For territorial extent no parish in Lancashire equals that of Whalley. This great parochial division of the county comprehended, even in its dissevered state (in 1835), one of the borough and forty-nine townships (forty-four in the upper and five in the lower division of the hundred), as already enumerated, of which thirteen were chapelries. Its breadth from the northern boundary in the township of Chatburn, to the southern boundary of the hundred in the forest of Rossendale, within this parish, is fifteen miles; and its length, from the western boundary in the township of Chatburn, to the eastern boundary, in the township of Oswaldwisle, to the eastern boundary, where the counties of Lancaster and York are separated by the division line at Wolfstones, in the forest of Trawden, is eighteen miles.
The name, like the parish itself, is Saxon, signifying a Field of Wells, expressed by the term Walabaeg, on which point Dr. Whitaker, the learned historian of Whalley, says, "No term more strikingly descriptive could have been chosen, for, situated as Whalley is, upon a skirt of Pendle, and upon the face of those vast inverted mineral beds, popularly denominated the Rearing Mine, the earth, if drained, bleeds almost at every pore, and there are no less than six considerable springs within the immediate precincts of the village."
The original parish of Whalley, comprehending as it did four hundred square miles, was much more extended than that which at present exists, and included the parishes of Rochdale, Blackburn, Ribchester, Chipping, Mitton, and Slaidburn, with part of the district of Saddleworth. The boundary division at this early period consisted of the Ribble and the Hodder to the south, and the Tarne and the Chaw to the south. At what time Rochdale was dissevered from the parish of Whalley does not appear, but it was certainly before the termination of the deanery, in 1291. The parish of Whalley is stated in the census of 1881 to have an area of 111,942 statute acres, and a population in that year of 244,107.
The parish church of Whalley, originally called the "White Church under the Legh," is of high antiquity, as appears from the "Status de Blagborneshire," and from the crosses in the churchyard, erected to commemorate the introduction of Christianity into that part of the country, and, as is commonly affirmed, though on doubtful authority, the preaching of Paulinus. The original edifice has totally disappeared. The tower of the present church was built about A.D. 1285, during the incumbency of Peter de Cestria, the first and only rector, a man of great ecclesiastical and political influence, who had in that year a grant of free warren in Whalley conferred upon him. He was probably a natural son of John Fitz-Richard de Lacy was provost of Beverley and rector of Slaidburn, and held the living of Whalley from 1235 to 1294. The church dedicated to St. Wilfrid (or to All Saints, according to Ecton and the Status de Blagborneshire), is in the rural deanery of Whalley, and in the archdeanery of Blackburn. From the Stutus de Blagborneshire, it appears that the patronage was originally in the lords of the soil, who appointed pastors to the cure after receiving instructions from the Bishop of Richfield. Its earlier priests were styled deans, not vicars, and the succession was hereditary. When the lordship of Clitheroe fell into the hands of the Lacies, soon after the Conquest, letters commendatory were given by that family upon every vacancy. With this changed constitution the deanery of Whalley subsisted down to the Lateran Council in 1215, when the marriage of ecclesiastics was finally prohibited. Whalley then became a rectory, in the presentation of John, constable of Chester, and it was found, by Inquisition in 1296, that eight parts of the mother church of Whalley, the chapel of the town of Cliderhow, and the chapel of Dounom (Downham), belonged according to law and custom to the church of Blackburn. After two successive appropriations it was degraded into a vicarage, and at the end of two centuries and a half, when the average price of wheat was 2s. per quarter, the living was valued at only 6 pounds, 3s. 9d.