The Church lies over the remains of the Basilica – the northern most part of the great Roman Forum built in the first century AD. It stands near to the site of a church founded by King Lucius in AD 179 - the oldest site of Christian worship in London. The name ‘Cornhill’ is first mentioned in the 12th century, the ‘hill’ indicating the rising ground on which St. Michael’s stands, and ‘corn’ being derived from the corn-market which was once held there.
The Church of St. Michael’s is known to have been in existence before the Norman Conquest, for it is recorded that in 1055 Alnothus the priest gave it to the abbot of Evesham. During the reign of King Henry VII (1485-1509), the patronage was transferred to the Drapers’ Company, which still has the gift of the living. Robert Fabyan, the author of the 'Chronicles of England and France', was buried at St. Michael's in 1513. King Henry VIII's physician, Robert Yaxley, was also buried at the Church in 1540.
The Church, with the exception of the tower, was completely destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. The present Church was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren between 1669 and 1672. The interior, with its majestic Tuscan columns, was beautified and repaired in 1701 and again in 1790. Pre-Victorian features that remain in the Church today include 17th paintings of Moses and Aaron incorporated into the reredos, as well as a wooden sculpture of 'Pelican in her Piety' dating from 1775. The vestry retains its 17th century panelling, with a fine carved overmantel.
In 1716, the poet Thomas Gray, famous for his 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard', was born in a milliner's shop adjacent to St. Michael's and was baptised in the Church. The very font in which this occurred, dating from 1672, still remains. The tower was rebuilt in the ‘Gothick’ style between 1718 and 1722, the work being commenced by Wren and completed by Nicholas Hawksmoor. It houses a peal of 12 bells, all of which were originally cast by the Phelps Foundry of Whitechapel.
The interior was extensively remodelled in the High Victorian manner by Sir George Gilbert Scott between 1857 and 1860. Scott recalled that he ‘attempted by the use of early Basilican style to give a tone to the existing classic architecture’. As part of this scheme of reordering, the eminent woodcarver William Gibbs Rogers carved new pews and a pulpit and lectern (which earned him a prize in the Great Exhibition of 1851) for the Church. In addition, an ensemble of stained glass was made by the firm Clayton & Bell and a new porch, with a tympanum sculpture of St. Michael by John Birnie Philip, was added.
In 1906, the parishes of St. Peter le Poer and St. Benet Fink were united to St. Michael’s upon the demolition of the former church, the latter having been united to the former after its demolition in 1846; hence the practice of appointing six churchwardens, two for each parish. The Church was fortunate to escape serious damage in the Second World War. The interior was restored in 1960, with the roofs and the nave of the tower being renewed in 1975.
Detailed information concerning the Church's fine musical tradition can be found on the Music page. Famous organists of St. Michael's have included: Obadiah Shuttleworth (1723-1734): Composer and violinist who played at concerts organised by Thomas Britton ('the musical small coal man') in Clerkenwell and at the Swan Tavern in Cornhill. He was also organist at the Temple Church. William Boyce (1736-1768): One of the foremost English composers of the 18th century, he was also appointed Master of the King's Musick in 1755 and organist at the Chapel Royal in 1758. His eight symphonies, anthems and odes are well known.
Theodore Aylward (1769-1781): Composer who became Gresham Professor of Music in 1771, and organist of St. George's Chapel, Windsor, in 1788. He was involved in the organisation of both the Shakespeare Jubilee Procession of 1769 and the Handel Commemoration of 1784.
Richard John Samuel Stevens (1781-1810): Composer mainly of glees who succeeded Aylward as Gresham Professor of Music in 1801. He also served as organist at the Inner Temple and Charterhouse. His memoirs, which have been published in a modern edition, present a fascinating insight into the musical world of Stevens' time.
Richard Davidge Limpus (1849-1875): Founder of the [Royal] College of Organists, which was originally based at St. Michael's, in 1864. Some of the College's early fellowship and associateship examinations took place at the Church.
Harold Edwin Darke (1916-1966): Composer best known for his setting of 'In the Bleak Midwinter' and his Communion settings. He made famous a series of Monday lunchtime recitals that continues to the present day, and founded the St. Michael's singers in 1919. During the Second World War, he served as acting organist at King's College, Cambridge.