John Wildman was a leading Leveller who is most associated with the pamphlet ‘Agreement of the People’. John Wildman adopted the title ‘Major Wildman’ but this was self-adopted and his only known military activity came in 1659, many years after the end of the English Civil War.
John Wildman was born in 1623. He studied Law in London after attending Cambridge University. He only came to light in 1647 after he wrote ‘Agreement of the People’ and represented the rank and file in the army at the Putney debates held in Putney Church. In this role, Wildman opposed the army Grandees who became worried at the radicalism expressed by the likes of Wildman. From their point of view, Wildman, like John Lilburne, seemed to want to overturn the accepted way that society operated.
In 1648, Parliament ordered the arrest of Wildman and Lilburne. Wildman spent six months in the Fleet prison. Whereas Lilburne went on to become even more radical, the time spent in the Fleet seemed to mellow Wildman and on his release he spent five years as a land speculator. He gained a good property portfolio as a result of this and earned a fortune.
In 1654, he was elected Member of Parliament for Scarborough. However, he was excluded from this role by the government, presumably wary of his past. This action obviously greatly angered Wildman and he became embroiled in plots against the government.
In 1655, he was arrested after devising a plot to overthrow the Protectorate. He was put on trial and jailed for a year – a lenient sentence, which could have been a lot worse for Wildman.
On his release, Wildman continued in his way of involving himself in plots and conspiracies. He involved himself with some curious bedfellows – the Spanish, Royalist exiles in the court of the future Charles II, Republicans who were discontented with Cromwell. The one thing that seemed to knit these groups together appears to be their desire to assassinate Oliver Cromwell. Wildman came closest to this in 1657 when a barrel of gunpowder was smuggled into Whitehall. But someone in their group betrayed the plotters.
It does appear that the Protectorate’s intelligence service viewed Wildman as a crank who was likely to ruin any plot he was involved in and he was barely seen as a threat to Cromwell.
In 1659 he was placed in a committee by the Commonwealth to draft a new constitution. This came to nothing as a result of the Restoration in 1660. Presumably because of his past contacts with Royalists, Wildman was given a senior position in the government’s post office – one he held for eighteen months. However, he was implicated in a Republican plot in 1662. Nothing was ever proven but to guard against any potential trouble, Wildman was sent to the Scilly Islands for five years.
On his release in 1667, Wildman returned to London. Samuel Pepys wrote that Wildman was offered the opportunity to sit on a commission to examine the public accounts after the Second Dutch War. Parliament refused to accept this and the appointment never took place.
Wildman was implicated in the ‘Rye House Plot’ to kill Charles II; informers even claimed that the whole idea was his. In 1683, Wildman was arrested and placed in the Tower of London. No evidence could be found to prosecute Wildman and he was released.
When James II became king, Wildman plotted to get the Duke of Monmouth to succeed him. This failed and Wildman left for Europe. By 1688, he was in Holland and sailed with William for England. He became a prominent member of the Convention Parliament and was appointed Postmaster-General. In 1692, William III knighted him. John Wildman died in the following year.