Sunday 29 October 2023

Mother Shipton - The Nostradamus of Knaresborough

In Halloween season, or so it is said, witches take to their broomsticks and fly... Covens meet and dance around fires naked as nature intended on the great pagan feast of Samhain.

Well, who am I to say they don't? But truth to tell, an awful lot of people - usually women - suffered extremes of torture and agonizing deaths thanks to superstition, ignorance and, maybe even worse, old scores to settle. Many were simply wise women who knew which herbs to recommend to cure a wide variety of ills. Goodness knows what would have happened to any pharmacists who had been around in those days!

A handful of these wise women were not so ill-treated and, in Britain, one in particular developed a reputation that persists to this day. Some people have called her England's answer to Nostradamus because of her apparently uncanny knack of predicting events hundreds of years into he future.

So who was she?

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 developed a reputation for her prophecies. These 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 Archbishop of York, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who had never actually visited that city. 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 interpretation. 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. 

Whether true or not, you can today visit the famous Petrifying Well and the cave where she was reputedly born. 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'!)

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 the embellishment I mentioned earlier.)

As 1881 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 she lived on to be 72, just as she had 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, old, poetic witch, mentally a little flaky, but excellent with herbal cures and potions?

We will probably never know...unless we live to see the fulfilment 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!

Mother Shipton's story inspired one of mine - and you can find it in my collection, The Crow Witch and Other Conjurings. It's called The Lost Prophecy of Ursula Sontheil. Perfect for this witching season...

Available from: 

C. Wraith Walker and Weird House Press

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