Mother Shipton

Rather contrarily, my offering for Mother’s Day weekend is not a warm, loving, and lovely caregiver but a prophesying crone:  Mother Shipton, who most likely never existed.  Supposedly born in the first years of the new Tudor dynasty in a Yorkshire cave (the product of  a union between a poor wretch named Agatha and the Devil), Ursula Southeil or “Mother Shipton” rose to fame in the mid-seventeenth century, long after her supposed death. Just before the English Civil War, a time of high anxiety indeed, a series of Mother Shipton pamphlets suddenly appeared, containing predictions of things that, for the most part, had already happened, along with dire warnings of war and destruction.

Mother Shipton 1642p

Mother Shipton 1642 part 3p

The first prophecy on the second 1642 pamphlet is typical Mother Shipton: Joane Waller should live to heare of Wars within this Kingdome but not to see them. The Civil War broke out in the same year of as the tract was published, but of course Waller had died the year before. A similar assertion regarding Henry VIII’s chief minister, Cardinal Wolsey, that he would see York but never get there, was one of Mother Shipton’s most famous “predictions”.  Her published prophecies continued through the Civil War (closely tied to current events) and after, and she joined the ranks of such legendary magicians as Merlin.

Mother Shipton 1648p

Mother Shipton 1661p

Shipton Prophecies from 1648 & 1661

In the later seventeenth century, Mother Shipton’s biography and predictions were embellished rather vastly by a series of publications entitled The Life and Death of Mother Shipton, and her story was adapted for entertainment purposes, thus cementing her now-legendary character. The transition from ominous witch-soothsayer to stock character is emblematic of the emergence of a collective rationalist mentality in the seventeenth century, with a corresponding decline in belief in magic and “wonder”, now assuming its more modern meaning.

Mother Shipton 1677p

Mother Shipton Life and Death

Mother Shipton play 1670p

And that would probably be the end of Mother Shipton, consigned to a relatively minor character in the long history of sibyls and soothsayers, if she was not resurrected in the Victorian era. It’s always the Victorians! Charles Dickens first referenced her in a 1856 story, and then the entrepreneurial bookseller Charles Hindley published a new set of rhymed and timely prophecies that were supposedly based on a newly-discovered manuscript in the British Museum (he later confessed to making them up). Now Mother Shipton was predicting railroads, ships made of iron, wireless communication and all sorts of industrial innovations, as well as the ominous warning that the world then to an end shall come/ In Eighteen Hundred and Eighty-One, which was changed to 1991 in early-twentieth-century reprints. By that time, she had evolved yet again, into a fairy-tale character and (later) a tourist attraction.

Mother Shipton 1800 BM

PicMonkey Collage

Mother Shipton's Cave Yorkshire

Charles Townley print of Mother Shipton and her familiar, 1800, British Museum, Linley Sanbourne and W. Heath Robinson illustrations of Mother Shipton on her broomstick for Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies. A Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby (1888 & 1915); the entrance to Mother Shipton’s Cave in Knaresborough, “England’s Oldest Tourist Attraction” (shades of Salem!).


8 responses to “Mother Shipton

  • cavaliereattitude

    At Knaresborough, people used to hang offerings around Mother Shipton’s cave, which calcified in the limescale of the dripping water as in some pilgrimage sites. Taken there as a small child in the sixties, I spent years seriously dreading that, “The world then to an end shall come in nineteen hundred and eighty one” – I wonder what the “prophesy” says now?! Scary memory revisited!

  • Sinclair 3168

    Blimey she had a great honking snout on her in the early days! I suppose the nose is an easy target for the imagination.

  • cecilia

    I must say, as she evolved, her nose got nicer.. and the devil was her daddy, hmm, That is a pretty modern idea! c

  • jerohano

    Nostradamus lived on the same dark time, in France. Eventually people were looking for hidden truth to fill up where religious faith lacked.

  • Brodie Waddell

    If you are looking for a readable but academically rigous look at how Mother Shipton was presented in print that shows her transformation from sorceress to witch to diabolist during the middle decades of the 17th century, see Darren Oldridge “Mother Shipton and the Devil” in The Extraordinary and the Everyday in Early Modern England (2010).

  • markd60

    Happy Mothers day!

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