Mother Shipton

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  1. Ian Topham says:

    Re: Mother Shipton

    ‘Yorkshire Legends and Traditions’ by Rev Thomas Parkinson (1888)


     ‘O yes! If any man or woman, in city, town, or country, can tell any tydings of Agatha Shipton, the daughter of Solomon Shipton, ditch digger, lately deceased, let them bring word to the cryer of the village, and they shall be well rewarded for their pains.’
    — A Comedy 1660 A.D.

    Few names of Yorkshire celebrities have gained more wide notoriety than that of Mother Shipton. It may be taken as tolerably certain that such a person was born in the neighbourhood of Knaresborough, and lived at the period assigned to her. The legends with regard to her may be divided into two parts — (1) Those which give the marvels of her birh, childhood and life;(2)Those which relate to her prophecies.

    The most marvellous stories of her parentage and life appear in a book by Richard Head, gentleman, published in 1684 A.D., that is, 130 years after the date usually given of the notorious woman’s death. He states that he obtained them from an ancient manuscript handed to him by a gentleman, who had it from one of the dissolved monasteries; but the statement is no doubt fictitious.

    The stories may have, some of them, lingered in the neighbourhood, handed down through three or four generations, and have been gathered up and woven together by Richard Head; but far more probably they are creations of his own brain. However this maybe, the following are a few of them.

    The story of her infernal parentage we pass over. Her mother Agatha died in giving her birth. Such strange and horrible noises attended her entry into the world that the persons present were sorely tempted to fly from the place. The future hag was as ill-favoured in her infancy as in her old age. At any rate she could scarcely have been more repulsive at the end than she was at the beginning.

    ‘According to the best observation of her,’ says the writer, ‘take this true but not full account of her features and body : —

    ‘She was of an indifferent height, but very morose and big boned, her head very long, with very great goggling but sharp and fiery eyes; her nose of an incredible and improportionable length, having in it many crooks and turnings, adorned with many strange pimples of divers colors, as red, blue, and mix’t, which like vapors of brimstone, gave such a lustre to her affrighted spectators in the dead time of the night, that one of them confessed several times, in my hearing, that her nurse needed no other light to assist her in the performance of her duty. Her cheeks were of a black, swarthy complexion, much like a mixture of black and yellow jaundices, wrinkled, shrivelled, and very hollow; insomuch, that as the ribs of her body, so the impressions of her teeth, were easily to be discerned through both sides of her face, answering one side to the other, like the notches in a valley, excepting only two of them, which stood quite out of her mouth, in imitation of the tuskes of a wild boar, or the tooth of an elephant. The neck was so strangely distorted that her right shoulder was forced to be a supporter to her head, it being prop’t up by the help of her chin. Her legs were crooked and misshapen. The toes of her feet looking towards her left side, so that it was very hard for any person (could she have stood up) to guess which road she intended to steer her course, because she never could look that way she resolved to go.’

    In due time the infant was put out to nurse, by the parish, to a poor woman near the town. One day when the child had been with her about six months, the woman left the house for a short time, closing the door after her, and leaving the child within alone. When she returned she found the door open, and called some of her neighbours to her assistance, thinking that thieves were within. When they approached the door, and were about to enter, they were startled by a noise in the inner room like a concert of cats, which so affrighted them, that those who had got in endeavoured to get out again quicker than they entered. But in vain, for great long yokes, in the form of a cross, were put round their necks, so that they could not possibly flee out At last, after much struggling and crying out, the yokes fell off, but in their stead a staff was laid across their shoulders, upon which an old woman appeared, sometimes hanging from it by her heels, and sometimes by her toes. These antics went on for about half an hour, so that the poor men were never more tired, and never more pleased, than when they were allowed to escape from the house. The women did not fare so well. In an inner room they were compelled to take hold of the four ends of a cross and dance round, one after another, until nearly wearied to death; an imp, in the shape of a monkey, hanging on to each, and goading them on with pins whenever they flagged in the exercise. At length they, too, were allowed to escape. The occurrence set the whole town in an uproar. The priest and leading inhabitants consulted as to what was to be done. At length they resolved to go to the house; but as they came near a dissension arose as to who should enter first. It was settled by the priest being put first, and, closely followed by those who should accompany him, with the greatest trepidation — quivering and shaking — they crossed the threshold; but no sooner had they done so, though the floor of the house was only an earthen one, than there was a noise as of a number of men walking over a quantity of stones; then very sweet musical notes were heard, but no one knew whence they came. Out rushed parson and people pell-mell together. Gathering courage, they again entered, and searching the house, missed the child. After examining every corner, one of them looked up the chimney; and there, behold, was the child and cradle, hanging without any support, about three yards from the ground. They contrived to get them both down, and encouraging the poor nurse woman not to be affrighted, they left the house themselves, no wiser than when they entered it.

    As the child grew up, the woman’s troubles continued. The greater part of her daily work was to put right in her house what was, in most mysterious ways, continually going wrong. The chairs and stools would frequently march upstairs and down, play at bowls with trenchers and dishes; sometimes at dinner the meat would be spirited away before she could secure a bite. These things seemed greatly to please the future ‘ Mother Shipton/ who, with one of her monstrous smiles, usually pacified the nurse with the words: ‘Be contented, there is nothing here that will harm you.’ The growing Ursula was next sent to school.

    ‘There,’ in the words of the imaginative chronicler, ‘her mistress began to instruct her, as other children, beginning with the cris-cross-row, as they, called it, showing and naming only three or four letters at first, but, to the amazement and astonishment of her mistress, she exactly pronounced every letter in the alphabet without teaching. Hereupon her mistress showed her a primer, which she read as well at first sight as any in the school, and so proceeded in any book that was showed her.’ At the age of twenty-four years she was courted, and soon after married, by one Toby Shipton, of Shipton, near York, and probably went to live with her husband there, and afterwards at Dringhouses and other places in the vicinity.

    A biographer of the last century (S. Baker) gives a better account of her than is to be gathered from the afore going legends, but his picture of her personal appearance is by no means such as to show what charms won honest Toby for her husband. ‘She was born,’ says he, ‘at Knaresborough, and baptized by the Abbot of Beverley by the name of Ursula Southeil. Her stature was larger than common, her body crooked, her face frightful, but her understanding extraordinary.’

    She after this began to grow famous as a fortune teller, and for the predictions which she uttered, of which more anon.

    Old age in time grew even upon Mother Shipton. A long time before her death she foretold the day and the hour. As the time approached she took a solemn leave of her admirers and friends, and then, when the time was come, laid quietly down on her bed and departed, 1561 A.D., in the seventy-sixth year of her age.

    A stone monument is said to have been erected to her memory, by the side of the great North Road, between Clifton and Shipton, near York, on which she was represented as a woman upon her knees, with her hands closed before her, in the attitude of prayer; and this epitaph inscribed to her memory:

    ‘Here lyes she who never ly’d,
    Whose skill often has been try’d;
    Her prophecies shall still survive,
    And ever keep her name alive.’

    This monument is unfortunately, or fortunately, as much a myth as many of the stories of her life. ‘The much mutilated sculptured stone,’ says a recent writer, ‘was the figure of a warrior in armour, which had been a recumbent monumental statue. It was probably brought from the neighbouring abbey of St. Mary, and placed upright as a boundary stone. It has been removed to the museum of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society.’

    Mother Shipton’s Prophecies.

    Of all the pretty pantomimes,
    That have been seen or sung in rhimes.
    Since famous Johnny Rich’s times.
    There’s none like Mother Shipton.

    She pleases folks of every class,
    She makes her swans and ducklings pass ;
    She shows her hog, she shows her ass,
    Oh, charming Mother Shipton!

    Near to the famous dropping well,
    She first drew breath, as records tell.
    And had good beer and ale to sell,

    As ever tongue was tipt on;
    Her dropping well itself is seen.
    Quaint goblins hobble round their queen.
    And little fairies tread the green,
    Caird forth by Mother Shipton.’

    Song 1770 A.D.

    The reputed prophecies of this ancient Sybil are numerous, and there is this peculiarity with regard to them, that their number and variety seem to be ever increasing. Whatever unusual event or extraordinary occurrence takes place in the vicinity in which she resided, it is certain to be discovered by some person that Mother Shipton had predicted it. The prediction is unheard of and unknown, except to the inner consciousness of some ardent disciple of the prophetess, until the event has fulfilled it, and then up it springs
    into life and publicity, to the credulity and amazement of whoever will receive it.

    The earliest collection of the ‘prophecies’ extant was printed in 1641 A.D., that is, accepting 1561 A.D. as the date of her death, about eighty years after the latest of them could have been uttered.

    There is another edition in 1645 A.D., but the two differ little, and it may be taken for tolerably certain that these books contain a collection of all the wise sayings and dark speeches of Mother Shipton, known eighty years after her death, and that, therefore, any
    not among these must be regarded as almost certainly of other parentage than that of this ancient mother, and as at least thrice legendary.

    The predictions — ancient and modern — of this wonderful woman have lately been thoroughly investigated by W. H. Harrison, who, in an admirable little book, to which I am deeply indebted, has published many of them, and his conclusions with regard to them. As the copy of the original ‘prophecies’ — edition 1641 A.D. — is not voluminous, it is here given, the spelling being modernized


    When she heard King Henry VIII should be King, and Cardinal Wolsey should be at York, she said that Cardinal Wolsey should never come to York with the King; and the Cardinal hearing, being angry, sent the Duke of Suffolk, the Lord Percy, and the Lord Darcy to her, who came with their men disguised to the King’s house, near York, where, leaving their men, they went to Master Besley at York, and desired him to go with them to Mother Shipton’s house, where, when they came, they knocked at the door. She said: “Come in. Master Besley, and those honourable lords with you.”

    Master Besley would have put in the lords before him, but she said: “Come in, Master Besley; you know the way, but they do not.”

    This they thought strange, that she should know them, and never saw them; and then they went into the house, where there was a great fire, and she bade them welcome, calling them all by their names, and sent for some cakes and ale, and they drank and were very merry.

    “Mother Shipton,” said the Duke, “if you knew what we come about, you would not make us so welcome.”

    She said the messenger should not be hanged.

    “Mother Shipton,” said the Duke, “you said the Cardinal should never see York.”

    “Yea,” said she; “I said he might see York, but never come at it.”

    “But,” said the Duke, “When he comes to York thou shalt be burned.”

    “We shall see that,” said she; and plucking her handkerchief off her head, she threw it into the fire, and it would not burn. Then she took it and put it on again.

    “Now,” said the Duke, “what mean you by this?”

    “If this had burned,” said she, “I might have burned.”

    “Mother Shipton,” quoth the Duke, “what think you of me?”

    “My love,” said she, “the time will come when you will be as low as I am, and that’s a low one, indeed.”

    My Lord Percy said: “What say you of me?”

    “My lord,” said she ”shoe your horse in the quick, and you shall do well; but your body will be buried in York pavement, and your head shall be stolen from the bar and carried into France.”

    Then said Lord Darcy: “And what think you of me?”

    She said: “You have made a great gun; shoot it off, for it will do you no good. You are going to war. You will pain many a man, but you will kill none.”

    So they went away.

    Not long after the Cardinal came to Cawood, and going to the top of the tower, he asked where York was, and how far it was thither, and said that one had said he should never see York.

    “Nay,” said one, “she said you might see York, but never come at it.”

    He vowed to burn her when he came to York. Then they showed him York, and told him it was but eight miles thence. He said he would soon be there; but, being sent for by the King, he died on the way to London, at Leicester, of a laske. And Shipton’s wife said to Master Besley: “Yonder is a fine stall built for the Cardinal in the Minster of gold, pearl, and precious stones. Go, and present one of the pillars to King Henry.” And he did so.

    Master Besley, seeing these things fall out as she had foretold, desired her to tell him some more of her prophecies.

    ‘Master,’ said she, ‘before that Ouse Bridge and Trinity Church meet, they shall build on the day and it shall fall in the night, until they get the highest stone of Trinity Church, to be the lowest stone of Ouse Bridge, then the day shall come when the north shall rue it wondrous sore, but the south shall rue it for evermore.

    ‘When hares kindle on cold hearth-stones, and lads shall marry ladies, and bring them home, then shall you have a year of pining hunger, and then a dearth without corn.

    ‘A woeful day shall be seen in England, a king and queen, the first coming of the King of Scots shall be at Holgate Town, but he shall not come through the bar; and when the king of the north shall be at London Bridge, his tail shall be at Edinburgh.

    ‘After this shall water come over Ouse bridge, and a windmill shall be set on a tower, and an elm-tree shall lie at every man’s door. At that time women shall wear great hats and great bands, and when there is a Lord Mayor at York let him beware of a stab.

    ‘When two knights shall fall out in the castle yard, they shall never be kindly all their lives after. When Colton Hagge hath borne seven years’ crops of com, seven years after you hear news, there shall two judges go in and out at Mungate (Monkgate) Bar.

    ‘Then wars shall begin in the spring,
    Much woe to England it shall bring;
    Then shall the ladies cry, Well away,
    That ever we lived to see this day!

    Then best for them that have the least, and worst for them that have the most. You shall not know of the war over-night, yet you shall have it in the morning; and when it comes it shall last three years.

    ‘Between Cadron [Calder] and Aire
    Shall be great warfare;

    ‘When all the world is as lost,
    It shall be called Christ’s crost

    When the battle begins it shall be where crooked back’d Richard made his fray. They shall say :

    ‘To warfare for your King,
    For half a crown a day;
    But stir not, she will say,
    To warfare for your King
    On pain of hanging.
    But stir not, for he that goes to complain,
    Shall not come back again

    ‘The time will come when England shall tremble and quake for fear of a dead man that shall be heard to speak ; then wiU the Dragon give the Bull a great snap, and when the one is down, they will go to London town.

    ‘Then there will be a great battle between England and Scotland, and they shall be pacified for a time. And when they come to Brammammore (? Bramham Moor), they fight, and are again pacified for a time.

    ‘Then there will be a great battle at Knavesmore, and they will be pacified for a while.

    ‘Then there will be a great battle between England and Scotland at Stoknmore (Stockton Moor?); then will ravens sit on the Cross, and drink as much blood of the nobles as of the commons. Then woe is me, for London shall be destroyed for ever after.

    ‘Then there shall come a woman with one eye, and she shall tread in many men’s blood to the knee, and a man leaning on a staff by her; and she shall say to him, "Who art thou?" and he shall say, "I am the King of the Scots." And she shall say, “Go with me to my house, for there are three knights;" and he will go with her, and stay there three days and three nights. Then will England be lost; and they will cry twice of a day, " England is lost!"

    ‘Then there will be three knights in Petergate, in York, and the one shall not know of the other. There shall be a child born in Pomfret with three thumbs, and those three knights will give him three horses to hold while they win England ; and all the noble blood shall be gone but one, and they shall carry him to Sheriff Hutton Castle, six miles from York, and he shall die there, and they shall choose there an earl in the field, and, hanging then: horses on a thorn, rue the time that ever they were born, to see so much bloodshed.

    ‘Then they will come to York to besiege it, and they shall keep out three days and three nights, and a penny loaf shall be within the bar at half-a-crown, and without the bar at a penny. And they will swear if they will not yield to blow up the town walls. Then they will let them in, and they will hang up the mayor, sheriffs, and aldermen, and they will go into Crouch Church : there will be three knights go in, and but one come out again; and he will cause proclamation to be made, that any man may take house, tower, or bower, for twentyone years, and whilst the world endurest there shall never be warfare again, nor any more kings or queens, but the kingdom shall be governed by the Lords, and then York shall be London.

    ‘And after this shall be a white harvest of com gotten in by women. Then shall be in the north that "one woman shall say unto another, “Mother, I have seen a man to-day." And for one man there shall be a thousand women. There shall be a man sitting upon St. James’s Church Hill weeping his fill.

    ‘And after that a ship shall come sailing up the Thames till it come against London, and the master of the ship shall weep, and the mariners shall ask him why he weepeth, seeing he hath made so good a voyage; and he shall say, "Ah ! what a goodly city this was, none in the world comparable to it, and now there is scarce left any house that can let us have drink for our money."

    ‘Unhappy he that lives to see these days, But happy are the dead, Shipton’s wife says.’

    These are the whole of the prophecies that are given by the writer, whose book was printed in 1641 A.D. And it is remarkable that the next edition, of 1645 A.D., not only contains the same, but also the fulfilment of them all, except the one about England quaking for fear of a dead man, and the last one, about the destruction of London, which is, however, said to have been fulfilled by the plague of 1666 A.D., though the time, yet future, of Macaulay’s famous New Zealander, sitting on the ruins of London Bridge, seems to accord
    better with the oracle.


    A few of the very apocryphal and legendary sayings of Mother Shipton may be mentioned. One, ‘When carriages without horses run, Old England shall be quite undone,’ was never heard of until railways had been introduced and become common in the country. Another one, ‘The village of Fewston shall down the Washburn go,’ was discovered among the previously unnoticed prophecies of Mrs. Shipton, when, a few years ago, after the making by the Leeds Corporation of reservoirs in the Washburn Valley, a landslip took place on the hillside, and a portion of the ancient village was thereby reduced to ruins. ‘The bridge across the Nidd shall tumble down twice, and on third building stand for ever’ was a prophecy remembered by some ardent admirers of the prophetess, as one of her many sayings, after the railway viaduct at Knaresborough, over the river, had twice fallen, and a third time been rebuilt in 1848.

    But the one which has added most, in late years, to the ancient mother’s fame, is the following, headed : ‘An Ancient Prediction, entitled, by popular tradition. Mother Shipton’s Prophecy. Published in 1448, republished in 1641’:

    ‘Carriages without horses shall go.
    And accidents fill the world with woe;
    Around the world thoughts shall fly
    In the twinkling of an eye.

    ‘The world upside down shall be,
    And gold be found at the root of a tree.
    Through hills man shall ride,
    And no horse be at his side.

    ‘Under water men shall walk,
    Shall ride, shall sleep, shall talk.
    In the air men shall be seen
    In white, in black, in green.

    ‘Iron in the water shall float
    As easily as a wooden boat
    Gold shall be found and shown
    In a land that’s now not known.

    ‘Fire and water shall wonders do,
    England shall at last admit a foe.
    The world to an end shall come
    In eighteen-hundred-and-eighty-one.’

    Unfortunately for the mother’s fame, a few inquiring spirits were sceptical about the authenticity of this prediction. Among other things, the date given as that of its publication, 1448 A.D., did not at all square with the usually accepted date of the supposed authoress’s birth, viz., in 1486, or forty years after the prophecy was said to have been published. Consequently a correspondence was started in Notes and Queries, in 1872, on the subject, and this resulted in the following note by the editor of that periodical:

    ‘Mother Shipton’s Prophecies. — Mr. Charles Hindley, of Brighton, in a letter to us, has made a clean breast of having fabricated the prophecy (quoted above) with some others, included in his reprint of a cheap book version, published in 1862 A.D.’

    Whether the following belongs to this category I know not. It is undoubtedly of the same class, and is nicely, if not delicately, expressed, and corresponds most accurately with what is now to be seen at Harrogate, the site of which was, in Mother Shipton’s days, a wild forest table-land, with a boggy, unexplored vale below, unknown to either science or the world:

    ‘When lords and ladies stinking water soss.
    High brigs o’ stean the Nidd sal cross,
    And a toon be built o’ Harrogate Moss.’

    Here we take leave of the legendary Sibyl and her sayings. Whether she was the remote but direct ancestress of our familiar friend, Mr. Punch, or not (as Mr. Harrison thinks she was), a writer of legend and tradition must leave to sober archaeologists and historians to fight out.

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