Mermaid of Zennor
Long ago, a beautiful and richly-dressed woman occasionally attended services at St. Senara's Church in Zennor, and sometimes at Morvah. The parishioners were enchanted by her beauty and her voice, for her singing was sweeter than all the rest. She appeared infrequently for scores of years, but never seemed to age, and nobody knew whence she came, although they watched her from the summit of Tregarthen Hill. After many years, the mysterious woman became interested in a young man named Mathey Trewella,* "the best singer in the parish." One day he followed her home, and disappeared; neither was ever seen again in Zennor Church.
The villagers wondered what had become of the two, until one Sunday a ship cast anchor about a mile from Pendour Cove. Soon after, a mermaid appeared, and asked that the anchor be raised, as one of its flukes was resting on her door, and she was unable to reach her children.** The sailors obliged, and quickly set sail, believing the mermaid to be an ill omen. But when the villagers heard of this, they concluded that the mermaid was the same lady who had long visited their church, and that she had enticed Mathey Trewella to come and live with her.†
The parishioners at St. Senara's commemorated the story by having one end of a bench carved in the shape of a mermaid. A shorter account of the legend was related to Bottrell on a subsequent visit to Cornwall. The mermaid had come to church every Sunday to hear the choir sing, and her own voice was so sweet that she enticed Mathey Trewella, son of the churchwarden, to come away with her; neither was seen again on dry land. The famed "mermaid chair" was the same bench on which the mermaid had sat and sung, opposite Trewella in the singing loft.
The "mermaid chair" at St. Senara's Church can be seen to this day, and together with the accompanying legend, is one of the popular attractions mentioned in tourist guides to Cornwall. The story of the mermaid is retold in later collections of Cornish folklore, generally following the original accounts collected by Bottrell. In The Fabled Coast, the "mermaid chair" is described as a fifteenth-century carving. Kingshill and Westwood suppose that the bench itself inspired the legend, rather than the other way around, as the villagers related.
Craig Weatherhill wrote the Mermaid of Zennor into his novel Seat of Storms (Tabb House, 1997), giving her the name Azenor, as the previous tellings never name her.
The Mermaid of Zennor was published as a children's book by Charles Causley and illustrated by Michael Foreman; Eileen Moloney published a book of the same title, illustrated by Maise Meiklejohn in 1946.
British writer Helen Dunmore was inspired in part by the Mermaid of Zennor when writing her Ingo Chronicles. The first book of the series, Ingo, published in 2005, begins with the story of the mermaid and the main story line is loosely based around the legend.
British Folk singer Seth Lakeman wrote a song called "Closing Hymn" about the Mermaid of Zennor.
* The proper or modern form of the name would be Matthew Trewella or Trewhella, which are found in some versions of the story.
** Bottrell recorded two accounts: in one version, the mermaid told the sailors that she was returning from church, and anxious to see her children; in the second, she needed to dress her children for church.
† Mermaids could change their shapes at will in order to walk on land, and were often said to entice mortal men to come and live with them.
- William Bottrell, Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Second Series (Beare and Son, Penzance, 1873).
- William Bottrell, Stories and Folk-Lore of West Cornwall, Third Series (F. Rodda, Penzance, 1880).
- Rita Tregellas Pope, Cornwall & the Isles of Scilly (Landmark Visitors Guide, Hunter Publishing, 2006), p. 127.
- Frederick Ignatius Cowles, The Magic of Cornwall (Heath Cranton, 1934).
- Sophia Kingshill, Jennifer Westwood, The Fabled Coast: Legends & traditions from around the shores of Britain & Ireland (Random House, 2012)
- Watkins, Vernon (1962). Affinities. London: Faber and Faber.
- Boy Jan ... Cornishman, (1980), Burlington Records, BURL 005, sleeve notes
- Causley, Charles (2012). The Mermaid of Zennor. Orchard. ISBN 978-1408319543.
- Moloney, Eileen; Meiklejohn, Maise (illustrator) (1946). The Mermaid of Zennor. Edmund Ward.
- Kidd, Sue Monk (3 February 2011). The Mermaid Chair. Headline. p. 33. ISBN 978-0-7553-8518-8. Retrieved 13 April 2012.
- The Mermaid Chair at IMDB
- "Mermaid's tale for children and adults". Cornish Guardian. 12th April 2012. Retrieved 14 June 2012.