NGR: SW 4547 3851. In the church of Saint Senara at Zennor on the north Cornish coast there is a carved 15th-century bench-end portraying the legendary Mermaid of Zennor – of whom there are a few strange tales often told. She is depicted with her long flowing hair, fishy tail, comb and mirror. Comb and mirror symbols also appear on Pictish stones in Scotland. The Medieval carved bench-end or, more correctly, the Mermaid’s Chair (for one person only), now stands in the south side chapel. There are other legends of mermaids, and, even mermen! from other coastal places in both Cornwall and Devon and other coastal places. St Senara’s parish church stands on Post Office Row at the east side of the village, which takes its name from the 6th century St Azenor, who was born at Brest in Brittany, but, gave birth to her son, St Budock, in Ireland, according to the legend. However, in Corn-wall she is more often called St Senara. Also inside the 12th-century church, and, standing close by the Mermaid’s Chair, is a carved Norman font, while outside in the churchyard there are three Celtic crosses – each having short, stubby shafts and round cross-heads – a very common type of Celtic cross that is so often found in Cornish churchyards. Two of the crosses are built onto the grave of a local antiquarian. Zennor village is 5 miles southwest of St Ives on the B3306 road.
Jennifer Westwood writing in 1992 tells us: “The most famous of Cornwall’s mermaids is the Mermaid of Zennor, whose re-puted likeness can be seen on a fifteenth-century bench-end in the chancel of Zennor church. A finely dressed lady used to come every Sunday to church to listen to Matthew Trewhella, the best singer in Zennor, and finally the pair of them disappeared. Some time later, a mermaid hailed a ship off Pendour Cove and asked them to hoist the anchor, as it had landed on her house and she could not reach her husband and children. Zennor people surmised that this was the lady who had lured Matthew Trewella away. Though mermaids often lured sailors to their deaths, there was always an old belief that water spirits needed human husbands to give them souls. The bench-end is traditionally said to commemorate the Mermaid of Zennor, it probably gave rise to the tale”
Sally Jones writing in 1980 tells us more and says: “From Towednack, the coast road led me along the grassy slopes inclining steeply and smoothly down the quoit-littered heights on my left to the sea, calm and Aegean-blue on my right — a view so breathtaking that I almost crashed the car while gazing over my shoulder. My next destination, Zennor Church, shares both Towednack’s vicar and its charm. It is set high up, overlooking the sea, which was the home of the village’s most famous character, the Mermaid of Zennor.
“Mermaids appear in the legends of Cornwall, even before the dawn of Christianity, when they were one of the symbols of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and held a quince — or love apple — and a comb. Later these became a mirror and a comb, symbols of heartlessness, since mermaids were supposed to lure men beneath the waves with their beautiful siren-like voices. In the Middle Ages, the symbol of the mermaid was used in the Cornish Mystery plays to explain the two natures of Christ: just as the mermaid is half-human, half fish, so Christ is half-man, half God.
“Zennor’s mermaid is immortalised, rather unflatteringly, on a carved bench-end in the little church which I visited at Harvest Festival. The church, bench-end and all, was glorious with flowers and fruit and wheatsheaf loaves, with only a smattering of tinned foods to set the seasonal scene in the twentieth century. The carved mermaid is estimated to be between five and six hundred years old and carries a comb and a glass. The dramatic story tells of how a strange and beautiful woman enchanted generations of Zennor churchgoers with her changeless loveliness and sweet voice. No one knew her name or where she lived as she seemed to vanish after each service, only reappearing the following Sunday. Her beauty and mysterious air discouraged anyone from asking who she was and where she came from.”
Janet & Colin Bord writing in 1986 tell us that: “Mermaids are usually thought of as belonging only to the wide-open spaces of the sea, but there are a few inland lakes, some quite small, which have legends of mermaids, and this may be simply another form adopted by the water divinity. Some degree of overlap between the different types of lake-dwelling maidens is suggested, because the Welsh fairy maidens’ habit of emerging from the water and combing their hair is exactly the behaviour one expects from a mermaid.”
The patroness of Zennor church, Cornwall, is St Senara, who was also known as Azenor and Asenora, and is said to have hailed from Brest in Finistere. She was the daughter of the legendary King Gradlon of Cornouaille, and the wife of Alain ab Hoel. Azenor and her husband would later journey to Ireland where their son St Budock was born at a monastery near Waterford, although other accounts say he was born in South Wales, or, in the Celtic Sea when his mother was cast out to the sea in a cask or barrel, according to one unlikely legend. St Azenor and her husband died before they could make their return to Brittany, settling in Cornwall where they ended their days; St Azenor built her cell/church at Zennor. St Budock, her son, would become Bishop of Dol in Brittany. St Azenor is thought to have died in AD 635 (it could, in fact, have been many years before that date, though) and her feast day in Cornwall is on 8th December (9th December in Brittany). She is venerated at Plourin Ploudalmezea, Finistère, where her shrine can still be seen; St Budoc’s relics are also there.
Sources / References & Related Websites:-
Bord, Janet & Colin, Sacred Waters, Paladin Books, London, 1986.
Fisher, Graham (Advisory Editor), Historic Britain, Odhams Books, Feltham, Middlesex, 1950.
Jones, Sally, Legends of Cornwall, Bossiney Books, St Teath, Bodmin, Cornwall, 1980.
The AA, The Illustrated Road Book Of England & Wales, The Automobile Association, London, 1962
Westwood, Jennifer, Gothick Cornwall, Shire Publications Ltd., Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire, 1992.
Copyright © Ray Spencer, The Journal of Antiquities, 2022.