Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Mother Shipton - Yorkshire's Prophesying Witch

Ursula Sontheil, Mother Shipton
 In 1488, some say in a cave near the Petrifying Well, a young girl gave birth to an illegitimate daughter: one who would be called Ursula Sontheil but whom history would remember as Mother Shipton.
Mother Shipton's Cave
Mother Shipton was not exactly Yorkshire's answer to Nostradamus but she developed a reputation for her prophecies which involved not just the local  people around and about Knaresborough in North Yorkshire, where she lived, but also the great and good of her time.

One of the most famous of these was the then Archbishop of York, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who had never actually visited that city and Mother Shipton predicted he never would. In an attempt to dissuade her from repeating these assertions, the somewhat rattled Wolsey sent three lords to Knaresborough to see her. They told her in no uncertain terms that one of Wolsey's first acts on reaching York would be to see her burn for witchcraft. She laughed in their faces. After all, why should she be scared? He would never get there in order to carry out his threat.
The Archbishop was furious and made haste to travel up from London and prove her wrong. But, just ten miles south of the city, he was arrested for treason and Mother Shipton's prophecy was fulfilled.

Many of her other predictions are legendary - and, shall  we say, subject to a certain amount of embellishment and creative interpetation. Did she really predict the advent of ships, submarines, motor transport and airplanes?: 

 In water, iron then shall float
as easy as a wooden boat...
Through towering hills proud men shall ride,
no horse or ass move by his side.
Beneath the water, men shall walk,
shall ride, shall sleep, shall even talk.
And in the air men shall be seen,
In white and black and even green. 

Or telecommunications?:

Around the world men's thoughts will fly,
quick as the twinkling of an eye 

Indeed, if all the interpretations are to be believed, she predicted the French Revolution, the rise of Nazism, Benjamin Disraeli and just about every disaster - man made or otherwise - since the year of her birth. She may have even predicted the European Union (although I don't see any reference to the Euro crisis!)
The Petrifying Well
 Whether true or not, you can today visit the famous Petrifying Well and the cave where she was reputedly born. Click here for details Mother Shipton

The Petrifying Well is said to be unique and, if you take along a teddy bear, leave it there and return five months later, it will have turned to stone. Although, if you can't wait that long you can always buy one in the shop ( 'here's one I prepared earlier'!) 
Mother Shipton's house
You can find her prophecies in detail on this site Mother Shipton's prophecies 
although, somewhat bizarrely, they give her birthplace as Norfolk! 

She may have got some things wrong though - including the date of the end of the world which she allegedly gave as 'eighteen hundred and eighty one', (however,it is entirely possible that the inclusion of any such date was added by someone else,after her death. One of a number of examples of embellishment.)

As that year passed and the world carried on, some versions then amended the date, while others dropped it, although I do have a recollection of it being in the little book of her prophecies given to me when I was about eight or nine. That would have been in the early Sixties and I vaguely remember something about 'nineteen hundred and ninety one', but my memory could be faulty on this.

Mother Shipton was said to have married a man called Toby Shipton at the age of 24 and lived on to be 72 - needless to say this was a date she predicted. Her prophecies and legend live on. Was she really able to see hundreds of years into the future? Or was she just an eccentric, ugly, old poetic witch, mentally a bit flaky, but excellent with herbal cures and potions?

 We will probably never know...

...unless we live to see the fulfillment of her prediction of the future after the apocalyptic end of the world:

... the land that rises from the sea will be dry and clean and soft and free
of mankind’s dirt and therefore be, 
the source of man’s new dynasty. 
And those that live will ever fear 
the dragon’s tail for many year 
but time erases memory 
You think it strange? But it will be!


  1. interesting! this is the first time i ever heard about her. thanks for the post!

  2. Thanks Ao. As I grew up in Yorkshire, not too far from Knaresborough, I used to be taken there as a child so I've grown up with her, but I know a lot of people haven't come across her. I thought she deserved a bit of a boost!

  3. Fascinating! I love your quotes from her.