Lord Fairfax – The Commander-in-Chief
“WE STUDY THE GLORY OF GOD, AND THE HONOUR AND LIBERTY OF PARLIAMENT, FOR WHICH WE UNAMINOUSLY FIGHT, WITHOUT SEEKING OUR OWN INTERESTS….”
Thomas Fairfax, Lord Fairfax of Cameron, was born into an aristocratic family at Denton in North Yorkshire on 17 January 1612. He studied at Cambridge University before volunteering for an expedition to fight for the Protestant cause in the Netherlands. In 1639, he served under Charles I against the Scots, and was knighted by the king, but together with his father joined the Parliamentary forces when the English Civil War broke out in 1642 playing an important part in the defeat of Royalist forces at the Battle of Marston Moor in 1644.
Early in 1645, parliament approved the formation of a new, more professional army and Fairfax was made commander-in-chief, with Oliver Cromwell in charge of the cavalry. Fairfax created the New Model Army, forming a disciplined fighting force, creating a legacy which remains today. This was a defining moment in the development of the modern British military. Indeed the training and battle tactics devised by Fairfax is still used throughout the world in the training of military officers and strategists.
The Ironsides The New Model Army was created in February 1645 by Parliament. A professional army designed to compete on equal terms against both the experienced conscripted, and the professional mercenary elements, of the King’s army. This was a decision which would transform the fortunes of the Parliamentary forces, and change the course of English history. The New Model Army was a military force based on a person’s ability to fight and command rather than their parentage or access to society favour. For the first time, on a structural and intended basis, if you were good enough you could be an officer. The transformation of opportunity, a suggestion of democratic values in the 17th Century, meant that the suggestion at least was that New Model Army was testing and promoting new ideas and social class meant nothing. Critics will rightly highlight that Cromwell only allowed this within the parameters (and perhaps at the time he assumed) that his men also shared his Puritan beliefs (and that ultimately they should also accept submission to his will). However this would only, and brutally, reveal itself after his final victories when soldiers sought to transform their hard earned military freedoms to civil rights. However, prior to the first musket shot being fired at Naseby, Cromwell held at his command a well-drilled, equipped and motivated force, whose military philosophy and discipline we still value today.
On 14th June, near the village of Naseby in Northamptonshire the Battle of Naseby was the decisive battle of the first English Civil War. The Royalist army, under the leadership of Prince Rupert, occupied a front of about a mile and a half. Their right wing consisted of between 2,000 and 3,000 cavalry. The centre was organised as three infantry brigades with a regiment of horse. On the left were 1,500 more cavalry. The King commanded a small reserve, consisting of his own and Rupert’s regiments of foot and his lifeguard of horse. Fairfax had drawn up his army on the ridge a mile north of Naseby, although some of it was behind the crest on the reverse slope. A wing of five regiments of cavalry was on the left. The infantry held the centre with five regiments in the front line and three in support. In addition a small deployment of musketeers was deployed to the front, and two companies of infantry were held in reserve. Oliver Cromwell held the right wing with six and a half regiments of cavalry.
The Royalist centre attacked first, with Rupert keeping his own wing of cavalry in hand so that the horse and foot could hit the enemy simultaneously. There was time for only one volley of musketry before both sides were fighting hand-to-hand. The Parliamentarians were hard-pressed and forced back but at cost. On the Parliamentarian left, the opposing wings of horse paused briefly to dress ranks before charging into each other. Firstly they repulsed their Royalist opposite numbers, but then led an assault to relieve the pressured Parliamentarian centre. At the same time, the second line of Royalist cavalry broke most of the Parliamentarian horse. The entire Royalist right wing had been committed to defeat lead cavalry, and none were left in reserve. Rupert either neglected or was unable to rally the cavalier horsemen, who galloped off the battlefield in pursuit of the fleeing Parliamentarians. This would prove to be a fateful decision, and the worst example of where poor discipline in battle leads.
Meanwhile, the Parliamentarian right wing of horse under Cromwell and the Royalist “Northern Horse” faced each other, neither willing to charge to the aid of their infantry while the other could threaten their flank. Eventually the Royalist cavalry began to charge and Cromwell’s troops moved to meet them. However the cavalry were not only outflanked and outnumbered two to one, but forced to charge up a slope broken up by bushes. After a brief and bloody contest they were routed.
Unlike Prince Rupert, Cromwell had roughly half of his wing uncommitted, as only the front line of Cromwell’s wing had taken part in the defeat of referred to above. He sent only four divisions (roughly two regiments) after retreating cavalry, and turned his reserves against the left flank and rear of the Royalist centre. Some of the trapped Royalist infantry began to throw down their arms; whilst others tried to effect a fighting retreat. One regiment stood their ground and repulsed all attacks until finally Fairfax led his own regiment of foot and his regiment and lifeguard of horse against them from all sides. The blue coats’ resistance was broken and Fairfax is said to have taken their standard in person.
The main army of King Charles I was destroyed by the Parliamentarian New Model Army commanded by Sir Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell. Fairfax went on to recover Leicester on 18th June before immediately leading his army south-west to relieve Taunton, and to capture the Royalist held West Country. The main Royalist military force had been shattered at Naseby including it’s veteran infantry (including 500 officers), and it’s artillery. King Charles I and his supporters lacked the resources to re-build an army which would match the parliamentarians. After Naseby it was a matter of time before the Parliamentarian armies to wipe out the last pockets of Royalist resistance.