Updated: Nov 26
The legend of Mother Shipton tells the story of one of the most mystical women of England who was born in a cave in Knaresborough, Yorkshire. Her birthplace, which is now known as Mother Shipton's Cave continues to be a famous site linked to stories of witches and prophecy.
An Unusual Loner Child
Mother Shipton as she is more commonly known today was born Ursula Southeil in 1488. Her mother was Agatha Southeil and was only 15 years old when she gave birth to Ursula. It is reported that Ursula was born a very ugly child and was grotesquely deformed, her head was oversized, her limbs were twisted and her cheeks were sunken, her eyes were said to glow like burning embers. It is also claimed that when she was born she had a full set of teeth.
Legend tells the tale of terrifying noises that sounded like thunder coming from the cave when she was born. Local folk that lived in close proximity to the cave believed that the noises alone proved that Ursula was a daughter of the Devil. Agatha raised Ursula in the cave for the first two years of her life before she went and joined a nunnery, and it is alleged that Ursula was taken in by a local family.
Ursula was a lonely child but was very connected to her own thoughts, nature, and the forest. It is not clear when her prophetic visions were reported to begin. Ursula was connected with Mother Shipton's Cave her entire life, this is where she practiced her craft, searched for visions, learned about herbs and flowers, and created the legend about herself that lives on today.
The Local Witch Became Famous
Ursula's reputation as a witch quickly grew, and no matter how bad her appearance was said to have been, this made her an attractive prospect for many men, and she became a popular person in society as well. Although many people were afraid of her, it is said that for many she was like a magnet.
In 1512, Ursula married a local carpenter by the name of Toby Shipton. Locals claimed that she used a love potion to ensure that Toby married her. The couple never had any children but reports appear to show that the Shiptons' had a quiet and happy marriage, staying together without any major issues. Toby accepted who his wife was and was proud of her unusual ability to see into the future.
The Prophecies Of Mother Shipton
Mother Shipton lived during the period of Henry VIII, the domination of the Spanish Armada, the empire of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, and the great "discoveries" of the New World. Her prophecies were discussed frequently in the 17th-century British royal court.
One of the most well-known stories that connected Mother Shipton to the British royal court was that of Cardinal Wolsey. According to the visions of Mother Shipton, he would "see York without reaching it". In 1530, Wolsey fell out of favour with the King and went up north to find refuge, just as he was within sight of York, Lord Percy arrived with a summons from the King, ordering him back to London to face a charge for his actions. How would you explain how a woman who had no connection to the court knew of this?
The stories of Mother Shipton spread across the country, and she became known as the woman with the gift of clairvoyance. She would write down her prophecies, and some even believed she was a healer. She became a successful adviser who helped people in many different ways. Ursula Shipton became famous, and because of this people travelled to Knaresborough from far away to visit her.
She was warned numerous times that continuing with her activities would likely end up with her being burnt as a witch. According to local legend, some people tried to blackmail her, and she reportedly told them what she saw would happen to them if they hurt her. Mother Shipton was never brought to trial for witchcraft.
Mother Shipton's reputation of being a prophet and a witch was caused by her foretelling the events in the more and less distant future. In her visions, she saw the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, the defeat of the Spanish Armada by Francis Drake, and the accession of Lady Jane Grey.
The prophecies of Mother Shipton were published as a book for the first time in 1641, in one of them, she said:
"Carriages without horses shall goe, And accidents fill the world with woe. Around the world thoughts shall fly In the twinkling of an eye.... Under water men shall walk, Shall ride, shall sleep and talk: In the air men shall be seen, In white, in black and in green.... Iron in the water shall float, As easy as a wooden boat."
In 1665, London suffered from the Great Plague, and then one year later the Great Fire destroyed much of the capital. In the famous diary of Samuel Pepys, he wrote "See - Mother Shipton's word is out."
Some of her prophetical verses described submarines, iron ships, and aircraft. Experts on Mother Shipton's writings said that she even saw the internet in her visions, writing "Around the world, men's thoughts will fly. Quick as the twinkling of an eye".
Mother Shipton died in either 1561 or 1567. She was buried in unconsecrated ground, possibly near Clifton. For 80 years following her death, her prophecies were unpublished, hidden, and her name was a source of fear. It was much later on that she would become to be remembered as a person who knew more than others, and people began to appreciate the visions she had.
The Legacy Of Mother Shipton's Cave
Today, it is believed that a lot of the facts of Mother Shipton's life were in fact created by Richard Head, he was an editor of her prophecies, but his publication suffered due to the lack of biographic detail on the woman. Many years after the death of Mother Shipton, no one could remember this information, and it is believed that he created it. Richard Head, however, was sure that the prophecies were really written by Mother Shipton herself. Whatever you believe, there is no denying that she is still an important part of English folklore.
Mother Shipton's Cave is said to be the oldest tourist attraction in England and is still extremely popular with visitors to this day. The cave was a place for occult meetings for centuries and has been popular with those interested in Paganism, Wicca, etc.
The Petrifying Well close to Mother Shipton's Cave is also a fascinating place. Since around 1630, people have believed that witchcraft was at work at the well. Over the years, many items such as hats, socks, and teddy bears have been placed in the water and turned to "stone" within a few months. This unusual process is now known to be due to evaporation and unusually high mineral content in the water.
In 2017, the people of Knaresborough had a statue erected of their world-renowned, famous resident, Mother Shipton.