted the Royal army during Charles I’s wars with Scotland, but also owing to outbreaks of plague, and most importantly, the collapse in the cloth trade. With the royalist army occupying the vale of York, they could no longer safely export their cloth through Hull, so their activism was shaped by what historians might term a ‘politics of subsistence’, and need to break that blockade and get provisions into the populous towns of the West Riding.


Therefore, the need to open a free passage for cloth to Hull dominated Fairfax’s strategy and forced him into risky assaults to capture Leeds and Wakefield. The success of these actions made his name. ‘Sir Thomas Fairfaxe with Bradford Clubs’ became a slogan of London’s press. One tract hailed Fairfax as ‘the Rider of the White Horse’, an image drawn from Revelations 19:11, which depicted the Rider as a symbol of Christ’s conquering power.


Mike Gibbs:  And tell us about the army that Fairfax raised and led, how the forces under his command, for example, shaped his strategy.

Andy Hopper:  I think relying upon the clothing districts to maintain and recruit their army, the Fairfaxes were forced into a defensive war to protect their supporters’ home region. Military analysts call this a ‘Fabian strategy’, or ‘attrition by strategic defensive’. It involved the defence of their urban strongholds and the refusal to give battle to the numerically superior royalists in the open field.

Fairfax was also compelled to rely upon the middling sorts and urban elites in towns to lead this forces.  His captains were of questionable social status. A petition of Lord Fairfax’s reduced Yorkshire officers in 1648 stated that many of them were tradesmen, around a third ranked at captain and above were non-gentry, and these men were in place well before Cromwell’s famous quote about ‘russet-coated captains’. Hailing from parishes with a long tradition of political and religious independence, these middling sorts were marked by their capacity to organise.


Fairfax’s Yorkshire army were so distinctive because its infantry were largely cloth-workers armed with muskets, fowling guns (used for shooting birds), clubs, and scythes laid on poles. Pennine moorland was not good Cavalry country, and with few gentry recruits, Fairfax’s troopers were poorly mounted and under-strength. One royalist source considered that Fairfax fielded ‘1000 Clubmen unarmed’ at Adwalton Moor, and contemptuously noted that among 2,000 prisoners he claimed were taken there, there was ‘not a gentleman amongst them, but a Scotch officer or 2’.


Mike Gibbs:  And Fairfax’s army was very different to that of the other parliamentary army in Yorkshire, led by the Hotham family.  Did they get on well or was there friction?

Andy Hopper:  Yes, the Hothams’ army was largely composed of trained bandsmen, volunteers shipped up from London up to Hull, and by Cavalry from the East Riding gentry.  These were headed by Sir John Hotham, the Governor of Hull, and his son and Lieutenant General, John Hotham, and they had done the most to oppose Charles I at the outbreak of the Civil War by denying the King entry to Hull in April 1642, but the Hothams grew increasingly worried by the Puritan and plebeian nature of Fairfax’s army. And they began corresponding with the King’s General, the Earl of Newcastle, but they were arrested in the nick of time prior to their attempt to change sides in June 1643.


Both Hothams were captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London before standing trial in a Council of War at the Guildhall in December 1644. Historians fixated with Cromwell’s attack on the Earl of Manchester at this time seem to have completely missed the importance of these trials.

The Hotham’s trials were conducted at the same time as the Self-Denying Ordinance was passing through the Commons to exclude peers and MPs from military command. Successful prosecution of the Hothams, as traitors to Parliament’s cause, became a test of strength for those favourable to new modelling Parliament’s armies. In this way, Lord Fairfax’s northern network of about 20 MPs became allies of Cromwell and Viscount Saye and Sele against the old Lord General, the Earl of Essex’s faction. Those that urged clemency for the Hothams tended to oppose the new modelling of the army and Sir Thomas Fairfax as the new commander.


Mike Gibbs:  And obviously Parliament had a choice of generals to lead this New Model Army.  Why did they choose Fairfax?

Andy Hopper: The dominant view of historians for the last 300 years is that Fairfax was appointed General of the New Model Army as a second choice, because Cromwell’s candidacy was somehow premature, or because Fairfax was deemed to be apolitical and unconnected with the quarrels that had plagued Parliament’s southern commanders in 1644. So his appointment, therefore, owed everything to his shortcomings and political inexperience.

But I’d argue that far from being considered apolitical, or acceptable to all sides, the appointment of Fairfax was divisive from the outset. Through the trial of the Hothams and his father’s interest in the House of Commons, Fairfax was already closely identified with the War Party at Westminster. He was considered among Parliament’s most aggressive commanders. Not having served as an MP also made him eligible for command. Once he was appointed General by a Commons’ vote of 101 to 69, Fairfax insisted in the face of opposition from the House of Lords that he alone would appoint all officers of the New Model Army right down to the rank of captain.  He was aided in the selection of officers, not by Oliver Cromwell, but by Philip Skippon, the Sergeant-Major General of the New Model Army’s infantry, and he chose Englishmen as the officers of the New Model Army which meant that a great deal of Scotsmen who had been employed in the previous parliamentarian armies found themselves unemployed.


This made Fairfax, above any one individual, the creator of the New Model Army. To put this new force into the field he had to overcome much political opposition at Westminster. This included the previous parliamentarian army commanders, Sir William Waller and the Earls of Essex and Manchester, who considered him a northern hothead that could lose the war in a single afternoon.

So, the idea that Fairfax was promoted beyond his abilities is at best unfair. He was appointed in 1645 to win the war for Parliament, which he did, in a much swifter fashion than his predecessors with major victories at Naseby and at Langport, and the twelve months of victories that followed. It is key that contemporaries praised Fairfax above Cromwell for the New Model Army’s success at Naseby, while Fairfax’s self-fashioning and his constant striving for humility and modesty was a godsend to propagandists that favoured the New Model Army.


Mike Gibbs:  But the relationship between Fairfax, his army and Parliament, in 1647 and 1648 was not a happy one.

Andy Hopper:  That’s right.  Up until then, I think the close of the First Civil War was the most satisfying period in Fairfax’s life, as he considered his military employments were being drawn to a successful close. But after the exhilaration of that victory in 1646, Fairfax was pushed in an ever more politically radical direction by Parliament’s failure to provide pay and Indemnity for his soldiers. He took these insults personally.  These were insults to his army’s honour from a Westminster full of MPs eager to disband the soldiery, cut taxation and return to pre-war normality. Now, he had considered Parliament’s authority almost sacrosanct, but he had been forced into using the Army in a military takeover of London in August 1647 to throw out those MPs hostile to the New Model Army, and he became increasingly frustrated at Parliament’s failure to provide a negotiated settlement and, of course, the bloody experience of the Second Civil War in 1648 radicalised and embittered him further.


Mike Gibbs:  And after the Second Civil War, there came the King’s trial and execution.  What was Fairfax’s role?

Andy Hopper:  Fairfax quietly withdrew from the High Court of Justice that tried the King, and the idea that he had somehow been deceived, hoodwinked or overruled in the process that led to the King’s death has been central to his apologists’ attempts to excuse him from blame ever since.

In fact, Fairfax personally supported the Army Remonstrance demanding justice against the King. He colluded in the purge of Parliament, snubbing the ejected MPs and provided soldiers to guard the High Court. He tightened security around the King’s person, he suppressed royalist newsbooks during the trial. Contemporary prints and paintings clearly depicted him as culpable. One even depicted him as the King’s headsman.


Mike Gibbs:  How did the execution of the King alter the relationship between Fairfax and Cromwell?

Andy Hopper:  Cromwell had argued to the Council of Officers on 25 December 1648, just before the King’s trial, that ‘there was no policy in taking away the King’s life.’ After the execution, it’s possible that Fairfax may have nurtured resentment that Cromwell had somehow betrayed him in this and changed his mind. It is possible that Fairfax believed the King would not be executed until very late indeed. This would support the recent interpretation by Sean Kelsey that even during the trial itself, the King’s execution was not inevitable, and that most of the commissioners favoured alternative sentences. It was only when Fairfax saw that proceedings were in earnest, very late in the day, that he baulked at participating in the trial and signing the death warrant.

But Fairfax intervening with force to prevent the King’s execution would only renew the bloodshed and split the Army that he created. Despite being faced with this impossible dilemma, Fairfax’s failure to prevent the Regicide has been used as evidence of his political ineptitude ever since.


Mike Gibbs:  And during the trial, it is said that Fairfax’s wife, Anne, made two interjections out loud, and interrupted the trial.

Andy Hopper: Yes, this was notorious at the time.  Fairfax’s wife was Anne, daughter of Horace, Lord Vere, a famous English commander in Dutch service. They’d married in 1637. The royalist Earl of Clarendon later explained Anne Fairfax’s parliamentarian allegiance,

“Having been bred in Holland, she had not the reverence for the Church of England that she ought to have had, and so had unhappily concurred in her husband’s entering into Rebellion.”

But like many supporters of Parliament’s cause, Anne Fairfax was having misgivings by 1647. Lucy Hutchinson, the autobiographer of her husband, the Governor of Nottingham Castle, commented that the

General had an unquiet, unpleasant life with her”,

and that she

drove away from him many of those friends in whose conversation he had found such sweetness”.

Anne’s patronage of Presbyterian preachers that preached against the New Model Army scandalised her husband’s reputation. Her famous interjections in the trial of Charles I, where she called out that Cromwell was a traitor, worsened relations between the families and was a godsend to the royalist propagandists: they could now maintain that if Fairfax could not even control his wife, then he had no legitimacy in any public role, let alone as a statesman.


A series of pamphlets and comedy plays were printed mocking the rivalry between the Fairfaxes and Cromwells, accusing both wives of adultery and unbridled ambition. A pamphlet play of 1649 depicted Fairfax, Cromwell and their unfaithful wives squabbling at an auction of the King’s goods and the two women as ‘queening it with their sovereign’s jewels’.

The baseless idea in the royalist press, that Lady Fairfax had defied her husband’s authority by sexual infidelity, enabled the royalists to brand Fairfax as a cuckold general just as his predecessor the Earl of Essex had been. Having decisively intervened in the political arena in urging her husband to withdraw from the King’s trial, the charge of Lady Fairfax’s infidelity became a staple of the royalist press thereafter.


Mike Gibbs:  Earlier, you mentioned that Fairfax retired as General.  That happened in 1650.  Why did he do that?

Andy Hopper:  Yes, it was a full 18 months after the King’s execution before Fairfax retired as General, and he retired in protest in June 1650 at the Rump Parliament’s plans to invade Scotland.  Scotland was a fellow Protestant nation with whom Parliament had entered an alliance, the Solemn League and Covenant, in 1643. Having said that, it is likely that a lingering sense of betrayal over the King’s execution may have been behind his decision. His republican colleagues, including Cromwell, were sorry to see him go, and great efforts were made to persuade him to remain.

Lucy Hutchinson explained Fairfax’s retirement as General in these terms:

this great man was then as immovable by his friends as pertinacious in obeying his wife; whereby he then died to all his former glory, and became the monument of his own name, which every day wore out.”


Mike Gibbs:  So, did Fairfax just disappear completely from the scene during the 1650s and go back to his properties in Yorkshire?

Andy Hopper:  He is often portrayed as having retired from national politics, but it seems that he remained in London for some time, and he continued to  support the republic. He was the foremost Justice of the Peace in Yorkshire, for example, and he was appointed Lord of the Isle of Man for Parliament. He set about trying to enforce a West Riding-styled Godly Reformation on the island, sending over commissioners and preachers to convert the natives. This failed because none of them spoke Manx.

Although he refrained from plotting with royalists, he married his daughter to Charles’ favourite, the Duke of Buckingham in 1657, and fell out with Cromwell over the treatment of the Duke, and the two parted on bad terms just before Cromwell’s death.


Mike Gibbs:  And after Cromwell’s death, did Fairfax play any role in the Restoration of Charles II?

Andy Hopper:  Yes, Fairfax subsequently played a leading role in the Restoration of Charles II in 1660.  He was part of the delegation sent to the Netherlands to negotiate with Charles and he provided the horse on which Charles II rode to his coronation.  This was the foal of the mare Fairfax rode at Naseby.


Mike Gibbs:  And did Fairfax prosper after the Restoration?

Andy Hopper:  Well, Charles II left him alone, but his political career was over.  He was ousted from his seat by the royalists in the 1661 elections and played no further role in parliamentary politics.

Retiring to Yorkshire, he clung to his  now rather unfashionable Puritan faith and sheltered clergy in trouble with the regime, much as his father had done during the 1630s. He refused though to be drawn into conspiracy against the Restoration government, and in 1663 several of his former captains and troopers were among the 16 rebels that were hanged, drawn and quartered within sight of his townhouse in York. Fairfax had pleaded for their lives, but the whole affair became a lesson in his political irrelevance. His health had never been good ,but he became prematurely frail, racked with pain from gout and the stone, and his many wartime wounds.  He was increasingly confined to a wheelchair which is now on display at the National Civil War Centre.


Mike Gibbs:  But Fairfax was very careful to shape the memory of his life.

Andy Hopper:  Yes.  After the Restoration of the monarchy, he endured several attacks on his reputation by royalists, but also from fellow parliamentarians.  He responded by seeking to shape his own legacy in penning his memoirs. These are known as his ‘Short Memorials’.   In the very changed political circumstances of the 1660s, he attempted to defend his reputation as a parliamentary commander from the taint of Regicide and revolution. The Short Memorials were the product of a tired and troubled mind, they blamed treacherous officers, Agitators and a ‘levelling faction’ for the purge of Parliament and execution of the King. He made the astonishing claim that, from 1647, he never gave his free consent to anything his Army did. He offered no explanation of why he did not resign his command until 17 months after the King’s execution, setting the tone for future sympathetic commemorations by passing over this entire period in complete silence.


The Short Memorials were heavily edited and reshaped for a later audience by his cousin Brian, and published in 1699. They have done little for his reputation or his posterity. Horace Walpole famously remarked

One can easily believe his having been the tool of Cromwell, when one sees, by his own memoirs, how little idea he had of what he had been about.”


Mike Gibbs:  And on a recent visit to York, you kindly showed me Fairfax’s grave.  I was amazed by how plain and simple it was.

Andy Hopper:  Yes.   I think that’s because Fairfax’s will directed a very modest funeral at Bilbrough, near York, in Fairfax’s own words ‘in such a manner as may be convenient and decent rather than pompous’.

Concerned to avoid idolatry, both Fairfax and his father were commemorated by simple textual wall tablets. The church containing his tomb was the recipient of a major fund-raising campaign by York Civil Trust in 1985 to restore the dilapidated fabric of the chapel. The plaque commemorates Fairfax as a moderating influence upon the revolution, an averter of unnecessary bloodshed, and a modest man who sought to limit the damage of war and heal divisions with former enemies.


Mike Gibbs:  And as his biographer, how do you think we should remember Black Tom?

Andy Hopper:  Well, I think where he has been remembered, in contrast to the folkloric memory of Cromwell as a destroyer, Fairfax is more often portrayed as a preserver. He is commemorated in the Chapter House of York Minster for saving the cathedral there from iconoclasm during 1644. During the 1650s he held the Duke of Buckingham’s estates in trust and he paid the Earl of Derby’s sequestered Manx rents to the widowed Countess. He is depicted as ‘merciful and civilised’ for saving Oxford’s treasures after the surrender of the city, so for these reasons, Fairfax is often remembered by establishment figures as the most restrained, moderate and decent of rebels.


But sitting uneasily alongside this reputation, Fairfax left other legacies. In the 18th century, he was despised in Tory and Anglican circles as a republican and revolutionary. The memorial tablet to his cousin, the Whig Dean of Norwich, had to be covered with a cloak until the word ‘Nasebiani’ was erased. It was thought to glory in Rebellion and feared t it would provoke a riot from a Tory mob.

There is also Fairfax’s execution of the royalist officers, Sir Charles Lucas and Sir George Lisle, at the siege of Colchester in 1648.  This led to the erection of a stone memorial there in 1661 that stated they were ‘in cold blood barbarously murdered’, by the ‘command of Sir Thomas Fairfax’.


Now, individual royalists may have appreciated his reputation for lenience, but this was not evident in royalist propaganda. Royalist print savaged Fairfax as a ‘puritan syphilitic hypocrite, apostate cuckold, perjurer and murderer’. This ensured that ‘Black Tom’ Fairfax was a darker, more politically divisive figure among contemporaries than the standard depictions of his decency and moderation, which we are familiar with today, might imply.


Mike Gibbs:  And in your view, what can Fairfax’s experiences tell us about the nature of the English Revolution?

Andy Hopper:   I think they illuminate the exhilaration of victory and the bitterness of defeat.  His experience of the civil wars transformed him into a revolutionary. He practised ‘downward deference’, where gentry befriended and advanced their social inferiors in constructing networks of loyalty and allegiance. The royalist Earl of Clarendon hinted at this when he claimed that the Fairfaxes were ruled by two or three individuals of ‘inferior quality’, who were ‘more conversant with the people’. In 1645, Charles I considered Fairfax as ‘the rebels new brutish general’. The phrase stuck and was repeated by Fairfax’s enemies as late as 1661.


The failure to establish the Godly Reformation and limited monarchy for which Fairfax had fought wounded, but did not overcome, his belief in God’s providence. He prayed that his failings would not cause him to be remembered among the unscrupulous and ambitious statesmen of the Interregnum from whom he sought to distance himself.

Yet Fairfax and his Short Memorials provide us with a telling example of the pitfalls of trying to spin fresh interpretations upon one’s past actions to suit changed political circumstances. A close biographical study of Fairfax indicates the dangers of ascribing inevitability to either Cromwell’s rise or the King’s death. It also reveals something of how the fractures within parliamentarianism rendered a stable settlement so elusive from 1646 to 1660.


Mike Gibbs;  So, Andy, why do you think we should remember Fairfax?

Andy Hopper:  I think because more than any other Englishman, Fairfax was instrumental in the military downfall of Charles I.  He had to live with that thereafter and was haunted by it.  And I think the rival memories of Fairfax that have emerged since, remind us how the political and religious divisions that emerged because of the Civil Wars have never entirely receded from British identities.

Like Cromwell, Fairfax was left clinging to his belief that he had served God’s cause, and hoping to be remembered for so doing. His Short Memorials should have ended with the following passage which his cousin Brian sadly removed from the text.  It is likely Brian felt that these words were just too strong, zealous, Godly and providential in tone for a 1690s audience:

“Hoping also that God will, one day, cleere this Action we undertooke so far as concerns his honour, & ye integrity of such as faithfully served in it; For I cannot believe yt such wonderfull successes shall be given in vaine. Though cunning & Deceitfull men must take shame to ymselves, yet ye purposes & Determinations of God shall have happy effects to his Glory, and the Comfort of his people.”

And I’ve always found this last sentence to be a fittingly moving epitaph, both for Fairfax and for the English Revolution.


Mike Gibbs:  Andy, thank you very much indeed for bringing Fairfax out of the shadows.  He’s clearly such an important figure to the understanding of the Civil Wars.

Andy Hopper:  Thanks very much, Mike.  It’s always a pleasure to talk about Fairfax.

Mike Gibbs:  And we can learn more from your book which is now in paperback and the details are in the programme notes.  Do read it!


You can learn more in Professor Hopper’s book, “’Black Tom’: Sir Thomas Fairfax and the English Revolution”, which is now available in paperback and is published by Manchester University Press.