Old Mother Shipton
I visited Knaresborough in Yorkshire on a family holiday when I was a teenager. One of the things I remember most about the trip was a visit to Old Mother Shipton’s cave and the Dropping Well – famed for its petrifying properties (hang a teddy up and it will turn to stone in under five months).
For a start Old Mother Shipton looked like the archetypal witch, but more than that, she was credited with being Yorkshire’s answer to Nostradamus. She was a prophetess and seer who had predicted everything from the death of Cardinal Wolsey, the great fire of London, the building of Crystal Palace, the Crimean War, the train, the car, the telephone – you name it Mother Shipton had prophesied it! I was understandably impressed.
The legend is born
In 1488 Ursula Southeil was born out-of-wedlock to a fifteen year old girl called Agatha. Agatha steadfastly refused to name the father of her child and sought refuge in the cave by the dropping well on the banks of the River Nidd, here she gave birth to the remarkably ugly Ursula. Agatha either died in childbirth, or gave Ursula up for fostering when the child was two. Because strange happenings followed the child, people began to suspect her father was non other than Old Nick himself.
Tales of objects moving around or going missing and furniture shifting about were common. In one such tale, the foster-mother returns home to find baby Ursula gone, and a commotion in her cottage. Upon entering, she and her companions are set upon by imps disguised as monkey’s. Ursula is finally located swinging in her crib – up the chimney!
Ursula Southeil was noted for her startling appearance. One early source describes her thus:
“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 colours, as red, blue and mix’t..” (1)
When she married Toby Shipton at the age of 24, it was said she used a love potion to attract him (either that or else he just had very bad eyesight!).
Their home in Shipton soon became the focus for people seeking advice and her reputation for wisdom grew. She was particularly good at locating lost or stolen property.
She is most famous for her prophecies, many of which came true during her life time. She was also supposed to have predicted her own death, at the age of 73, in 1561.
A talent for prediction
Mother Shipton did not write down any of her prophecies. As a poor woman in the sixteenth century the chances of her being able to write would have been slim – nevertheless her biographers credit her with a sharp intelligence and inborn ability to read from a very early age.
Her fame grew beyond her locality when her prophecies were published in 1641. ‘The Prophesie of Mother Shipton in the Raigne of King Henry the Eighth’ was printed in York and was composed of regional predictions and had only two prophetic verses, this version did not predict the end of the world (2).
A later version of her life and predictions ‘The Life and Death of Mother Shipton’ was published in 1684 by the unfortunately named Richard Head. It is likely that he invented most of the biographical details about her.
A still later version published by Charles Hindley in 1862 contains the famous rhyming couplets relating to Crystal Palace, cars trains, and the famous end of the world prediction (1881):
“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.”
Sir Henry buys a well
In 1630 Sir Henry Slingsby, a local grandee, purchased some land around the River Nidd from King Charles I. The land contained the Dropping Well (now known as the Petrifying Well). The enterprising Sir Henry, seeing the potential in such an extraordinary geological feature quickly constructed an exhibition and began running tours.
Could it be co-incidence that only 11 years after he begins this commercial venture, a book of prophecy linked with the well is published? As Philip Coppens points out, having a famous prophetess linked to the miraculous well would be an added draw to reel in visitors.
Some believe that the well was feared and avoided by the locals during Mother Shipton’s life – supposedly believing that its petrifying properties would turn them to stone. However, this does not seem to have been the case with everyone. John Leyland, the Antiquary of Henry VIII visited the well during Mother Shipton’s lifetime – 1538. He remarked that the well was known for its healing properties and was regularly visited. He doesn’t seem to have mentioned Mother Shipton at all. All of which would point to Mother Shipton being a fabrication to bring in paying visitors.
And tourists did come – even the famous female traveller Celia Fiennes visited the cave in 1697 and noted the following in her journal:
‘and this water as it runns and where it lyes in the hollows of the rocks does turn moss and wood into Stone …I took Moss my self from thence which is all crisp’d and perfect Stone … the whole rock is continually dropping with water besides the showering from the top which ever runns, and this is called the dropping well’(3).
The Truth behind the legend…
So what is the truth behind the legend? Well, the historical evidence for the existence of Mother Shipton is as scarce as clear skin was on her nose. This is not necessarily proof she didn’t exist, but if Leyland visited the well during her lifetime and knew of the miraculous properties of the well, surely he would also have mentioned the presence of a noted seer so closely associated with it?
The links to the commercialisation of the well and the publication of the first prophecies are also suggestive of her tale being fabricated. Also, as Philip Coppens points out: it is quite a common historical feature to associate oracles with wells, caves and other subterranean features. Mother Shipton added a mythic dimension to the geological feature.
There might even be a hint of intercontinental rivalry going on here as well – the French had Nostradamus, so maybe the English came up with Mother Shipton? It is notable that after the repeal of laws relating to witchcraft in 1736 Mother Shipton’s image began to transform from the archetypal witch, to a more benign prophetess, depicted with scrolls instead of familiars, and much less warty about the nose.
As for the predictions – the earliest are from 80 years after her death, and relate mainly to events that have already happened. The later versions seem to have embellished the prophecies. Charles Hindley author of the 1862 version (extract quoted above) later admitted to inventing the predictions he published.
A Folk-memory of a cunning woman?
For hundreds of years (and well into the nineteenth century) the cunning woman or cunning man was an integral part of village life in England. A local healer who could offer advice and assistance in the form charms and love potions.
I like to think that Mother Shipton falls into this category. That she did exist in the capacity of a local cunning woman, and that a folk-memory of her endured until Sir Henry’s day allowing him to appropriate her for his own purposes. The facts and details of her life that have come down to us may be total fabrication and her prophecies have certainly been elaborated down the centuries, but I think that there is a tiny grain of truth in the tale of Mother Shipton which has fixed her in to the very fabric of folk-memory and the landscape itself.
The Cave and Well are open to the public, you can find details of how to arrange a visit on the Museum website: http://www.mothershipton.co.uk/
(1) Extract from ‘Yorkshire Legends and Traditions’ by Rev. Thomas Parkinson 1881, himself quoting from Richard Head’s 1684 account.
(2) Wikipedia/Mother Shipton
(3) Morris, Christopher (Ed), The Journeys of Celia Fiennes, Cresset Press, 1947.