John Wildman was a republican, associate of the Levellers and Army agitators, and eternal plotter… However, he had an uncanny knack for self-preservation, surviving when many of his comrades went to the gallows…
In the English Civil War Wildman served briefly under Sir Thomas Fairfax. He became prominent, however, as a civilian adviser to the Army agitators, being in 1647 one of the leaders of that section of the army that opposed all compromise with King Charles I, and were organizing to demand an extension to the political franchise.
In December 1647 Wildman wrote a pamphlet, Putney Projects, that attacked Oliver Cromwell and Henry Ireton for betraying the New Model Army’s Declaration of 14 June 1647 in the Heads of Proposals. He may have written parts of The Case of the Army Stated, and he put the views of his associates before the Council of the Army at the Putney Debates that were partly held in Putney parish church between 28 October and 11 November 1647. Here he argued on the soldiers’ 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 an Agreement of the People just put forth by the five regiments, a document he may had the main hand in drafting.
Wildman and Leveller leader John Lilburne attempted to build a movement to campaign for the Agreement of the People. As a result Wildman and Lilburne were arrested for promoting a seditious petition, and committed to Newgate Prison. In spite of frequent petitions for their release, they remained in prison until 2 August 1648.
On the release of the two prisoners, 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. However, it seems that Wildman was satisfied with what the Council of Officers were suggesting because he abandoned further agitation.
Wildman remained in England and became a leading speculator in the forfeited lands of royalists, clergy, and Roman Catholics. He was elected to the First Protectorate Parliament as MP for Scarborough, but by the end of 1654 he was plotting the overthrow of the Protector Oliver Cromwell by means of a combined rising of Royalists and Levellers. As a result he was arrested on 10 February 1655, while dictating A Declaration of the free and well-affected People of England now in Arms against the Tyrant Oliver Cromwell.
He was sent a prisoner first to Chepstow Castle, and afterwards to the Tower of London; not released till a year and a half later.
For the rest of the Protectorate Wildman kept out of prison, but carried on his plotting, frequently communicating with Royalist agents, claiming 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.
However it seems that Cromwell’s government was aware of these intrigues, so it may be that Wildman saved his own skin by giving information of some kind to Cromwell’s spy master John Thurloe.
Wildman continued to plot, against Cromwell, then against Charles II, and be jailed, or alternatively employed by the government, for decades… It’s unclear whether he was a double agent, trying to play both sides, or was out for what he could get…
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online