John Wildman (c1621-1693) – Remarkable and original

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Our information about John Wildman’s early life remains limited.

At the time of the debates, he was twenty-four years old. He was probably not of gentry status, though he may have studied at Cambridge University. He had some legal training, indicated by his use of the pseudonym ‘John Lawmind’, and was acting as a solicitor in the later 1640s.

John Wildman was the most prominent ‘civilian’ spokesman at the Putney Debates. However, the degree to which he was a ‘civilian’ is uncertain. He may have been a soldier in the army of the Eastern Association: a John Wildman is listed as a messenger in Captain Moody’s troop in Huntingdonshire in 1645. He was also referred to as ‘Major John Wildman’, although not usually until after the Putney Debates and may have held this rank in Fairfax’s Lifeguard.

It may have been a combination of this legal training, army connections and links to radical networks in the city which explain why Wildman, along with Maximilian Petty, was invited to attend meetings at the army headquarters at Reading in July 1647 to discuss the draft peace terms that would eventually become the ‘Heads of Proposals’. In September, the army would recommend his appointment as governor of Brownsea and Poole. Although he did not take up this post, it was an indication of Wildman’s growing acceptance in army circles.

 By the autumn of 1647, at least in his own account at Putney, Wildman was acting as a counsellor and spokesperson for the ‘new agents’, the unofficial ‘Agitators’ who had emerged in the five Cavalry regiments and put their names to The Case of the Armie Truly Stated, the document which initiated the debates. Historians now think this document was authored primarily by the Agitators themselves, perhaps with Edward Sexby as lead author. Wildman, has, however, been identified as the most likely author of the other key text discussed at Putney, An Agreement of the People. Certainly, Wildman was the most vocal advocate for the Agreement at the debates, arguing forcefully that it could be considered irrespective of earlier agreements, supporting manhood suffrage and urging the reduction of the powers of both King and Lords.

Indeed, Wildman’s own political views may have leaned towards republicanism. He has been identified as the author of another pamphlet published around the time of the debates, A Cal to all the Souldiers of the Army, (received by the bookseller George Thomason on 28 Oct

1647), which called Charles I ‘a man of blood’ and stated that the king ‘thirsteth for your [meaning the soldiers’) blood.’ At Putney, Wildman had questioned the wisdom of reaching an agreement with the king ‘in such a way as hee may been [sic] in capacity to destroy the people.’ Wildman was also an associate of the MP Henry Marten, as indicated by a cipher key produced by Marten which placed Wildman within a radical grouping of distinctly republican sympathies.

Recent research has shown that prior to Putney, Wildman had had little contact with the figure most often associated with the Leveller movement, John Lilburne. The Putney Debates both created the label of ‘Leveller’ (as a term of abuse) as well as leading to the alliance between Wildman and Lilburne. By late 1647 Lilburne and Wildman were collaborating on campaigns against the Grandees and in December Wildman pseudonymously published his pamphlet Putney Projects, which attempted to lay bare the distance between the army leadership’s public pronouncements and its actions. By January 1648, the pair were organising a petitioning campaign which, at least ostensibly, sought to secure a peace settlement through a public dialogue over political reform. Reports of a meeting to discuss this campaign, however, were sent to the House of Lords. These suggested that the campaign had much more nefarious motives, of seeking to assassinate Cromwell and overthrow the Parliamentarian leadership in the Commons and Lords. Wildman and Lilburne were summoned to Parliament to answer these accusations. Both men denied the allegations but were imprisoned on charges of sedition. Wildman and Lilburne would remain in prison until August.

The end of the Second Civil War, however, revived the idea of an Agreement of the People as a basis for settlement. Hostility to the king and other leading Royalists had increased, while many within the army had given up on the idea of negotiating with Charles and were enraged when Parliament re-opened negotiations with him. The Agreement appeared to offer a path to political settlement that took the king out of the equation. In late November 1648, it was agreed that Lilburne and Wildman would join a committee that would include representatives from the army, Parliament and the city to draft a new version of the

Agreement. This committee would continue to meet throughout December and developed a new ‘Agreement of the People’. The draft was discussed at what are now known as the ‘Whitehall Debates’, beginning on 14 December and attended by soldiers of all ranks as well as civilian representatives. Lilburne was unhappy at this manner of proceeding, believing that the text agreed by the committee should instead have immediately have been circulated for public subscription. Wildman, however, continued to participate, taking part in the committee that was tasked with reaching agreement on the question of religious toleration. These discussions would ultimately result in what is now known as the ‘Officers’ Agreement’. This version of the Agreement would be presented to Parliament for its approval on 20 January 1649. Lilburne claimed that the discussions over the Agreement had been a mere distraction to keep city radicals busy while the Grandees got on with their main task of preparing for the trial and execution of the king. More recent scholarship has viewed the ‘Officers Agreement’ as a more genuine attempt a settlement, a compromise version of the Levellers’ political vision which would nonetheless have initiated a radical transformation of England’s constitution. As it was, this version of the Agreement was still influential – it’s clauses on religious freedom were borrowed almost verbatim by the Protectoral constitution, The Instrument of Government.

The different decisions Lilburne and Wildman made regarding participating in these debates ended their political collaboration in the short term. Wildman also responded very differently to the political revolution that followed shortly afterwards: the Regicide and the establishment of a republican Commonwealth. While Lilburne and his fellow Levellers Richard Overton and William Walwyn became active and vocal critics of the new regime, Wildman worked with the English Commonwealth. Although details again remain uncertain, Wildman appears to have been serving as an officer in the Commonwealth’s army by August 1650. Wildman also spent this time in commercial activities, speculating in land and acquiring considerable wealth in the process.

Wildman’s attitude to the Cromwell Protectorate, however, seems to have been very different from his largely cooperative approach to the Commonwealth. He was involved in assassination plots against the Lord Protector, including conspiracies with Royalists as well as his old ‘Leveller’ associates. These links with Royalists were initially helpful to Wildman when Charles II was restored in 1660. However, in 1661, Wildman was accused of being involved in republi