The balance between endo- and exo-cyclic C-N fission in the hydrolysis of N-aroyl β-lactams shows that the difference in reactivity between strained β-lactams and their acyclic analogues is minimal. Attack of hydroxide ion occurs preferentially at the exocyclic acyl centre rather than that of the β-lactam during the hydrolysis of N-p-nitrobenzoyl β-lactam. In general, both endo- and exo-cyclic C-N bond fission occurs in the alkaline hydrolysis of N-aroyl β-lactams, the ratio of which varies with the aryl substituent. Hence, the Brønsted β-values differ for the two processes: -0.55 for the ring-opening reaction and -1.54 for the exocyclic C-N bond fission reaction. For the pH-independent and acid-catalysed hydrolysis of N-benzoyl β-lactam, less than 3% of products are derived from exocyclic C-N bond fission.