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Saints, Mermaids & Phoenicians Contents

Cornish  Legends

Saints, Mermaids & Phoenicians

The Mermaid of Zennor

“Zennor folks tell the following story, which, according to them, accounts for a singular carving on a bench-end in their Church.  

 

The Legend

 

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 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.

 

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, and it might not have been known to this day who or what she was but for the merest accident.

 

One 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.

 

Others 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.

 

However 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.”

 

 

Print taken from J Blight’s

Woodcut  

 

The Evidence

 

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.    

 

Another 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  (Ref.2)  It is only when his second volume is produced that we have site of the tale in the above form:- (Ref.3) Bottrells version of the story, is very simple  and told without comment. It seems strange that what is the most well known of Cornish folktales today is dealt with in this way by Cornwall foremost recorder of folk lore.

 

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:-

 

“We 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 retired district. By the kitchen fire were seated four elderly men who appeared to be well pleased with their ale and each other’s company. The chief  talker of these four cronies was the captain or manager of Zennor tin-stamps. He said much about the witches and tin-streamers who lived in Trewey and Trewey Bottoms, long ago; and of Lerrow and other ancient hamlets, with the people who dwell there in days of yore. "

 

I went back to his second volume (Ref.5) in order to examine Bottrells version of the mermaid story in more detail.  In 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.”

 

Tregarthen 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.

 

She 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."

 

By 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.

 

This version told by Bottrell is very similar to the following Breton story. (Ref.6)

 

“One 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 folks.”

 

In 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 singing-loft.”

 

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 :

 

All 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)

Today 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) a date 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.

I 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.

 

I 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.

 

  I could only find one Mathew who had been christened and for whom I could not find a record of a marriage or a burial in either Towednack or in the surrounding parishes, This Mathew was born on the 3rd of  October 1679 which would nor have fitted into the timescale of 1772 when the Singing Loft was in place. I began to wonder if the story of the Mermaid of Zennor was put together by Bottrell for his book rather than being an existing one. I certainly can't find any reference to its existence before Bottrell published it. The bench-end carving was of course much older and the details of her comb and glass, are of the style in use all through the Middle Ages.

 

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..." 

 

Other Mermaids 

 

References

  1.   “Popular Romances of the West of England” Collected and Edited by Robert Hunt, F.R.S. Published first published in 1865.

  2.   “Traditions and Hearthside Stories 0f West Cornwall, 1st Series”, Edited by William Bottrell,  First Published by the Author in 1870.

  3. “Traditions and Hearthside Stories 0f West Cornwall, 2nd Series”, Edited by William Bottrell,  First Published by the Author in 1873.

  4.   Stories & Folk-Lore of West Cornwall” by William Bottrell first published in 1880.

  5. Ibid 3.

  6. Translated from A reutures d’un Vieux Mann, by A. S. de Doncourt 

  7. “A Week at the Lands-End” Blight.

  8. Zennor Parish Records at the Cornwall Record Office (CRO)

  9. Ibid 6.

  10. Towednack Parish Records, CRO.

  11. 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.

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