The curious case of the princess, saint, mermaid and a chair

There she was again, her beauty was unforgettable. It must have been years since she had last attended service. She had caught the attention of the entire congregation when she entered the church accompanied by a force of wind and rain from outside. The villagers stared as she took her seat on a small chair at the back of church. They had seen her before, infrequently, over the years but they always remembered her ageless in her beauty and richly attired. She caught the gaze of the young chorister boy, Mathey, with flirting eyes as she sat. The last time the beautiful stranger visited, Mathey had been much younger but he had been transfixed by her beauty. She always made a hasty exit at the end of the service and on her previous visit, Mathey felt the urge to follow her. He may have lost his nerve last time, but now he was ready. As the service finished he faced his now or never moment and made a dash for it. The beautiful woman made her predictable hasty exit. This time Matthey followed. That was the last the villagers of Zennor saw of the young chorister boy or the beautiful woman. Time passed but it was a foggy Sunday morning one spring when one of the local captains came running into the village. He had been fishing in Pendour Cove when a beautiful woman appeared from the watery depths. This maid of the sea had politely requested the captain raise his anchor as it was on her door. She was distracted, concerned about her young inside. The mariners, driven with fear, pulled in their anchor quicker than it dropped. As they swiftly returned to the harbour the captain was struck with a sense of deja-vu. Who was the woman in the sea? As the fog cleared the connection was made; she must have been the beautiful nympth that had enticed young Matthey Trewella away.

The villagers carved the chair where the mermaid had sat, A timeless reminder of the fate of the young chorister boy.

Up until now I have not posted anything about my passions for history and myth. The thing is these are two of my greatest sources of inspiration so sharing my thoughts and discoveries here is only logical.

Living in Cornwall I am surrounded by local myths and legends about giants, mermaids and saints. There is a rich tradition of stories interwoven into the places and landscape of Cornwal. What I find amazing is that a lot of them are barely known and poorly documented. One such myth is the Mermaid of Zennor, one of the most popular myths outside of Cornwall that has inspired works of art, poetry and literature over the last 100 years.

I have taken liberties to modernise the text above while trying to still preserve the detail. What I love about this myth is if you go back to the original texts, it is not conclusive that the mermaid is indeed the beautiful stranger, in fact the earliest known text writes that the woman and Mathey head inland over Tregarthen Hill. So this could easily simply be a love story about two lovers who elope "up country" and the case of mistaken identity by a drunken sailor. Who knows? but a local amateur historian, George Pritchard, tried to get to the root of the myth in 2002. He concluded that the author of the earliest text, William Bottrell, had likely created the myth himself. William Bottrell had visited the carved mermaid chair in Zennor's church when writing his compilation of local myths and legends in 1873.

You may be wondering where a saint and princess come into this story, well this seems to be another case of mistaken identity. Earlier this year, Wikipedia presented on their homepage above legend, as that of St Senara, the patron saint of Zennor's church. St Senara has her own fascinating legend that begins with her being a Breton princess, being thrown to sea in a barrel by her jealous husband the King of Goello, then floating to Cornwall and founding Zennor.

I investigated further and discovered the confusion dated back to a 2005 New York Times bestseller by Sue Monk Kidd titled "The Mermaids Chair" which was also made into a film. I asked Sue on Twitter about the link between St Senara and the mermaid. Sue is sure she found a link but was unfortunately unable to locate it.

This is why I love history it is one big jigsaw puzzle that you have to put together with missing pieces. What is particular interesting with this story is that it is a living example of how stories change over time. It is also a lesson in how you should never fully trust a Wikipedia article. Best of all however, is that Sue Monk Kidd was likely inspired by the same carved bench end, in Zennor's St Senara's church, that had inspired William Bottrell 140 years ago.