May Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Select May Meaning
is a first name that became a surname. Some
see its origin in England as the Old
French mai brought by the
Normans as a term of endearment or greeting
to a
close friend. It could also designate
someone who was born in the month of May.
Alternatively, it could be an abbreviated version of Matthew in
or of Matthias in Saxony and in other German-speaking lands.
Early examples of the surname were Thomas le
Mey and Goscelin Mey recorded at Ely Abbey in Suffolk in 1221. The spelling had become May by the 16th
century. The May and Mays spelling are
both found in America.

May Resources on

May Ancestry

May has been very much
a name of London and the home counties.

Sussex. The first recorded here was
probably Richard
May, born in Wadhurst in East Sussex in 1464.
He had two grandsons, Thomas and William, and the family split
into two

Thomas’s descendants were to
be found at Mayfield Place. Here in
1595 was born
Thomas May, a poet
and historian, much in
favor at
court of
King Charles I.
When the
Civil War broke out he
switched sides. He died
in 1650 and was given a public funeral by
Parliament. After the
Restoration, however, his body was dug
up and thrown into a common grave
. John May of
this family emigrated to Roxbury, Massachusetts in 1640.

other line ran via William who moved as a merchant to Portugal where he
around 1540. These Mays lived at
Raughmere near Chichester in West Sussex and included Richard May, a
tailor in London, and his son Sir Humphrey, Chancellor of the Duchy of
Lancaster in 1618. Later Mays of this
line were Hugh May, a practicing architect during the Restoration era,
Richard May, the MP for Chichester.

Suffolk. From
Suffolk came the two 16th century clergymen brothers, William who was
as Archbishop of York in 1560 but died the same year and John who
became Bishop
of Carlisle in 1577. John May was
recorded as a yeoman of Bawdsey on his death in 1655.
One family history began with the birth of
George May near Butley in 1777. His
later moved to the Campsea Ashe area.

London. More recent Mays in London
have been the
Quaker Francis May, co-founder of the match company Bryant & May in
and the young solicitor William May, co-founder of the law firm
Slaughter &
May in 1889.

Elsewhere. Cornwall has been
an outpost for May where it
is thought to have been an abbreviation of the French diminutive form
Mayou. Mays were long associated with the
town of St. Austell. One line of these Mays was later to be found
at Polgooth. A May family at Newlyn dates
from the 1660’s, another at St. Mawgan-in-Ryder from the 1720’s.

Ireland. Edward May, a younger brother
of the poet and
historian Thomas May from Mayfield, came to Waterford
where his family established themselves at Maypark House.
Mays later moved to Belfast
where Sir Edward May was MP in the
early 1800’s
and pioneered many urban developments at that time. From
a related line came the Rev. Edward May
whose son George was Lord Chief Justice of Ireland and whose grandson
Francis became Governor of Hong Kong from 1912 to 1919.

May in Ireland may have Irish roots, an
anglicized form of O’Miadhaigh. This
surname, meaning “honorable,” was to be
found in Westmeath and Roscommon.

Holland. In 1727
John May arrived in Amsterdam with two other English shipwrights to
Dutch ship design at the invitation of the Amsterdam Admiralty. May remained in Holland with his family. A later May was an Admiral in the Dutch Navy
who assisted in restoring the Prince of Orange to the throne of Holland
the fall of Napoleon. The Mays then
returned to England and Sir William May became
an Admiral in the English

America. May arrivals
in America
include many from England, some Irish and Scottish, and a
contingent from
German lands.

New England.
John May came to
America on the James in 1640 and
settled in Roxbury, Massachusetts, marrying Sarah Brewer there in 1656.
One of his
Colonel Samuel
was the Warden of King’s
Chapel in Boston, the first Unitarian church in America.
He and his wife Dorothy had thirteen
children. They included Samuel, the
Unitarian minister and abolitionist, and Abigail, the mother of C
ivil War
Louisa May Alcott.

Various Mays were to be
found in Virginia in the 17th century.
They included John May who was transported to Accomack county in
and other Mays who made their own way there. Other Mays
were first recorded in Sussex county, Virginia.

One line from Accomack county was
later to be found in Pitt and Beaufort counties, North Carolina. John May had his home along the Dan
river. He was a captain during the
Revolutionary War and subsequently a surveyor and land speculator in
eastern Kentucky. The town of Maysville in
Kentucky, initially
a trading post, was named after him.

Chester May, thought to have been a descendant
of the Mays of Roxbury, headed west and was a co-founder of the town of
Mayville, Wisconsin in 1845. He and his
son Eli were active in exploiting the nearby iron ore deposits.

Irish. Some
Mays, like James May from county Cork,
were Irish in origin. He settled in
Maryland in 1800. His son John May
migrated to Texas in 1835. A later John
May, who came to Texas from Germany, fought with distinction in the
Texas-Indian wars in 1870.

German. Indeed
Mays in America, in some cases originally Meys, were of German origin. Among the early arrivals were:

  • Daniel
    May who came to Philadelphia on the Loyal Judith in
    1743. He settled in Guilford county, North
  • Catherina
    May, a widow, who arrived with her
    family on the Edinburgh in 1748 and
    settled in Conestoga township in Lancaster county, Pennsylvania. Her children later moved to Virginia and
    eastern Kentucky.
  • Frantz
    and Anna May
    who arrived on the Phoenix in 1752
    and settled in Berks county, Pennsylvania
  • and
    Jacob May who arrived sometime in the 1750’s. He
    is thought to have been the ancestor of
    the Mays of Ashe county in North Carolina.

May arrived in New York with his family in 1854 at the age of 16. He migrated west to Colorado in the 1870’s for
health reasons. There he started his first store and his business
rapidly expanded into the St. Louis based chain of department stores.

Canada. William May,
Protestant, was a soldier in
Ireland and came with his family from county Carlow in 1817 to Canada
they settled in the Ottawa Valley. He
and his wife raised ten children there.

from Germany also came to Canada.
William May was an Empire Loyalist from Albany, New York who had
with Butler’s Rangers and crossed the border into Niagara in 1783. He was the descendant of German Palatine
refugees who had arrived in New York as early as 1709.
Much later German arrivals, around 1850, were
Thomas and Ida May from Hamburg who settled in Montreal.

Australia. William May. a Quaker from London, emigrated
with his family to South Australia in 1839 and later settled in
Tasmania where
he established an orchard at Sandford. His eldest son William studied
and painted Tasmanian wildflowers; another son Alfred created paintings

May was a Cornishman who came to Western Australia with his first wife
1878. They raised eleven children at May
Cottage in the outback at Bridgetown.
May Cottage, a simple timber framed structure with gabled roof,


May Miscellany

The Death of Thomas May.  Thomas May, the writer
and historian, was much in favor with the court of Charles
I.  However, having
failed to be
appointed Poet
Laureate, his
sympathies turned to the Parliamentarians.
He died in 1650.  It was said
that he was
found dead in his bed due to his night cap being too tightly tied under
rather fat chin and he choked.  He was
buried in the
south transept of Westminster Abbey.

A white marble monument was set up for him near the grave. The Latin
inscription in translation went as follows:

of the English Republic, ornament of letters, most renowned poet of his
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
to write its history.  At last, having
shown a flawless loyalty to Parliament, he was suddenly carried off by
during the night and met his end on the thirteenth of November in the
year of the restitution of liberty to England, 1650.  The
Parliament of the Republic of England
erected this in honor of her well-deserving servant.”

When Charles II was restored to the throne all
regicides and followers of Cromwell who had been buried in the Abbey
dis-interred. May’s body was buried in
a pit in St Margaret’s churchyard in
1661, just outside the Abbey and his
monument was taken down.  It was
not until 1880 that he received a new
memorial stone in the Abbey.

Mays at St. Austell.  The Mays
were said to have been an ancient family resident in St. Austell in
Cornwall.  The north aisle of St. Austell church contains a
large tablet of slate
inscribed to members of the May family with dates of 1594 and 1601.

Five vicars named May
served the three parish churches around St. Austell over a period of
hundred and forty years.  Ralph May was
appointed in 1584 and served in St. Austell for thirty seven years.  Then King James I appointed Joseph May who
“enjoyed the esteem of his flock for forty years.”  In 1660 King
Charles II appointed Joseph May Jr. who served for fifteen years.
Another Joseph
May was appointed vicar of St. Ewe in 1679 and served for seventeen
years.  The
other neighboring parish of St. Mewan also had a May vicar, Samuel, who
appointed in 1729.

Admiral Sir William May and His Forebears.  Admiral May described his family history as follows in his memoirs Life of a Sailor:

“My father was born
in Holland
in 1805 and was the son of Admiral May of the Dutch Navy.  My grandfather
was a
distinguished man who
assisted in restoring the Prince of Orange to
the throne of Holland.  He was a
clever engineer
and his plans were adopted for improving the canal system in Holland.

My father’s
forebears, as
recorded in the
pedigree table, show
that John May,
a naval architect,
went to Holland in the 17th century
and the
family remained there until my father
returned and settled in England. Although
the family were in Holland for so many generations, all my ancestors
British wives.

My father
settled in Liverpool and married Ann Jane Freckleton in 1840.  I was
the fifth of ten children and was born on
July 31st, 1849.  One of
my godfathers
was Prince Henry of the Netherlands, brother of the then reigning King.  He was
present at my

There is a portrait of John
May the master shipbuilder at the age of eighty which hangs at the
Maritime Museum at Greenwich in London.

The Mays in Belfast.  In 1795 Sir Edward May from Waterford, who was described at the time as “a moneylender who also ran a gaming house,” managed
to get the aristocratic Lord Donegall released from debtors’ prison.  He then offered his daughter Anna in
marriage, an obligation which his lordship felt obliged to accept.

The couple came to Belfast
in 1802 to escape his debtors and brought the May family with them.  Anna had been under-age at the time of her
marriage at an obscure church in London in 1795 and should have had the
permission of the courts.  But this had
not been sought.  So, as a consequence,
the marriage was declared as unlawful.

the Mays prospered in Belfast.  Sir
Edward was its MP for many years in the early 1800’s.
Street in Belfast was named after Sir Edward, as was Great Edward
Street, May
Street and May’s Market.

Sir Edward pioneered the reclamation of land from the
edges of Belfast Lough.  However, he was
regarded as the man who desecrated the graves of those buried at St.
graveyard at High Street and Ann Street in order to sell the land for
development of Church Street and Ann Street.

Colonel Joseph May.  Joseph May was the son of a
relatively modest lumber dealer in Boston.
Enterprising and ambitious, he had by the age of thirty become a
and extremely gregarious man.  Outside of
his family he was distinguished by his snuff habit and for wearing
black stockings and knee knuckles.  All
Boston knew of his vanity about his shapely legs.

However, he made some bad investments.
To clear his debts and his name he gave up
everything he owned, including even the gold rings on his fingers.  From 1800, the later part of his life was
lived in more modest circumstances.  He
became Warden of King’s Chapel in Boston, the first Unitarian
church in

Reader Feedback – Mays in Virginia.  I am doing research on our May family who, according to oral tradition and
some documentation, seem to have come from Sussex county
in Virginia.  The link that I’m most confident in is for a
John May who was a soldier in the War of 1812.  He was born
about 1782-84 from Greenville county, then part
of Sussex county.

I believe his father was Allen May who married
Elizabeth Whitehorn. There was
an Allen May born in 1744 to John and
Elizabeth. This seems a likely candidate.  I
think our most distant ancestor then was a May
who might have come during the early colonization of Virginia.

Do you have any resources on the early Virginia
May families that could help?

As far as DNA, my
Y-DNA test shows a close relationship with the Mayhew family of
Massachusetts.  Mayhew
was the first governor of Massachusetts.  It
appears our link may be from back in England
and it was common to list the Mayhews as May/Maye/Mayes/Mayo. There are
also a
few Mayos in early Virginia which is a possible connection.

Warren L. May (

May Arrivals in America

Country of Origin Numbers Percent
England    1,051     46
Ireland      448     19
Scotland       79      3
Germany      782     32
Total    2,360    100

The Demise of the William B. May Agency.  It was said that the William B. May real estate family had a long
history, dating back to the 17th century in England where the family sold
prized London properties to the Crown estate.
They had been present in New York real estate ever since 1866
sold there
some of Manhattan’s finest homes on the Upper East Side to pedigreed
families such
as the Carnegies, Fricks and Vanderbilts.

this long history has come to an end.  In June 2004 Mrs.
William B. May Jr, matron of the agency, received a gift from her
Peter Marra, a tribute for her 84th birthday.  She
sent the box back unopened.

Her son William Talcott May was the
co-chairman and the eccentric fourth generation member of the family
company.  Perhaps this eccentricity was due
to a
bipolar disorder.  He had a felony
conviction for leaving fake bombs at a local airport after 9/11 to
its lax security.  He was sometimes seen “wearing
fire-truck-red Scottish kilt and a navy-blue wool sweater, his broad,
cheekbones streaked with charcoal-hued face paint, looking more
Braveheart than

was this William Talcott May who sat down with William Lie Zeckendorf
at the Chestertown Yacht Club on the Chesapeake Bay.
They were there to broker a settlement deal
to put his family’s company back together after May’s brother-in-law
Marra had left the firm to join a rival establishment that was owned by
Zeckendorfs.  His exit had brought the
two companies close to dueling lawsuits.

rift in the family launched a
battle for control of the privately held company.  In
the end the May family members sold out
their interest to a Century 21 franchisee, Kevin B. Brown and
Associates.  Their name remains.  But the family business has gone.



May Names

  • Thomas May was a 17th century English
    poet, dramatist and historian.
  • Samuel May was a
    19th century American
    who championed
    women’s rights and abolitionism.
  • Peter May was an English cricket captain in the 1950’s
    and 1960’s.   
  • Willie Mays was a great American baseball
    center fielder of the 1950’s and 1960’s
  • Theresa May was the British
    Prime Minister between 2015 and 2019.

Select May Numbers Today

  • 35,000 in the UK (most numerous
    in London)
  • 53,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 26,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)


Select May and Like Surnames

Some surnames have come from SE England, in particular the counties of Kent, Surrey and Sussex.  These are some of the noteworthy surnames that you can check out.





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