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Sir Humphrey MAY (1573-1630)
Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

Sir Humphrey May, the statesman, was born in 1573, the fourth son of Richard May, citizen and merchant tailor of London and of Mayfield, Sussex, by his wife Mary Hillersden. He matriculated at Oxford from St. John's College on 25th October 1588, graduated B.A. on 3rd March 1592, and became student of the Middle Temple in 1592 In February 1604, he was groom of the King's privy chamber. He was M.P. for Beeralston from October 1605 to 1611, Westminster in 1614, Lancaster in 1622, Leicester in 1625, Lancaster in 1625 and Leicester in 1620, and again in 1629. His conciliatory disposition commended him to the favour of James I and Charles I, but he possessed much real ability and considerable knowledge of affairs. While in parliament, he displayed conspicuous talent as a debater and tactician. On 26th November 1607, he was granted a part reversion of the clerkship of the council of the Star-chamber, a grant reviewed on 17th July 1609. With his wife, he had a grant, with survivorship, of a pension of 16s a day on 23rd May 1611; and on 5th August, he was awarded two hundred marks per annum ‘for official services'; and on 10th December, the grant in reversion of a clerkship of the signet. In January 1613, he was knighted at Newmarket.

His influence at court was now very great. ‘Sir Humphrey May can make any suitor, be they never so honest, disliked by the King,' writes John Cusack to Sir Ralph Winwood on 11th November 1615. In January 1618, he was appointed surveyor of the court of wards; and on 9th March following, by the mediation of the lord chamberlain (Lord Pembroke) and the Countess of Bedford with Buckingham, was appointed Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. On 6th March 1625, he was admitted a member of Gray's Inn and, on the ensuing 28th March, he became a Privy Councillor. On May, chiefly fell the onerous and often hopeless task of defending Charles and Buckingham in the House of Commons from the attacks of the opposition. In July 1625, he supported Sir Edwin Sandys in arguing against the committal of Richard Montague for the opinions expressed in his book entitled 'Appello Caesarem.' When, on 7th July, it became known that the King had determined to ask for a further collection of tonnage and poundage, May, foreseeing the vigorous resistance which would be made, resolved to keep back the proposed motion until he had sent Sir John Eliot to remonstrate with Buckingham. On 6th August, he strove to justify Buckingham's foreign policy in the debate initiated by Sir Francis Seymour. Meanwhile, in private, he was vigorously remonstrating with the Duke on the rashness of his policy. In the heated debate which arose, on 22nd March 1628, on the misgovernment of the Kingdom, he could only plead on the part of the cabinet that the house should forgive and forget. On 3rd June, when Eliot, in his great speech on the King's foreign policy, declared that ‘to this French War, the Palatinate had been sacrificed,' May hastily arose to interrupt him. Eliot, however, was encouraged with cries of ‘Go on!' from every side. ‘If he goes on,' retorted May, ‘I hope that I may myself go out;' but he remained to listen.

In February 1629, the goods of John Rolle, a member of the house, were seized for his refusal to pay tonnage and poundage. The question of privilege was raised in the com­mons on 19th February and the custom‑house officers were brought to the bar. It was May who, alone with the feeble Sir John Coke, sustained the weight of the defence of the government. He declared that it had never been heard 'till this parliament' that a member ‘should have his goods privileged against the King and he is not yet satisfied that he ought.' Later on, he protested against obedience to the King's commands being counted as a delinquency. ‘When that is done his crown is at stake.' When, on 21st February, the committee declared by resolution that a member of the house ought to have privilege for his goods as well as for his person, May asked whether it was meant that he ought to have privilege against the King. The committee did its best to avoid a reply. Ultimately (23rd February), May endeavoured to effect a compromise between the King and the commons. ‘Think,' he vainly pleaded, ‘upon sonic course to have restitution made.'

On 2nd March 1629, May, with the other privy councillors present, did their best to rescue the speaker (Finch) from the violence of those who claimed, for the house, the right to adjourn itself. Overwork eventually told on him. In April, he resigned the Chancellorship of the Duchy and was made vice-chamberlain. He wished for the mastership of the rolls and Charles granted him, in 1629, the office in reversion, but he did not live to enjoy it. He died from softening of the brain at his house in St. Martin-in-the-Fields, on 9th June 1630, and was buried on the 11th in Westminster Abbey.

He married, first, Jane, sister of Sir William Uvedale, knt., of Wickham, Hampshire, by whom he had two sons - James of Coldrey & Sir Algenon of Greenwich - and two daughters before Jane died in childbed of a fourth son, Richard, in May 1615. On 3rd February 1616, he married secondly, at Bury St. Edmunds, Judith, daughter of Sir William Poley, knt., of Boxted, Suffolk, by whom he had, with several daughters, three sons, Charles (b. 1619), B.A. 1638 of St. John's College, Oxford, Richard (1621-1644) & & Baptist May of Windsor (1628-1698). Lady May died on 9th June 1661, aged about 63

May was seated at Carrow Priory, Norfolk, in 1624, and had some church patronage in that county. He is also said to have purchased the manor of Froyle, Hampshire, from Sir John Leigh of Stockwell, Surrey.

    © David Nash Ford 2001. All Rights Reserved.