Mother Shipton is the most famous prophetess of the British Isles. She is one of the many figures of romance who achieve widespread fame and notoriety many years after the real exploits of their lives have faded from the pages of history. With such a passage of time, and lack of historical evidence, there is even debate as to whether she existed at all. Many of her prophecies are undoubtedly later fabrications, and the first written accounts of her exploits were published eighty years after her supposed death.
Whatever the truth she has been a fertile source of folklore and myth down through the centuries.
In this short essay we will examine in brief the legend of her life and then look at some of her alleged prophecies and their likely origin.
Mother Shipton was born in Knaresborough, North Yorkshire in 1488 as Ursula Southheil to a poor single mother. According to tradition her mother had been seduced out of wedlock and died during her birth. Her birthplace has been identified as the cave by the river Nidd, which bears her name. Another place associated with her is the nearby dropping well: where the limestone rich waters have the power of turning objects to stone. The cave and the well were probably ‘religious’ places long before her alleged birth, and may have become associated with her as her legend grew.
Ursula was not a pretty baby by any stretch of the imagination, in fact, she was hideous to behold, and it was difficult to find a nurse to care for her. Eventually a woman who lived on the outskirts of Knaresborough agreed to be her foster mother.
Strange happenings were reported throughout her childhood: furniture reportedly moved around the house of its own violation, plates and crockery were said to fly around the room, and her powers of prophesy were evident at an early age.
Many stories were told of her childhood: one morning the young baby and her crib were found to be missing from the house. Several villagers were brought into her home to search for clues to her disappearance, and were attacked by supernatural forces and pricked by imps in the form of monkeys. Eventually after some of the neighbours were thrown around the room attached to a yolk, Ursula was discovered in her crib hanging in mid air half way up the chimney.
As she grew into adulthood her inborn ugliness did not improve and descriptions of her visage paint a particularly ugly figure,: her nose was sight to be seen in itself being “of improportional length with many crooks and turnings…her stature was larger than common, her body crooked and her face frightful”, she had great goggling eyes and her wreck of a nose also gave off a faint luminosity.
However, her hideous appearance did not stop her from finding a suitable husband and Ursula was married at the age of 24 to Toby Shipton – a carpenter from Shipton. They set up home in Knaresborough, which became a magnet for people far and wide in search of her words of wisdom and prophetic powers. Her fame soon spread and she became known as Mother Shipton.
Mother Shipton was thought to have died in 1561, and event that she prophesised.
She is said to have prophesised many things during her lifetime, including the Civil War, the dissolution of the monasteries, and the defeat of the Spanish Armada. However, many of the rhymes are obscure and like many obscure riddles – such as those of Nostradamus – can be moulded to fit a number of events.
The earliest pamphlets and books about Mother Shipton were published in 1641 and 1684, many years after her death, and we can assume that the fertile imagination of the 17th century writers has much to answer for. We can certainly be sure that the predictions that were recorded in the early pamphlets were describing events that had already come to pass, such as her many predictions about Cardinal Wolsey.
The editor of the 1684 edition of her work, Richard Head, invented much of the story of her life and the descriptions of her, even if these were based on legend and folklore that had been passed down by word of mouth. Later writers are also fabricated prophesies, for example Charles Hindley admitted that he had concocted many of the predictions in 1862 to fool the Victorian public. In particular those prophecies easily recognisable to the Victorian mind such as:
A house of glass shall come to pass
In England, but alas!
War will follow with the work
In the land of the pagan and the Turk.
Which is an obvious reference to Crystal Palace and the Crimean war.
Mother Shipton was certainly popular during the Victorian era and in 1881, the year that she is supposed to have prophesised the end of the world – “The world to an end shall come, In eighteen hundred and eighty one.” – many people fled from their homes to pray in their local churches ready for the coming of Armageddon.
Her popularity during the 17th century is also suggested in the story that Prince Rupert is said to have remarked “Now Shipton’s Prophesy is out” after hearing of the Fire of London in 1666. I have also heard this saying attributed to Samuel Pepys.
More recently writer Alan Vaughan studied original editions of the prophesies in the British Museum, which led him to believe that the prophecies were rewritten in the 1960’s from the works of a 19th century writer.
Some of Mother Shipton’s more famous prophesies are as follows:
Carriages without horses shall go,
And accidents fill the world with woe.
Around the world thoughts shall fly,
In the twinkling of an eye.
(Said to predict cars, telephone, internet, satellites, planes amongst other things)
Under water men shall walk,
Shall ride shall sleep shall talk:
In the air men shall be seen,
In white, in black and in green.
(Said to predict, submarines, hot air balloons or planes)
Over a wild and stormy sea,
Shall a noble sail
Who to find will not fail,
A new and fair countree
From whence he shall bring
A herb and a root
That all men shall suit
And please both the ploughman and the king.
(The discovery of tobacco, and the potato)
[img_assist|nid=1590|title=Mother Shipton’s House|desc=|link=popup|align=right|width=200|height=190]The real truth about Mother Shipton will probably never be known, it is possible that such a person existed, village wise-women and men certainly existed, and were part of country society for hundreds of years. They were called upon for simple cures and herbal remedies. Perhaps the root of the legend lies in one woman who was famed in her local area for exceptional powers (or at least a reasonable success rate). Some of the stories about her powers, such as being able to make thieves return stolen belongings and finding lost property are the traditional reserve of the village wise woman or seer.
Whether she existed or not is perhaps not really important, she is one of those legendary figures of romance and folklore entwined in the imagination and environment.
For more information about Mother Shipton please consider the website, Mother Shipton’s Cave.