Which came first – the carving or the legend? It’s almost impossible to say for sure. There are other stories of Cornish mermaids at Padstow, Lamorna Cove, Seaton, Cury and Perranzabuloe. But the legend of the Mermaid of Zennor seems the most deeply embedded in the psyche of the Cornwall. And is one of the best known stories that draws visitors to Penwith. She features in books, songs, cartoons and art works.
But rather than focusing on the oft-told tale of the Mermaid of Zennor, let’s focus on the chair itself and the symbolism of these watery sirens of the deep.
The carving still in use as a bench end
The Mermaid Chair is in fact constructed from bench or pew ends carved in the 15th century. The two ancient bench ends were at some stage adapted to make a simple chancel chair.
The carving in ancient oak shows a long haired woman with curvaceous figure. Instead of legs she has a scaly tail with fins on either side. In one hand she holds a comb and in other a disc-like object thought to be a mirror.
Image from 19th century postcard
The parish church of St Ives, St Ia, has similar deeply carved bench ends, also dating from around 500 years ago. But the Mermaid Chair is one of only two known carvings of a mermaids in Cornwall. The other was pointed out to me by Roy Reed:
‘There’s a split-tailed mermaid on a roof boss at Linkinhorne church. If you look closely you can see her holding a comb and mirror in either hand. But why a mermaid in a church that’s as far from the sea as you can get in Cornwall?’
Haunted Britain proposes that the mer-woman represents an early depiction of the goddess Aphrodite. The goddess was seen as a warning by medieval Christians against the sins of lust.
Which came first?
The Mermaids chair stands inside the ancient church of St Senara. Early descriptions of this church, such as those by John Blight (1861), William Lake (1872), John Lloyd Warden Page (1897), seem to mention the mermaid carving but make no reference to the legend at all. Neither does it feature in Robert Hunt’s extensive book of Cornish folklore, Popular Romances of the West of England, published in 1896.
In fact, the tale was first recorded by William Bottrell in 1873. Adding weight to modern folklorist Jennifer Westwood’s theory that the carving inspired the legend not the other way around.
AG Folliott-Stokes writes in 1928:
This quaint little village is situated in a wild and rockstone region it is a charming place the 13th century church has been neatly restored but contains no very interesting architectural features the granite monolith that support the arches are very satisfactory. The font is well-proportioned. While the famous Zennor mermaid is a curious fragment of mediaeval wood carving.
A variety of fish-tailed gods were worshipped by the first civilisations of the Middle East. The earliest known of these was Oannes, Lord of the Waters, who appeared some 7000 years ago. There are also fish-tailed gods in one form or another found in the legends and beliefs of countries as diverse as India, China, Japan and Greece.
However, it is unclear what the connection is between these ancient gods and the mermaids that were reported by European sailors from around the 15th century onwards. But sightings, genuine sightings, were at one time pretty common in Cornwall.
The Real Matthew Trewhella
An interesting twist to the legend of the Mermaid of Zennor is that her love, Matthew Trewhella, may actually have existed. In the story Matthew was a churchwarden’s son, who sang at Zennor church. Apparently he disappeared one day with a strange and ageless woman. Never to be seen again. It was only later, when a ship’s captain reported seeing a mermaid at Pendour Cove that the villagers put two and two together and decided the mysterious woman had been in disguise all along.
Churchwardens Matthew Trenwith and James Trewhella
There are two other unusual carved bench ends at Towednack church, just two and a half miles from Zennor. Dated 1633 the panels show two churchwardens. Matthew Trenwith and James Trewhella. Could James be Matthew Trewhella’s father? Did the real Matthew disappear in strange circumstances and his real-life story has evolved into this fantastic legend?
Checking the parish records for Towednack, there were no less than fourteen Matthew Trewhellas christened between 1679 and 1849. .
The Mermaid Chair today
I first saw the Mermaid Chair when I was a teenager in the 1990s. At the time I was just discovering my passion for our unique and quirky Cornish culture. Now, some twenty-five years later the chair has lost none of its mystery or its ability to stir the imagination. Visitors are drawn to Zennor Church from all over the world by the legend of the Zennor Mermaid and by the magical story of the ancient Mermaid Chair.