The War Wounds of Sir Thomas Fairfax

Looking back on his military service during the Civil Wars, Thomas 3rd Lord Fairfax penned his Short Memorials during the 1660s. The manuscript originals survive among the Fairfax Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library. Many years after his death, they were edited and published in defence of his reputation by his cousin Brian. Together with evidence from wartime newsbooks and pamphlets, they provide significant detail about the wounds that Fairfax and many of his close comrades received during their wartime service in the northern campaigns of 1642–45. In this blog, Andrew Hopper chronicles Fairfax’s many wounds, ailments and narrow escapes, suggesting something of their political and cultural significance.

Thanks to the kindness of Tom Fairfax, cousin of Nicholas, the current Lord Fairfax, the National Civil War Centre are able to display the wheelchair of the parliamentarian commander-in-chief as one of their star exhibits. Of a striking size and formidable in appearance, it was the showpiece of the Centre’s ‘Battle-Scarred’ exhibition in 2016–2019. It serves as a very physical reminder that civil-war commanders were expected to lead from the front and expose themselves to danger in order to inspire their troops.

During the 1660s, despite being scarcely fifty, Fairfax resorted to this wheelchair because of ill-health and the many war wounds that he carried with him. In his Short Memorials, Fairfax was meticulous in acknowledging the hand of God’s providence in explaining his unlikely survival of so many military engagements. His good fortune is magnified when it is considered the dangers he faced and how many times he was wounded. On top of this, Fairfax was quite a sickly man. The fevers he endured during his brief military education in the Low Countries in 1629 frequently recurred, including soon after his marriage to Anne Vere in 1637. Fearing another recurrence of his son’s ill health, Ferdinando, 2nd Lord Fairfax, withheld permission for him to serve against the Irish rebels, despite Sir Thomas’s pleading that the ‘miserable condition our neighbours of Ireland are in doth much affect me’ (Bodleian MS Fairfax 32, fo. 43). On 4 January 1642, Sir Thomas’s mother-in-law, Mary, Lady Vere, congratulated Ferdinando on the wisdom of this decision: ‘I think you did exceeding well to stay him from Ireland. He owes himself more here, if there should be occasion: & this winter is a most extreme cold one: he is to me as my own’ (Bodleian MS Fairfax 32, fo. 19).

Once hostilities commenced, it did not take long for Fairfax to receive his first wound. The London press reported him wounded in the head in only his second engagement, defending his quarters at Wetherby from a surprise attack by horse and dragoons under Sir Thomas Glemham on 25 November 1642 (BL, Thomason E.128[28], Speciall Passages, no. 16, 22–29 November 1642, pp. 135–6). Caught unawares and not fully dressed, Fairfax recalled that he led his court of guard consisting of 2 sergeants and 2 pikemen to fight off a charge by Sir Thomas Glemham and 6 or 7 of his officers. The royalist Sir Henry Slingsby recorded ‘every one had his shot at him, he only making out at them with his sword’. If their aim had been better, Fairfax’s military career would have been over before it had scarcely begun. These 4 foot soldiers had likely saved his life, for as Slingsby pointed out, Fairfax was driven back ‘under the guard of his pikes’ (Daniel Parsons, ed., The Diary of Sir Henry Slingsby of Scriven, 1836, p. 83). An insertion in the margin by his cousin, Brian Fairfax, remarked that one of these soldiers ‘had a pension for his life till 1670’ (Short Memorials, 1699, p. 6). If this pension had been granted by the West Riding quarter sessions, it would have been illegal during the 1660s and the recipient would have risked imprisonment by collecting it. This raises the intriguing possibility that if the pension was paid after 1660, it might have been done so privately, in gratitude by Fairfax himself. The royalists only withdrew from Wetherby when another of Fairfax’s soldiers accidentally dropped a match into a barrel of gunpowder, causing them to believe (wrongly), that the parliamentarians had deployed artillery (Bodleian MS Fairfax 36, fo. 5).

On 13 December 1642, Fairfax had another lucky escape when his horse collapsed, having been shot under him during a cavalry raid on royalist quarters at Sherburn-in-Elmet (Bodleian MS Fairfax 36, fo. 6; BL, Thomason E.83[15], A True Relation of the Fight at Sherburn in the County of Yorke, 16 December 1642, pp. 1–2). On 30 March 1643, Fairfax was fortunate again to escape into Leeds after his defeat on Seacroft Moor by Sir George Goring, during which Fairfax’s cornet was captured and the autobiographer, John Hodgson, then an ensign was also wounded, presumably defending his colours. Two months later, during his successful assault on Wakefield on 20 May, Fairfax was again almost captured when he became temporarily separated from his men riding through the streets.

Selby Market Place, photographed by Gordon Kneale Brooke.

Fairfax received his second wound on 2 July 1643 during a sharp cavalry engagement in Selby market place, whilst protecting his father’s army’s retreat from Leeds to Hull. He later recalled: ‘I received a shot in the wrist of my arm, which made the bridle fall out of my hand, which being among the nerves and veins, suddenly let out such a quantity of blood, that I was ready to fall from my horse.’ He seized the reins with his sword hand and got clear of the melee, which allowed his soldiers to lay him down on the ground ‘almost senseless’ until ‘my surgeon came seasonably & bound up my wound, & so stopped the bleeding’. After only a quarter of an hour’s rest, he mounted up, and remained in the saddle for another 20 hours until he arrived in Hull ‘having lost all even to my shirt, for, my clothes were made unfit to wear with rends & blood which was upon them’ (Bodleian MS Fairfax 36, fos. 9–10). If he had been wearing a steel bridle-arm to protect his rein hand, as was customary for civil-war cavalry, this might have carried further metal into the wound. A bridle-arm from the Fairfax collection survives on display in the National Civil War Centre, again on loan thanks to the kindness of Tom Fairfax, which suggests that the wound healed well enough not to inhibit him from wearing this armour during future engagements.

Display case containing Fairfax’s bridle arm among some of his other possessions, on loan to the National Civil War Centre.

His third wound came a year later, ‘a cutt in my cheeke’, during his first cavalry charge at Marston Moor on 2 July 1644. The royalist polemicist, John Crouch later jibed that Fairfax was by this wound ‘marked for a rogue’, intending to undermine his gentility by comparing him to plebeian felons whose faces could be judicially maimed (BL, Thomason E.560[9], A Tragi-Comedy, called New-market-fayre, 1649, p. 5). Many of Fairfax’s cavalry officers were killed early in the battle by royalist musketry. Fairfax’s Short Memorials reflected: ‘The captain of my own troop was shot in the arm. My cornet had both his hands cut [likely defending the colours], that rendered him ever after unserviceable. Captain Micklethwaite, an honest, stout man was slain and scarce any officer which was in this charge, which did not receive a hurt. Major Fairfax, who was major to [John Lambert] had at least 30 wounds whereof he died after he was abroad again and good hopes of his recovery.’ But even more saddening than Major Fairfax’s short-lived revival was the loss of Sir Thomas’s younger brother, Colonel Charles Fairfax ‘who, being deserted by his men, was sore wounded, of which in 3 or 4 days he died.’ Fairfax acknowledged God’s goodness to him that he himself had come away comparatively unscathed, despite being unhorsed, struck to the ground, and again separated from his men. Once again, his horse had been shot from under him (Bodleian MS Fairfax 36, fo. 13; BL, Thomason, E.2[14], A More Exact Relation of the Late Battell neer York, 17 July, 1644, p. 7).

The following month, Fairfax received his fourth and most dangerous wound while directing the besiegers of Helmsley Castle. At considerable range, Fairfax ‘received a dangerous shot in my shoulder and was brought back to York’, leaving ‘all, for some time being doubtful of my recovery’. This required 3 months to convalesce and may possibly have deterred him from wearing a back and breast plate thereafter (Bodleian MS Fairfax 36, fo. 13; BL Thomason E.254[28], Perfect Occurrences of Parliament, no. 4, 30 August–6 September 1644, sig. D2r).

Helmsley Castle – photograph by Andrew Hopper

As Thomas lay recovering, his cousin Sir William Fairfax was mortally wounded in the Battle of Montgomery on 18 September 1644. One newsbook claimed that by refusing to treat, he was wounded 12 or 13 times. He died 16 hours later, his last words a request for Sir William Brereton to look after his widow and children (BL Thomason, E.10[7], The Kingdom’s Weekly Intelligencer, no. 73, 17–24 September 1644, p. 588–9; BL Thomason, E.10[6], The Weekly Account, no. 56, 18–24 September 1644, p. 448; BL Thomason, E.10[5], The London Post, no. 5, 24 September 1644, p. 8). Despite having just lost his son second son at Marston Moor and with his eldest son lying dangerously wounded, Ferdinando greeted the news of the ‘mortal wounds of my dear nephew’ with Godly stoicism: ‘blessed be God, the victory obtained over our enemies doth abate my sorrow for any particular friends’ (TNA, State Papers 16/503, fos. 260–1).

No sooner had Sir Thomas recovered, he was directing operations at the siege of Pontefract Castle in January 1645. There, he ‘was lately in great danger of being shot by a cannon bullet from the castle, which came between him and Colonel Forbes; the waft of it felled Sir Thomas to the ground, and spoiled one side of the Colonel’s face and eyes’. Forbes survived this terrible injury and was nicknamed ‘Blowface’ thereafter (BL, Thomason E.24[23], Mercurius Civicus, 9–16 January, 1645, p. 790).

After he travelled southward to assume command of the New Model Army, Fairfax continued to place himself in the forefront of the fighting. He was fortunate at Naseby, where he ‘received not the least wound; though he engaged bareheaded’ (BL, Thomason, E.288[38], A More Particular and Exact Relation of the Victory obtained by the Parliaments Forces under the Command of Sir Thomas Fairfax, 19 June, 1645, p. 2). However the wounds that he sustained in the northern campaigns continued to trouble him, reminding us that the ‘recovery’ of maimed soldiers from their wounds was rarely total. He wrote to his father from Chard on 8 October 1645: ‘I am exceedingly troubled with rheumatism and a benumbing coldness in my head, legs and arms, especially on that side I had my hurts. It hath pleased the Lord to help me through much extremities, and I trust He will lay no more on me than He will enable me to bear.’ Fairfax was indeed conscious that God had protected him through many dangers: ‘The mercies I have received ought to stop all complaints in His service’ (Bell, Fairfax Correspondence, vol. 1, p. 251).

By 1646 Fairfax had developed a kidney stone. Like many soldiers sent there from London’s military hospitals, in August 1646 Fairfax took the waters at Bath to try to ease his condition. He visited again in July 1659 (BL, Additional MS 10114, fo. 49; BL, Additional MS 71448 fos. 48, 50). He enjoyed another narrow escape at the Battle of Torrington on 16 February 1646, when he acknowledged to his father ‘God’s great mercy to me’ after 80 barrels of powder blew up inside a church showering down ‘great webs of lead’ which ‘fell thickest’ onto the ground around him, killing one of his lifeguard’s horses (Bell ed., Fairfax Correspondence, vol. 1, p. 285).

During the political entanglements that followed the First Civil War, Fairfax was often accused by his Army’s enemies at Westminster of pretending to be sick at convenient moments. In April 1647, in the midst of his army’s protests over pay and indemnity, he sought medical treatment in London. That autumn, illness prevented him from chairing most of the Putney Debates, until towards their end on 5 November 1647. His chaplain, Joshua Sprigge remarked that Fairfax continued to suffer ‘some infirmities contracted by former wounds’ (Anglia Rediviva, 1647, p. 42), but these seemed not to trouble him during battle. On 1 June 1648, enduring great pain from gout, Fairfax led his soldiers in a furious assault on Maidstone. He was ill again during Pride’s Purge in December 1648, and unable to meet MPs imprisoned by his Army. On top of his illnesses and recurring pain from his wounds, it is likely that from 1649 Fairfax was also troubled with bouts of depression and melancholy over his failure to prevent the King’s execution.

The accounts of Fairfax’s army headquarters from December 1646 show him dispensing generous gratuities to maimed soldiers, war widows and refugees from Ireland, some of whom importuned repeatedly for relief. (Ethel Kitson and E. Kitson Clark, ‘Some civil war accounts’, in Miscellanea, Thoresby Society, 11, 1904, pp. 137–235). Perhaps Fairfax was able to empathise in these cases because of his own wounds and bereavements. He considered wounds in service to a cause conferred honour on their bearers and were markers of God’s favour. This could be turned to political purposes. Fairfax commanded widespread respect among parliamentarians, not just because of his military successes, but because his sacrifices in the cause were so physically obvious. In the Protectorate Parliament on 3 February 1659, Sir Arthur Hesilrige proclaimed that the New Model was ‘the best army that ever was in the world’ and used the physical example of Fairfax’s wounds to remind MPs to take good care of it: ‘This noble Lord that sits by me, Lord Fairfax; I bless God that he, having received so many wounds, now sits by my right hand’ (J.T. Rutt, ed., The Diary of Thomas Burton, Esq., London, 1828, vol. 3, p. 56). In December 1659, Fairfax led an uprising in favour of General Monck that seized York, but his kidney stones and gout now forced him to direct proceedings from his coach rather than on horseback.

All considered, it is little wonder that Fairfax was resorting to this wheelchair during his final years. His cousin Brian remembered him sitting in it ‘like an old Roman, his manly countenance striking awe and reverence into all that beheld him’ (BL, Egerton MS 2,146 fo. 38). The National Civil War Centre would like once again to thank the Fairfax family for having loaned the wheelchair (along with other important artefacts owned by the general), so that it can be kept for public view as a reminder of the terrible costs of war to the human body. It also bears witness to the extraordinary story of Fairfax’s ultimate survival through so many dangers in this harrowing conflict. Increasingly confined to it, he spent his final years reading, writing and making notes from sermons. He died, aged just 59, of a fever in his home at Nun Appleton, 9 miles southwest of York, on 11 November 1671. During the last morning of his life he called for his Bible. As his eyes grew dim he recited the forty-second psalm (BL Egerton MS 2146, fo. 38), which includes the penultimate verse:

‘As with a sword in my bones, mine enemies reproach mee: while they say dayly unto me, where is thy God?’ (Authorised Version, 1611).

Fairfax’s will directed his burial be conducted ‘in such a manner as may be convenient and decent rather than pompous’. It also directed that John Denonley and his wife Elizabeth enjoy their farm rent-free for life, on account of John ‘having received a maim in my service disabling him to earn his living’ (Markham, A Life of the Great Lord Fairfax, p. 445).

Further Reading


Andrew Hopper and Philip Major (eds), England’s Fortress: New Perspectives on Thomas, 3rd Lord Fairfax (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014).

Andrew Hopper, ‘Black Tom’: Sir Thomas Fairfax and the English Revolution (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007).

John Wilson, Fairfax: A Life of Thomas, Lord Fairfax, Captain-General of all the Parliament’s forces in the English Civil War, Creator and Commander of the New Model Army (New York, 1985).

Mildred Ann Gibb, The Lord General: A Life of Thomas Fairfax (London, 1938).

Clements R. Markham, A Life of the Great Lord Fairfax (London, 1870).

Robert Bell (ed.), The Fairfax Correspondence: Memorials of the Civil War, 2 vols (London, 1849).

Brian Fairfax (ed.), Short Memorials of Thomas Lord Fairfax (London, 1699).

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