Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wildman, John

WILDMAN, Sir JOHN (1621?–1693), politician, born about 1621, was, according to Clarendon, ‘bred a scholar in the university of Cambridge’ (Rebellion, xiv. 48). He seems to have served for a time in Sir Thomas Fairfax's lifeguards, probably about 1646, as it is hinted that he was not one of that body in the days of fighting, and had certainly ceased to belong to it by the autumn of 1647 (cf. The Triumph Stained, by G. Masterson, 1647, 4to, p. 15). In the autumn of 1647, when the soldiers of the new model became suspicious of their leaders for negotiating with Charles I, and some regiments appointed new ‘agents’ in place of the ‘agitators’ elected in the previous May, Wildman was the chief instigator and the spokesman of the movement. He published a violent attack on Cromwell and the chief officers, entitled ‘Putney Projects,’ and was probably the author of the manifesto called ‘The Case of the Army Stated’ (cf. Clarke Papers, i. 347, 356). At the meeting of the general council of the army at Putney, on 28 Oct. 1647, the five agents who represented the dissentient regiments were accompanied by Wildman and another civilian. The soldiers, explained Wildman, ‘desired me to be their mouth,’ and he argued on their behalf that the engagements entered into with the king should be cancelled, monarchy and the House of Lords abolished, and manhood suffrage established. He also demanded that the officers should accept the ‘Agreement of the People’ just put forth by the five regiments (ib. vol. i. pp. xlviii, 240, 259, 317, 386).

On 18 Jan. 1648 Wildman and Lieutenant-colonel John Lilburne [q. v.] were informed against by George Masterson, minister of Shoreditch, for promoting a seditious petition, and summoned to the bar of the House of Commons. The house committed both to Newgate. Bail was refused, and, in spite of frequent petitions for their release, they remained in prison until 2 Aug. 1648 (A Declaration of the Proceedings of Lieutenant-colonel John Lilburne and his Associates, 1648, 4to; Commons' Journals, v. 437, 469). Wildman's speech at the bar of the house was very ineffective, and the pamphlet he published in answer to Masterson's charges, entitled ‘Truth's Triumph,’ was derisively refuted by Masterson in the ‘Triumph Stained.’

On the release of the two prisoners a meeting of the levellers took place at the Nag's Head tavern, in which, says Lilburne, ‘the just ends of the war were as exactly laid open by Mr. John Wildman as ever I heard in my life,’ and the party agreed to oppose the execution or deposition of the king till the fundamental principles of the future constitution were settled. To that end a new ‘Agreement of the People’ was drawn up by sixteen representatives of different parties, but, after long debates in the council of officers, it was so altered by the officers that Lilburne and other leaders of the levellers refused to accept it, and published in May 1649 a rival ‘Agreement,’ drawn up themselves. Wildman, however, was probably satisfied, for he abandoned further agitation. ‘My old fellow rebel, Johnny Wildman, where art thou?’ wrote his former associate, Richard Overton [q. v.] ‘Behold, a mighty stone fell from the skies into the bottom of the sea, and gave a mighty plump, and great was the fall of that stone, and so farewell Johnny Wildman’ (Overton, Defiance of the Act of Pardon, 1649, p. 7). About the beginning of 1649 Wildman was major in the regiment of horse of Colonel John Reynolds, but did not accompany it to Ireland in August 1649 (Clarke MSS.) He preferred money-making to fighting, and became one of the greatest speculators in the forfeited lands of royalists, clergy, and papists. His purchases of land, either for himself or for others, were scattered over at least twenty counties (Cal. of Committee for Compounding, pp. 1653, 1769, 3100, 2201; cf. Life of Colonel Hutchinson, ed. 1885, ii. 174). For himself he bought in 1655 the manor of Becket, near Shrivenham in Berkshire, and other lands adjoining it, from his friend Harry Marten (Lysons, Berkshire, p. 366). In 1654 Wildman was elected member for Scarborough, but he was probably one of those excluded for refusing the engagement not to attempt to alter the government (Old Parl. Hist. xx. 305). By the end of 1654 he was plotting the overthrow of the Protector by means of a combined rising of royalists and levellers. Consequently he was arrested on 10 Feb. 1655, and sent prisoner first to Chepstow Castle, and afterwards to the Tower. At the moment when he was seized he was dictating to his servant a ‘Declaration of the free and well-affected people of England now in arms against the tyrant Oliver Cromwell, esq.’ (Thurloe, iii. 147; Whitelocke, Memorials, iv. 183). On 26 June 1656 a petition begging for Wildman's release was presented to the Protector by various persons engaged in business speculations with him, and on giving security for 10,000l. he was provisionally set free (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1655–6, p. 387).

For the rest of the Protectorate Wildman kept out of prison, though he still continued to intrigue. He was in frequent communication with royalist agents, whom he contrived to persuade that he was working for the king's cause, and he signed the address presented to Charles II on behalf of the levellers in July 1656 (Clarendon, Rebellion, xv. 104; Clarendon State Papers, iii. 311, 315, 331, 336). It is pretty certain that Cromwell's government were aware of these intrigues, and it is probable that Wildman purchased impunity by giving information of some kind to Thurloe. For this reason he was not trusted by Hyde and the wiser royalists (ib. iii. 408, 419; Hist. MSS. Comm. 10th Rep. vi. 197). His political object in this complicated web of treachery was probably to overthrow Cromwell, and to set up in his place either a republic or a monarchy limited by some elaborate constitution of his own devising.

In December 1659, when the army had turned out the Long parliament, Wildman was employed by the council of officers, in conjunction with Whitelocke, Fleetwood, and others, to draw a form of government for a free state (Whitelocke, Memorials, iv. 385). At the same time he was plotting to overthrow the rule of the army, and offered to raise three thousand horse if Whitelocke, who was constable of Windsor Castle, would declare for a free commonwealth. Whitelocke declined, and Wildman, seeing which way the tide was running, helped Colonel Henry Ingoldsby to seize the castle for the Long parliament. On 28 Dec. 1659 the house promised that the good service of those who had assisted Ingoldsby should be duly rewarded (Commons' Journals, vii. 798; A Letter concerning the securing of Windsor Castle to the Parliament, 1659, 4to).

At the Restoration Wildman, thanks to these recent exploits and to his hostility to Cromwell, escaped untroubled, although an information against him was presented to parliament (Commons' Journals, viii. 66). In 1661 complaints were made that the officials of the post office were his creatures, and he was accused of suspicious dealings with the letters (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1660–1 p. 409, 1661–2 pp. 556, 560). He was also suspected of complicity in the republican plots against the government, and on 26 Nov. 1661 he was examined and committed to close imprisonment (Egerton MS. 2543, f. 65; Kennet, Register, pp. 567–602). For nearly six years he was a prisoner, first in the Tower, then in St. Mary's Island, Scilly, and finally in Pendennis Castle (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1665–6, pp. 200, 288). His captivity was shared by his son, and, according to Burnet, he spent his time in studying law and physic. After the fall of Clarendon, on 1 Oct. 1667, Wildman was released on giving security to attempt nothing against the government (ib. 1667, p. 502). In December it was even rumoured that he was to be a member of the committee of accounts about to be appointed by parliament, through the influence of the Duke of Buckingham. Sir William Coventry expressed his wonder at the proposal to Pepys, Wildman having been ‘a false fellow to everybody,’ and Sir John Talbot openly denounced Wildman to the House of Commons (Pepys, Diary, 8 Dec. and 12 Dec. 1667). The scheme fell through, and on 7 July 1670 Wildman obtained a license to travel abroad for his health with his wife and son (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1670, p. 322). But his intimacy with Buckingham continued, and he was one of the trustees in whom on 24 Dec. 1675 the unsold portion of Buckingham's estate was vested (Hist. MSS. Comm. 12th Rep. vi. 218).

On his return to England Wildman plunged once more into political intrigues, though keeping himself at first cautiously in the background. In the plots for armed resistance to the king which followed the dissolution of Charles II's last parliament in 1681 he appears to have played a considerable part. Wildman was closely associated with Algernon Sidney, both of whom were distrusted by the leaders of the Scottish malcontents, and by the English noblemen concerned, as too republican in their aims. Wildman drew up a manifesto to be published at the time of the intended insurrection, and, though not one of the ‘public managers,’ was privately consulted upon all occasions and applied unto as their ‘chief oracle’ (Informations as to the Rye House Plot, p. 50 ed. 1696; Ferguson, Life of Robert Ferguson pp. 145, 434). He was also credited with suggesting the assassination of the king and Duke of York, ‘whom he expressed by the name of stags that would not be impaled, but leapt over all the fences which the care and wisdom of the authors of the constitution had made to restrain them from committing spoils’ (ib. pp. 78, 419, 434). On 26 June 1683 he was committed to the Tower for complicity in the Rye House plot, but allowed out on bail on 24 Nov. following, and finally discharged on 12 Feb. 1684 (Luttrell, Diary, i. 263, 292, 301; The Proceedings upon the bailing the Lord Brandon Gerrard … Major Wildman, &c., folio, 1683). The chief witness against him was William Howard, third lord Howard of Escrick [q. v.], who testified that Wildman undertook to furnish the rebels with some guns, which the discovery of two small field-pieces at his house seemed to confirm (Burnet, Own Time, ed. Airy, ii. 363; Sprat, Rye House Plot, ed. 1696, ii. 107).

When the reign of James II began, Wildman, undeterred by his narrow escape, entered into communication with Monmouth, and was his chief agent in England. He sent a certain Robert Cragg, alias Smith, to Monmouth and the English exiles in Holland. According to Cragg, Monmouth complained of Wildman's backwardness to provide money for the expedition, saying that he ‘would govern everybody,’ ‘liked nothing of anybody's doing but his own,’ and thought ‘by keeping his own purse-strings fast and persuading others to do the same’ he would hinder the expedition from coming till what he imagined the right season. Wildman, on the other hand, complained that Monmouth and a little knot of exiles were resolved ‘to conclude the scheme of the government of the nation without the knowledge of any of the people in England, and that to this day they knew not what he intended to set up or declare’ (Hist. MSS. Comm. 12th Rep. vi. 394). Other depositions represent him as advising Monmouth to take upon him the title of king, and encouraging him by citing the example of the Earl of Richmond and Richard III (The Secret History of the Rye House Plot, by Ford, Lord Grey, 1754, pp. 93, 114; cf. Macaulay, History of England, ii. 121, People's edit.) All accounts agree that he drew back at the last moment, did nothing to get up the promised rising in London, and refused to join Monmouth when he landed. At the beginning of June 1685 Wildman fled, and an order for his apprehension was published in the ‘Gazette’ for 4–8 June 1685, followed on 26 July by a proclamation summoning him and others to surrender. Wildman, who had escaped to Holland, remained there till the revolution, probably residing at Amsterdam. He was dissatisfied with the declaration published by the Prince of Orange to justify his expedition, regarding it as designed to conciliate the church party in England, and desiring to make it a comprehensive impeachment of the misgovernment of Charles and James. The Earl of Macclesfield, Lord Mordaunt, and others supported Wildman's view, but more moderate counsellors prevailed (Burnet, Reign of James II, ed. Routh, p. 351). With Lord Macclesfield Wildman embarked on the prince's fleet and landed in England. He wrote many anonymous pamphlets on the crisis, sat in the Convention parliament called in January 1689 as member for Wootton Bassett, and was a frequent speaker (cf. Grey, Debates, ix. 28, 70, 79, 193, 326).

In the proceedings against Burton and Graham, charged with subornation of evidence in the state trials of the late reign, Wildman was particularly active, bringing in the report of the committee appointed to investigate the case, and representing the commons at a conference with the lords on the subject (Boyer, Life of William III, App. ii. 19; Hist. MSS. Comm. 12th Rep, vi. 261). On 12 April 1689 he was made postmaster-general (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1689, p. 59). But ere long loud complaints were made that he was using his position to discredit the tory adherents of William III by fictitious letters which he pretended to have intercepted; and there were also reports that he was intriguing with Jacobite emissaries (Dalrymple, Memoirs of Great Britain and Ireland, ed. 1790, iii. 77, 94, 131, 184). Accordingly he was summarily dismissed from his post about the end of February 1691 (Luttrell, Diary, ii. 187, 192). Wildman, however, had been made a freeman of London on 7 Dec. 1689, became an alderman, and was knighted by William III in company with other aldermen at Guildhall on 29 Oct. 1692 (Le Neve, Knights, p. 439; Luttrell, i. 615, ii. 603).

Wildman died on 2 June 1693 at the age of seventy-two (Luttrell, iii. 112), and was buried at Shrivenham, Berkshire. By his will, according to the epitaph on his monument in Shrivenham church, he directed ‘that if his executors should think fit there should be some stone of small price set near to his ashes, to signify, without foolish flattery, to his posterity, that in that age there lived a man who spent the best part of his days in prisons, without crimes, being conscious of no offence towards man, for that he so loved his God that he could serve no man's will, and wished the liberty and happiness of his country and all mankind’ (Lysons, Magna Britannia, ‘Berkshire,’ p. 367). Macaulay is less favourable. After describing a fanatical hatred to monarchy as the mainspring of Wildman's career, he adds: ‘With Wildman's fanaticism was joined a tender care for his own safety. He had a wonderful skill in grazing the edge of treason. … Such was his cunning, that though always plotting, though always known to be plotting, and though long malignantly watched by a vindictive government, he eluded every danger, and died in his bed, after having seen two generations of his accomplices die on the gallows’ (Hist. of England, people's edit. i. 256; cf. Disraeli, Sybil, chap. iii.). There is an engraved portrait of Wildman, by Faithorne, with the motto ‘Nil Admirari.’

Wildman married, first, Frances, daughter of Christopher, fourth lord Teynham (Collins, Peerage, vi. 85; cf. Hist. MSS. Comm. 14th Rep. vi. 256); his second wife's name was Lucy; she petitioned in 1661 to be allowed to share her husband's imprisonment (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1661–2, p. 253). He had a son, John, who married Eleanor, daughter of Edward Chute of Bethersden, Kent, in 1676 (Chester, London Marriage Licenses, p. 1467; Le Neve, Knights, p. 439), and died without issue in 1710, leaving his estate at Becket, Berkshire, to John Shute (afterwards first Viscount Barrington) [see Barrington, John Shute-].

Wildman was the author of numerous pamphlets, nearly all of them either anonymous or published under pseudonyms: 1. ‘Putney Projects; or the Old Serpent in a New Form. By John Lawmind,’ 1647. 2. ‘The Case of the Army stated,’ 1647 (Clarke Papers, i. 347, 356). 3. ‘A Call to all the Soldiers of the Army by the Free People of England, justifying the Proceedings of the Five Regiments,’ 1647 (anon.) 4. ‘Truth's Triumph,’ 1648 (answered by George Masterson in ‘The Triumph Stained,’ 1648). 5. ‘The Law's Subversion; or Sir John Maynard's Case truly stated. By J. Howldin;’ 1648 (cf. Lilburne, The Picture of the Council of State, 1649, pp. 8, 19). 6. ‘London's Liberties; or a Learned Argument between Mr. Maynard and Major Wildman,’ 1651. In the ‘Twelve Collections of Papers relating to the Present Juncture of Affairs in England’ (1688–9, 4to), there are several pamphlets probably written by Wildman, viz.: v. 8, ‘Ten Seasonable Queries proposed by an English Gentleman at Amsterdam to his Friends in England;’ vi. 3, ‘A Letter to a Friend advising in this Extraordinary Juncture how to free the Nation from Slavery for ever;’ and, viii. 5, ‘Good Advice before it be too late, being a Breviate for the Convention.’ Three tracts are attributed to Wildman, jointly with others, in ‘A Collection of State Tracts, published on occasion of the late Revolution and during the Reign of William III’ (1705, 3 vols. fol.), viz.: ‘A Memorial from the English Protestants to the Prince and Princess of Orange’ (i. 1); ‘A Defence of the Proceedings of the Late Parliament in England,’ anno 1689 (i. 209); and ‘An Enquiry or Discourse between a Yeoman of Kent and a Knight of the Shire, upon the Prorogation of Parliament,’ &c. (ii. 330).

[Authorities given in the article.]

C. H. F.