It stands near to the site of a church founded by King Lucius in AD179, the oldest site of Christian worship in London. The name ‘Cornhill’ is first mentioned in the 12th century, the ‘hill’ indicating the rising ground, and ‘corn’ derived from the corn market which was once held there.
The church of St Michael 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. 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. It 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 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 font, 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.
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. 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.
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.
St Michael's organ was originally built by Renatus Harris although rebuilds took place by Samuel Green in 1790, Joseph Robson in 1849 and in 1868, William Hill & Son in 1865 and 1901, and Rushworth and Dreaper in 1926 and again in 1961 and 1975. A recent restoration has preserved the organ in its 1926 state. St Michael’s is home to the longest running series of lunchtime organ recitals in the world, begun in 1916 by Harold Darke (composer and Director of Music at St Michael’s for 50 years).