Remembering (and Forgetting) Thomas Fairfax

As every school pupil thinks they know, the English Civil War (1642-51) was fought between King Charles I and Oliver Cromwell – except that such a view is an all-too-common misconception. Until 1650 Cromwell led the Parliament’s cavalry while the overall commander of the New Model Army was Sir Thomas Fairfax, from 1648 3rd Lord Fairfax of Cameron. A new book, England’s Fortress: New Perspectives on Thomas, 3rd Lord Fairfax, ed. Andrew Hopper and Philip Major (Ashgate, 2014), seeks to evaluate the role and importance of Fairfax not only as a soldier and statesman, but also in his roles as husband, horseman and scholar. Contributions range widely over his career, examining Fairfax as lord of the Isle of Man, as well as his later image as represented in modern literature and film, from the sensitive portrayal of Fairfax in the 1976 classic Winstanley to the overshadowing of his character in films such as Cromwell (1970) and To Kill a King (2003). Further essays include analyses of Fairfax’s relationship with the poet Andrew Marvell, tutor to his daughter; Fairfax’s own poetic output; and Fairfax as a horse breeder, with the likelihood that the lineage of modern thoroughbred racing horses can be traced back to a horse from Fairfax’s own stud.

England's Fortress

Two chapters are contributed by Keele historians. Rob Barcroft, a postgraduate research student in History, examines Fairfax not as a battlefield commander but as a highly successful conductor of siege operations. This is not only a new approach to Fairfax’s generalship, it is also way of shifting historians’ focus from the battles to the sieges of the English Civil War. Ian Atherton takes the commemorative turn, looking at the ways in which the battlefields with which Fairfax was associated, including famous battles such as Marston Moor (1644) and Naseby (1645) as well as lesser known encounters – defeats and victories – such as Adwalton Moor (1643) or the relief of Taunton (1645) have been remembered, commemorated and forgotten between the seventeenth and the twenty-first centuries. As with Fairfax’s reputation in popular history as well as on film, a significant factor is the way in which Fairfax’s memory has been overshadowed by that of Cromwell. The 1939 monument at Marston Moor ascribed the parliament’s victory to Oliver Cromwell and made no reference to Sir Thomas Fairfax, whose name was only added later. While 151 British streets bear the name Fairfax (not all of them associated with Sir Thomas), 392 carry the name Cromwell. In addition, Atherton shows that the ways in which Fairfax’s battlefields have been remembered and forgotten have been shaped by long-standing practices of the re-absorption of battlefields into the agrarian landscape and more recent traditions of the commemoration of conflict.

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