St Cecilia is an unusual dedication for a Church and it seems there are only three churches in the country bearing that name.
Unusually for a church in the care of the Norfolk Churches Trust, it is situated by the side of a busy main road. The church has lost its chancel and all that remains now is the nave and the perpendicular tower. It has two early English doors, one on the North side, which is blocked off, and entrance is obtained by the one to the south. Inside there is an interesting feature of two arched recesses in the nave wall which Mortlock and Roberts thought might have contained altars. The font is 14th Century; there is an unusual bier with four carrying handles and also an oil on canvas Hanoverian arms. The Trust took the Church over in 1993.
The most famous parishioner by far was Elizabeth Freke who was born in 1641 and lived in West Bilney from 1676 until her death in 1714. Her father bought the estate for her to ensure that she had somewhere to live, her husband Percy having worked his way through her money. She and Percy had a stormy relationship and one son, Ralph. She spent much time and money on the repair of St Cecilia’s church and paid the clergyman. This caused a rift between her and the Bishop of Norwich because her last incumbent failed to get a licence to preach. This led to the Vicar of Gayton barring her from entering the church on February 14th 1713. She had wished to be buried in the church next to Percy but this would have been impossible following the altercation. Her young grandson is also buried in the church having been accidentally shot.
It is perhaps fortunate that she died in London and is buried with other members of her family in Westminster Abbey. We know all this because Elizabeth kept a detailed diary which records her time at West Bilney, including her turbulent life, troubles with servants and much else.
St Cecilia’s, postcode PE32 1XQ, is usually open during daylight hours, but do contact the Keyholder if you are planning to visit: 01760 337382.
Find out more about this church on the Norfolk Heritage Explorer.