Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Four Mermen In Twenty-First Century Cambridge

St Peter's looks like the perfect little country church, the kind of place you'd approach by a long leafy lane and need a good map to find. Which is all rather strange because it's in the middle of Cambridge, near to the castle mound which would have formed the focus of the old town. It looks very quaint and old, but it was largely rebuilt in the Georgian period. However it does hold an older mystery as we shall  see.

We enter through a Norman arched doorway which presumably survives from an older building and find ourselves in a small, rather austere space. The church is now too small to be viable as a place of worshp in a large city, though I know that there are many neighbours who use it as a place for prayer and reflection. It's in the care of The Churches Conservation Trust and, though they preserve the building, the interior is rather bare and spartan, though there is a rather interesting font.

It's thought to date from the early 11th century and is one of very few Saxon fonts still in existence. It's also the only one I've ever seen which is decorated with mermen, one on each corner. In their hands these extraordinary fellows can be seen to be grasping their tails, and surprisingly they each are equipped with two: whoever knew that Saxon mermen had two tails?

The font has undergone some repair work at some time; all the original faces of the mermen are missing, perhaps just by accidental damage to the corners, or maybe due to the attentions of the Puritan iconoclasts of the 17th century. In the photo you can just about make out that the stone at the top of the figure is a slightly different colour to the lower portion. The other three corners still have the original heads though are lacking faces. 

Quite what mermen are doing on a font is a bit of a puzzle. True enough there is a watery connection between mermen and fonts, as there also is to St Peter who is the saint of fishermen. But mermen in most popular mythologies are contrary and troublesome creatures who can summon up storms to sink ships: why would you want them on a font? 

There is some evidence of an even more ancient belief that mermen were great teachers who had the power to see through all human lies and deceit, which would perhaps make them a little more appropriate. Or maybe, and this has just occured to me while I was in the kitchen making a cup of tea, the early Christian church was demonstrating that it was so confident in St Peter's power to protect us as we journey through life, that we could trust him to safeguard infants, even in the presence of mermen and other pagan deities. 

But why would they be in a church in Cambridgeshire, which after all is about as far as you can get from the sea on these small islands? Boats of that time would certainly have been small enough to navigate upriver as far as Cambridge but, even so, there were still some fifty or sixty miles of winding rivers, undrained fen and shallow washlands before you reach the open sea.

I suppose we shall never be able to enter the minds of our forefathers and see the world from their point of view. But it's still fun to try.

Take care.



  1. I think of all the children baptized at that font in its thousand years, parents believing in the power of the blessing. Amazing really. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Your first image is a fine one. Mermen? You don't really think a guy from America would have the answer, do you?

  3. Certainly an unusual font. The church itself looks lovely!

  4. The church is lovely and the location is beautiful.

  5. Wonderful old font John. I like the way you took us on a journey into the church before showing us the mermen. As you say - we shall never know, but such an old font is a real treasure.

  6. There are so many things I have never heard of and Merman is definitely one of them. I am always intrigued by what you see there and the stories that have been told for centuries. Wonderful!

  7. You're right about St Peter's looking as though it should be on a leafy country lane. The font is fascinating and I have to say that I've learned a lot about mermen, mermaids are the ones we usually hear about.

  8. Cambridge has such ancient buildings. If you live there you are very fortunate to have all this history surrounding you. Good photos -- barbara

  9. What a lovely little church, - I could meditate in there quite nicely, thank you. As to the merman, life is full of mysteries, and every once in a while we accidentally come across the answer to the puzzles it gives us. I will watch out for any kindly reference to them...

  10. So strange! They are quite frightening, really. Wonder they didn't scare the poor babes to death.

  11. Hello John. I know this is an old post, so I hope this reaches you. While reading up about the font in St Peter's I came across your excellent blog for the first time - but certainly not the last. I like what you say about the mermen; do you know that there's another very similar one not too far away in Anstey, Herts? I've written about it here:
    I've also recently blogged about St Peter's font:
    I hope you enjoy reading what I've written a tenth as much as I've enjoyed reading yours!
    Best wishes, David


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