The mermaid of Zennor is one of the most celebrated mermaid myths in Britain. The tale has inspired books, songs, poems and artworks and is known across the world. It all revolves around a late medieval carving of a mermaid in the side of a church pew, in the tiny coastal village of Zennor in the west of Cornwall. The carving supposedly depicts a mermaid who visited the church and sat on the pew, having been drawn from the sea by the beautiful voice of a choir singer. The legend tells that she lured the singer away with her, into the sea where they remained forever.
Historians generally believe that the carving was made first and the legend was built around it.
Mermaid imagery in churches was not that uncommon in medieval Europe. Mermaids had been important characters in pre-christian mythology and religion, and they were appropriated to represent the dual-nature of Christ or a warning against vanity, lust and sexual sin when Christianity was introduced. Much later, mermaids became too much associated with paganism and the unholy deep and fell out of favour. But a few, including the Zennor mermaid, remained in place.
Other medieval and early-modern church mermaids from left to right St Boltoph’s Church in Norfolk, Crowcombe Church in Somerset, Clonflert Cathedral in Galway Ireland and Cheriton Bishop Church in Devon
The romantic view is that the Zennor carving was made to commemorate the legend of the mermaid who came to the church and disappeared with the choir singer. Either way, here is the most basic version of the story, the one officially endorsed by the church of Zennor itself:
In some versions of the story, Matthew Trewhella simply disappears with a mysterious girl who had been attending church services but was known by none of the congregation. In the earliest known written version of the previously oral tale (William Bottrell’s Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, 1873) it is described like this:
‘Hundreds of years ago a very beautiful and richly attired lady attended service in Zennor Church occasionally—now and then she went to Morvah also;—her visits were by no means regular,—often long intervals would elapse between them.
Yet whenever she came the people were enchanted with her good looks and sweet singing. Although Zennor folks were remarkable for their fine psalmody, she excelled them all; and they wondered how, after the scores of years that they had seen her, she continued to look so young and fair. No one knew whence she came nor whither she went; yet many watched her as far as they could see from Tregarthen Hill.
She took some notice of a fine young man, called Mathey Trewella, who was the best singer in the parish. He once followed her, but he never returned; after that she was never more seen in Zennor Church’.
Other versions of the story give it a Hans Christian Anderson style twist: the mermaid (sometimes named Movorah or Morveren) would come to the rocky cove to listen to Matthew Trewhella’s singing every Sunday. She had begged her father for permission to come on land to see him, but he always refused. It only caused the mermaid to fall deeper in love. One day, saddened by his daughter’s heartbreak, her father reluctantly agreed to cast a spell to temporarily give her legs and allow her on land.
Once she entered the church and gazed at Matthew Trewhella he fell in love with her too and the pair sang in the church together, until the spell was broken and she flopped to the floor of the church with her tail on show. All the frightened villagers wanted to kill her, but Matthew Trewhella could not allow it. He picked her up as the villagers gave chase and she directed him down to the cove where they disappeared into the sea together.
This more embellished version of the story is told in Martha Tilston’s beautiful song ‘The Mermaid of Zennor’
‘Sea creatures and the ones above do not fare so well in love‘ – wise words from the mermaid’s dad in those lyrics and having read a few more mermaid tales than this I would usually agree, but in this story it seems the couple did manage to make it work despite the odds.
Most versions of the story (including Bottrell’s original written one) include a part at the end where, years later, fishermen in the waters around Zennor are approached by a mermaid who asks them to move their anchor that is blocking the door to her house where her children sleep. It is assumed by the fishermen that she is the same mermaid who had come ashore years before and that the children are Matthew Trewhella’s sons and daughters. The fishermen remove the anchor and quickly go back to shore, fearing the mermaid as a bad omen.
Something consistent in all the versions is that, with the exception of the enchanted Matthew Trewhella, all of the villagers are fearful or hateful towards the mermaid – the opposite of how she’s now seen by inhabitants of Zennor who celebrate the mermaid as a village emblem and a tourist attraction. Not everyone’s views on her changed in a positive direction as the 20th century progressed though. Check out this poem ‘To The Mermaid of Zennor’ by John Heath-Stubbs who stayed in the village in 1947. I’m going to paste the whole thing because I actually love how disturbing it is.
Half fish, half fallen angel, none of you
Human at all – cease your lust’s
Cold and insatiate crying from the tangled bay;
Nor, sea-hag, here
Stretch webbed and skinny fingers for your prey.
This is a hideous and a wicked country,
Sloping to hateful sunsets and the end of time,
Hollow with mine-shafts, naked with granite, fanatic
With sorrow. Abortions of the past
Hop through these bogs; black-faced, the villagers
Remember burnings by the hewn stones.
Only the saints,
Drifting on oak-leaves over the Irish Sea,
To sing like pipits from their crannied cells
With a thin stream of praise; who hear the Jennifer
Sob for her sins in a purgatory of foam –
Only these holy men
Can send you slithering from the chancel steps,
And wriggling back to your sunken paradise
Among the hollow-eyed and the capsized.
The Mermaids are likened to the devilish serpents who were driven by St Patrick out of Christendom into the sea. I find the connection analogous to the Zennor mermaid carving itself as something ancient and grotesque, belonging outside of a new understanding of Christianity, something that should have been done away with like other mermaid church iconography was.
Here’s a friendlier representation of the story from the year 1900 by painter John Reinhard Weguelin (1849-1927). The figure on the right is Matthew Trewhella dropping his songbooks as he first sees the mermaid. In the spirit of neo-classic and pre-raphaelite obsessions with retelling mythology through images in the second half of the 19th Century, Weguelin gives the Zennor myth a bold illustrative composition that was usually reserved for Greek and Roman myths. Weguelin himself seems to have been quite mer-obsessed as well, having made mermaids and nymphs the subjects of several of his paintings – check them out elsewhere if you have the time.
The Zennor Church
The church itself and the name ‘Zennor’ actually have roots in another myth of the sea. The name comes from ‘Asenora’ who was a Breton princess and a devout Christian married to a pagan king. She was disliked by her mother-in-law who spread a vicious lie that Asenora had committed adultery when she became pregnant. The king believed it and had Asenora stuffed in a barrel, nailed in and thrown in the sea.
The story goes that she was washed up across the channel in Cornwall (some versions say Ireland) where the barrel broke and she was rescued by locals. Once recovered from the ordeal and after miraculously giving birth to a healthy son, she set about to spread Christianity in the new land and is now remembered as ‘Saint Senara’. It’s said that she founded a community at Zennor, which was given a version of her name. She also founded the first church there.
The actual church in Zennor, which is named St Senara’s Church was rebuilt in the 12th Century but there has been a church on the site since at least 600. Nobody knows exactly when the mermaid story is supposed to have taken place, Bettroll’s volume simply dates it to ‘Hundreds of years ago’. I wonder if the parish records have any Matthew or Mathey Trewhella’s on file which could date the story. Maybe they even have record of his disappearance.
Even now after all these hundreds of years some like to say that you can hear the singing of Matthew Trewhella and the mermaid being brought in on the sea wind if you go down to Pendour Cove where the pair disappeared.
The next part of this is all about my own personal experience surrounding the mermaid of Zennor and my visist
I first became interested in learning more about the Zennor mermaid after I read the Ingo series by Helen Dunmore some time in my late teens when the mer obsession was hitting really hard and consuming everything I could get my hands on (even children’s books) was non-optional.
The series begins with the main character, Sapphire, remembering her father’s telling of the Zennor legend before his own parallel disappearance. While searching for their dad, she and her brother encounter the Mer and follow them to the underwater world of Ingo where their father, and the original Matthew Trewhella, were lured and had to remain. The books are ten or so years old, and are aimed at 9-12 year old kids but I still recommend them to mer-fans of any age interested in the Zennor myth because they offer an exciting explanation of how Matthew Trewhella was lured, what happened after he entered the water, how he survived and adapted to life beneath the sea, why he stayed and what became of his mer-children. The books take you into the emotional consequences of the kind of disappearance and separation the original tale deals with, but in a 21st century setting. They also establish a complete and logically consistent magical world that makes everything about the folktale and its legacy add up. What more can you ask for?
I visited Zennor with my partner and son last summer. We first explored the cove and the rocks where the mermaid hid listening to the singing of the choir. The cove has a magical energy surrounding it and it’s not surprising that it gave birth to mermaid legends.
The climb down from the village to the cove, through long grass, dark rocks and waterfalling streams already puts you in the mindset of approaching another world. The white sea that froths in the circle of the cliffs between the land and the blue ocean is like a portal to the world of the mer.
Visiting the carving inside the church after hearing about it for so many years, after telling the story to my son and climbing up and down the cliffs as the mermaid did was like completing a mer-obsession pilgrimage. In my head it was going to be some huge and monumental work of art that represented everything that was important about the mer to me, but of course it was a small and modest scratched up carving, low-down in the side of a pew, just one pew of many, never intending to be the main feature of the church, let alone what it’s become famous for. But actually it made sense that it was like that. This mermaid never wanted to be the centre of so much attention, she just came to this church to sit on that pew and go unnoticed while she fell in love with Matthew Trewhella and observed the other goings on of the church.
But despite her small size and modest position, the mermaid in the carving still emanated so much wonder. Even without knowing anything about the carving it you can tell it’s ancient and full of mystery. So many worlds have come and gone since the mermaid has been there and it’s not been easy for her to survive this long. The way she’s carved slightly unevenly, you can’t help but think of her being created by human hands. I want to know who did it, and why? What did they and the people around them really think about mermaids all that time ago.
Aside from curiosity and amazement, when I stood before the mermaid I also had a head full of other thoughts. Right before we left on our cross-country pilgrimage to see the mermaid of Zennor we found out that we were going to be having a baby – totally out of the blue.
By the time we got to Zennor I had stopped freaking out and was beginning to process it. I was thinking about the mermaid and Matthew Trewhella as parents from two different worlds raising their mer-children in some underwater home they’d made for themselves – I bet Mathew Trewhella never imagined his future like that – enticed by a mermaid secret admirer, lured into her strange world and ending up a father to fish children. Pretty much exactly what happened to me, except I can’t sing.
I was also thinking about Asenora, pregnant in that barrel floating helplessly, having been betrayed and how she crashed up on the shore, gave birth and then started a more meaningful life. No more being a princess in the wrong environment, just her child and her ideas in a new place that offered the freedom to live independently, in the way she believed was right.
We told the mermaid in the carving about our baby and asked if she could make sure everything ended up OK – because ancient mermaids can do that obviously. While we were staying in the area in our borrowed van (and B&Bs when that got too uncomfortable!) we started calling our baby ‘Zennor-baby’ as a nickname, intending to choose a real name later on or after the birth.
8 months later our baby was born happy and healthy and by that time the nickname had really stuck. Names that were too different just sounded wrong. In the end we decided to keep the theme and called her
because that’s an existing name with a straight forward spelling, but we all know what it means.
I can’t wait to go back to Zennor with Zenna and tell her about the story she’s named after.
More mer-stories coming soon. xxx