John Wildman, c.1623-93

Army agitator, Leveller and conspirator, he went on to have a successful political career under William and Mary.

Portrait of John WildmanProbably the son of a Norfolk yeoman, little is known of John Wildman's early life. He served in the New Model Army and became involved with army Agitators during 1647. Around September 1647, he left the army and joined with the Leveller Maximilian Petty in helping the "New Agents" of five of the most radical regiments to articulate Army grievances against Parliament and the Grandees. The result was a document known as The Case of the Armie Truly Stated which accused the Grandees of betraying the interests of the common soldiers and people of England. Wildman also participated in the drafting of the Levellers' principal manifesto: An Agreement of the People in October 1647.

Along with Maximilian Petty, Wildman was a spokesman for the civilian Levellers at the Putney Debates where he adopted the extreme position of calling for King Charles to be brought to trial. Soon after, he was the only civilian appointed to an Army committee called to reconcile the positions of the Levellers and the Grandees.

Writing under the pseudonym John Lawmind, Wildman published Putney Projects in December 1647 in which he accused Cromwell and the Grandees of hypocrisy and self-interest. He was arrested with John Lilburne by order of Parliament in January 1648 following a volatile meeting of Levellers at Smithfield. Brought before the bar of the House of Commons, Wildman and Lilburne insisted that the House had no jurisdiction over them and demanded trial by common law. They were imprisoned without trial until August. Wildman continued his association with Lilburne throughout 1648, collaborating with him on the enlarged version of the Agreement of the People that was presented to Parliament as a basis for a new constitution in January 1649. To the disgust of the Levellers, the document was put aside until after the King's trial and never taken up again. However, Wildman was alone among the Leveller leaders in supporting the King's trial and execution and in his acceptance of the new republican Commonwealth.

During the Commonwealth, Wildman became involved in various legal projects — none of which were successful. In collaboration with Lilburne, he tried to defend the rights of the fenmen of Axholme against land speculators, and he represented the citizens of Gloucester in an attempt to gain compensation from Parliament for damage sustained during the siege of 1643. He was more successful in property dealing, however, and built a substantial fortune from buying and selling estates forfeited by Royalists.

In 1654, Wildman was elected to the First Protectorate Parliament as MP for Scarborough but he was prevented from sitting when a petition from Lincolnshire accused him of cheating the fenmen. He began to associate with those disaffected from the Protectorate régime. In October 1654, he drafted the Petition of the Three Colonels ( Okey, Alured and Saunders) which protested that the Instrument of Government gave Cromwell greater powers than the King. He met with republicans excluded from Parliament, with Major-General Overton who was implicated in a plot against General Monck in Scotland, and with the renegade Edward Sexby who plotted Cromwell's assassination.

Wildman was arrested in February 1655 under suspicion of involvement in the conspiracies that culminated in Penruddock's Uprising. He was held in the Tower of London until June 1656 when he was released after agreeing to act as a double agent for John Thurloe against Royalists and subversives. Wildman became involved in a web of conspiracy and counter-conspiracy against the Protectorate, involving Royalists, Levellers, Baptists, Jesuits and Spaniards. When Richard Cromwell was ousted from power in 1659, Wildman was associated with the republican political movement inspired by James Harrington, author of Oceana.

After the Restoration, Wildman was imprisoned for six years (1661-7) on suspicion of involvement in republican plots. He was imprisoned again in June 1683 on suspicion of involvement in the Rye House Plot to assassinate Charles II and the Duke of York but was discharged early in 1684. He fled to the Netherlands after the failure of Monmouth's Rebellion against James II (1685), in which he had conspired with others to lead a simultaneous uprising in London. During his exile, he established links with William of Orange and became a leading propagandist for the Williamite cause. Wildman returned to England with William and Mary in 1688. Despite being dismissed from his position as Postmaster-General for forging letters to discredit his political opponents, Wildman was knighted in October 1692.


C.H. Firth, Sir John Wildman, DNB, 1900

Richard L. Greaves, Sir John WIldman, Oxford DNB, 2004