Poor Thomas Fairfax. You spend years going bravely into battle, doing your duty, nearly die from a horrible war injury to your shoulder, lead the New Model Army, win the battle of Naseby – and in the capital of the county where you were born and lived and fought so many battles, most people have never heard of you, and keep mentioning Oliver Cromwell instead.
They didn’t just fight, the Fairfaxes. They showed a remarkable regard for the treasures of what we now call our ‘historic environment’. As is often quoted, it’s largely thanks to them that we still have medieval stained glass in our Minster and ancient parish churches, and that it wasn’t smashed to bits when the siege of York ended.
There are many other recorded instances of Fairfax involvement in protecting treasures of the past for the citizens of the future.
They had a home within the city walls, in Bishophill. The name of one of its Victorian streets is the only reminder of their forgotten mansion. Another home was at Nun Appleton, not far from here. Thomas Fairfax lived at Nun Appleton after retiring from his military role, and died there in 1671. He and his wife Anne are buried in the church at Bilbrough, in this side chapel. The chapel was beautifully restored in the 1980s.
Anne Fairfax (nee Vere) was an equally interesting character, who was at one point captured by the Royalist forces, while following her husband and his armies.
Recent reports in the papers regarding an excavation in the Fishergate area of a mass grave from the time of the 1644 siege showed how this once famous Yorkshire family have been forgotten. Soldiers who had been under the command of Ferdinando and Thomas Fairfax were widely reported as being ‘Cromwell’s soldiers’.
Perhaps though I shouldn’t get on my high horse about this misunderstanding. (Pictured left is Sir Thomas on his high horse.) When I started this site I’d read about the siege of York and the Fairfaxes, but struggled to find it interesting. The civil war period is generally seen as rather dull and confusing, despite the best efforts of those who do have a passionate interest. I got drawn in eventually.
In the 1640s, Fairfax was a hero to many, charismatic, respected. When the famous New Model Army was founded, Thomas Fairfax was made its commander-in-chief – with Oliver Cromwell in charge of the cavalry.
Often mentioned is Fairfax’s ‘modesty’. Perhaps the modesty, combined with other personal qualities, meant that he was destined to withdraw from the limelight, and to be overshadowed, and to have his fellow Yorkshiremen/women forgetting him and attributing his achievements to Cromwell. Many modest people will recognise that scenario.
Still, Thomas Fairfax is remembered here, in a thoughtfully restored chapel in Bilbrough church, not far away from York. And also not far from Marston Moor – site of just one of his many, many battles. Anyone reading biographies of Thomas Fairfax, and his own ‘Short Memorials’, will probably recognise that many of the battles were with himself and his own conscience.
The Castle Museum in York has amongst its military collection a buff coat which once belonged to Thomas Fairfax. This is more interesting than it sounds, honest. Buff coats were apparently the 17th century version of the biker’s leather jacket.
If that doesn’t capture your interest, there’s even a novel about Thomas and Anne Fairfax, written some decades back: The Rider of the White Horse, by Rosemary Sutcliff. York Explore (Central library) has a copy, in the reserve section somewhere in the basement, available if you request it.