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Found: 500-year-old altar piece of a North Mymms saint

Item dating back to 1527 traced to Merseyside hotel

The mantelpiece in the grand hall at the Hillbark Hotel, Frankby, Wirral Image courtesy of Leon Berg
The mantelpiece in the grand hall at the Hillbark Hotel, Frankby, Wirral
Image courtesy of Leon Berg
The 1527 altar piece used by Saint Thomas More for his “private devotions”, has been tracked down to a hotel in Wirral, thanks to the detective work of two local history enthusiasts.

The piece has had five homes, survived one demolition, been salvaged from a fire, and was stored in stables for 39 years before being moved 200 miles north in the 1930s. Where it ended up had remained a mystery for 90 years --- until now.

All that was known was that it had been sold and installed in a house in Birkenhead.

The 1930 White Allom sales brochure that included the mantelpiece
Image from the Peter Miller collection

Local historian, Peter Miller, one of the founders of the North Mymms History Project (NMHP), had been researching and writing about the history of the altar piece, variously referred to as a chimneypiece and a mantelpiece.

The NMHP then contacted historians, archivists, curators, and journalists in Birkenhead in an effort to find out what happened to it after it was sold, but without any luck.

The breakthrough in the search

Then the Birkenhead History Society invited the NMHP to post on its Facebook page - and that provided the breakthrough.

Interactive icon linking to the feature on the North Mymms History Project

Local history enthusiast, David Humphreys, a professional photographer in Liverpool, spotted the post, which included the sales brochure (above).

David then began checking out a number of “big houses” in the area, and uncovered some old photos of renovations carried to one particular house around the time of the sale in 1930, and found a match.

Several websites mentioned a ‘fireplace’ in the great hall at the Grade II*-listed Hillbark in Frankby, Wirral, which, they reported, had once belonged to Sir Walter Raleigh.

Above the fireplace is a carved oak mantelpiece.

After careful study of old and recent images, it became clear that the mantelpiece is the same piece as that from the chapel at More’s home, Gubbins, in North Mymms, used by Sir Thomas “for his private devotions” in the early 16th century.

Sir Thomas More, who was executed by Henry VIII for opposing the split with Rome, was canonised by the Vatican in 1935 as Saint Thomas More, the patron saint of lawyers.

You can read the story of the find “Discovering the 1527 altar piece of Saint Thomas More” and learn more about the history of the piece, on our history site.

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