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Baptist May - © Nash Ford PublishingBaptist May (1628-1698)
Born: 1628 at Mid-Lavant, Sussex
Groom of the King's Bedchamber
Keeper of the Privy Purse
Died: 2nd March 1698 at the Great Lodge, Windsor Great Park, Berkshire

Baptist - commonly known as 'Bab' - May was one of the ancient family of May from Sussex and Kent. The son of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Sir Humphrey May of Carrow Priory (Norfolk), by his second wife, Judith, daughter of Sir William Poley, knt., of Boxted, Suffolk. He is said to have been named after his uncle by marriage, Baptist Hicks (or Hickes), 1st Viscount Campden.

Baptist was probably educated in France, but soon attended court as a page. At the age of twenty, he was - with a relative Charles May - in attendance upon the Duke of York (the future King James II) whilst travelling to the Netherlands and he seems to have remained with him in exile for, in 1654, he appears in a list of the duke's creditors. Upon the Restoration, Charles II was keen to reward such loyal service and, in August 1660, the King appointed Baptist, jointly with the Earl of St. Albans, to the lucrative office as Registrar of the Court of Chancery.

May showed his gratitude by rendering himself indispensable to the King in his 'private pleasures'. As Groom of the Bedchamber from 1662, he exercised control over all who came to see the King and there was plenty of opportunity for the collection of bribes. He thus became 'one of the potentates of the back stairs' for Wood seems to include May in his denunciation of Sheppard as a debauchee and an atheist, while Pepys calls him roundly a ‘court pimp.' He was certainly a frequent and lavish entertainer of the King and his friends at his lodgings, first at Whitehall and afterwards at St. James', and Baptist seems to have rivalled William Chiffinch, the King's closet keeper, in the attentions which he showed the King. With Rochester, the Killigrews, Henry Savile and Sir Fleetwood Sheppard, he frequently attended those select parties which enlivened the evenings of Charles in the apartments of his mistresses. He was certainly a good friend of the most powerful of these, Barbara Villiers, better known by her titles of Lady Castlemaine or the Duchess of Cleveland. In 1665, the year that Baptist sailed with the Duke of York in the ‘Royal Charles’ against the Dutch, he also gained, in succession to Viscount FitzHarding, the position of Keeper of the Privy Purse, apparently through Barbara's influence. In return for the favour, however, she subsequently made the most extravagant demands on the funds which he thenceforth controlled. In that same year, he was rewarded with a grant of "several parcels of ground in Pall Mall Fields for building thereon a square of thirteen or fourteen great and good houses" and of the highway from Charing Cross to St. James's.

In 1666, Baptist May decided to enter Parliament and made an attempt to become the MP for Winchelsea in Sussex. He arrived in the town with letters of recommendation from the Duke of York, but his reputation preceded him and the people declared "they would have no Court pimp to be their Burgess'. Four years later, he was more successful in Midhurst. His duties, as chief bribery agent of the court, had long previously familiarised him with the usages of the House of Commons. His skill was most conspicuous when, under Buckingham's direction, he became the chief mover in the preparation of a bill for the King's divorce, the dutiful queen having failed to produce an heir. At the last moment, however, to his no small embarrassment, King Charles told him that the "matter must be let alone, for it would not do".

In recompense for his efforts, the King made Baptist the Ranger of Windsor Great Park and he quickly moved into his official residence, the Great Lodge (now Cumberland Lodge), not far from Windsor Castle. It was here that Baptist turned full circle and became the Queen's champion by 'persuading' one Israel Tonge to withdraw his declarations that she was involved in a Popish plot. Large sums of money were passing through Baptist's hands, and, like William Chiffinch and his brother, he developed a taste for valuable pictures, possessing, among others, a fine portrait of Moll Davis playing a guitar, by Sir Peter Lely. Many of these, he displayed in his new home. When his cousin, Hugh May, was made clerk of the works, under Sir Christopher Wren, at Windsor Castle and was undertaking extensive alterations and repairs there in 1671, it was Baptist who supported Lely and Evelyn's recommendation of Grinling Gibbons to the King, with the result that Gibbons found ample employment there. He also interested in sport and kept a fine stud of horses. In the Easter week of 1675, he rode his horse ‘Thumper' against the King's ‘topping horse Blew Cap.' In April 1680, two of his horses ran matches at Newmarket and, in October 1682, his 'Whim' was a winner. Further to such sporting achievements, Pepys declared him "one of the best players at tennis in the nation".

Although May did not seek the limelight, he was a most convivial person and Burnet attributes his undoubtedly great influence over King Charles to an exact similarity between his tastes and those of his master. Baptist did not, however, share the King's predilections for a French paid policy and the church of Rome. He seems to have fallen from favour after Charles's death and retired to the Great Park in Windsor, for which borough he was returned to parliament in 1690, together with Sir Christopher Wren. Although the election was declared void by order of the house dated 17th 1690 and he was returned for Thetford, a few days later. He supported William of Orange in his claim to the English throne and, in 1695, received a royal bounty of £1,000 for his loyalty.

Baptist May died at the Great Lodge on 2nd March 1698 and was buried in St. George's Chapel, Windsor. His portrait is said, by Walpole, to have been introduced on the ceiling of St. George's Hall, Windsor, by Verrio, who represents the courtier in a periwig as a spectator of Christ healing the sick. His name is still commemorated by ‘Babmaes Mews' at the top of Wells Street, St. James', Westminster (Middlesex).

May is stated by Le Neve to have been unmarried, but to have left illegitimate issue. A son, Charles, was under age on 23rd January 1688-1689, when his father made his will. A Baptist May, possibly another son, was residing by the High Bridge, Hammersmith, in 1739, and was a trustee of the pews in the church there. He was, in 1739, also appointed ‘yeoman of the King's carriages,' a post which he held until 1758.

Edited from Sidney Lee's 'Dictionary of National Biography' (1894)

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