A wry view of life for the world-weary

The Streets Of London – Part Thirty Two


St Michael’s Church, Cornhill, ECV3

As we have already noted the church is midway down Cornhill on the right hand side of the street as you walk from the Royal Exchange. The church, which was built on part of a Roman basilica, is known to have pre-dated the Norman conquest, because in 1055 the priest Alnothus gave it to the abbot of Evesham in whose control it remained until 1503 when it was transferred to the Wordhipful Company of Drapers.

A new tower was built in 1421, possibly after the original had been destroyed by fire, and John Stow described it as “fair and beautiful, but since their surrender of lands Edward VI, greatly blemished by the building of four tenements on the north side thereof, in the place of a green church-yard”. The city encroached on it even then. On the south side, according to Stow, was to be found what he called a proper cloister with lodgings for choristers and a pulpit from which sermons were preached.

There is a story, dating from the the early 16th century, telling of a team of bell ringers becoming aware of an ugly shapen sight as they were ringing their bells during a storm. They fell unconscious but upon coming round saw scratch marks on the masonry which were thereafter known as the devil’s clawmarks.

All but the tower was destroyed in the fire of 1666 and work on a replacement church began in 1672. The design is attributed to Sir Christopher Wren but it is thought that he had no hand in it, the parish dealing directly with local builders. The tower, not unsurprisingly, was deemed to be unstable and was demolished in 1704, a replacement completed in 1721 in a Gothic style, at odds with the rest of the church, and imitating that of Magdalene College, Cambridge.

In the late 1850s the Drapers, faced with the sequestration of their funds by the Ecclessiastical Commissioners if they didn’t spend some of it on the church, embarked upon a major refurbishment of the building. Under the direction of George Gilbert Scott he house that stood nect to the tower was demolished and replaced by a Franco-Italian Gothic porch complete with a relief sculpture by John Birnie Philip depicting St Michael disputing with Satan.

New windows were installed together with elaborate stone reredos complete with pictures of Moses and Aaron. The chancel walls were lined with panels of marble and a large stained glass depiction o Christ in Glory was installed in the circular east window. The walls and ceilings were painted in garish colours. There were further modifications made in the late 1860s such that pretty much the only thing that remained from the church immediately post fire was the font given by John Paul in 1672 but even that had a balustrade added.

The church miraculously survived the blitz of the Second World War pretty much unscathed, including its set of churchwarden records, which are one of the oldest in London and are now to be found in the Guildhall Library. The Victorian colour scheme was toned down in the 1960s, replaced with a more restrained scheme of blue, gold and white.

The church has had to sit cheek by jowl with the city but is an important landmark still and well worth a visit.


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