Record Details

NHER Number:2828
Type of record:Building
Name:St Mary the Virgin's Church, East Bilney


The top of the original tower of this medieval church was destroyed in 1549 and by the 19th century the entire chancel had collapsed. The structure was rebuilt during the Victorian period broadly on the same footprint as the earlier church. The tower was rebuilt to its original height in 1902. The interior has rare Jacobean panelling. In 1905 an urn containing ashes was found and claimed to be the remains of Thomas Bilney, the first Protestant martyr in England, but there is no evidence for this and it was more probably a pre-Christian burial.

Images - none


Grid Reference:TF 9553 1953
Map Sheet:TF91NE

Full description

26 October 1978. Visited.
Almost totally rebuilt in 1883; chancel wholly so, with east window by Powell. Base of perpendicular tower with west window remains, but top was destroyed in 1549 and replaced in 1883. At second storey level are pairs of lancets, on south cutting a blocked slit window, perhaps made soon after destruction of top. South door of about 1300 with headstops. North door said to be same, but hidden by vestry. The interior was inaccessible at time of visit. (S1) mentions Jacobean stalls; chalice, Norwich 1567, chalice and paten on foot, London 1741; paten.
Good gravestones in churchyard.
E. Rose (NAU).

(S2) shows the tower level with roof of nave, and speaks of the chancel and south chapel as demolished.
E. Rose (NAU).

(S3) quotes bequests to the tower in 1517 and believes that the top was in fact never built. He states that the present top is of 1906.
E. Rose, (NAU), 5 October 1981.

About 1905.
An urn containing ashes was discovered in the churchyard and declared by the vicar to be the remains of Bilney the martyr. Real date? Although there is a cottage called 'Bilney's house' in the village, his birth is not recorded in the parish registers and there is no real evidence that he ever lived there.
Information from Bolingbroke Collection.
E. Rose (NAU).

For further comments on 'Bilney’s Ashes' see brief note in file and NHER 14161.
E. Rose (NLA), 10 October 2006.

(S4) shows the tower without its top, giving an almost Italianate impression, with double lancet bell openings, confirming (S3) above. The south side of the nave and aisle are shown as having three two light clerestories, each under one straight head with hoodmould. The porch has a rounded arch with apparent window above but above level of roof (was parvis removed?). East of the porch is an Early English window, then a window resembling the clerestories, then a plain window within a blocked chapel arch (the chapel was rebuilt in 1883). There appears to be a straight headed Perpendicular window set in the wall replacing the chancel arch - so the chancel went before 1830.

29 May 1996. Second very brief visit to interior.
Tower arch ribbed but plain responds, off-centre because of vice in nave, could be 14th century. All monuments, floor slabs are 19th century, including some Gothick tablets of the 1840s - nothing seen earlier than these. The font has a plain octagonal bowl, probably 19th century. The head of one 18th century gravestone is now used as a step into the porch. Vertical change of colour in nave wall above porch.
E. Rose (NLA), 29 May 1996.

Rev. Armstrong's Diary refers to the Collison vault inside the church, over 3.5m (12 feet) deep on the 18th August 1881. Does this indicate the 1883 restoration started as early as 1881 or was this quite separate?
Information from (S5).
E. Rose (NLA), 8 October 1997.

December 2004. Observation of drainage ground works on north side of church.
One possible Middle Saxon pottery sherd.
See description in file.
A. Rogerson (NLA), 8 December 2004.

December 2004.
Builders' trenches on south side of nave revealed footing of south wall and angle buttresses of former south chapel. South-east quoin of nave may perhaps have been south respond of blocked arch visible on (S4).
One sherd of Ipswich ware found in spoil.
See (S6) and (S7).
A. Rogerson (NLA), 17 December 2004.

As well as the 1517 bequest to repair the tower, (S3) notes that money was left in 1522 for a new tower. There are also bequests of 1434 for a 'new nave or roof when the parishioners decide to put the work in hand' and of 1501 for repairs to a window at the west end of the chancel.
E. Rose (NLA), 10 October 2006.

Monument Types

  • CREMATION (Unknown date)
  • FINDSPOT (Middle Saxon - 651 AD to 850 AD)
  • CHURCH (13th Century to 21st Century - 1300 AD? to 2100 AD)

Associated Finds

  • POT (Middle Saxon - 651 AD to 850 AD)

Protected Status

  • Listed Building
  • Listed Building

Sources and further reading

---Aerial Photograph: TF9519E, F, M.
---Newspaper Article: Dereham and Fakenham Times. 1984. Century of change in village church. 24 February.
---Monograph: Bryant, T. H. 1903. Hundred of Launditch. The Churches of Norfolk. pp 14-19.
---Record Card: NAU Staff. 1974-1988. Norfolk Archaeological Index Primary Record Card.
---Unpublished Document: Beetley with East Bilney PCC. Beetley with East Churches. Restoration Appeal..
---Monograph: Pevsner, N and Wilson, W. 1999. Norfolk 2: North-West and South. The Buildings of England. 2nd Edition. p 316.
---Article in Serial: Cotton, S. 1981. Tradition and Authority in Churchbuilding. NARG News. No 26 pp 8-13. p 10.
---Secondary File: Secondary File.
---Slide: Various. Slide.
---Newspaper Article: Eastern Daily Press. 2003. Reinvigorated St Mary's Church set for a big day. 23 October.
<S1>Monograph: Pevsner, N. 1962. North-West and South Norfolk. The Buildings of England. 1st Edition. p 140.
<S2>Documentary Source: Martin, T. c. 1700-1799. Collections of Church Notes. Norfolk Records Office.
<S3>Publication: Cotton, S.. 1979. [unknown].
<S4>Photograph: Ladbrooke AR5-6.
<S5>Publication: Armstrong, H. B. J (ed). 1949. A Norfolk Diary. Passages from the Diary of The Rev. Benjamin John Armstrong. p 244.
<S6>Illustration: Various. Various. Architectural plans.
<S7>Map: Finder's Map..

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