Matlock was mentioned in the Domesday Book, there is no record of a church here in 1086. The earliest written evidence for the existence of a church in Matlock dates from 1291.
The Taxation Roll of Pope Nicholas IV then valued the Rectory (meaning here the income of the parish priest) at £10 per annum. From 1300 onwards we have a list of the Rectors almost complete to 1504 when the Bishop’s Register fails to supply the name of the priest inducted at Matlock on 13 August that year. From 1527 the list is complete to the present day. But we do not lack indirect documentary testimony to the presence of a church in Matlock at an earlier period than the end of the thirteenth century. Thus the Victoria County History of Derby notes (Volume II, page 88) that ‘between the years 1100 and 1107’, Henry I gave the church of All Saints, Derby and that of Wirksworth to ‘God and the church of St Mary of Lincoln to be held in praebendam….’ This gift was formally confirmed on the accession of Henry II in 1154. The V.C.H. further notes (Volume II, page 88) that ‘the advowsons of Matlock, Kirk Ireton, Thorpe, Fenny Bentley and others of minor importance were from an early date considered to pertain exclusively to the Dean of Lincoln’. [References to the original documents in support of all this information will be found at the relevant points.]
From the Lincoln Registrum Antiquissimum we learn that in 1146 Pope Eugenius III granted to the Dean the livings of Chesterfield and Ashbourne, both ‘cum pertinenciis suis’ (i.e. with all things belonging to them). This allocation of numerous Derbyshire churches to the Dean of Lincoln during the first half of the twelfth century must strongly reinforce the suggestion that, if the presentation to Matlock were allocated to the Dean, as later history makes clear, the relevant grant was probably made at this time too, even if no written document survives. It should be stressed, however, that it was the right of appointing a priest to Matlock which was granted to the Dean and not the living itself.
Matlock retained its own (usually) resident Rector. Yet we are by no means dependent on a speculative reading of secondary documents for our knowledge of this earliest period. That there was already a church at Matlock by the middle of the twelfth century is confirmed by the surviving archaeological remains. The ancient font and the upper part of a Romanesque column which with its scalloped capital now serves as a stand for the statue of the Blessed Virgin and Child at the east end of the south aisle together with a number of early stone coffin lids witness to the first church on this site for which we have firm evidence. The living of Matlock remained in the gift of the Dean of Lincoln until Victorian legislation transferred the right of presentation to the Bishop of the diocese.
Extensive alterations evidently occurred at some time during the fifteenth century. The present tower in the perpendicular style, though modest by West Country or East Anglian standards, was an ambitious achievement for a small parish unaided by a wealthy patron. The remaining fragments of square-headed perpendicular windows, still stored at the church, may indicate the addition or enlargement of north and south aisles in the early sixteenth century. A stone carving of an angel playing small hand-held cymbals, which survives, is clearly of medieval origin but its precise date or function is uncertain.
A south porch was added in 1636. Its façade, inscribed with the date, was re-sited in its present position against the south wall of the tower in 1871. Two crudely-carved human heads serving as label stops are a gesture to Gothic tradition but the porch as a whole marked the arrival in Matlock of an, albeit provincial, Renaissance classicism.
Considerable alterations to the Church in the eighteenth century largely destroyed the medieval structure. Sir Stephen Glynne who visited the church in May 1840 noted that the only part of the medieval fabric (apart from the tower) then surviving was the chancel arch, ‘of pointed form, very rude & plain’. A faculty was granted in 1760 for the rebuilding of the south aisle to (among others) Peter Nightingale, an earlier member of the family to which Florence Nightingale belonged.
In 1783, Richard Arkwright, the pioneer of the industrial revolution, took down and rebuilt the north aisle. The result of these changes, we are told, was to cause the church to appear ‘something like a mill or factory with battlements’. An engraving, dated 1817, of a drawing of the church by Joseph Farington, R.A., well illustrates the raw functionalism of much of its exterior architecture at that period. The purpose of the changes was more commendable: to secure increased accommodation for a growing population. Archdeacon Butler, writing in 1823, noted that there was seating for a congregation of ‘about 600’ and that the church was very well attended. There were, however, no benches for ‘the poor’ of the kind provided elsewhere for those who could not afford to rent a pew. (This lack no doubt contributed to the success of the two dissenting chapels in Matlock, erected, one each, by the ‘Methodists & Ranters’). Thus the local evidence would not appear to support the myth of a universal eighteenth century decline in religious observance. From Luttrell Wynne (1738-1814) we learn, however, that the Mattock congregation of his day had not succumbed to ‘enthusiasm’, the ‘very horrid thing’ against which Bishop Butler had warned John Wesley. After a visit to the church in 1771, Wynne wrote in his notebook:
‘At the parish Church at Matlock 3 peculiarities struck me viz the names of the different proprietors being written upon their pews – an anthem board, a peice (sic) of wooden board with the place name from whence the anthem is taken fixed in the gallery & turned towards the congregation the most remarkable of all was an old man with a long stick in his hand whose business it was to keep the congregation awake during sermon & who kept parading up and down the church… .’
The Revd R.R. Rawlins, writing in 1827, describes the interior of the church as it then was and, no doubt, had been for most of the previous century. His description is confirmed by William Adam’s, Gem of the Peak, 1843 and repeated in the History of Matlock Parish Church 1925 by W.N. Statham who may have been relying also on oral tradition and the memories of his family. He himself knew the church as it was in 1870. The church had galleries on three sides, supported by iron pillars. There was a curved, plaster ceiling adorned with paintings of the four Evangelists and allegorical figures of a decidedly polemical character, one representing the Christian religion trampling on the crescent and Koran and another of Faith, holding a cross and a Bible and trampling on a papal tiara and missal. In addition to these main subjects cherubs were used ‘to fill up any blank spaces’. Above the singing loft in the west gallery was a fresco of David with his harp, attended by two angels and, behind these, figures of Death as a skeleton and Father Time, scythe in hand. On either side of the chancel arch were paintings of Moses and Aaron.
Sir Stephen Glynne whose visit to the church in May 1840 we have already noted refers only to the paintings of the evangelists on the centre of the nave ceiling which he thought were ‘apparently of the 17th century’. Archdeacon Butler in 1823 had commented that the ceiling was ‘ornamented with bad paintings’. Moses and Aaron were favourite subjects of the period and the surviving examples at Hope parish church are, no doubt, very similar to the paintings formerly at Matlock The charity boards of this period, of course, still remain in the baptistery and on the west wall of the north aisle.
Wall paintings were once more introduced into the interior of the church at the end of the nineteenth century. In 1898 A.O. Hemming completed a decorative scheme in the chancel the main features of which were an Agnus Dei above the East window and two large-scale censing angels below to either side of the window. Originally the background to the figures was ornamented with IHS scrolls but these were later removed. The main figures survived until the 1950s. (A.O. Hemming had provided the complete decorative scheme at St. Mary’s, Cromford, which still survives, recently conserved and renewed, and his success there may have prompted his employment at Matlock).