A look into the world of one of Yorkshire’s most fascinating characters
by Jim Coulson
The late 15th and early 16th centuries were a tough old time to be alive, especially if you were born in a cave during a North Yorkshire thunderstorm. News travelled slowly around the country, and even if you were at the top of your game, whichever field you excelled in, the London elites might not hear about you until long after you had popped your clogs.
This is exactly what it was like for Mother Shipton, or Ursula Southeil as her mother called her. A century or so after her death, the Knaresborough lass would have royalty discussing her work, which might be a case of ‘too little, too late’ for some struggling artists. Not for Old Mother Shipton though, as the north’s foremost soothsayer and prophet she had probably already predicted the fact that one day she would be the subject of court gossip.
But who was Mother Shipton, what did she predict and why were the royals so interested? Let’s delve into the world of one of Yorkshire’s most fascinating characters.
Mother Shipton – The Origin Story
Every superhero has to have an origin story. It wouldn’t do for them to grow up in a nice, normal family and then simply apply successfully to become Superman or The Thing. Similarly, Knaresborough Job Centre had very few available openings for soothsayers at the beginning of the 1500s, so Ursula had to grow into the role on a freelance basis.
The story goes that her mother Agatha was just 15 when she fell pregnant with Ursula. She was hauled in front of the magistrate but refused to divulge the name of the father and escaped to give birth alone in a wood on the banks of the River Nidd at Knaresborough.
“SHE ALSO FORETOLD OF NATIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL EVENTS, WHICH IS WHAT TURNED HER FROM A LOCAL ODDBALL INTO AN INERNATIONAL SUPERSTAR”
The cave in which she sought refuge from the howling storm on the night of Ursula’s birth became home to the child as she grew. She is said to have spent many hours there after her mum was sent away to a nunnery, and studied the flowers and herbs of the forest, concocting her own lotions and potions.
Still, she must have had some spare time, because she met and married a York carpenter called Tobias Shipton. Tobias died just a few years later, before the couple could have any children, and Ursula made her living supplying remedies to the ailing folk of Knaresborough and making prophecies about their futures from what was now Mother Shipton’s Cave. She also foretold of national and international events, which is what turned her from a local oddball into an international superstar. Of sorts.
Mother Shipton’s Prophecies
Now this is where it all gets a little hazy. There are many reports as to what Mother Shipton is said to have predicted, but some have been exposed as downright lies and others seem hugely vague.
It appears she didn’t actually predict the world would end in 1881, as has often been reported. That is just as well, because as far as we can tell, the world didn’t end in 1881 so she would have been wrong. This came from a collection of fabricated verses purported to be written by Shipton, but actually scribed in the 1800s by someone pretending to be her. They were basically a very early version of those emails that go around saying Facebook is going to start charging users to log-in.
Other ‘fake news’ publications credit Mother Shipton with predicting the advent of the car and the iron boat. In those cases, she would have obviously been correct, if not quite in quite as dramatic a style as successfully calling the end of the world.
Whenever tragic or unusual events have occurred since she was around, people have linked her name to them. It’s not exactly clear how word got out, but she is often alluded to in North America and Australia amongst other far-flung locations.
One famous prediction she is said to have really made was that Cardinal Wolsey would see York but not reach the city. Indeed, in 1530 the Cardinal attempted to find refuge in the north from Henry VIII from whom he had fallen out of favour. He made it to within sight of York before he received a summons to return to London and face charges of treason, dying on his way back down south.
It is also claimed she foresaw the defeat of the Spanish Armada and the execution of Mary Queen of Scots.
In addition, she is mentioned in Samuel Pepys’ diaries when he recalls surveying the destruction of the Great Fire of London in the company of royalty, who referred to a prophecy of the event by Old Mother Shipton. Sadly, for her, the lottery didn’t begin until many centuries after her death.
Mother Shipton’s Cave
You can visit the cave in Knaresborough in which Ursula is said to have been born. It is situated in the middle of a short woodland walk and also features a wishing well and petrifying well. The latter is England’s oldest visitor attraction, turning teddy bears and other toys hung from a rock in the flow of the waterfall into stone over the course of just months.
Obviously, given the connection to North Yorkshire’s premier soothsayer, many visitors in the past have gone away sure that the phenomenon is down to magic, but the reality is a lot more scientific and technical and to do with minerals and the like. Although TV magician Paul Daniels did once own a stake in the attraction, so there might be a little something in it (not a lot).
I distinctly remember visiting when I was about eight-years-old and being really struck by the petrifying well in particular. In turn, I recently took my children there and they spent ages looking at the various toys hanging in the waterfall, all in various stages of petrification. It’s a really special place, full of wonder.
The place certainly made an impression on a younger me for another very different reason, though. The guide showing us around happened to mention that Mother Shipton had actually predicted that the world would end, not in some arbitrary year, but when the town’s famous bridge collapsed for the third time. He let a pause hang heavy over the group before solemnly intoning that the bridge had already fallen down twice.
I didn’t sleep for a month.