Sir John Wildman (1621-1693)
Born: 1621 at Wymondham,
Leader of the Levellers
Died: 4th June 1693 at Shrivenham, Berkshire
John was the son of Geoffrey Wildman, a yeoman farmer from Wreningham in
Norfolk, and his wife, Dorothy. According to
the Earl of Clarendon, who knew him personally, he studied at Cambridge, although no other record of this has been found. 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. At this time, the soldiers of the New Model Army 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 this movement. He published a violent attack on Oliver Cromwell and the chief officers, entitled 'Putney Projects,' and was probably the author of the manifesto called 'The Case of the Army Stated'. At the meeting of the General Council of the Army at Putney, on 28th October 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, the 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.
On 18th January 1648, Wildman and Lieutenant-Colonel John Lilburne were informed against by George Masterson, the Minister of Shoreditch, for promoting a seditious petition and were summoned to the bar of the House of Commons. The House committed both of them to Newgate Prison. Bail was refused, and, in spite of frequent petitions for their release, they remained in prison until 2nd August 1648. 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.'
Upon the release of the two prisoners, a meeting of the levellers took place at the Nag's Head Tavern on the Strand, 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. In May 1649, they published 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, "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". About the beginning of 1649, Wildman was a major in the regiment of horse of Colonel John Reynolds, but did not accompany it to Ireland in August 1649. 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. For himself, he purchased, in 1657, the manor of
Beckett, at Shrivenham in Berkshire, and other lands adjoining it, from his friend, the Regicide, Henry Marten (NOT from Sir George Pratt, as sometimes recorded). In 1654, Wildman had been elected Member of Parliament for Scarborough, but he was probably one of those excluded for refusing the engagement not to attempt to alter the Government. By the end of 1654, he was plotting the overthrow of Lord Protector Cromwell by means of a combined rising of Royalists and levellers. Consequently, he was arrested, on 10th February 1655, and sent as a prisoner, first to Chepstow Castle and, afterwards, to the Tower of London. 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.' On 26th June 1656, a petition begging for
Wildman's release was presented to the Protector by various persons engaged in business speculations with him and, upon giving security for £10,000, he was provisionally set free.
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. 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 the Secretary to the Council of State, John Thurloe. For this reason, he was not trusted by Edward Hyde (later Earl of Clarendon) and the wiser Royalists. 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
Bulstrode Whitelocke, Charles Fleetwood and others, to draw up a form of government for a free state. 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 28th December 1659, the House promised that the good service of those who had assisted Ingoldsby should be duly rewarded.
At the Restoration of the Monarchy, Wildman, thanks to these recent exploits and to his hostility to Cromwell, escaped untroubled, although information against him was presented to Parliament. 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. He was also suspected of complicity in the republican plots against the Government and, on 26th November 1661, he was examined and committed to close imprisonment. For nearly six years, he was a prisoner, first in the Tower, then on St. Mary's Island in the Scillies and finally in Pendennis Castle. 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 1st October 1667, Wildman was released, upon giving security to attempt nothing against the Government. 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 Samuel Pepys, claiming Wildman had been "a false fellow to everybody" and Sir John Talbot openly denounced Wildman to the House of Commons. The scheme fell through and, on 7th July 1670, Wildman obtained a license to travel abroad for his health with his wife and son. But his intimacy with Buckingham continued and he was one of the trustees in whom, on 24th December 1675, the unsold portion of Buckingham's estate was vested.
Upon 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 he was not one of the 'public managers,' he was privately consulted upon all occasions and applied to as their 'chief oracle'. 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". On 26th June 1683, he was committed to the Tower for complicity in the Rye House Plot, but was allowed out on bail on 24th November following, and finally discharged on 12th February 1684. The chief witness against him was William Howard, 3rd Lord Howard of Escrick, 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.
When the reign of James II began, Wildman, undeterred by his narrow escape, entered into communication with the Charles II's illegitimate son, the Duke of 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 a military expedition to England, 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 stop the expedition from coming to fruition until what he imagined was the right time. 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". 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 (Henry VII) and Richard III. 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's Rebellion when he landed. At the beginning of June 1685, Wildman fled and an order for his apprehension was published in the 'Gazette' for 4th-8th June 1685, followed, on 26th July, by a proclamation summoning him and others to surrender. Wildman, who had escaped to Holland, remained there till the Glorious Revolution, probably residing in Amsterdam. He was dissatisfied with the declaration published by the Prince of Orange to justify his military expedition to England, 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. With Lord Macclesfield, Wildman embarked on the Prince's fleet and landed in England. He wrote many anonymous pamphlets on the crisis surrounding his taking the Throne as William III, sat in the Convention Parliament called in January 1689 as member for Wootton Bassett in Wiltshire - the seat of his 1st wife's family - and was a frequent speaker.
In the proceedings against Burton and Graham, charged with subornation of evidence in the state trials of late in William's 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. On 12th April 1689, he was made Postmaster-General. However, long loud complaints were made that he was using his position to discredit the tory adherents of William III by producing fictitious letters that he pretended to have intercepted. There were also reports that he was intriguing with Jacobite emissaries. Accordingly, he was summarily dismissed from his post about the end of February 1691. Wildman, however, had been made a Freeman of London on 7th December 1689, became an alderman and was knighted by William III in company with other aldermen at Guildhall on 29th October 1692. He was the author of numerous pamphlets during his lifetime, nearly all of them either anonymous or published under pseudonyms.
Wildman died on 2nd June 1693, at the age of seventy-two, and was buried in Shrivenham Church in Berkshire. By his will, according to the epitaph on his monument there, 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". 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".
Wildman married twice. Firstly to an unknown lady who gave birth to his only son, John, in the late 1640s/early 1650s and almost certainly died in the process. He married secondly, to Lucy, the daughter of Anthony Richmond of Idstone at
Ashbury. She had petitioned, in 1661, to be allowed to share her husband's imprisonment. Lucy predeceased her husband by only six months and is buried in Shrivenham Church. John Wildman Junior married, in 1676, Eleanor, the 2nd daughter of Edward Chute of Bethersden in Kent, and died without issue in 1710, leaving his Beckett estate at Shrivenham to John Shute (afterwards 1st Viscount Barrington).
Sidney Lee's 'Dictionary of National Biography' (1900).
A Note on Wildman's Marriages
Wildman was often stated, in various 19th century works on the peerage and barontage, as well as the original Dictionary of National Biography (1900), to have married, firstly, Frances, the only child by his first marriage of Christopher Roper, 4th Baron Teynham. Her mother was Mary, the daughter of Sir Francis Englefield Bt of Vastern Manor at Wootton Bassett in Wiltshire. This last man was the grandson of John, the brother of Sir
Francis Englefield of Englefield
House, the famous servant of Queen Mary. This is, however, incorrect. The 4th Lord Teynham was born on 20th April 1621. He is thought to have married his first wife, Mary Englefield, around 1640. She certainly died on 21st December 1647. Assuming Lord Teynham did not marry before the age of sixteen, any child of the two must have been born sometime between 1638 and 1647. We know that John Wildman was married to another wife, Lucy, by 1653. In this, the latest year that Frances Roper can have died, having already given birth to a son, she could only have been fifteen at the most. While this is biologically possible, it is not very likely.
The author, Maurice Ashley, seems to have been aware of this. In his book, 'John Wildman: Plotter & Postmaster' (1947), he attempted to correct the situation by making Wildman's first wife the daughter rather than the grandaughter of Sir Francis Englefield Bt. This was, however, an assumption of confused generations for which he had no proof. Unfortunately, this has recently been reiterated by the late
Prof. Richard L Greaves in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004).
In fact, Frances daughter of Sir Francis Englefield Bt never existed. Frances daughter of Christopher Roper, 4th Baron Teynham by his first marriage did exist. However, it is clear from
the will of her grandmother, Lady
Englefield, that Frances was very much alive in 1672, almost twenty years after
Major John Wildman is known to have married his wife, Lucy. The will shows
that Frances had in fact married a man named Wileman (with no 'd') and had four daughters named Winifred, Ellen, Elizabeth and
As appears from the Victoria County History of Leicestershire (1954),
Nichols' History and Antiquities of the County of Leicester (1795) &
the Heralds' Visitation of Leicestershire (1681), her
husband was John Wileman (1642-1681) of Burton-on-the-Wolds in that county and they subsequently
had two more children, Roger and Mary. Lady Englefield was born and died
at Shoby in Saxelbye, only six-and-a-half miles to the east. Her
grandaughter, Frances, may have been brought up by her there after she was
widowed. Like the Englefields, Wileman was a
prominent Roman Catholic. The name was occasionally spelt Wildman and the two families did both use the same
coat of arms, so perhaps the two Johns were distantly related. Still, the fact remains that Frances Roper had nothing whatsoever to do with Major John Wildman
of Beckett. Having come to this conclusion myself, I have since found that
this was discovered by Joan
& Peter Shaw way back in 1998, after which they published a detailed article in the Leicestershire Historian. It is a pity that Prof. Greaves
was not aware of it.
We do, however, know that
the famous Wildman definitely had a wife of unknown name before Lucy. She was the mother of his son, John. In his will, Wildman says,
"My will is that my only son John Wildman and his heirs if they shall happen to enjoy the manor of Beckett shall pay the same respect to her [Lucy] as if the said John Wildman had been born of her body, she having merited the same from him in all things from his infancy."
Various records show that, by 1653, John Wildman had certainly married a lady named Lucy. Lucy was identified by Maurice Ashley as the daughter of "Lord Lovelace". The man of the right generation was
Richard Lovelace, 1st Baron Lovelace of
Hurley. One can only assume that Ashley had confused this lady with Margaret, the wife of Wildman's friend, Henry Marten, who was indeed a daughter of this Lord Lovelace; or perhaps he found a reference to the two as 'sisters' meaning 'friends,' which they certainly were. Fourteen years previous to Ashley, Henry I Richmond had clearly demonstrated, in his little known work,
'Richmond Family Records'
(1938), that Lucy was, in fact, daughter of a certain Anthony Richmond of Idstone at
Ashbury. The two were married between 1649 and 1653. Richmond lists a number of
documents referring to Lucy Richmond as the wife of John Wildman and she was granted administration of her father's will as 'Lucy Wildman'. Her nephew and sister received bequests in John's will, whilst her brother, John Richmond, lived with them at Beckett, as appears from his own will. Furthermore, the
ledger stone over
John and Lucy's grave in Shrivenham Church bears the arms of Wildman impaling Richmond.