Thursday, 18 March 2010

The Mermaid of Zennor, Cornwall

The mermaids of Cornwall are very different from those of popular imagination. The general image that most people have of a mermaid is of a beautiful if idle creature who sits about combing her hair and singing. She might seek to lure ships to dangerous rocks, but on the whole is fairly benign and more interested in looking pretty than much else. And in most illustrations or animated cartoons she has the body of a woman and the tail of a fish, and is often shown with a comb and mirror.

Not so the mermaids of Cornwall. These are enormously powerful water spirits who can - and do - interact with humans in a number of rather surprising ways.

By far the most famous of all the Cornish mermaids is the mermaid of Zennor. Many years ago the people of Zennor were surprised to see a stranger slip into their church dedicated to St Senara to sit right at the back. She was a pretty young lady dressed in a fine, long gown of exquisite workmanship. Just before the service ended the lady got up and left. When the parishioners emerged she was nowhere to be seen. For a while gossip was rife as to who the lady had been, but gradually interest waned. Those who thought of her at all assumed she had been passing on that Sunday morning and had stopped for the religious service before travelling on.

Then a month or so later she returned. Again she entered quietly, sat at the back and left as mysteriously as she had arrived. Over the coming months she came several times to attend the services at St Senara’s. It became clear that she was entranced by the singing of the choir, and in particular by the voice of Matthew Trewhella. Young Trewhella was the churchwarden’s son. He was a strapping young farmer who had good looks to match his fine voice.

One Sunday, after the service ended, the villagers saw Matthew Trewhella talking to the mysterious stranger on the banks of the stream that runs through the village. Not wanting to intrude on the youngsters in the early stages of what might have been a romance, the villagers kept their distance. Matthew and the stranger were seen walking along the stream, heading for Pendour Cove where it runs into the sea. They were never seen again.

For weeks the villagers wondered what had happened to their young chorister. The Trewhella family sent messages far and wide, but no sign of their son could be found. It was the talk of Cornwall.

Five months later, a fisherman came running from St Ives. He asked for the Trewhella household, then demanded to have a description of the pretty stranger who had lured young Trewhella away. He then poured out his tale. He had been fishing off the coast of Pendour Cove and had thrown out the anchor to keep his boat steady while he worked. A short while later a woman’s head had bobbed to the surface beside his boat. Obviously the pretty girl was a mermaid, and the fisherman grew nervous as he knew that to offend the merfolk was dangerous. But the girl smiled pleasantly enough.

“Sir,” she called out. “Would you please lift your anchor. It is blocking the entrance to my cave and I want to get home to my dear Matty and my children.”

The description of the mermaid matched that of the mysterious stranger. Clearly Matthew Trewhella had fallen in love with a mermaid and had gone to live with her beneath the waves.

The legend is commemorated by a carved pewend in the church. The carving is thought to be around 600 years old. It shows a mermaid looking out toward the viewer while holding up her mirror and her comb. It has got a bit battered over the years, and is now placed in the side chapel, but it remains clear enough.

Interestingly, St Senara had a rather watery life. She was a devout Christian who was married to King Goello of Brittany sometime around the year 450, just as the Roman Empire was breaking up. Goello’s mother was a pagan who deeply resented the influence that the beautiful and virtuous young Christian had on her son. When Senara became pregnant, her angry mother in law fabricated evidence of infidelity and had Senara nailed in a barrel and thrown into  the sea. An angel appeared who cared for Senara as she gave birth, providing her with food and drink. The barrel was washed up in Ireland where the mother and child were taken in by a fisherman and his wife. When she recovered, Senara and her son, named Budoc, set out to found churches and convert the local pagans to Christianity. After various adventures in Ireland the pair came to Cornwall where they founded the church of St Senara among others. King Goello heard of his wife’s survival and her good works. He sent men to bring her back to Brittany where she was reinstated as queen and Budoc was recognised as his heir.

So it ended happily for all concerned, except the wicked stepmother. The church of St Senera gave its name to the village, now corrupted to Zennor. The original church is thought to have stood rather closer to the sea than the one that stands today in a field where 7th century ruins have been excavated. The current church was begun around 1125, extended in 1451 and restored in 1890. A stained glass window of St Senara is to be found in the chancel.

This is an extract from Mysterious Cornwall by Rupert Matthews

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