Saturday, 12 September 2009
Sir Thomas Fairfax Pt. 2 - The Road to War
Last month I wrote about the background to one of the greatest generals of the English Civil War, Sir Thomas Fairfax. This month, I hope you will pardon a little self indulgence if my blog comes by way of a short story, in which I bring to you, through the eyes of a fictional bystander, the actual events that turned Yorkshire against the King and set England on the irretrievable path to war. (I apologise for the formatting, blogger is not very sympathetic when it comes to format!). The pictures are the famous equestrian portrait of Charles I by Van Dyck and a still from the film TO KILL A KING with Dougray Scott as Thomas Fairfax
“We are late, Jack.” Matthew Cowdray chided his brother. “I told you we would be.”
Jack smiled at his brother’s chiding. Their tardiness could not be blamed on Matt’s infirmity but was due entirely to Jack’s carousing the previous night.
“It doesn’t look like we have missed much,” he said.
At the far end of the room, Jack could see the grey head of Ferdinando, Lord Fairfax, above the crowd. Fairfax held up his hand and silence rippled through the room until it reached the far corner where the Cowdray brothers stood.
“Gentlemen. I welcome you to Bishopshill,” Ferdinando began. “I think you all know why you are here?” There was a low murmur of assent throughout the room. “It is time for the King to be persuaded to return to London. He cannot govern the country from York while Parliament sits in London. The King must make peace with Parliament before it is too late. His presence here in York is inflammatory. While he attempts to raise arms from honest county men such as yourselves, he gives no indication of intending to restore peace in this land. It can only lead to one thing…”
War. The unspoken word hung in the warm air of the chamber. Despite himself, Jack shivered. Beside him he felt Matt shift his weight from his twisted leg and with the relief of a distraction, looked around for a chair for his brother.
Lord Fairfax spoke again, holding up a parchment high above his head so all could see it. “Tomorrow the King is attending a gathering on Heworth Moor. We are asked to attend as a show of support for his cause…” There was a rumbling of dissent among the gathering. “We will attend-- but with one course in mind. To present His Majesty with this petition signed by us all.”
“Who will present the petition?” someone called out.
“Who else but Tom Fairfax!” Another voice declared.
There was a roar of assent.
“If that is what you wish?” A quiet voice with the unmistakable note of authority came from the tall, dark haired man who stood behind Lord Fairfax.
“It is agreed.” Lord Fairfax said. “My son Tom will present the petition.”
“You know what this will mean?” A voice of dissent came from the floor. “Tom, you Fairfax and those others of you who sign this petition. You are setting yourself at odds with the King.”
A babble of noise broke, silenced by Lord Fairfax’s raised his hand. His face was quite still and grave. “It is the King who is setting himself at odds with his people. Let us not forget how he abolished Parliament, attempted to rule by imposing unjust taxes. Now we face the threat of Irish troops being brought into the country. Gentlemen we can no longer afford to sit idly by while the clothing trade suffers in this county and our King sits here in York like a bird of prey. Will you sign this petition?”
There was a unanimous roar of assent and the crowd pressed forward, all eager to sign the petition.
Matt looked up at his brother. “Well Jack we have talked about this often enough, are you ready to take sides?”
“It seems we must. Let us wait until the first enthusiasts are done.”
Matt’s face lit up and he rose awkwardly to his feet at Thomas Fairfax's approach.
The two men seized each other warmly by the hand.
“It is good to see you, Matt.”
“And you, Tom.” Matt paused and gave a mock bow. “Or should I say Sir Thomas, for did not the King knight you in the recent affray with the Scottish?”
The other man flushed slightly. “Not so recent,” he mumbled. “Events have overtaken us.”
“That is why we are here. I don’t believe you have ever met my brother John?”
For the first time Thomas Fairfax turned to the younger man. Jack did not consider himself a short man but Fairfax stood nearly half a head taller than him. He had a long, lean, intensely serious face, and dark thoughtful eyes. His swarthy looks had already earned him the nickname “Black Tom. He smiled at Jack and held out his hand. Jack knew this man by reputation. Although not yet thirty and a contemporary of his brother’s at Cambridge, he was already emerging in Yorkshire from his father’s shadow, as one of the new generation of leaders.
Jack had been a soldier for some years and had met many leaders of men in his life but few, in his experience, had that mystical element, that spark that could inspire men to follow them through thick or thin. It was in the eyes-- a calm, a certainty of the rightness of the cause. Jack looked into Tom Fairfax’s eyes as he took his hand and from that moment if Tom Fairfax had told Jack to follow him to hell, he would have gone willingly.
“My friends call me Jack, Sir Thomas,” he responded. “I am honoured to make your acquaintance.”
“And I, yours.”
“Jack has been responsible for raising a troop of horse from my estates,” Matt said.
The dark eyes rested thoughtfully on Jack. “Have you some military experience?”
Matt, as was his want, answered for his brother. “Jack has served five years on the continent in the wars. He returned home after the fall of the Palatinate and has been helping me with the estate.”
A dark eyebrow lifted. “Indeed? Well, your experience and those men you have trained, Jack, will be called upon I fear in the next few months.”
“You think it will come to war?” Jack ventured.
Tom gave a heavy sigh. “I fear war is now unavoidable.”
“Perhaps he can still be persuaded. Tomorrow…” Matt began
“Tomorrow I shall present the King with this petition.” Fairfax gestured towards the table where the Yorkshire gentry shuffled each other in their haste to sign it.
“That will please Savile. He may get the wrong idea if we all turn up in force.” Matt smiled.
“No doubt but we shall disabuse him of any such thoughts when he sees what I carry. Can I rely on your support on the morrow?”
The Cowdray brothers bowed their assent and Fairfax was gone, swallowed up by the convocation of Yorkshire gentry.
The next day, June 3, was one of those precious early summer days when the wind blows off the moors sweet with fresh growth. Bright banners fluttered in the breeze and a small band of musicians struggled manfully beside a marquee set with refreshment for the King. The gathering had been organised by Lord Savile as an expression of the support that Yorkshire showed to its newly resident King. It was a gathering notable only in its absence of Yorkshire gentry.
Jack had ridden out with Fairfax’s supporters. Only Matt’s disability prevented him from being there. He did not ride with any ease or comfort, his twisted leg ill suited for the saddle. The brothers had long since developed an easy partnership in which Jack took on any physical work.
“Well well, look who is here? By my faith it is Jack Cowdray.” Jack turned in his saddle to see the smiling, handsome face of John Hotham, son of the governor of Hull.
“Hotham.” He inclined his head in greeting.
John Hotham rode up to be level with him. The two had crossed paths on several occasions and Jack had always disliked the younger man for no reason which he could put a finger on, other than something untrustworthy in the other man’s eyes.
“Well we have a fine day for our little robust resistance.” There was an acid tone to Hotham’s voice.
“You do not see that it will be effective?”
“The Fairfaxes are fooling themselves if they think the King will pay them the slightest heed. The time for talking is past. It is time for action.”
“Such as shutting the city gates of Hull in the King’s face?”
Hotham turned to Jack his eyes bright at the mention of his father’s disobedience. “Exactly. My father knows how to curb this upstart monarch and it isn’t by waving pieces of paper at him. I, for one, have three hundred men waiting for the word.”
“You are eager for war, Hotham.”
“I am. It is the only way to settle this matter once and for all.”
Jack looked at him with all the wisdom of his years of soldiering. “I wouldn’t be too anxious if you knew what war will do to this country.”
But Hotham wasn’t listening. He had already urged his horse forward to talk to someone else.
“Do you know young Hotham?” Hotham’s place had been taken by Sir Thomas Fairfax.
“I do, Sir Thomas.”
“And what does he have to say for himself this fine morning?”
“He thinks it is time for war, not talking.”
Fairfax shook his head. “He is young.”
“And he has not seen war at first hand as we have,” Jack remarked.
Fairfax nodded. He took a deep breath as if he were a man going to the gallows. “I may need a good hand beside me today. Jack, would you …?”
Jack felt himself flush with pride. “Of course, Sir Thomas, just say the word and my sword is yours.”
“Well hopefully I shall not have need of your sword.” Fairfax remarked drily. “Ah, I see Lord Savile himself has come out to greet us. I wonder what fine words of welcome he has?”
“Fairfax.” Savile greeted Tom’s father, Lord Ferdinando Fairfax, with a notable chill in his voice. “You are only welcome here as a loyal subject of his majesty.”
Ferdinando’s beard jutted. “There are none more loyal to His Majesty than those of us present. Do you intend to make a scene and prevent us expressing that loyalty?”
Savile hesitated. To have turned Fairfax and his party away would have created a scene and the addition of the Fairfax’s following certainly swelled the numbers of the otherwise dismal turnout.
“Where is the King?” Jack leaned towards Thomas.
“Yonder-- on the chestnut gelding.”
It was the first time Jack had set eyes on the Charles I, King of England by Divine Right. He sat straight in the saddle, a small man of immense dignity dressed soberly in midnight blue satin, the Order of the Garter glinting on his chest.
The King had begun to address the gathering but Jack could hardly hear a word that was said. Charles, it seemed, was a poor speaker and his attempts to reassure the gathering of his determination to uphold the law and maintain the Protestant religion was being drowned out by the vocal dissenters in the crowd. Intending to move closer, Jack dismounted and tied his horse to a tree. As he turned back towards the King, he felt someone touch his elbow and saw Tom Fairfax standing beside him, the rolled paper of the petition in his hand.
“Are you with me, Jack?”
Jack nodded and the two men pushed through the crowd. Lord Savile, seeing them advance, turned his horse to block our path.
“Where are you going, Fairfax?” he demanded in a low, ominous voice
Tom held up the petition. “I have a petition from the King’s loyal subjects to present to him.”
“You shall not pass!” Savile went purple in the face with rage and indignation.
“I do not see how you can prevent me.” Tom smiled disarmingly and gave Jack a nod.
Jack seized the bridle of Savile’s horse giving time for Tom to slip around behind him.
“I’ll not forget your impudence, Cowdray. Unhand my horse.” Savile brought his riding crop slashing down. It missed Jack’s face, striking him painfully on the shoulder. Jack released the bridle from his nerveless fingers. However the horse alarmed by the crack of the crop took to its heels
Jack gave the departing Lord Savile a mock bow and, rubbing his shoulder followed Fairfax. The tall Yorkshireman had reached the King’s presence. The little man on the tall horse, glanced down at his two loyal subjects with eyes bright with anger and indignation.
Thomas bowed low. “Your Majesty. I have a petition from your humble subjects…”
He got no further. The King making a pretence of ignoring him had turned his horse’s head and rode away.
Undeterred Tom took after him. The King’s supporters attempted to intercept him but with the agility of a man on foot, he managed to evade them. The attempt to present the petition was repeated twice, both times the King steadfastly refusing to meet Tom’s eyes or accept the paper. Finally Tom strode straight up to the King’s horse, thrusting the petition on to the pommel of the saddle.
For a brief moment their eyes met. The King’s face revealed nothing but his hands visibly tightened on the reins of his horse. The huge animal reared and plunged forward, its great iron clad hooves flashing dangerously close to the head of the King’s petitioner. With superb agility Tom managed to jump clear as the horse crashed to the ground. There was a momentary hush and then a great outcry of fury from the Fairfax supporters.
“Well the King has certainly left his impression in the minds of the Yorkshire gentry.” John Hotham appeared at Jack’s shoulder again. “King or no King, you do not try to ride down a Yorkshireman and expect to be loved for the act.”
Tom picked himself up from the ground. He imperturbably brushed the grass from his breeches and turned to the two men beside him, his face grave.
“Well, gentlemen,” Thomas Fairfax said quietly. “We shall see what tomorrow brings.”
© Alison Stuart 2009
Posted by Alison Stuart