During one of my most recent #walkabouts and on the ‘Suits & Flutes’ – Dragon & Flagon Pub Tour I came across another Wren Church, and what a beauty it is. The most amazing thing to me about most of the churches in London, with a few exceptions, is that the exterior seldom gives you a clue as to the sheer beauty that awaits within. This lovely little church was no exception. It is my goal to visit all of Wren’s Churches in London and I am glad to have been able to add this one to my list.
Entering the church you are left amazed at the bright airy interior highlighted by the pale-blue arched ceilings and stained glass skylights that allow light to stream into the church creating an air of peace and utter tranquility. (In 1960 the Victorian polychrome paintwork was replaced with a more restrained colour scheme of blue, gold and white.)
St Michael Cornhill, a medieval parish church, with pre-Norman Conquest foundations in the City of London, was in existence by 1133. A new tower was built in 1421, possibly after a fire. John Stow (ca. 1525 – 6 April 1605) described the church as “fair and beautiful, but since the surrender of their lands to Edward VI, greatly blemished by the building of four tenements on the north side thereof, in the place of a green church-yard”.
The medieval church, except for the tower, lost in the 1666 Great Fire of London, was eventually replaced by the present building begun in 1672, is traditionally attributed to Sir Christopher Wren although the designer of the lower stages was probably William Dickinson working in Christopher Wren’s office.
The upper parts of the tower are by Nicholas Hawksmoor; the 15th century tower having proved unstable, was demolished in the early 18th century. A 130-foot high replacement was completed in 1721.
The church was embellished by Sir George Gilbert Scott and Herbert Williams in the 19th century. George Gilbert Scott added an elaborate Gothic porch (1858–1860) facing Cornhill decorated with carving by John Birnie Philip, which includes a high-relief tympanum sculpture depicting “St Michael disputing with Satan” and inserted Gothic tracery to the circular clerestory windows, and into the plain round-headed windows on the south side of the church.
Stained glass by Clayton and Bell was installed, with a representation of Christ in Glory in the large circular east window. The other windows contained a series of stained glass images illustrating the life of Christ, with the crucifixion at the west end.
A further campaign of medievalising decoration was carried out in the late 1860s by Herbert Williams, who had worked with Scott on the earlier scheme. Williams built a three bay cloister-like passage, with plaster vaults, on the south side of the building, and in the body of the church added richly painted decoration to Wren’s columns and capitals.
In what the Building News described as a “startling novelty” a circular opening was cut in the vault of each aisle bay and filled with stained glass, and skylights installed above. The reredos was enriched with inlaid marble, and the chancel was given new white marble steps and a mosaic floor of Minton’s tesserae and tiles.
The church escaped serious damage in World War II and was designated a Grade I listed building on 4 January 1950.
A new ring of twelve bells, cast by Taylors of Loughborough was installed in the tower in April 2011. A gallery for you to enjoy:
The church also has Dickensian connnections; St Michael’s Church is likely to be the one in A Christmas Carol ‘whose gruff old bell was always peeping slily down at Scrooge’.
If you love historical churches, are a fan of and enjoy varied examples of medieval architecture then this church is a must to visit.
Nearest tube: Bank on the Northern Line.