In the historiographical constellation of the English Civil Wars, Oliver Cromwell stands at the solar center, retaining that hold by the force of his enigmatic personality and inarguable abilities (except perhaps as Protector). Yet such attention can come at the expense of dimming other forces at work in the universe of mid-seventeenth-century England. Cromwell may have reconquered Ireland, but it was Henry Ireton who completed the job and implemented the changes, with often equal severity. And in the parliamentarian forces of the New Model Army, it was Thomas Fairfax, not Cromwell, who served as its commander and in many instances its guiding force. Fairfax might not have shared the same magnetism as Cromwell, but he was the undoubted "star of the north," and it is therefore welcome that he has received such a study as Andrew Hopper's "Black Tom": Sir Thomas Fairfax and the English Revolution.
Fairfax has earned a reputation as a dull-witted "cipher" (4, 215), yet Hopper argues for his importance in leading the parliamentarian forces to victory over Charles I and the royalists in the two Civil Wars. Divided into two parts, a narrative biography and a historiographically-informed analysis of the issues that determined his life, the book seeks to rewrite his legacy and deepen understanding of the Civil War as a whole. Born into an old gentry family in Yorkshire, Fairfax inherited from it a godly and martial tradition, and was situated in a crucial region when the war broke out. Hopper is particularly effective in delineating the manner in which the Fairfaxes, and Thomas especially, were adept at playing "popular politics" by sponsoring sermons and harnessing the anti-royalist sentiments of local clothworkers during attacks on such towns as Bradford; as Hopper writes, while most gentry were wary over the violence of free-floating "clubmen," Fairfax recognized that without popular support, "Parliament's war effort in the north would not have been possible" (145). Indeed, "club-law," or the idea of people "executing judgment against their social 'superiors' . . . was the making of Sir Thomas Fairfax, [providing] him with his first army and [bringing] national fame" (39).
In a post-revisionist analysis of the creation and development of the New Model Army, Hopper argues that its conflict-ridden formation represented an entirely new turn in events. Fairfax, Hopper writes, was central to this process, his "moderate" temperament and discipline "well suited to negotiating the political minefield brought by his appointment as general" (69). At the (Cromwell-glorified) battle of Naseby, Fairfax played a much more central role in reports that "highlighted [his] personal courage" as he "rode from regiment to regiment during the battle giving orders, and then leading Cromwell's cavalry reserves to break the exposed royalist infantry" (67).
After the first Civil War, Fairfax's relations with parliamentary politics were complex, though Hopper navigates the issues skillfully, claiming that Fairfax was "a stronger advocate of his army's right and interests than is often appreciated" (78). His willingness to sanction soldiers' interference in the political realm, however, and "the scale and venom of the parliamentary Presbyterians' attack upon his personal integrity and the honor of his men transformed him, however reluctantly, into a revolutionary figure" (88). He did not, on the other hand, condone the "vengeful mood" of autumn 1648, and his role in the regicide was as a sorrowful outsider, though he recognized that "an eleventh-hour reprieve risked an army mutiny and renewed civil war, from which only royalists could profit" (103). While he did not withdraw from politics after the death of the king, Fairfax did resign his post in 1650 —an act that was "the next most important moment in his life" after his appointment to command the New Model Army in 1645 (112). The years that preceded his death were spent in relative quietude in the Restoration, an attempt to manage the "defeat and disillusion" that stands in "dark contrast" to the "joviality" in which the age is traditionally portrayed (6, 122).
The second half of the book explores Fairfax through the prism of subjects that have been of particular concern to historians in recent years: Fairfax's relation to popular politics and parliamentarian...