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Preface to Derbyshire

Derbyshire is an inland county in the East Midlands of England. It is bordered by Nottinghamshire to the east, Leicestershire to the south east, Staffordshire and Cheshire to the west and Yorkshire to the north. It measures approximately 52 miles from N to S and 35 miles at its widest from E to W. Its land area of 658,624 acres makes it the 19th largest of the traditional English counties.

Landscape, Geology and Building Stones

In terms of landscape, Derbyshire is best known for the Peak District which spreads into neighbouring counties but is mainly in this one. The Peak District forms the southern end of the Pennines, and is mostly uplands with its highest point being Kinder Scout, at 636 m, the highest point in Derbyshire and the Peak District. The Peak district is in the north west of the county, but extends as far south as Ashbourne, just to the north west of Derby itself. Within this large area are two characteristic landscapes. The White Peak, which takes its name from the striking limestone outcrops, is the more touristy area around Dovedale and the towns of Matlock, Bakewell and Buxton. It is surrounded to the north, east and west by the Dark Peak, a high, wild moorland area that gets its name from its wet, peaty soil – a result of the underlying geology in which the limestone is covered by a cap of millstone grit, which is a coarse sandstone that absorbs water very slowly, meaning that the soil is nearly always wet.

Dovedale near Ilam

The east of the county contains the lower Derwent valley, and further east the coalfields of Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and South Yorkshire, an area of undulating uplands that has been affected, since the Industrial Revolution, by the mining industry and its subsequent decline. At the southern tip of the county, the Needwood and South Derbyshire claylands are rolling farmlands, largely dairy farming with some arable.

The geology of the county is thus crucial in the character of its landscape and settlement, and the occupations of its people. The north is dominated by the carboniferous limestone (pale blue on the map), surrounded by the pale grey of the millstone grit that overlies it in places. The large dark grey areas are the coalfields, which also contain sandstones, while the orange areas in the south are the Triassic sandstones of the Sherwood and Keuper Marl type. For building purposes, therefore, Derbyshire is very much a stone county, but the limestones have distinct disadvantages for building purposes, on account of the difficulty experienced in shaping them cleanly: they can produce rubble but not clean-faced ashlar, and when they are used, sandstone is needed for dressings. The millstone grit is very variable in value. That around Kinder Scout is very hard and often pebbly, while the Ashover and Chatsworth grits are younger and more useable.


The River Derwent runs the length of Derbyshire from north to south, entering the county. It rises near Glossop on Bleaklow Moor, flowing though the Upper Derwent valley where it forms the boundary with Yorkshire for a short distance. It feeds the 3 great reservoirs of Howden, Derwent and Ladybower, emerging from the last to continue through the towns of Matlock, Belper, Duffield and Derby. South of Derby the river meanders and after seven more miles it enters the Trent at Derwent Mouth near Sawley. The Trent itself crosses the county from west to east, entering the county at Newton Solney and widening to form a marshy floodplain crossed by the Swarkestone Bridge, a mile-long causeway first built in the 13th century and still partly medieval. It leaves the county on the outskirts of Nottingham. These two rivers and their tributaries dominate the landscape of the county. In the Derbyshire Dales, the Dove flows south from Axe Edge Moor near Buxton, to join the Trent near Newton Solney and producing, with its tributary the Manifold, some of the most beautiful limestone gorges in the country.

Swarkeston Causeway


The only borough in the Domesday county was Derby itself, home in 1066 to 243 burgesses and in 1086 to 140 burgesses. Derby was the county town until 1997 when it became a Unitary Authority while retaining a ceremonial role in the county. The county offices were moved to Matlock in 1955, and it became the county town in 1997.


Derby was settled by the Romans, who built a fort there called Derventio. This was served by two roads; Rykeneld Street, which ran from Chester (Deva) to Derby via Stoke on Trent, and The Street, which ran south from Buxton (Aquae Arnemetiae). It was also close to the junction of the Trent and the Derwent, thus providing a hub for both road and river transport. When the Danes invaded, Derby became one of the Five Boroughs of the Danelaw. It was captured by Lady Aethelflaed of Mercia in 917 and was subsequently a major Mercian town. By the time of Domesday its population had grown to around 2000 people and in 1154 the town was given its charter. A merchants’ guild was formed, and trades included weaving and leather glove making.

Derby was an important centre in the Industrial Revolution, its weaving industry benefitting from the first water-powered silk mill opened in 1717. Jedediah Strutt’s Derby Rib attachment invented in 1759 revolutionised the manufacture of hose. In 1840 the North Midland Railway set up its works in Derby, and the the town was to become a major manufacturer of engines and an important railway centre. Rolls Royce set up their plant in Derby in 1907, making cars and aircraft.

It did not have a cathedral until 1927, when All Saints parish church was granted cathedral status, but it was another 50 years before Derby gained City status.


Chesterfield, in the north east of the county, is the second largest town in Derbyshire,. Like Derby it began as a Roman fort, which gave it its name but was not occupied for very long. The town was granted a market in 1204, becoming a free borough at that time. As well as acting as a market town for the surrounding farmland, Chesterfield was a mining town until the mid-20th century, suffering like so many Derbyshire towns from the systematic closure of the pits between 1947 and 1990. Its amin church, dedicated to St Mary and All Saints, dates mainly from the 13th and 14th centuries, and is the largest in the county. Nevertheless its main claim to fame is its twisted, or crooked 14th-century spire that twists through 45º while leaning 9 feet 6 inches from the vertical.


Matlock, the administrative centre of Derbyshire, was little more than a collection of villages until the end of the 17th century when thermal springs were discovered in the area. This led to the building of hydros, more than 20 at their height in the 19th century, including Smedley’s Hydro, built by the industrialist John Smedley, head of the knitwear manufacturers of that name, in 1853. Smedley’s hydro was to become the headquarters of Derbyshire County Council in 1955, when they were moved from Derby.


In the Domesday Survey, Derbyshire was divided into Wapentakes, and Scarvedale, Hamenstan, Morleystan, Walecross and Apultre are mentioned, along with a district called Peche-fers. By the later middle ages, these had been replaced by Hundreds; Appletree, High Peak, Morleyston and Litchurch, Repton and Gresley, Scarsdale and Wirksworth. The situation is not entirely clear, and some Hundreds went by different names at different times.

The county is now divided into eight districts, plus the Unitary Authority of Derby City, as follows:

High Peak, Derbyshire Dales, South Derbyshire, Erewash, Amber Valley, North East Derbyshire, Chesterfield and Bolsover.

The Domesday record

Recent estimates suggest that the total population of Derbyshire in 1086 was of the order of 16,250 people. This, of course, is based on the Domesday Survey, but while the Survey records a number of people in each feudal class for each holding, the figures only make sense if it is assumed that they refer to heads of households rather than individuals, which means that assumptions, or more accurately guesses, must be made about the average size of a household. The issue is a complex one for many reasons: boroughs, for example, are treated differently from vills, and serfs may well be counted individually. The present author is inclined to accept the calculations of H. C. Darby, based on an assumption of a household of 4.5 to 5.0 people, but recent estimates by the project Reconstructing the National Income of Britain and Holland, c.1270/1500 to 1850, based at Warwick and Belfast have also proved useful (and are not very different). This figure for total population places Derbyshire 29th in terms of population of the 39 English counties.

Domesday tenants-in-chief

Apart from the King, Henry de Ferrers was by far the largest landlord in the county, as tenant in chief of 112 manors and sub-tenant of 55 more. These came to him following the Saxon revolt of 1071, led by Hereward the Wake, Bishop Aethelwine and Earl Morcar in which Siward Barn was a participant. After Siward’s downfall, many of his lands were given to Henry de Ferrers. Apart from Henry, the only landowners with more than ten manors were Ralph FitzHubert, Castellan of Nottingham Castle and Lord of Crich who held 39 manors in Derbyshire as tenant-in-chief and a further 29 as Lord of the Manor. His holdings were almost all in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. Finally, William Peverell was a major magnate of central England holding 18 manors in Derbyshire as tenant-in-chief and a further seven as Lord of the Manor. Very little land in the county was held by religious landlords. The Survey lists only the Bishop of Chester and Burton Abbey as tenants-in-chief and they held only 3 and 7 manors respectively.

Religious history

The diocese of Derby was not founded until 1927, when All Saints parish church was granted cathedral status. Before that, the county was in the diocese of Southwell, founded in 1884. Until then it had belonged to the diocese of Lichfield. The most ancient religious house in the county was Repton, reputedly founded c.600 AD. In 694 St Guthlac received the tonsure there, at which date it was a Benedictine house ruled by an Abbess, presumably a double house. This abandoned in 873 when Repton was overrun by the Danes. Thereafter the only Benedictine houses in Derbyshire were a small Cluniac cell of Bermondsey in Derby and a nunnery at King’s Mead, Derby. The county had no Cistercian houses but two houses of Premonstratensian White Canons, one at Beauchief in the north, founded from Welbeck (Notts) in 1183, and the other at Dale, founded in 1200 from Newhouse (Lincs). The most common houses were the Austin Canons, who had houses at Darley and Repton (unrelated to the Saxon abbey), and smaller foundations at Gresley and Breadsall. The canons of Repton moved from a house at Calke, which was maintained as a cell.

Anglo-Saxon and Romanesque buildings and sculpture

The crypt at Repton church

The county’s only example of Anglo-Saxon architecture is at St Wystan’s, Repton, where the church was built in four Anglo-Saxon phases between either 757 and 850 (according to Taylor) or between 827 and 1020 (Fernie), This is especially important for Romanesque scholars who would not want to date the twisted columns and their capitals of phase 3 later than the 11th century. Other Anglo Saxon remains are confoned to masonry at Stanton-by-Bridge, Ault Hucknall and Cubley and window openings at Sandiacre and Walton-upon-Trent. Anglo-Saxon crosses or parts of them survive at Bakewell, Eyam, Bradbourne and elsewhere.

Romanesque sculpture

The finest Norman parish church in England is in Melbourne, Derbyshire. It is dedicated to St Michael and St Mary and was probably built by Henry I in the first quarter of the 12thc. It boasts a twin towered façade with a third tower over the crossing, a 5-bay aisled nave and elaborately carved capitals on the crossing arches and the three doorways.

Melbourne interior looking east and a capital from the crossing arch

The other church of national importance is Steetley Chapel, by contrast, a tiny 3-cell building but entirely 12th-century and lavishly decorated on its south doorway, chancel and apse arches and apse vault capitals.

Steetley chapel from the south (left) and an apse vault capital

There is nothing to match the significance of these two churches, but much of interest to be seen elsewhere. At Sandiacre the volute of a chancel arch capital has become the head of a comical little figure, while Bradbourne can boast a doorway with lively animal carvings as well as a figural corbel table.

Chancel arch capital at Sandiacre

Animals on the doorway at Bradbourne

For the font enthusiast, Ashover has one of only about 30 lead fonts in the country, decorated with twenty standing figures under an arcade. Youlgreave is unusual in having a small secondary bowl. More conventional but still attractive are the fonts at Hognaston, Eyam, Ockbrook, Kirk Hallam, Somersal Herbert, Church Broughton, Chesterfield and Tissington.

Fonts at Ashover, Youlgreave, Tissington and Somersal Herbert

Fieldwork and recording

Fieldwork was initially undertaken by Richard Jewell from the beginning of the project in 1988, and a good deal of the county was completed between then and 1993, without photography. In 2014 a team of students led by Dr Jennifer Alexander revisited many of these sites, adding photographs. Meanwhile a group of sites in the Derbyshire Dales was undertaken by Colin Morse in the early 2000s. By 2021, half of the county was online. Subsequently Ron Baxter has taken over fieldwork in the county, carrying out new photography when necessary using a Fujifilm Finepix S1. The fieldworkers would like to thank the incumbents and churchwardens of the county’s churches for their help in facilitating their work and for supplying useful information.

Bibliographic notes

Only 3 volumes of the Victoria County History have been published for Derbyshire: a thematic volume (volume 1 (1905)), one on the religious houses and schools (volume 2 (1907)), and a recent one on Scarsdale Hundred (volume 3 (2013)). The student must therefore rely on older county histories for historical information, and by far the most useful is J Charles Cox’s Notes on the Churches of Derbyshire, published in four volumes between 1875 an 1879, and now available online via archive.org. The first edition of Pevsner’s Buildings of England for Derbyshire appeared in 1953, and it has been revised in 1978, by Elizabeth Williamson, and in 2015 by Clare Hartwell. As always, the Historic England List Descriptions are a valuable source of information, and Derbyshire is fortunate in having a study of the medieval dedications of its churches in Clark (1992). Unfortunately no RCHME Inventory volumes were produced for the county.

  1. Broadberry, B. M. S. Campbell and B van Leeuwen, ‘English Medieval Population: reconciling time series and cross-sectional evidence’, Reconstructing the National Income of Britain and Holland, c.1270/1500 to 1850, project paper July 2011.
  2. Clark, ‘The Dedications of Medieval Churches in Derbyshire: their survival and change from the reformation to the present day’, Derbyshire Archaeological Journal, 112 (1992), 48-61.
  3. C. Cox, Notes on the Churches of Derbyshire, Chesterfield and London 4 vols, 1875-79.
  4. D. Holly, 'Derbyshire' in C. Darby and I. S. Maxwell, The Domesday Geography of Northern England, Cambridge 1962, 278-329.
  5. C. Hartwell, N. Pevsner and E. Williamson, The Buildings of England: Derbyshire, New Haven and London 2016,

Historic England Listed Building: English Heritage Legacy ID:

  1. N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England, Derbyshire, Melbourne, London and Baltimore 1953
  2. N. Pevsner, E Williamson, The Buildings of England: Derbyshire, 1978
  3. N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Derbyshire (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2002)

Victoria County History: Derbyshire: 1 (1905)

Victoria County History: Derbyshire: 2 (1907)

Victoria County History: Derbyshire: 3 (2013)