The 'De Grey' Hours

Reference: NLW MS 15537C

To judge from the number of surviving examples, Books of Hours were the most popular texts of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in Western Europe. They range from exquisite and highly decorated volumes to modest texts devoid of illustration. Tens of thousands were created as commercial ventures, and thousands survive today in libraries, museums and private collections throughout the world.


Books of Hours enabled pious lay people throughout Western Europe to observe a private programme of regular daily devotion at home based on the church's daily services of Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, Noe, Vespers and Compline. But as often highly decorated creations, they also became popular symbols of wealth and prestige among the higher ranks of society during the later Middle Ages.


The core of every Book of Hours was the 'Hours of the Virgin', a series of eight sequences of psalms and prayers in honour of the Virgin Mary, to be recited at each canonical hour of the day. Each sequence would frequently be introduced by a miniature illustrating occurrences in the life of the Virgin, from the Annunciation (Matins) to her Coronation (Compline), miniatures often running parallel, facing page, with scenes from the Passion. These illustrations give a valuable insight into daily life in the Middle Ages.

At the beginning of each Book of Hours is a calendar, listing important Church festivals for each month, including the feast days of universal and local saints. The calendar is sometimes illustrated by pictures of the occupations appropriate to each month, and accompanying Zodiac signs.

The 'De Grey' Hours

The 'De Grey' Hours, of Sarum Use, and written on vellum, is one of a number of similar manuscripts made in Flanders for the English market during the mid-15th century. It contains the following elements:

f. 1rCalendar
f. 13rPrayers of St. Bridget, or the Fifteen Oes
f. 20vMemorial of Saints
f. 37vHours of the Virgin
f. 96vO intemerata and Obsecro te
f. 101rSeptem gaudia
f. 104rPrayers to the parts of the Cross and the Wounds of Christ
f. 148rPenitential Psalms and Litanyi
f. 165rOffice of the Dead
f. 189rCommendations of Souls
f. 204rPassion Psalms
f. 216rPsalter of St Jerom


Accompanying the texts are over sixty illustrations, including both full and half-page miniatures, together with fine historiated initials.
1. January: man seated before a fireplace; Aquarius (f. 1r)
2. February: pruning trees; Pisces (f. 2r)
3. March: cutting wood; Aries (f. 3r)
4. April: ecclesiastical procession; Taurus (f. 4r)
5. May: falconer hunting; Gemini (f. 5r)
6. June: scything; Cancer (f. 6r)
7. July: reaping; Leo (f. 7r)
8. August: threshing; Virgo (f. 8r)
9. September: wine-pressing; Libra (f. 9r)
10. October: sowing; Scorpio (f. 10r)
11. November: knocking down acorns for swine; Sagittarius (f. 11r)
12. December: slaughtering a pig; Capricorn (f. 12r)
13. The Trinity: God and the crucified Christ (f. 20v)
14. St. John the Baptist (f. 24v)
15. St. John the Evangelist (f. 26v)
16. St. Thomas of Canterbury (f. 28v)
17. St. George and the dragon (f. 31v)
18. St. Margaret (f. 33v)
19. St. Barbara (f. 35v)
20. Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane (f. 37v)
21. The Annunciation (f. 38r)
22. The Betrayal of Christ (f. 45v)
23. The Visitation (f. 46r)
24. Initial: The Holy Spirit (f. 53r)
25. Initial: St. Michael the Archangel (f. 54r)
26. Initial: SS. Peter and Paul (f. 55r)
27. Initial: St. Andrew (f. 55v)
28. Initial: St. Stephen (f. 55v)
29. Initial: St. Laurence (f. 56r)
30. Initial: St. Nicholas (f. 57r)
31. Initial: St. Anthony of Egypt (f. 57v)
32. Initial: St. Sebastian (f. 58r)
33. Christ before Pilate (f. 61v)
34. The Nativity (f. 62r)
35. The Scourging of Christ (f. 66v)
36. Annunciation to the Shepherds (f. 67r)
37. Christ carrying the Cross towards Calvary (f. 70v)
38. Adoration of the Magi (f. 71r)
39. The Crucifixion (f. 74v)
40. The Presentation of Christ in the Temple (f. 75r)
41. Descent from the Cross (f. 78v)
42. Herod and the Massacre of the Innocents (f. 79r)
43. Entombment of Christ (f. 84v)
44. The Flight into Egypt (f. 85r)
45. Initial: Virgin and Child (f. 92r)
46. Initial: Pietà, Virgin and Crucified Christ (f. 96v)
47. Initial: Presentment of the child Virgin in the temple (f. 101r)
48. Initial: The Fall (f. 104r)
49. Initial: The Crosses of Calvary (f. 104v)
50. Initial: The Head of Christ (f. 104v)
51. Initial: The wound in Christ's right hand (f. 105r)
52. Initial: The wound in Christ's left hand (f. 105r)
53. Initial: The wound in Christ's side (f. 105v)
54. Initial: The wound in Christ's right foot (f. 106r)
55. Initial: The wound in Christ's left foot (f. 106r)
56. The Crucifixion: Christ flanked by two thieves (f. 108r)
57. Arms of De Quincy, Earls of Winchester (f. 112r)
58. Arms of the Astley family (f. 118r)
59. Arms of the Grey family of Rhuthun (f. 124r)
60. Arms of the Hastings family (f. 137r)
61. Arms of the Bonville family (f. 145r)
62. The Last Judgment (f. 147v)
63. Arms of Ailmer de Valence (f. 151r)
64. Arms of the Woodville family (f. 161r)
65. Arms of the Harrington family (f. 168r)
66. The raising of souls to Heaven (f. 188v)
67. Christ as the Man of Sorrows (f. 203v)

History of the Manuscript

The festivals named in the Calendar, and the inclusion of a miniature of St Thomas Becket (f. 28v), demonstrate the artist's desire to tailor the volume to suit an English buyer. An early 16th century inscription in the Calendar for March (f. 3v) refers to the death of Elizabeth Grey, wife of Sir John Grey of Blisworth, Northamptonshire, and the arms inserted into the margins elsewhere in the volume are associated with the same family. Sir John Grey was a great-grandson of Reginald, third Baron de Grey of Rhuthun, whose animosity towards Owain Glyn Dwr led to the latter's rising. The history of the manuscript between the early-sixteenth and late-nineteenth centuries is unknown.

In 1895, the volume was purchased by Henry Yates Thompson, probably the greatest manuscript collector of his generation, and it remained (as MS 27) in his collection until it was sold at Sotheby's, 23 March 1920, lot 42, and purchased by Miss Gwendoline E. Davies of Gregynog, Powys. The 'De Grey' Hours, along with the 'Sherbrooke Missal' (NLW MS 15536E), were presented to the National Library of Wales by Miss Margaret S. Davies, Gregynog in 1951.


  • A Descriptive Catalogue of Fifty Manuscripts from the Collection of Henry Yates Thompson (Cambridge, 1898).
  • Christopher De Hamel, A History of Illuminated Manuscripts (London, 1994).
  • Janet Backhouse, Illumination from Books of Hours (London, 2004).

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