See biographies by G. B. Hill (1880) and E. C. Smythe (1907).
Hill was born in Hodnet, Shropshire, the eldest son of Thomas Hill. He was apprenticed to the London mercer Thomas Kitson, and obtained his freedom in 1519. He then became a leading merchant adventurer, with the centre of his business operations being in the parish of St Stephen Walbrook, where he owned a property fronting onto Walbrook. He was churchwarden of St Stephens between 1525 and 1526.
Hill was prominent in the affairs of the Mercers' Company. He was warden between 1535–6, and between 1543-4 and 1550-51 and 1555-6.
In 1541–2, he was elected sheriff of the City of London. During this period, for a brief time (28–30 March 1542), he was imprisoned in the Tower of London on the orders of the House of Commons, as a result of his ‘abuse’ of the Sergeant of Parliament sent to secure the release of George Ferrers, a member of parliament imprisoned for debt in the Bread Street Counter. The King, Henry VIII, took the side of the House of Commons in this case of member's privilege; however, he showed favour to Hill shortly after the affair by knighting him, on 18 May 1542. This was during the prorogation of the parliament.
Hill was elected to the Court of Aldermen on 9 November 1542.
In the wake of the coup d'état against Protector Somerset, Hill took over as Lord Mayor for the year beginning in November 1549 and was the first Protestant to hold that office. This was a period of substantial of religious uncertainty, but he oversaw some of the critical changes in the direction of godly Protestantism, including the removal of altars. His mayoralty witnessed a determined campaign against moral offences, the wardmote inquests being required in April 1550 to make fresh presentments of ill rule, ‘upon which indictments the lord mayor sat many times’ (Hume, 167–9). The crusade was controversial because of Hill's readiness to punish wealthy offenders. Perhaps because of this determined moralism, which seems to have owed something to pressure from the protestant pulpits, and perhaps because of the coincidence of his mayoralty with a decisive turn in the English Reformation, Hill is often described as the first protestant lord mayor of London, but this tradition seems to date from no earlier than 1795, when a descendant, Sir Rowland Hill, bt, erected an obelisk to his memory in Hawkstone Park, Shropshire.
He was one of the City's representatives in the first parliament of Mary's reign (October–December 1553). He endured a short spell of disfavour under Mary and was dropped from the commissions of the peace for Middlesex and Shropshire in 1554. He had, however, recovered the regime's confidence by 1557, when he was nominated as a commissioner for the investigation of heretics.
He was a committed member of the court of aldermen, and attended nearly two-thirds of the meetings in the reigns of both Edward VI and Mary.
Hill also retained substantial in the Welsh marches, and acquired extensive estates in Shropshire, Cheshire, Flintshire, and Staffordshire; between 1539 and 1547 he purchased large quantities of former monastic property including Haughmand Abbey. His power in his native county was reflected in his appearance on the Shropshire commission of the peace between 1543 and 1554.
Hill had a reputation for charitable virtue. In 1555 he established a school at Market Drayton in Shropshire. He was also closely involved with the establishment of the London hospitals. He was the president of Bridewell and Bethlem hospitals from 1557 to 1558 and again between 1559 and 1561, and he held the post of surveyor-general of the London hospitals from 1559 until his death.
His charity had a stern edge, for he also enjoyed a reputation as ‘a foe to vice and a vehement corrector’ (notes on his monument at St Stephen Walbrook, London, Mercers' Hall).
Hill was married by 1542, but the identity of his wife, who died during his mayoralty, is unknown. There were no surviving children. He died at midnight on 28 October 1561, and is in the parish church of St Stephen Walbrook.
There are 16th century portraits Rowland Hill in the Museum of London, and in Mercers' Hall, Ironmongers' Lane, London. There is a statue of him atop an obelisk in Hawkstone Park in Shropshire.