Parish Summary: Beetley

This Parish Summary is an overview of the large amount of information held for the parish, and only selected examples of sites and finds in each period are given. It has been beyond the scope of the project to carry out detailed research into the historical background, documents, maps or other sources, but we hope that the Parish Summaries will encourage users to refer to the detailed records, and to consult the bibliographical sources referred to below. Feedback and any corrections are welcomed by email to

Beetley is a small parish in central Norfolk in the Breckland district. It is located just to the northwest of Dereham and the modern settlement is separated into Old Beetley close to the church and New Beetley concentrated around the modern primary school. The parish also includes East Bilney which was originally a separate ecclesiastical parish. The name Beetley has uncertain origins but might be an Old English name from the Saxon period meaning clearing where beet is grown or grove where wooden mallets are obtained. Bilney is derived from Old English and means island near a ridge. The original settlement was on the River Black Water. The Domesday Book only mentions Beetley that it describes as an outlier (land owned by but separated from) of the manor of North Elmham. It was owned by Bishop Aelmer of Thetford before 1066 and then control was handed to Bishop William by 1086. The area is quite rich in finds and there has been several excavations here carried out by antiquarians and in response to recent gravel extraction at several large quarry sites. 

Mesolithic or Neolithic core and flakes.

A Mesolithic or Neolithic flint core and flint flakes. (©NCC)

The earliest evidence for activity is the Palaeolithic handaxe recovered from the parish (NHER 1064). A Mesolithic blade (NHER 39703) and three Neolithic flint axes have also been found (NHER 2781, 2783 and 14553). Several Bronze Age ring ditches (NHER 11548, 18318, 31437 and 18319) have been identified from aerial photographs. One of these was destroyed in 1826 to 1827 when antiquarians reported finding spears and 'other relics of war' (NHER 2784) supposedly of Saxon date but they may have been Bronze Age grave goods from within the barrow. An Iron Age site (NHER 30089) was excavated at Rawhall Lane Quarry, but had been heavily eroded leaving only fragile evidence of pits, ditches and a posthole.

There is quite extensive evidence for settlement in the Roman period. The Fenland Causeway Roman road (NHER 2796) runs through the parish and there is evidence for a Roman settlement (NHER 30600) in the north of the area near East Bilney. At Inkwells a Roman coin hoard (NHER 31224) has been recovered and a single Roman coin was also found during gardening in the parish (NHER 25589).

Excavations during gravel extraction and fieldwalking have identified two concentrations of Saxon settlement (NHER 30089 and NHER 30600) – one at Rawhall Lane Quarry and the other in the same area as the Roman occupation. There may have been continuity of activity here from the Roman to the Middle Saxon period but this is not yet clear.

Two churches were constructed in the medieval period, perhaps on earlier foundations. One church is mentioned in the Domesday Book.  The 14th century church of St Mary the Virgin at East Bilney (NHER 2828) had its tower knocked down during Kett’s rebellion in 1549 and the chancel subsequently collapsed. It was rebuilt in the Victorian period and may be the burial place of the martyr Thomas Bilney who was burned alive during the 15th century for preaching the teachings of Martin Luther. The church of St Mary Magdalene in Beetley (NHER 2831) is also medieval and was built in 1320. There is also evidence of a 15th century mill (NHER 11846) and a moated site (NHER 2785), perhaps an early hall or manor. A medieval retting pit (NHER 20564) was discovered by Cambridge University scientists taking pollen samples. The cannabis discovered inside the pit was being rotted so that fibres pulled from the stems could be used to make rope or fabric. 

View of the almshouses in East Bilney, built in 1839.

The 19th century almshouses in East Bilney were erected for elderly couples. (©NCC)

A second moated site (NHER 7253) has been identified as post medieval in date by excavations. Rumours of a Civil War battlefield (NHER 12263) within the parish have been substantiated by finds of spurs, horse bits and sword hilts in the field. Both Beetley Hall (NHER 31222) and Old Hall (NHER 14161) in Old Beetley are 16th century in date. Excavations at Roostinghills Quarry identified post medieval field boundary systems (NHER 40943). The 16th century Martyrs Cottage (NHER 14164) in Bilney was not the home of Thomas Bilney. 

View from inside the underground monitoring post, looking up towards the entrance.

The underground Royal Observer Corps post at Creefer's Hill in Beetley was used during the Cold War. (©NCC)

The modern sites from the parish include a Royal Observation Corps underground site (NHER 19367) where aircraft movements were observed and later fallout would have been measured in the event of a nuclear attack. The site is now buried within a landfill rubbish dump.

Megan Dennis (NLA), 19th August 2005.


Further Reading

Brown, P. (ed.), 1984. Domesday Book, 33 Norfolk, Part I and Part II (Chichester, Philimore)

Mills, A.D., 1998. Dictionary of English Place Names (Oxford, Oxford University Press)

Rye, J., 2000. A Popular Guide to Norfolk Place-names (Dereham,The Larks Press)

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