Mother Shipton’s Cave of Magic, Mystery, and Prophecy
According to legend, one of the most famous mystical women of England was born in a cave in Knaresborough, Yorkshire. The place of her birth, now known as Mother Shipton’s Cave, continues to be a famous site linked to stories of witches and prophecy.
A Lonely, Special Child
Mother Shipton was born as Ursula Southeil in 1488. Her mother was Agatha Southeil, who was only 15 years old when she gave birth to Ursula. Ursula was reputedly born very ugly and grotesquely deformed. Her head was too big, her cheeks were sunken, her limbs were twisted and her eyes supposedly glowed like embers. She also reportedly had a full set of teeth when she was born.
Legends say that upon her birth terrible noises like thunder were heard from the cave. According to the people who lived around it, that was proof that Ursula was a daughter of the Devil. For the first two years of Ursula’s life her mother raised her in that cave. But then Agatha went to a nunnery and Ursula was allegedly taken in by a local family.
An image said to be a portrait of Mother Shipton. (Wellcome Trust) Some people supposedly heard terrible noises upon the birth of Ursula, which they saw as proof of her being a daughter of the devil.
Ursula grew up as a lonely child, focused on her inner world. She was very connected with nature, the forest, and her own thoughts. It is unknown when her prophetic visions began. All of her life has been connected with Mother Shipton’s Cave – the site where she practiced her craft, learned about flowers and herbs, searched for visions and, intentionally or not, created a mysterious legend about herself.
Mother Shipton's cave. (chris 論/ CC BY 3.0)
The Fame of the Local Witch
No matter how bad she is said to have looked, Ursula’s growing reputation as a witch made her an attractive prospect for many men. She became a popular person in society as well. Some were afraid of her, but for many she was like a magnet.
Ursula finally married Toby Shipton, a local carpenter, in 1512. Locals said that she may have used a love potion to bring about the marriage. According to resources, the Shiptons’ marriage was comfortable and happy. Although they didn't have children, they stayed together without any scandals. Toby seemed to accept and understand the “witchy” instincts of his wife. He was proud of her unusual skills to see the future as well.
Old engraving of Mother Shipton. (Public Domain)
Mother Shipton’s Prophecies
Mother Shipton lived during the period of Henry VIII, the domination of the Spanish Armada, the monumental empire of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, and great “discoveries” of the New World. Her prophecies were among the highly discussed topics in the 17th century British royal court.
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One of the most famous stories connected with the court is about Cardinal Wolsey (Mitred Peacock). According to Mother Shipton’s visions, he would see York without reaching it. In 1530, Wolsey fell out of favor with the King, and set out to find refuge in the north, he was within sight of York when Lord Percy arrived with a King's summons calling him back to London to face a charge for his actions. How is it that a woman who was not connected with the court knew of this?
Image of Mother Shipton and Cardinal Wolsey from ‘Mother Shipton investigated: the result of critical examination in the British Museum Library of the literature relating to the Yorkshire sibyl.’ (1881) (Public Domain)
Mother Shipton was known as a person with the gift of clairvoyance. She wrote down her prophecies, and perhaps she was also a healer. She was a very successful adviser who helped people in many ways. Ursula Shipton was famous, so people traveled to Knaresborough from far away.
She was warned many times that her activities might lead her to be burnt as a witch. According to legend, she once revealed some of her visions to people who tried to blackmail her. She reportedly told them what she saw would happen to them if they hurt her. Nobody ever decided to bring Mother Shipton to trial.
Mother Shipton's house. (Public Domain)
The reputation of Mother Shipton as a witch and a prophet was caused by her foretelling the events in the more and less distant future. In her visions she saw the accession of Lady Jane Grey, the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, and the defeat of the Spanish Armada by Francis Drake. The prophecies of Mother Shipton were published as a book for the first time in 1641. In one of them, she said:
“Carriages without horses shall goe,
And accidents fill the world with woe.
Around the world thoughts shall fly
In the twinkling of an eye....
Under water men shall walk,
Shall ride, shall sleep and talk;
In the air men shall be seen,
In white, in black and in green....
Iron in the water shall float,
As easy as a wooden boat.”
In 1665, London suffered from the Great Plague, one year later the Great Fire destroyed much of it. Samuel Peyps wrote in his Diary “See - Mother Shipton’s word is out.”
Some of her prophetical verses described iron ships, submarines, and aircraft. Experts on her writings said she even saw the internet in her visions, writing “Around the world, men’s thoughts will fly. Quick as the twinkling of an eye.”
Mother Shipton died in 1561 or 1567. She was buried in unconsecrated ground, perhaps near Clifton. For the next 80 years, her prophecies were unpublished, hidden, and her name was a source of fear. Later, she was remembered as a person who knew more than others, and people appreciated her visions and believed that they were all true.
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The Legacy of Mother Shipton’s Cave
Nowadays, it is believed that many facts of Mother Shipton's life were created by Richard Head. He was an editor of her prophecies, but his publication suffered due to the lack of biographical detail on the woman. Many decades after her death, nobody remembered this information, so he is said to have created it. At the same time, Head was sure that the prophecies were really written by Mother Shipton. Real or not, she is still an important part of English folklore.
The Dropping Well adjacent to Old Mother Shipton's cave on the southwestern bank of the River Nidd in Knaresborough. (CC BY SA 2.0)
The cave where Ursula was born was a place for occult meetings for centuries. Mother Shipton’s Cave is said to be the oldest tourist attraction in England and it remains popular to this day. It is also a legendary site for people fascinated with paganism, Wicca, etc. From a scientific point of view, the Petrifying Well near Mother Shipton’s Cave is an interesting place.
Since at least 1630, people have visited the curious site believing that witchcraft was at work at the well. Teddy bears, hats, socks, and many other items have been placed in the water and “magically” turned to “stone” within three to five months. The bizarre process is now known to be due to evaporation and an unusually high mineral content in the water.
Mother Shipton also became a popular motif for stories in the UK, Australia, and North America, but also many other European countries. New variations of her story appeared in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.
Many pubs and other public places were named after her too. With its original look, a moth Callistege mi, was named after her because the wings look like they have the profile of a hag’s head on them. In 2017, the citizens of Knaresborough erected a statue of their famous resident, Mother Shipton.
Mother Shipton moth. (CC BY 2.5)
Top Image: Mother Shipton's Cave in Knaresborough, England. Source: RobertChlopas /Adobe Stock
Updated on July 31, 2020.
J.C. Simpson, The Life and Prophecies of Ursula Sontheil Better Known as Mother Shipton, 1920.