Thomas May, writer and historian, was born around 1596, son of Sir Thomas May and his wife Barbara (Rich). He was educated at Cambridge and began a career in law. His first works were comedies and he then turned to the history of Rome and has been called the English Lucan. Having failed to be appointed poet Laureate his sympathies turned to the Parliamentarians. He died on 13 November 1650 and was buried in the south transept. It is said that he was found dead in his bed due to his night cap being too tightly tied under his rather fat chin and he choked. A white marble monument was set up for him near the grave. The Latin inscription was by Marchamont Needham and can be translated:
“Champion of the English Republic, ornament of letters, most renowned poet of his age, delight of posterity, another Lucan, more than Roman, loyal historian, first-born son of a knight, THOMAS MAY, is buried here, who added his own glory and fame to his father’s titles. He was invited by the supreme council of England to write its history. At last, having shown a flawless loyalty to Parliament, he was suddenly carried off by death during the night, and met his end on the thirteenth of November in the second year of the restitution of liberty to England, 1650. The Parliament of the Republic of England erected this in honour of her well-deserving servant”.
An answer to the above inscription was stuck up on the monument. This can be translated:
“Approach, O wayfarer, and read of the poet, the translator of Lucan; with such felicity did he turn him into English that he seemed at once both May and Lucan. Well might you believe in the transmigration of souls, for each was an ungrateful traitor to his Prince, the one to the tyrant Nero, the other to Charles, best of kings; yet their fates were clearly different, for you read that Lucan repented before his death, but May met a sudden death, lest perchance he should repent. He was such a tenacious adherent of the Parliamentary rebels that he became the profane enemy of the Muses whom he had once worshipped devotedly. However he did not altogether abandon his creative art, for the lying poet wrote their history and committed his prose to print. Because these unworthy ashes are buried amongst so many heroic poets and noblemen, the marbles seem to weep. Nor did the rebels regret placing him here, they who have turned so many sacred churches and sanctuaries of God into stables for horses”.
When Charles II was restored to the throne all regicides and followers of Cromwell who had been buried in the Abbey were dis-interred. May’s body, with several others, was buried in a pit in St Margaret’s churchyard in 1661, just outside the Abbey. The monument was taken down (the site is now occupied by one to Dr Thomas Triplet). It was not until 1880 that he received a new memorial stone in the Abbey, placed just below Triplet’s monument. The stone also records the names of other Cromwellians who had been exhumed from this area:
“Near this spot were buried William Twisse D.D. 1646 Prolocutor of the Westminster Assembly. Thomas May 1650 Translator of Lucan and Secretary to the Long Parliament. William Strong 1654 – Stephen Marshall 1655 Parliamentary preachers. These were removed by Royal Warrant 1661”.
A modern memorial plaque on the tower of St Margaret’s Westminster records the names of all who were buried in the pit in the churchyard.
A photocopy of the engraving can be purchased from Westminster Abbey Library.