Saints, Mermaids & Phoenicians Contents
Saints, Mermaids & Phoenicians
The Mermaid of Zennor
folks tell the following story, which, according to them, accounts for a
singular carving on a bench-end in their Church.
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.
whenever she came the people were enchanted with her good looks and sweet
singing. Although Zennor folks were remarkable for their fine pealmody,
(singing) 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.
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, and it might not have been known to
this day who or what she was but for the merest accident.
Sunday morning a vessel cast anchor about a mile from Pendower Cove; soon after
a mermaid came close alongside and hailed the ship. Rising out of the water as
far as her waist, with her yellow hair floating around her, she told the captain
that she was returning from church, and requested him to trip his anchor just
for a minute, as the fluke of it rested on the door of her dwelling, and she was
anxious to get in to her children.
say that while she was out on the ocean a-fishing of a Sunday morning, the
anchor was dropped on the trap-door which gave access to her submarine abode.
Finding, on her return, how she was hindered from opening her door, she begged
the captain to have the anchor raised that she might enter her dwelling to dress
her children and be ready in time for church.
it may be, her polite request had a magical effect upon the sailors, for they
immediately “worked with a will,” hove anchor and set sail, not wishing to
remain a moment longer than they could help near her habitation. Sea-faring men,
who understood most about mermaids, regarded their appearance as a token that
bad luck was near at hand. It was believed they could take such shapes as suited
their purpose, and that they had often allured men to live with them.
When Zennor folks learnt that a mermaid dwelt near Pendower, and what she had told the captain, they concluded it was this sea-lady who had visited their church, and enticed Trewella to her abode. To commemorate these somewhat unusual events they had the figure she bore—when in her ocean-home—carved in holy-oak, which may still be seen.”
In his Book on the Popular romances of the West of England (Ref. 1) Robert Hunt makes no mention of what is today the most famous story of a mermaid in Cornwall. He does however tell of mermaids in Padstow, Lamorna, Seaton and Cury. He also tells a story which he calls "The Mermaid's Vengeance" which he says:
"was produced from three versions of evidently the same legend, which differed in many respects one from the other, yet agreeing in the main with each other. The first I heard at the Lizard, or rather Coverak; the second in Sennen Cove, near the Lands End; the third at Perranzabuloe. I have preferred the last locality, as being peculiarly fitted for the home of a mermaid." So in 1864 when his stories were published there was no place for a mention of the Zennor Mermaid.
Cornish recorder of Folk-Lore was William Bottrell.
In his first volume, he like Hunt tells the story of the "Mermaid
of Cury" with
again no mention of the Zennor story
is only when his second
volume is produced that we have site of the tale in the above form:-
On turning to his third volume (Ref. 4) I found that Bottrell tells of a visit to Zennor when he and a friend stayed for a few days at the Tinners Arms. Before reaching the Inn they stopped for some refreshments at the home of a miner that they had met on the road. On hearing that they were on their way to the village the miner told them that “the church was well worth seeing, if they have not destroyed the curious old carved work that used to be there.”
The carved work referred to must surely have been the Mermaid but Bottrel goes on to tell of spending the evening with a group of locals in the Tinners Arms listening to local stories. He states:-
reached Zennor churchtown about eight o’clock and found a very fair
accommodation at the public house; as good indeed as one might expect in such a
I went back to his second volume (Ref.5)
to examine Bottrells version of the mermaid story in more detail.
his first version of the story, Bottrell told how the lady had been coming to
Church at Zennor, or sometimes to the next parish of Morvah over a number of
years. It seems that she never looked a day older and delighted the congregation
generation after generation with her beauty and her sweet singing. No one knew
whence she came, nor were she went once the service was over, though some had
gone as far as Tregarthen Hill to watch her out of sight.
“ She took some notice of a fine young man called Mathey
Trewella, who was the best singer in the parish. One day he followed her, but he
never returned. After that she was never seen again in Zennor Church.”
Hill is on the road to St. Ives, and therefore going away from the sea. He says
the congregation could never have guessed that going that way the strange lady
was bound for the country beneath the sea. To show how this was first found out,
Bottrell then tells how a mermaid, her yellow hair floating around her, hailed a
vessel at anchor off Pendower Cove, just below Zennor.
asked the captain to trip his anchor just for a minute. He says "the alarmed
sailors at once weighed anchor and set sail. We must assume that they put in at
St. Ives; for somehow Zennor folk got wind of their adventure, and naturally
concluded that the lady of the sea was the same strange lady who had lured away
Mathey Trewella." So as Bottrell says, “to commemorate these somewhat unusual
events they had the figure she bore—when in her ocean home—carved in holy
oak which may still be seen.” Bottrell also pointed out that,
“Sea-faring men who understood most about mermaids, regarded their
appearance as a token that bad luck was near at hand, believing that mermaids
could take such shapes as suited their purpose, and that they had often lured
men to live with them."
using the ship’s-anchor story Bottrell explained how it could
become known that Matthew and his mermaid had set up housekeeping under the
waves so near his old home.
version told by Bottrell is very similar to the following Breton story.
Sunday morning as we lay at anchor off St. Kitt’s, a voice was heard alongside
the ship, and looking overboard we saw a merman walking on the water. Hailing
us, he told the captain that he would be much obliged if he would raise his
anchor, as it lay right before the front door of his house, which prevented his
wife from coming out to go to church.”
In the Breton version it was not a question of putting on
human shape and attending a church service on land, as suggested in the Zennor
story. The under-sea folk were supposed to have churches of their own, and to
live much like people on land, and this merman “walking on the water “ does
not even seem to have had a fish’s tail. Once the bottom was reached, whether
in fresh water or salt, there was fancied little difference between the country
of the underwater folk and that of the underworld in which dwelt the fairy
Bottrell’s third series, the tale changes saying nothing of long-separated
previous appearances, of perpetual youth, or of the ship’s anchor incident. In
this book he tells the story in the following way:
I suppose you know that Zennor people have always been famous singers, and it
must be long ago when a mermaid left the sea, changed her shape, and came to
Church dressed like a lady, all to hear the singers. She came Sunday after
Sunday, & sang so sweet herself that she at last enticed away a young fellow
called Mathey Trewella, son to the churchwarden, and neither of them have ever
been seen since—that is, upon land, for I won’t tell you a word of a lie and
know it. Her form, as seen in the sea, or of another like her, was carved on the
bench-end on which she sat and singed so sweet right opposite Trewella up in the
In the eighteen hundreds many of the Cornish churches were modernised
with lots of the carvings being
destroyed. Blight’s quotes the Vicar of Morwenstowe and Cornish
historian R. S. Hawker as saying :
the early symbolism of the church was of and from the sea. The curving of the
early arches was taken from the sea and its creatures. Fish, dolphins, mermen
and mermaids abound in the early types transferred to wood and stone." (Ref.7)
it is hard to find any of the old carvings but at the time of Bottrells visit
the restoration of Zennor Church had still not happened. It eventually took
place in 1890. There are photographs on the wall of the vestry of the church
before its restoration which show
that the mermaid bench-end stood on the north side near the tower,
with the singing-loft spanning the church right overhead. To gaze on her adored
one from that point the mermaid would have needed a very swan-like neck, but
this addition is only one of those little discrepancies that we expect in the
best of stories. The singing-gallery, as noted in the parish records was erected
in 1772, (Ref. 8)
which fits the dress design in local artist’s Joseph Blights woodcut
illustration of the mermaid speaking to a ship’s captain in a gold-laced
cocked hat very well.
decided to check the parish records to see
if the Trewhela family had lived in either Zennor or Morvah at the time that the
singing - gallery had been erected.
The Zennor records have been kept since 1599 with the Morvah ones starting later in 1650. Trawling through the records I could find no entries that proved that a family by the name of either Trewhela, or Trewella had existed in either parish. There is also no tradition of a resident squire in either parish. The most important people tended to be yeoman farmers, so Bottrell was perhaps safer in making the young singer the son to the churchwarden.
decided to spread my search further a field and paid a visit to the church in
the neighboring parish of Towednack and whilst inspecting some carved bench-ends
erected in 1633,* I found the portrait of a churchwarden called James Trewhela.
An inspection of the records for this parish showed that a total of nine
Mathew Trewheela’s had been christened between 1679 and 1803 (Ref. 10)
though the family
was not looked upon as being local as the family
took its name from a place in the parish of St. Hilary close to Mounts Bay and
it was first recorded on the North coast at Lelant in the year 1530, only coming
later to Towednack.
It is interesting to note that according to Robert Graves in his book "The White Goddess" Robin Hood and Maid Marian who feature as part of the May celebrations in Helston also have a mermaid connection
"A familiar disguise of this same Marian (Robin Hood's maid Marian) is the merrymaid, as'mermaid' was once written. The conventional figure of the mermaid--a beautiful woman with a round mirror, a golden comb and a fish-tail-- expresses "The love-goddess rises from the sea.'...The round mirror, to match the comb, may be some bygone artist's mistaken substitute for the quince, which Marian always held in her hand as a love-gift; but the mirror did also form part of the sacred furniture of the Mysteries, and probably stood for 'know thyself'. The comb was originally a plectrum for plucking lyre-strings. The Greeks called her Aphrodite ('risen from sea-foam') and used the tunny, sturgeon, scallop and preiwinkle, all sacred to her, as aphrodisiacs. Her most famous temples were built by the sea-side, so it is easy to understand her symbolic fishtail. ... Botticelli's Birth of Venus is an exact icon of he cult. Tall, golden-haired, blue-eyed, pale-faced, the Love-goddess arrives in her scallop-shell at the myrtle-grove, and Earth, in a flowery robe, hastens to wrap her in a scarlet gold-fringed mantle..."
“Popular Romances of the West of England” Collected and Edited by Robert Hunt, F.R.S. Published first published in 1865.
“Traditions and Hearthside Stories 0f West Cornwall, 1st Series”, Edited by William Bottrell, First Published by the Author in 1870.
“Traditions and Hearthside Stories 0f West Cornwall, 2nd Series”, Edited by William Bottrell, First Published by the Author in 1873.
Stories & Folk-Lore of West Cornwall” by William Bottrell first published in 1880.
Translated from A reutures d’un Vieux Mann, by A. S. de Doncourt
“A Week at the Lands-End” Blight.
Zennor Parish Records at the Cornwall Record Office (CRO)
Towednack Parish Records, CRO.
Robert Graves "The White Goddess" (p439)
* Note: This bench end was stolen in 1997. All that is left is a photograph of it in the church.