In the wild, windswept moorland of Cornwall, not far from Land's End and on the coast road to St Ives, is the little village called Zennor, and there you can find the church of St. Senara. Every year, hundreds of tourists flock to this quiet coastal village just to visit St Senara's, for it is home to a famous folkloric artefact, the Mermaid's chair. Displayed in the southern side of the church, the Mermaid's chair is an old wooden seat. It is believed to have been constructed from old bench ends, and its ornate carved sides are believed to be around 600 years old. It is adorned with a thin cushion with a pattern of fishes, and one side has a beautiful but unremarkable intertwining pattern. However on the other is a carving of a mermaid, which is said to commemorate an ancient local tale.
The short version goes like this. The choristers of St. Senara have always been famed for their singing, however once upon a time they had a truly exceptional talent - a handsome young fellow called Matthew Trewella, whose voice was so beautiful that every service at the church would close with him singing the last hymn solo. His singing was so enchanting that people came from far and wide just to hear him. But other stranger folks were listening too. And his performances were so enchanting that a local mermaid would creep out of the sea and into the church to listen. However one day, the handsome Matthew noticed his mystery admirer, and being as enchanted with her as she was with him, after one church service, he decided to follow her. And so he followed her as she made her way down to the sea, to Pendour Cove, and there, so the old tales say, both vanished beneath the waves and never to be seen again. And hence, the carved chair in St. Senara's is the very seat where the mermaid would sit and listen to Matthew singing...
Or so the local legend says. However modern folklorists have theorized that actually the carving probably inspired the story and not the other way around. And in favour of that argument are the following facts. Firstly the carving dates back at least five hundred years whereas the earliest version of this fishy tale that we have heard, comes from the 19th century. Secondly, while at first it would seem unusual to find a representation of a mermaid in a church - after all, alluring ladies who are half fish and half naked aren't normally the first thing that springs to mind when contemplating the teachings of Christ - actually mermaids have a long history in church iconography. here in this marvelous round-up of church merfolk. At various times in history they have been used to represent vanity (hence appearing with combs and mirrors), the dual nature of Christ (with his human/divine nature symbolized in the mermaid's ability to live in the realm of air and the realm of water), and of course, given their famous beauty and scanty wardrobes, as warnings about the temptations of lust.
On the flipside however, we must also note that we don't actually have too much folklore dated before 1800s, as quite simply it wasn't until the 19th century that people began documenting folk tales and local stories. Hence the tale of the Mermaid of Zennor may have been in circulating for untold years before it was recorded by Mr William Bottrell in Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Volume 2 in 1873. So then, exactly how old the story actually is, it is impossible to say. Secondly, while the carving's depiction of the lady from the waves has her holding a comb and mirror, which suggests a medieval reminder on the sins of vanity, we should also note that this was also the traditional way mermaids were depicted. Indeed the Greek goddess Aphrodite was often pictured as a mermaid holding a comb and a quince - and in ancient depictions of mermaids there is some confusion as to whether the round object they are holding is a mirror or a fruit. The point is however, that medieval artwork was very stylised - with artists recreating an accepted set of images and symbols rather than crafting personal visions. Hence if the villagers of Zennor had instructed a woodworker to carve them a mermaid to commemorate the tale, it is highly likely a mermaid in the classic pose with mirror and comb would have resulted anyway.
So did the tale inspired the carving or the carving inspire the tale? Well as is often the case with folklore, it is always worth having a look at the original source to see what light it can shed on the matter. And so here is what William Bottrell recorded in Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Volume II (1873) -
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 psalmody, 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 Pen-dower, 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.
Now it is the rough edges to this first account of the story that are perhaps most intriguing. For later versions would add several key details - for example many versions now give our mermaid a name - Morveren. One oft-repeated version even adds an epilogue in the form of the claim that the sound of Matthew singing was frequently heard from beneath the waves and taken by the locals as a reliable warning of storms and rough seas to come. While another very common version adds even more - that sailors over-heard the mermaid calling down to Matthew to attend to the children, and hence connecting the two incidents beyond doubt and smoothly rounding off the story. And all of this seems somewhat strange if the tale of the Mermaid of Zennor was supposedly inspired by the carving on the chair.
Stories, it seems, are much like stones on a beach, and the retelling of stories has an action upon them like that the tides - slowly wearing away the jagged edges and rough spots, and after several generations, all that is left are rounded shapes with smooth curves. And as any explorer of folklore will tell you, generally the more recent the version of the tale, the smoother the story runs. One just has to compare our modern fairy stories with the first versions recorded - one finds they are often a good deal crueler and darker and in many case missing many details which make them what we would now consider to be a well-rounded tale. So there is - if you'll pardon the pun - something fishy going on here.
In the original account above we appear to have in effect two stories, both which bear the same rough textures as many other authentic bits of folklore recorded in the 19th century. Possibly they were originally two separate local tales that over the years have been have linked together, with the second becoming in effect an explanation for the first. And it is only after the story is published in the 1870s that the process of storyification begins to take place, with the two strands of the account given by Mr Botterell become united into a whole cohesive narrative with the expected beginning, middle and an end. A similar process can be seen in the evolution of other well-known tales, for example in the earlier versions of Red Riding Hood, no woodcutter turns up to save her and the story ends with the little girl being eaten. And much like the original Red Riding Hood story, both parts of the Zennor tale as recorded by Mr Botterell are not traditional fairy stories, instead they are more fragmentary. They are not well-rounded tales meant to entertain, rather they are reports of incidents which are meant to be cautionary, with the first part of the Zennor tale being a clear warning about following strangers, while the second is a more general caution to heed the appearance of literally ominous unnatural things.
Now in general, churches do not really go in for recording well-loved local stories as part of their decor. Usually any artwork or decoration is either symbolic or commemorative, and hence we find in church artworks allusions to local history and the expected Biblical symbolism. However it is not unusual for certain church features to have legends attached to them, often after their original meaning has been forgotten. And bearing all of this in mind, I would say the best guess about the origin of the Mermaid’s Seat, would most likely be that actually that either one did not inspire the other. But rather an independently existing tale - the story of the disappearance of Mathy Trewella, was later linked to a second local story of sailors encountering a mermaid in Pendour Cove, and once this connection was made and two stories began being told as one, a further connection was made to the medieval mermaid carving in the church at Zennor. But possibly there is a grain of truth in the legend too. That is to say, there was a real life disappearance of a local fellow, which later on was "explained" by another odd event. And it is even possible, given the propensity of local history to find its way into church decor, that either the disappearance or the sailor’s sighting (and indeed or both stories taken together as one) was commemorated by the carving of the mermaid seat.
It is worth bearing in mind that the seating in in a church, traditionally in England. was traditionally often very bound up with local families. Indeed it was often the case that well standing locals would pay for the installation of benches and pews, and their decoration. You may heard the old phrase “gone to the wall” and this actually relates to this ancient church custom. For when a family could no longer pay for the upkeep of their bench or pew in the local church, they would have to stand with the rest of the congregation at the back of the church. And their only form of seating would be to lean against the church walls. Hence if a family lost its fortune, it was said to have - you guessed it - gone to the wall.
Now in great many English churches various carvings on benches and pews have a significance for a local family and hence I wonder whether it was the family of the missing man or the family of sailors that commissioned the mermaid carving. However bearing in mind the family connection to church benches, it is also equally possible that the mermaid was a heraldic device for some forgotten wealthy family who paid for the making of the Mermaid’s Seat. Certain mermaids do feature in many coats of arms, and were popular symbols for sea-faring businesses, and so this possibility is I think highly likely. And hence long after this family were gone, this carving was associated with emerging stories of local disappearances and sightings of mermaids.
We will probably never know the truth, but there is one possibility that might shed some light on the matter. Perhaps it is time some enterprising soul searched the parish records in search of Mathey Trewella... So far researchers have established that Trewella is a common old Cornish name, and indeed there are Trewella documented as living in the local area. But the further back in time you go the less complete the extant records are, and so far a Mathy or Matthew has not been discovered. But if he could be found, that would give us some indication of the age of the tale. And it would be most interesting to discover that if there was such a person, if he did indeed disappear in mysterious circumstances....