Wednesday, 12 August 2009


Showing an early penchant for heroes who are “tall, dark and handsome”, I first fell in love with Tom Fairfax when I read “The Rider of the White Horse” by one of my favourite children’s writers, Rosemary Sutcliff. The book spanned the period from the start of the English Civil War through to Tom’s appointment as the Commander of the New Model Army.
Ah! You say, but wasn’t Oliver Cromwell the Commander of the New Model Army? Not at all. Until 1651, Cromwell was Tom Fairfax’s second-in-command and yet history seems to forget about this quietly spoken leader of men. It is my avowed intent (and Rosemary’s!) to put Thomas Fairfax on the stage where he belongs.
The Fairfax family came to prominence in North Yorkshire in the mid sixteenth century, establishing a country seat at Denton. It seemed that all the Fairfax men were destined to be soldiers. Tom’s father, Ferdinando Fairfax, lost three brothers in various wars on the continent. He survived, earning a sour approbation from his own soldier father (another Thomas, the first Lord Fairfax) “I sent him into the Netherlands to train him up as a soldier, and he makes a tolerable county justice”. In fact Ferdinando had a distinguished career in public life sitting as a member of the House of Commons in the last 3 parliaments of James I and first 4 of Charles I and went on to be a solid commander in the early years of the English Civil Wars.
Ferdinando’s eldest son, Thomas (our hero) was born at Denton in 1612, the eldest son of eight children (2 sons and 6 daughters). His mother died in 1617 and his father did not remarry again until 1647. Tom’s childhood was the unremarkable life of the son of a country gentleman. He was extremely close to his grandfather who taught him a lifelong love of horses. Both of them would write treatises on horses!
At 14 he went to Cambridge and then to Gray’s Inn in London for some grounding in the law (a very useful skill for a gentleman to have). However he was never called to the bar and the family leaning towards adventure called him. He and a friend, John Hotham (more on him later!), went over the Low Countries to join the English forces in Lord Vere’s company under the Prince of Orange.
But the life of a soldier did not immediately appeal to him and he moved on to France, where he (not unlike our young travelers of today) lived until he ran out of funds and had to return home.
At 20 he returned to England but lingered in London trying to persuade his grandfather that he had an earnest desire to “see the army of Sweden”. Old Sir Thomas was not impressed, referring to his grandson as a “flibbertigibbet”, and despite the intercessions of other members of his family, he was summoned home to Denton to begin a career as a country gentleman. Sadly his grandfather died in 1640 and did not live to see his grandson fulfil his potential.
In 1635 negotiations began for a marriage between Tom and Anne, the daughter of Lord Vere (under whom Tom had served in the Low Countries). Like many marriages of the time, it was a business arrangement in which neither Tom nor Anne had any real say. They were married in 1637 and while it was no love match, there is no doubt that they developed a great deal of affection and respect for each other. More on the feisty Anne, in another blog.
Early in their marriage, Tom was afflicted with the first sign of ill health that would plague him all his life. He suffered from “the stone”. His mother in law remarked “Stray fits seize upon his spirits. I perceive he hath a weak body, and more circumspection for the preservation of his health will be required, especially against melancholy, which is, I think, the ground of it all.”
Tom recovered and the young couple moved to Yorkshire, staying firstly with the cantankerous Lord Fairfax and Denton and then in their own home at Nun Appleton. Their daughter Mary was born in 1638. A second daughter, Elizabeth, was born in 1640 but died shortly after leaving the Fairfax’s with just Mary.
As Tom and Anne settled into married life, events in England were beginning to take a serious turn. Charles I was raising troops in Yorkshire to march against the Scots for repudiating the prayer book, abolish bishops and adopting the National Covenant. Tom and his father raised a troop of 160 men and he marched north to Berwick where he was knighted by the King in January 1640.
In less than two years this quiet, thoughtful man of uncertain health would take arms against the same man who had knighted him and prove himself one of the most able commanders in English history.

(PS He earned his nickname from his dark looks, not from any flaw in his character!)

Next Month: Part 2: “The Rider of the White Horse”.

1 comment:

Anita Davison said...

I have been reading about Fairfax lately and he is a fascinating character. My next blog is, coincidentaly, about his son-in-law. Looking forward to Part 2