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Cornwall's Maritime Churches

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St Senara’s Church, Zennor

The small village of Zennor can be found on the west coast of Penwith, in West Cornwall. Located along the coast road between the towns of St Just and St Ives and is, alphabetically, the last parish in Britain.

Research provided by Ross Allen, an undergraduate student at the University of Exeter, Penryn Campus, studying BA History.

Introducing St Senara’s church

‘Zennor’ comes from the Cornish translation of the church’s name, the church of Sanctus Sinar. This definition can be traced back as far as circa 1170, suggesting the age of the church itself.

The connection between Zennor Church and the sea is unmistakable.

St Senara’s journey across the sea from France has ensured that the church has a permanent maritime connection. Famously associated with the Mermaid of Zennor legend, the church’s maritime history has been embedded in the minds of people across the world.

The location of the church has likewise reinforced the church’s mythical identity. On 9 August 1878, the Royal Cornwall Gazette advises readers that a visit to Zennor Church is unmissable, with it being set in

‘wild and romantic scenery’.

Where it all began

The name Senara itself derives from the Breton princess, Asenora, who was thrown into the sea and came ashore at Zennor.

Asenora settled in the village, living a virtuous life, resulting in her elevation to sainthood.

In terms of date and according to Heritage England, parts of St Senara’s church, such as the south wall, date back to the twelfth century, whilst the chancel dates to around the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries.

Maritime roots

In the distant past, the Cornish people believed in the existence of mermaids, considered to be a combination of human kind and maritime species.

The legend claims that an especially beautiful lady came into the Church, a mermaid, and prevailed a young man, Mathey Trewhella, to follow her back down to the cove. In the cove he met the fate of most young men who were captivated by the mermaid’s beauty, who were drowned.

The Mermaid of Zennor demonstrates the strong connection between human and marine life for the local fishing community. The legend has altered over the years, with another belief being that the choir of St Senara’s Church were so enchanting with their singing that the mermaids were induced to come up from the cove below the village to listen to the music.

Carved into a pew in Zennor Church is the figure of a mermaid, evoking another version of the mermaid legend.

Many years after the disappearance of Mathey Trewhella, a ship dropped anchor off Zennor Cove, when the captain heard a beautiful voice, followed by the sight of the mermaid herself. Sailors fear that mermaids will bring bad luck, and thus, the captain raised his anchor and went ashore at Zennor to inform the people of Mathey Trewhella’s fate. In memorial to Mathey Trewhella and to warn other men against the temptation of the mermaids, the figure of the mermaid was carved into the church pew.

‘a mere, old world superstition, a heathen invention or myth’

Yet there have always been sceptics.

Within the 13 September 1883 edition of The Cornishman the Reverend of Zennor, W. S. Lach-Szyrma dismissed the figure as

“a mere, old world superstition, a heathen invention or myth”.

Interestingly the Reverend also suggests the origins of the story may extend back to the early Christian Church.

Nineteenth-century restoration

The church was not majorly altered until a partial rebuild took place in the late nineteenth century. This involved a new roof, stripping the walls of plaster and new fittings, such as pews. It is in this condition that the church exists today.

It appears from a late nineteenth-century article that the church’s condition had greatly deteriorated.

Within the article, the pews are described as

‘facing all points of the compass’

and

‘[that the] only tolerably decent seat in the church belonged to the vicar’.

When comparing this perspective to the information provided by Historic England, the partial rebuild of the church must have taken place shortly after this publication in 1878.

The restoration of St Senara’s Church during the Victorian period is described in an article printed in the Cornishman on 28 November 1889. The church itself is described as

‘a much dilapidated and nearly ruinous sanctuary’.

Works required, which included a new roof, were estimated to cost at least £1,300, which with inflation would amount to £164,095.45 today. The parish community came together to raise this sum through individual donations, including £250 each from the Reverend Borlase and a Mr Westlake Q.C. of Eagles Nest.

A summer bazaar was organised to raise the funds, with the sale of jewellery, flowers, dresses and vegetables, all donated by members of the community.

The restoration work was completed by December 1890, with the work by local church-builders Carah and Edwards being described as ‘most effectively carried out’.

St Senara’s today

Zennor today enjoys a strong sense of community.

Held annually in May is Zennor Feast, which is celebrated in honour of their patron Saint Senara. An event which is historically Zennor’s most important date of the year, it was in the past a holiday for both those in work and school.

At feast time the church attracts visiting priests and bishops and is colourfully decorated for a special Sunday service.

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