There may have been Roman activity on the site the church now occupies. Roman coins have been found when graves have been dug in the churchyard. A large block of stone that can be seen near the church tower shows a Roman lewis hole (a slot used to lift large pieces of stone) . Inside the church is a free standing altar with the figure of Mars the god of war, and a reused piece of stone is the keystone in the northern doorway arch and bears the inscription “FLAVIUS VOT OMPOSU” (Flavius after fulfillment of his vow set this up).
The first church on the site was probably a Saxon wooden one. The churchyard contains three Viking age crosses, and the church’s walls both inside and out contain more fragments. The first stone church on the site was an early Norman one that burned down. Some remnants of it survive – the south door within the porch has a Norman rounded arch and parts of Norman capitals either side of the door.
The church before us today was begun in the 1220s. It was started during the time of Peter of Chester, the Rector of Whalley (who did so much to prevent the monks of Stanlaw Abbey relocating to Whalley). The oldest part of the church, the chancel, dates from this period. There are three lancet windows on the north side and five on the south. The priests door on the south side has its original iron work and knocker.
The nave with its higher roof and wider sides, was added on in the later part of the 13th century.Two stone coffins can be seen in the churchyard, both dated to the same era.
In 1361 a religious hermitage was founded in the western part of the churchyard. As was common in medieval times it centred around a woman, who had chosen to withdraw from the world and devote her life to prayer. She would have had servants and a priest to say mass each day.
The impressive stone tower was added in 1440. Two of its interesting features are its huge buttresses and the embattlements on top, (which made it a defendable position in the civil war battle at Whalley)
On entering the church we come into the nave. The pillars on the north side are cylindrical, those on the south side are hexagonal. There are many medieval features to see here: the oak roof decorated with carved roses, the chancel and chapel screens and a simple pew all date from this period. The large caged pew has various dates on it starting in Tudor times and has been enhanced and partitioned over the years.
Walking up into the choir area of the church we see one of the church’s most important features- the choir stalls and misericords from Whalley Abbey . They were carved in 1430 and came to the church when the abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII. If they are roped off, just ask the very helpful attendant who will be glad to let you in to examine them. The marvelous carvings show many of the classic medieval motifs: a green man, St George fighting the dragon, an eagle and child, and a pelican feeding her young. Others of note are a woman beating a warrior with a spoon, a blacksmith trying to put a shoe on a goose and an amazingly detailed scene of a fox stealing a goose from a housewife to bring home its cubs. Not all of the misericords from the abbey are here, eight were sent to Blackburn Parish Church (now Blackburn Cathedral and still on display) and two more are in St. John’s Church, Cliviger.
The chancel has some of the oldest features in the church: the sedilia (three priests seats with decorative arches ), and piscina (a shallow basin to wash the communion vessels).
In 1444 two chantry chapels were added either side of the nave, when the hermitage outside was dissolved. Both of these would have had a priest to say mass in them every day, up until the time of the reign of Edward VI (son of Henry VIII) when such chapels were repressed. Both chapels have a whole host of medieval features including an altar, grave slabs and piscina.
There really is a huge amount to see in the church (much more than detailed here), so do take the free guide leaflet on offer. There are two inexpensive, clear and detailed guides to the church and misericords on sale which are essential if you are to see all the historical features.
Opening Times: The church is open to visitors most afternoons between 2-4pm.
Parking: Park in Whalley town centre car park or on the road outside the Whalley Abbey.
Just a few moments away, on foot:
Whalley Viking Age Crosses– in the churchyard, three outstanding crosses
Whalley Abbey– the most impressive abbey ruins in the whole of Lancashire
Saint Mary and All Saints Parish Church Whalley, edited by Eric Lockwood, 2010, booklet (on sale in the church)
The Misericords of Whalley Parish Church, Eric Lockwood, 2009, booklet (on sale in the church)
Misericords of North West England: Their Nature and Significance, John Dickinson, 2008, Centre for North-West Regional Studies, University of Lancaster
Journeys Through Brigantia: Volume Nine: The Ribble Valley, John and Phillip Dixon, 1993, Aussteiger Publications