Cornish Legends: The Mermaid of Zennor

Zennor Head is a promontory on the Cornish coast of England, between Pendour Cove and Porthzennor Cove.

Zennor Head is a promontory on the Cornish coast of England, between Pendour Cove and Porthzennor Cove. - Credit: Tony Atkin/Geograph

The Mermaid of Zennor is a popular Cornish Folk Tale that has captured the hearts of many over the years, including artists, poets and musicians. William Bottrell first recorded the legend in the 1873 text Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall.

According to the Folk Tale, a beautiful and elegant woman would sporadically visit St. Senara’s Church in Zennor over a period of several years. Her ethereal beauty, for she never seemed to age, captivated everyone who met her, and she possessed the most exquisite of voices.

Soon, she met and fell in love with a young man named Matthew Trewella, who happened to be the village's best singer. While singing hymns one Sunday morning, they shared glances across the church, and a smile from the mysterious beauty enamoured Matthew so much that he followed her home. It is said that neither Matthew nor the woman were seen on dry land ever again.  

Exterior of St. Senara's Church in Zennor, Cornwall

St. Senara's Church in Zennor, Cornwall is at the heart of this famous Cornish legend. - Credit: Chris Downer/St. Senara's Church

Years passed, and Matthew's disappearance was forgotten until a sailor who had lowered his anchor about a mile from Pendour Cove encountered a beautiful mermaid. She pleaded in her sing-song voice for the sailor to lift his anchor because it was blocking the entrance of her home wherein her husband and children were waiting for her return.

Being a wise man and knowing the tales of troublesome mermaids, the sailor obliged and quickly sailed off. Once back on land, he told his story to the villagers of Zennor, all of whom soon came to realise that the woman Matthew had disappeared with all those years ago was the very mermaid the sailor spoke of.  

Mermaid Chair at St. Senara's church, Zennor

Mermaid Chair at St. Senara's church, Zennor. CC BY 4.0 - Credit: August Schwerdfeger

A carving on one of the church's chairs depicting the Mermaid of this tale is said to have been etched into the wood to warn every church-going man of the dangers of mermaids and how easy it is to be led astray by their beauty.  

The villagers of Zennor preserved this tale by passing it down through the generations and later onto William Bottrell. As to its origins, the legend was most likely inspired by the carving, which has its provenance in the 15th century, but it is unknown which truly came first. This fascinating Cornish legend now remains firmly entrenched into local lore.