Zennor Church and the Mermaid of Zennor
History, tourist information, and nearby accommodation
HERITAGE HIGHLIGHTS: Unique medieval mermaid bench end
Senara may have been a Breton princess named Asenora, a devout Christian, who was married to a king named Goello. When Senara became pregnant the king's mother falsely accused here of infidelity, and the king cast into the sea. According to the tale, she was put in a barrel, which was then nailed shut and allowed to drift on the waves. The barrel drifted to Ireland, and she was rescued by an angel. after her son, Budoc, had grown, they both set out to convert the natives to Christianity.
Most people come to Zennor church to see the 'mermaid chair', so let's cover that first.
Zennor church is famous for a carved medieval chair, or bench end, displayed in the south side chapel. The carving is generally dated to between 1400-1500. The carving shows a mermaid carrying a comb and mirror. The pose is similar to classical depictions of the godess of love and of the sea, Aphrodite. In the classical tradition Aphrodite carries a quince (sometimes called a love apple)
In later images the quince has become a mirror, a symbol of heartlessness and vanity, which rather twists the original meaning. In the medieval period it was a common Cornish custom to perform 'miracle plays', in which the mermaid was used to represent the dual nature of Christ; just as the mermaid was both fish and human, Christ was both God and man. You can still see medieval wall paintings of mermaids in other Cornish churches, such as Altarnun and Breage, but only at Zennor is there a surviving mermaid carving.
Why here? Well, St Senara, who founded the first church at Zennor over 1400 years ago, came here by sea, so the mermaid seems an appropriate symbol. Also, there is a local legend linking Zennor to mermaids.
Now, did the legend inspire the mermaid chair carving, or did the carving give rise to the legend?
There are a wonderful collection of monuments under the tower. One is to John Quick (d. 1784), with an inscription that says he 'excell'd his equals', a rather neat trick! Another memorial is to a 'hen-pecked husband'.
In the south west corner of the church is a worn Norman font. This was found buried in the vicarage garden and was restored to the church in 1960. Close to the south door is the current font, dating to the late 13th or early 14th century. This has an octagonal bowl, decorated with quatrefoils, supported on four slender columns and a strong central pillar.
In the north wall is the Burma Star window, dedicated to armed forces who served in Burma during WWII. Hanging from the roof near the window is a model of a West Country schooner, created as a memorial to WA Proctor, who died on a solitary round-the-world voyage, and also to all unnamed sailors who were shipwrecked along this stretch of the Cornish coast.
In the churchyard are a pair of Celtic crosses and a cross head on a rough plinth. On the south wall is a sundial dated to 1737 decorated with crossed bones, (for death), and an angel head and wings (for immortality).
NOTE: Zennor is very popular in summer. Free parking along the one-way village access road is very limited; you might get lucky and find a space, or you might not! There is, however, a paid parking lot beside the pub and museum, about 30 seconds stroll from the church!
- Historic Highlights
- Norman font and an octagonal 13th century font
- Burma Star window
- 1737 sundial
- Celtic saint carving
- 15th century Mermaid Chair
- John Davey memorial
Address: Zennor, Cornwall, England, TR26 3BY
Attraction Type: Historic Church
Location: Paid parking at the museum, or (if there is space), free parking along the very narrow village road. Very Usually open daylight hours.
Photo Credit: David Ross and Britain Express
Heritage Rated from 1- 5 (low-exceptional) on historic interest
Towednack Church - 1.9 miles (Historic Church)
Chysauster Ancient Village - 2.3 miles (Prehistoric Site)
Men an Tol - 2.9 miles (Prehistoric Site)
Lanyon Quoit - 3.3 miles (Prehistoric Site)
Madron Holy Well and Chapel - 3.6 miles (Prehistoric Site)
Tate St Ives - 4 miles (Museum)
Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden - 4 miles (Museum)
Trengwainton Garden - 4.3 miles (Garden)
Nearest Accommodation to Zennor:
Nearest Self Catering Cottages
Nearest Bed and Breakfasts
Tel: 0905 252 2250 Calls cost 20p per minute plus network extras. Callers must be aged 16 or over and have the bill payers permission.