Winning the Civil War

Graham Goodlad examines the relationship that broke the Royalist cause in the English Revolution.


It is sometimes suggested that the intermittent bloody conflict between king and Parliament that played out over nine years from 1642 – known variously as the English Civil War, the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, and the Great Rebellion – was the result of actions taken by Parliamentarians against Charles I. As historians of the complex events of this cataclysmic period point out, however, it would be more accurate to say the opposite – that it was above all the actions of the Stuart king, in declaring himself sovereign over Parliament, that set the nation on the road to civil war.

As the country divided into Roundheads and Cavaliers, Parliament’s access to resources and revenues ought to have given its supporters the upper hand. Yet the first pitched battle, at Edgehill in Warwickshire on 23 October 1642, proved inconclusive. The outcome – a nervy stalemate between two ill-equipped part-time armies – drew a withering assessment from one middle-aged observer: Oliver Cromwell, the MP for Cambridge, who at the time was an amateur captain at the head of a cavalry troop raised from among his own constituents. ‘Your troopers are most of them old, decayed serving-men and tapsters,’ he wrote to one of the Parliamentary leaders, ‘You must get men of a spirit… or else I am sure you will be beaten still.’

A 19th-century painting by Charles Landseer depicts Oliver Cromwell (on the right) and Sir Thomas Fairfax reading private papers taken from the king’s baggage train, which was captured during their victory at the Battle of Naseby on 14 June 1645. In the space of just two hours, the Royalist field army had been shattered.

With hindsight, it is easy to see in Cromwell’s plea some of the thought-processes that would lead a little more than two years later to the establishment of the New Model Army – the finest professional military force of the age, and often described as the precursor to the modern-day British Army. The New Model would eventually win the Civil War for Parliament – and help establish Cromwell as one of the most significant figures in British history. But, as we shall see, its creation was not due to Old Ironsides alone.

As we discover in our two-part special for this issue, the New Model Army was in fact the joint creation of Cromwell and the often-overlooked figure of Sir Thomas Fairfax – a man 13 years his junior, who became the Army’s first commander-in-chief, and did much to mould it into the disciplined fighting force it became. Graham Goodlad first reveals how two such different men came to forge a partnership that would break the Royalist cause; then looks in detail at Marston Moor, the decisive victory on 2 July 1644 that enabled Parliament to win control of northern England.

A most effective partnership: Oliver Cromwell and Sir Thomas Fairfax

If asked to identify the most important contributor to Parliament’s victory in the English Civil War, without doubt most people would name Oliver Cromwell. In historical memory, he dominates the convulsive decades of the mid-17th century. His rise was as unpredictable as it was striking – from obscure fenland squire to outstanding cavalry commander and finally republican head of state. He was the prime mover in the trial and execution of King Charles I and the main architect of England’s most radical experiment in government. He is unquestionably one of a handful of individuals who changed the course of his country’s history.

Yet for the greater part of the military struggle, Cromwell was the subordinate of an often-overlooked figure, Sir Thomas Fairfax, his junior by 13 years. The New Model Army that defeated the king was their joint creation. Victory in the great set-piece battles of the war, at Marston Moor in 1644 and Naseby a year later, was the outcome of their increasingly effective partnership.

It is politics rather than war that explains why Fairfax has largely faded from the national consciousness. Less ambitious than Cromwell, he became estranged from his colleague in the turbulent post-war years, as the victors strove for a workable political settlement. He retired into the obscurity of private life while Cromwell intrigued, struggled, and rose to become Lord Protector. Yet it was the joint efforts of Fairfax and Cromwell on the battlefield that had made possible this cataclysmic upheaval.

Oliver Cromwell [left] changed history as the prime mover in the trial and execution of King Charles I, yet for most of the English Civil War he was the subordinate of Sir Thomas Fairfax [right], a man 13 years his junior.

On the same battlefield

The son of a peer with estates in Yorkshire, Fairfax came from a background more secure than the one into which Cromwell was born. The latter was the scion of a minor gentry family in East Anglia who experienced life as a working farmer during a downturn in his fortunes. Fairfax also had more military experience than his future colleague. In his late teens he joined an expedition to the Netherlands, where he saw action against the Spanish. He commanded a troop of dragoons in the Bishops’ Wars of 1639-1640, a stand-off between Charles I and his Scottish subjects that contributed to the breakdown of relations between Crown and Parliament. Meanwhile Cromwell, MP for Huntingdon and later for nearby Cambridge, served for just a short time in his county’s militia before the outbreak of the Civil War.

It was the struggle against arbitrary royal power that brought the two men together. At an open-air meeting near York in June 1642, two months before the formal commencement of hostilities, Fairfax presented a petition to the king on behalf of the property owners of his county. Although moderate in tone, it signified the strong Parliamentarian sympathies of the young Fairfax. Fairfax also shared with Cromwell a strong commitment to Puritan religious beliefs, underpinned by a conviction that human action was directed by God’s providence. It was in opposition to the High Church policies of the royal establishment that Cromwell first made a name for himself in Parliamentary debate. On the outbreak of war in August 1642, he revealed a gift for practical organisation too, rapidly raising an armed defence force in Cambridgeshire.

The New Model Army (above), the joint creation   of Cromwell and Fairfax, was Parliament’s instrument of victory in three civil wars. Its soldiers were typically more plainly dressed than those of the Royalist army (below).

The first year of the war was a harder, more bruising experience for Fairfax than for Cromwell. The Yorkshireman and his father, Lord Fairfax, were heavily outnumbered in their region, and some of the family’s properties were occupied by the enemy. Maintaining an army and motivating men to fight, often for long periods without pay, was a challenging task. With no feasible alternative, the Fairfaxes waged a war of attrition in the north, constantly harassing their principal opponent, the Earl of Newcastle, and largely avoiding pitched battle. The soundness of this preference was underlined in June 1643, when father and son encountered Royalist forces in open country at Adwalton Moor, in West Yorkshire, and suffered a severe defeat.

By contrast, Cromwell had the advantage of building a fighting force in strongly Parliamentarian East Anglia. He had emerged as the key figure in the Eastern Association, which recruited from the wealthy agricultural region extending from Essex to Lincolnshire. This made him a welcome and well-resourced ally when he first met Fairfax, at Hull in September 1643. The two campaigned together that autumn in Lincolnshire, a county in which there remained a strong enemy presence. Their first joint action was a brief yet violent encounter with a Royalist force that was advancing from Lincoln to relieve the besieged garrison of Bolingbroke Castle.

This was the Battle of Winceby, fought on the edge of the Lincolnshire Wolds on 11 October. Under overall leadership of the Earl of Manchester, Parliamentarians took a position on a ridge, with the Royalists occupying high ground some 600 yards away. Between them was an open stretch of low-lying land. The two sides were evenly matched, each with about 3,000 cavalry. The Parliamentarians deployed some 2,000 infantry – but the battle lasted barely half an hour and they played no part in the action.

King Charles I and Prince Rupert, his nephew   and most senior general, before the Battle of Naseby, as depicted by the 19th-century artist Richard Beavis.

After an initial exchange of fire, Cromwell led his two regiments in a frontal assault, only to have his horse shot from under him. Although he returned to the fight, he played a limited role thereafter. Yet it was his Eastern Association horse who pinned the Royalists until Fairfax, leading his cavalry around the top of the ridge, took the enemy’s left flank without warning of his approach. This effectively decided the outcome.

In the ensuing rout, the Royalists lost an estimated 200 men for just 20 Parliamentarians, with many more taken prisoner. Many of the fleeing cavalry were trapped against an inward opening gate, which they could neither jump nor force open, and they were slaughtered where they stood. To this day, the place is known as ‘Slash Hollow’. Winceby paved the way for the Parliamentarian conquest of the rest of the county – while the collaboration of Fairfax and Cromwell was to be more fully developed as the war moved into its decisive phase.Making the New Model Army

After the victory in July 1644 at Marston Moor – the subject of an in-depth companion article (see p.28) – Fairfax and Cromwell refashioned Parliament’s military forces. The armies hitherto deployed had often resisted being moved outside the areas in which they were recruited. The New Model Army was a conscious attempt to overcome the narrow provincialism that was undermining the chances of a decisive Parliamentary victory. It was to consist of 6,600 cavalry, 1,000 dragoons, and some 14,000 infantry, and it was to have Parliament’s considerable financial resources behind it. Clad in red coats faced with Fairfax’s colour, blue, its soldiers were the first in English history to wear a uniform.

The army was to be led by full-time commanders who, by the so-called Self-Denying Ordinance, were no longer allowed to sit in one of the two Houses of Parliament. Cromwell was made an exception to this rule, retaining his seat in the Commons while holding a series of temporary military commissions that were continually extended. Crucially, the Ordinance led to the removal of the lacklustre Parliamentary generals the Earls of Manchester and Essex, whose lack of energy in waging war had become a major source of division. Cromwell had engaged in a bitter series of exchanges with Manchester, whom he regarded as fatally prone to compromise with the still undefeated king.

The overall leader of the New Model Army, however, was Fairfax. Traditionally, historians argued that Fairfax was chosen for his apolitical nature, as a compromise candidate who would cause little offence in the faction-ridden Parliamentarian world. More recent scholarship has depicted him as a much less passive figure.

Fairfax stood out for his military prowess. There could be no doubt of his ability as a cavalry commander, nor of his fighting spirit once battle was joined. But there was more to it than this. He also owed his elevation to his family’s connection with northern England, a region whose importance to contemporaries has been overlooked by many later writers. Fairfax and his father were central to the judicial prosecution of Sir John Hotham, former Governor of Hull, who was tried and executed for treachery to Parliament in January 1645. There was a close correlation between those who sought to punish the traitor and the advocates of a much more determined approach to the war.

The New Model Army was, from the start, intended to be a more professional body than its predecessors. A large proportion of its infantry were pressed men, and desertion remained a problem. But its backbone was a well-trained cavalry, imbued with a strongly Puritan ethic. Regular pay and an efficient supply system ensured loyalty. The troops paid for their lodging when quartered on householders, and looting was strongly discouraged.

Discipline could be ruthlessly enforced. Fairfax ordered a wagon master who had taken bribes to stand for three days in Maxfield market- place in Cheshire, bearing a notice proclaiming his offence. He had a soldier’s tongue bored through for swearing. The army’s generally restrained conduct on the march began to win it favour in areas where Royalist excesses had alienated the civilian population.

Naseby: the decisive clash

In the spring of 1645, there were several possible objectives towards which the New Model Army could be directed. Eventually it was decided that Fairfax should concentrate on besieging Royalist Oxford in order to divert the king from marching north against the Scots. In a counter-move, Charles himself then decided to draw Fairfax away by heading into the East Midlands to threaten Leicester. With the king was his nephew and most senior general, Prince Rupert.

The fall of Leicester – accomplished with great brutality by Rupert’s forces at the end of May – caused great alarm on Parliament’s side. Abandoning the siege of Oxford, the New Model Army marched northwards with remarkable speed. Fairfax requested Cromwell’s appointment as lieutenant-general of cavalry, a role to which he was admirably suited, and on 13 June the two came together just west of Northampton. This was the background to the most decisive engagement of the war, near the village of Naseby.

A contemporary map shows the deployment of the armies at the start of the Battle of Naseby. The Royalists are to the north, the Parliamentarians to the south.

The decision to confront the Parliamentarian forces was taken by the king in the early hours of the next day. It was a most unwise step. The Royalists had hoped that Sir George Goring would arrive from the West Country to provide vital reinforcements, but he did not materialise. The king’s army was heavily outnumbered, with some 9,000 troops to the New Model’s 15,000 soldiers. Nonetheless, Charles took up position on a ridge to await the arrival of the Parliamentarians.

Fairfax’s first preference was to deploy on an expanse of low-lying wet ground north of Naseby. But, on Cromwell’s advice, he agreed to withdraw a few hundred yards on to higher ground. Both sides adopted the classic formation of the period, with their infantry in the centre and cavalry on each flank. On the Parliamentarian left, behind a hedge, Fairfax stationed his dragoons – a position from which they could pour musket- fire into the advancing enemy cavalry.

The Royalists made the first move, Rupert’s cavalry on the right flank breaking through the Parliamentarian left, whose counter-attack was ineffective. Their commander, Cromwell’s future son-in-law Henry Ireton, was wounded and taken prisoner. Rupert chased his stricken opponents from the field, keeping up the pursuit until he reached the New Model Army’s baggage train. In the centre, Parliamentary foot were struggling to hold their ground.

Fairfax and Cromwell, who led the Parliamentarian right wing, now intervened. Taking advantage of Rupert’s absence, Cromwell led an assault on the Royalist left flank in order to shore up the gap left by Ireton’s capture. He and Fairfax then charged from opposite sides into the king’s infantry in the middle. Fairfax led a further charge against the Royalist left, now briefly strengthened by the belated return to the field of Rupert’s cavalry. As the Parliamentary foot recovered, Fairfax led the whole army forward in a disciplined mass, putting the broken enemy to flight.

The king fled to Leicester, leaving 1,000 of his men dead and a further 4,500 taken prisoner, for just 400 Parliamentary losses. In a black mark on the Parliamentarian cause, more than 100 female camp followers were indiscriminately killed or mutilated. Charles also lost his artillery and his baggage train, including the royal coach, in which were discovered incriminating papers detailing plans to deploy an Irish army in England. In the space of two hours, the Royalist field army had been utterly shattered.

An imaginative reconstruction of the close-quarters fighting at the Battle of Naseby.

Cromwell played a critical part in the victory. Yet Naseby was the overall responsibility of Fairfax, the man whom Charles had sneeringly called ‘the rebels’ new brutish general’. He rode continuously from one part of the field to another, energising and directing his forces, and showed masterly tactical skill in deciding when to commit his reserves. A Parliamentarian newsbook described him as having ‘a spirit heightened above the ordinary spirit of man, he was to and again in the front, carrying orders, bringing on divisions in the midst of dangers, with gallant bravery and routed that enemy’.

Closing the net

After Naseby, Fairfax decided that the New Model Army should focus next on the south-west as the region where the king was most likely to make a stand. Supported by 2,200 horse and dragoons under Edward Massey, commander of the Western Association, Fairfax and Cromwell made for Taunton, county town of Somerset. The town was under siege from the forces of Sir George Goring, who now moved eastwards to meet the rapidly advancing Parliamentarians.

In an attempt to split Fairfax’s forces, Goring ordered some of his troops back towards Taunton. The ruse failed. Fairfax took the retreating Royalists by surprise before confronting the main contingent outside the small town of Langport on 10 July. Here a fast-flowing stream, passable only at a ford, crossed the main east–west road. Royalist musketeers lined the surrounding hedges, with the cavalry and artillery on higher ground behind them. It was potentially a strong position, which Goring hoped would allow him to block the Parliamentarian advance long enough to allow an orderly retreat towards the port of Bridgwater.

Although Goring’s plan made sense, he was still seriously outnumbered. He had sent all except two of his artillery pieces ahead to Bridgwater, along with his baggage, so that it was easy for the Parliamentarian cannon to silence them. Cromwell was then given the difficult task of getting his cavalry across the flooded stream. On the other side, they had to negotiate a narrow, hedge-lined lane, leading uphill to the place where the Royalist horse awaited them. This was a bold manoeuvre that could easily have gone wrong. But as more Parliamentarian cavalry were poured in, together with detachments of infantry, Goring’s troops began to break and run.

Langport was soon followed by the fall of Bridgwater, Bath, and Sherborne. This left Bristol, England’s most important port city after London, as the only surviving Royalist stronghold in the region. Prince Rupert, commanding the garrison, did not have enough troops to defend the three-mile perimeter of the city walls. He had pinned his hopes on an outer earthwork and ditch, studded at intervals with forts. Both sides knew that taking this would be a costly undertaking. Fairfax initially tried to spare lives by seeking a negotiated surrender, attacking only when this avenue had been exhausted. He had also sent Parliamentarian forces to command the routes to the north and west, sealing off the area in case the Royalists launched a relief expedition from either direction.

The execution of Charles I at Whitehall on 30 January 1649, recorded here in a painting probably based on eye-witness accounts. The inset pictures on the left show Charles as he appeared at his trial, and below, Charles walking to the scaffold. Those on the right show the moments immediately after the execution: the axeman holds up Charles’ severed head, while spectators dip their handkerchiefs in royal blood. Image: Alamy

Once the assault began, in the early hours of 10 September, the superior numbers of the besieging force proved decisive. Fairfax could deploy some 10,000 men, supported by 5,000 auxiliaries, whereas the defenders, decimated by plague and desertion, could muster few more than 3,000 troops. Yet it still required several hours of determined fighting to take the fortifications by storm. The walls proved impervious to artillery-fire, and higher in places than the Parliamentarians’ ladders could reach. Cavalry played little part in the action, with the besiegers depending on the infantry to make a breach or force open one of the gates. As the forts began to fall and the surviving defenders retreated within the city walls, Rupert realised the uselessness of continued resistance and sued for peace.

Bristol’s seizure effectively cut the Royalists off from the possibility of reinforcement from Ireland, except through Chester. It also signalled the end of their most prominent general’s career. Rupert was sacked for surrendering the city, and went into exile on the Continent.

In the closing months of the war, Fairfax and Cromwell fought largely separate campaigns. The former completed the conquest of the south-west, heading into Devon, while his subordinate mopped up the remaining centres of resistance in Wiltshire and Hampshire. They were together again in March 1646 for a ceremonial entry into Plymouth, whose garrison had been blockaded by the Royalists since the start of the war. Just over two months later, hostilities came to an end – temporarily, as it turned out – following the king’s surrender to the Scots. It was the high point of the collaboration between Fairfax and Cromwell.

Severing the bond

From the end of the first Civil War, Cromwell began to overshadow his commander-in-chief. Fairfax continued to play an active role, but the older man had the stronger commitment to driving forward the Puritan revolution. The outbreak of the second Civil War – which took place between February and August 1648 and was caused by Charles’ attempts to secure his restoration with the help of a Scottish army – found Fairfax still in office as commander-in-chief. That summer, he conducted the siege of Colchester, while Cromwell routed the Scots at Preston. But Fairfax had little appetite for the political manoeuvres that followed Charles’ final defeat. He absented himself from the king’s trial in the winter of 1648-1649, his wife dramatically interrupting the proceedings when his name was read out and being hustled out of the public gallery by guards.

Despite the leading role he played in the downfall of Charles I, Fairfax (whose portrait bust is shown here from the National Portrait Gallery) became increasingly disenchanted with the direction of the republican regime. Eventually, he would even help to facilitate the restoration of the monarchy.

The two generals cooperated once more, to suppress the Leveller mutiny in one of the darker episodes of the post-war era. In the spring of 1649, they confronted a mutiny in the army, prompted partly by demands for arrears of pay to be met and partly by the soldiers’ support for a more radical political agenda. The movement was nipped in the bud following a rapid night march to Burford in Oxfordshire, where Cromwell and Fairfax apprehended the mutineers. Three of the ringleaders were shot by firing squad in the churchyard. Although he endorsed the violent suppression of the mutiny, Fairfax was the more lenient of the two, reprieving a fourth individual whom Cromwell had marked for execution.

Fairfax resigned as commander-in-chief in June 1650 when a further Royalist invasion of England from Scotland threatened. The ostensible reason for his retirement was his disinclination to go beyond a defensive war against the Scots. Cromwell took his own independent course, invading Scotland after failing to persuade his former commander to stay on. A deeper reason for Fairfax’s departure was his growing disenchantment with the general direction of the republican regime. Perhaps he was thinking of self-preservation in the event of a Royalist comeback.

Fairfax remained unreconciled to his erstwhile battlefield ally in the decade of the Interregnum – between the execution of Charles I on 30 January 1649 and the arrival of his son Charles II in London on 29 May 1660 – keeping his own counsel as Cromwell’s Protectorate rose and fell. He lived to see the restoration of the monarchy, which he helped to facilitate by breaking up a last desperate attempt to rally republican forces in the north, headed by his former deputy, John Lambert. In recognition of this, and of his generally honourable past conduct, he was allowed to live out his last decade in peace, unmolested by the new government. It was an anticlimactic end for the man who, with the indispensable aid of his most gifted subordinate, had led the army that won the Civil War.

Further Reading:

  • Ian Gentles, The New Model Army in England, Ireland and Scotland (Blackwell, 1992).
  • Andrew Hopper, Black Tom: Sir Thomas Fairfax and the English Revolution (Manchester University Press, 2007).
  • Frank Kitson, Old Ironsides: the military biography of Oliver Cromwell (Phoenix, 2007).
All images: Wikimedia Commons, unless otherwise stated
You can read the second part, Graham Goodlad's analysis of the Battle of Marston Moor, here.