WILDMAN, John I (c.1624-93), of Becket House, Shrivenham, Berks. and St. Giles in the Fields, Mdx.
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Family and Education
b. c.1624, s. of Jeffrey Wildman, yeoman, of Wreningham, Norf. m. (1) bef. 1646, 1s.; (2) by 1655, Lucy (d. 6 Dec. 1692), s.p. suc. fa. 1675; kntd. 29 Oct. 1692.1
Maj. of horse 1649.
Commr. for militia, Berks. and Westminster 1659; col. of militia, Berks. Jan-Feb. 1660; commr. for assessment, Westminster Jan. 1660, 1689, Berks. and Mdx. 1679-80, Berks. and Wilts. 1689-90; j.p. and dep. lt. Mdx. 1689-d.; member, Skinners’ Co. 1689; alderman, London 1690-d.
Wildman was called ‘a scholar of Cambridge’ by Clarendon, but he never matriculated at the university. He picked up enough knowledge of the law to practise as an attorney, first achieving political prominence as spokesman for democratic republicanism in the Putney debates of 1647. He abandoned the Levellers in 1649, and became a successful land-jobber and ‘a great manager of Papists’ interests’. But he was openly hostile to the Protectorate, and was not allowed to take his seat in the Parliament of 1654. About this time he bought the Becket estate on the Wiltshire border, worth over £1,500 p.a., from his fellow-republican, Henry Martin. In the following year he was arrested in the act of dictating a proclamation against Cromwell. He was accused of complicity in the Cavalier rising which followed. But his contacts with the Royalists were few and equivocal, apart from his position as man of business to the second Duke of Buckingham. He was released in 1656, probably on condition of becoming an informer, and resumed his career of intrigue. His seizure of Windsor Castle from Lambert’s supporters in December 1659 stood him in good stead at the Restoration, and for a few months he was the power behind the scenes at the Post Office. ‘As subtle a person as any of his quality in England’, commented a rival. But in November 1661 he was rounded up with the other leading republicans, and remained in prison till the fall of Clarendon. It was Buckingham who procured his release, and proposed him unsuccessfully for the commission of public accounts as ‘the wisest statesman in England’. Wildman went abroad in 1670, but returned before the third Dutch war, and took no part in du Moulin’s activities. John Hawles many years later deposed that ‘Sir John Wildman never was more quiet and freer from troubles from the time he arrived at the age of twenty years than he was from the year 1672 to the year 1683’. He formed a profitable partnership with Sir Robert Clayton, and in the summer of 1678 he accompanied Buckingham on a visit to Paris. On his return he was appointed secretary to the House of Lords’ sub-committee on the Godfrey murder; but he was soon superseded by a servant of Shaftesbury’s. He was one of the republicans who stood at the first general election of 1679, but his patron, whose fortunes, political and economic, were in rapid decline, was unable to persuade the electors of Buckingham to vote for him. At the next election, Wildman stood at Marlborough. ‘By a sudden and unexpected trick’ he procured a return in the name of the inhabitant householders; but the elections committee ruled in favour of the select burgesses. In 1681 he successfully challenged the Bruce interest at Great Bedwyn, perhaps with the aid of the Hon. Thomas Wharton, who had married one of the Danvers coheirs; but he took no known part in the Oxford Parliament. He was one of the ‘fanatic’ jurymen empanelled by Sheriff Cornish for the trial of Fitzharris. He told the Court that as a Member of the Commons that had sought to impeach the prisoner he must be regarded as one of the prosecutors, ‘and dared not appear for fear of being questioned for breach of privilege’. When this excuse was not accepted, he pleaded that he was not sure whether he was qualified as a freeholder of Middlesex, and was discharged.2
Wildman may have been the initiator of the Rye House Plot, but he withdrew at such an early stage that no evidence could be found against him, and he was released after a brief imprisonment. When Monmouth landed in 1685 he received no encouragement from Wildman, who was engaged in a treasure-hunt in the cellars of Somerset House under supernatural guidance, though he seems to have been a shade less credulous than his partner Goodwin Wharton. But a cousin of his was executed for printing Monmouth’s declaration, and Wildman, who knew a great deal about the Cheshire plot, thought it wise to escape overseas. In 1687 he was included among the opponents of James II ‘most considerable for parts’. It was reported that he was to be pardoned, but in the following year he arrived at The Hague, where he became one of the chief propagandists for William of Orange, though Burnet complained that the violence of his arguments was calculated to alienate the moderate Churchmen and Tories. He landed with William at Torbay, and as a Member of one of Charles II’s Parliaments, took his seat probably for the first time. On 26 Dec. 1688 he was among those appointed to draw up the address to the Prince of Orange.3
Wildman regained his seat at Great Bedwyn at the general election. He was a very active Member of the Convention, in which he was named to 64 committees and made 15 recorded speeches. On 29 Jan. 1689 he argued against (Sir) Robert Sawyer that it was inconsistent with the independence of England to be governed by a prince who acknowledged Papal supremacy, and he was one of the Members appointed to bring in a list of the essentials for securing religion, law and liberties. He helped to prepare reasons for disagreeing with the Lords that the throne was not vacant, and to manage the conference, after which he suggested saving time by acting without the concurrence of the Upper House. He took part in drawing up the address promising assistance in defence of the Protestant religion. On 5 Mar. he supported the proposal of Thomas Lee I to impeach the prisoners in the Tower, and was appointed to the committee of inquiry into the authors and advisers of grievances. On the news of the mutiny at Ipswich, he said:
I must inform the House that I have letters every day of the ill condition of the soldiers in their quarters. At Newbury, Abingdon and other places they would not suffer the crier or bellman to say ‘God bless King William and Queen Mary!’ There are papers cast about to fright people with the change of the government, with millions. Hundreds of these are dispersed; I have received some. The disease is so general I know not what to propose; but ’tis proper for this House to give the King the best informations we can of the officers who connive at these things.
He helped to draw up the address for the suppression of the mutiny, and on 22 Mar. was added to the committee for the bill of rights and succession. On the new coronation oath, he declared himself as ready to submit to the Church as any man, but asked: ‘Whether he [the King] swears to all as it is now established, consider whether it is seasonable, some comprehension or toleration being intended’. He was among those appointed to bring in the bill and to consider the new oaths of supremacy and allegiance, subsequently helping to prepare reasons for a conference.4
Wildman had hoped for the lieutenancy of the ordnance under the new regime, but had to be content with the Post Office. For the remainder of the Convention, he acted as a loyal placeman, though still seeking to restrict the basis of William’s support to the extreme Whigs. He was appointed to the committees for restoring corporations and the toleration bill. In the debate on the indemnity bill, he spoke in favour of excluding crimes, not individuals. On 23 May he reported to the House on the prisoners in the Tower; he presented detailed accounts of expenditure on state trials from 1679 to 1688 and summarized the cases against the treasury solicitors, Lord Chancellor Jeffreys, (Sir) Robert Wright and Sir Thomas Jenner, regretting that he had been unable to get the committee together to consider the 25 other cases. He declared himself so tender of blood as not to wish anybody’s finger to be cut; but ‘those that have been the occasion of all this blood I would have such justice upon as may procure our safety hereafter’. He was among those appointed to draw up the address on dangers from France and Ireland, to consider the Lords’ amendments to the bill of rights and to prepare the bill attainting Jacobites beyond the seas. In further debate on the indemnity bill, Wildman went too far in his animosity to the Church, and was obliged to deny intending any imputation on Archbishop Sancroft’s attitude to the ecclesiastical commission. He helped to draw up reasons for conferences on Titus Oates and the duties on coffee, tea and chocolate, and on 31 July reported a conference on the bill of rights. His was the first name proposed for the inquiry into the weavers’ riot on 16 Aug.5
When the second session of the Convention opened, Wildman acted as chairman of the committees to inspect the Journals regarding the prisoners in the Tower, and to draw up charges against the treasury solicitors, Burton and Richard Graham. He was among those ordered to bring in a bill enforcing a general oath of allegiance and to inquire into the miscarriages of the war. He supported supply in the debate of 2 Nov., reminding the House that ‘we talk here not for a King, but the kingdom’. He obtained leave to give evidence in the House of Lords on the trials of the Hon. William Russell and Algernon Sidney. On 26 Nov. he was ordered to present the address for the dismissal of Commissary Shales, and he delivered the King’s reply. He was appointed to the committees to examine public accounts and consider the petition of discoverers of treason. He supported the disabling clause in the bill to restore corporations, and even after its defeat hoped to proscribe the Tories en masse under the indemnity bill. ‘I do not intend’, he said, ‘upon explanation of myself, that I would have you declare what crimes you will not except, for the heads of offences are numerous.’6
Strenuous efforts were made to find Wildman a seat at the general election of 1690, but in vain. His Tory enemies made use of a security scandal to remove him from the Post Office a year later, ‘disgracefully’ according to John Hampden, but with a pension of £3,500 a year, and later he received a knighthood as alderman of London. After half a century of plotting he died peacefully in his bed on 4 June 1693, in his seventieth year. The romantic imagination of Disraeli swelled his reputation as a politician to gigantic proportions. As a parliamentarian he was inevitably a second-rate figure, unable to make his maiden speech till he was in his late sixties. Sawyer easily had the better of him on this occasion; but Wildman’s debating skill had not deserted him, and he was able to adjust himself to an assembly that would not have tolerated the Puritan rant of the Putney debates or the cryptic mumbo-jumbo of his middle years. Nevertheless it was in no mood for a witch-hunt, and he failed in his chief aim of driving out of politics all who had participated in the reaction against the Popish Plot.7