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Mother Shipton: prophetess or witch?

Mother Shipton’s Cave and the nearby Petrifying Well in Knaresborough is England’s oldest tourist attraction. The story of the prophetess seems to be too good to be true – and seems to be just that…

Philip Coppens


In 1488, Agatha, a young girl of only fifteen, gave birth to an illegitimate child, in a cave in Knaresborough, North Yorkshire. Baptised Ursula Sontheil, she would become known as Mother Shipton, after she married an ordinary carpenter called Toby Shipton at the age of 24.
Mother Shipton – even though she apparently never had children – was not known for her good looks. According to legend, her birth was the result of a union between her mother and the devil. When she was born, she was reportedly hideously ugly. A biographer would describe her as “very morose and big boned, her head very long, with very great goggling, but sharp and fiery Eyes, her Nose of an incredible and unproportionate length, having in it many crooks and turnings, adorned with many strange Pimples of diverse colours, as Red, Blew, [sic] and mixt, which like Vapours of Brimstone gave such a lustre of the Night, that one of them confessed several times in my hearing, that her nurse needed no other light to assist her in the performance of her duty.” In short: she was unlikely to win the Miss Knaresborough contest. She looked like the archetypical witch. And as England’s primary prophetess, she has equally been considered England’s primary witch. The current owners of Mother Shipton’s Cave exhibits her as a witch, which, given her possibly bizarre appearance, may have been easy enough.
Early accounts accompanying her prophecies (ca. 1641) already depicted her as the archetypal witch: a hooked nose and knobbly chin. When a butterfly was discovered with a pattern resembling that profile, it became known as the ‘Mother Shipton’. In 1667, novelist Richard Head’s The Life and Death of Mother Shipton has her bent double, with all the knots and warts that seem to only befall witches.
In 1736, laws enabling the prosecution of witches were repealed. In this new era, Mother Shipton began to revert back to her original incarnation as a prophetess. Visual representations toned down the witch-like features of the hooked nose and warts, whilst her witch’s familiar was replaced by a scroll of prophecies. In the Fleet Street Rackshaw Museum, a figure of Mother Shipton was detailed in the catalogue in 1792 as a prophetess and not a witch.

The legend goes that she spent her early life living in the cave that now carries her name. When she was about two years old, her mother apparently gave her into the care of a foster mother. Agatha herself is said to have spent the rest of her life in a convent in Nottingham.
Mother Shiptons’s Cave is located along the River Nidd, in the heart of Knaresborough, on the opposite bank of the castle. The cave sits right next to the Petrifying Well. Formerly known as the Dropping Well, it is believed to be the only one of its kind in England. The water springs from an underground lake and seeps up through the earth’s crust via a layer of porous rock called an “aquifer”. The spring has never been known to dry up, a measured 3,200 litres of water flowing over the Well every hour, summer, winter, rain or drought. The waters extremely high mineral content means that everything in its path is turned into stone. The petrification process depends on the material. A teddy bear takes three to five months, whereas non-porous material can take up to 18 months. Many celebrities have donated items: Queen Mary visited in 1923 and took off her shoe. Items worn by cast from popular soap series, as well as a handbag belonging to Agatha Christie and a hat belonging to John Wayne have been subjected to the process.
The high mineral content has meant that the well sometimes collapses in on itself: once in 1816 and again in 1821. To stop this from happening again, the Well face is scrubbed and scraped with wire brushes every 8 weeks. What is now the cave, was thousands of years the outlet for this petrifying river.

There are two opinions about how the well was perceived at the time of Mother Shipton. Some believe that people never ventured near it, afraid of its magical properties. Some believed that touching the waters would turn them into stone.
Still, in her lifetime, the first written reference to the Well was made. John Leyland, Antiquary to Henry VIII, visited the Well in 1538 and noted that it was very well known and visited by many to drink and shower under its falling waters as they were believed to have miraculous healing powers. In the early 1600s, samples of the water were examined, concluding that the waters were “a miracle cure for any flux of the body!”
It tends to make the likelihood that people were afraid of it less likely. It also means it may be rather unlikely that a few decades earlier, a young woman could have used the cave as a refuge, to live in, together with her small child. Furthermore, the area was in the centre of the town – not somewhere on the outskirts where most would leave them alone.

It is a “remarkable coincidence” that England’s most famous prophetess would happen to be born near England’s most unique geological feature, which is also England’s first tourist attraction – or trap. The question needs to be asked whether the Well “needed” a human angle; was Mother Shipton real, or created for tourist purposes? A well, however special, is a well, but a strange child that would grow into a prophetess… that brings in tourists.
For more than a century and a half, the legend of Mother Shipton seems to have been passed on orally. One of the earliest accounts was said to have recorded the sayings of Mother Shipton as told to one Joanne Waller, who died soon afterwards at the age of 94. That would mean Joanne, as a young girl, had listened to the old lady not long before her death in 1561.
The prophecies were published in 1641, either finally written down in publishable format – or invented from scratch. Is it a coincidence that the area was bought in 1630 and turned into England’s premiere tourist attraction?

As mentioned, historically it is unlikely the cave was where she was born – and even if she was born there, it is extremely unlikely she lived there with her mother for two years.
Instead, it seems that the cave was used to give “a mythical framework” to the story of the prophetess. A prophet is, in essence, an oracle; they predict the future. Oracles have a long tradition of being linked with subterranean chambers or caves – as well as enigmatic geological properties, such as the fumes the Pythia of Delphi smelled before she uttered her predictions. Though never fully expressed as such, on a subconscious level, the connection between Mother Shipton and the Well is there, if only because of the presence of the Wishing Well, in which wishes are supposed to come true.

The Petrifying Well

Starting out by helping and advising the townspeople of Knaresborough, her reputation apparently began to spread. Even before her marriage at the age of 24, there were rumours of her powers to avenge unkind remarks, to play tricks on those who taunted her.
One story goes that about a month after her marriage, one of her neighbours came to ask her help. Someone had stolen a new smock and petticoat. She declared that she knew very well who had stolen the clothes and that she would make sure the thief returned them. The following Market Day, as Mother Shipton predicted, she did.

Like Nostradamus, Mother Shipton allegedly prophesied half of the important events to come. Her biggest opponent seems to have been Cardinal Wolsey, about whom she made a famous prediction. She said that he would never see the city of York – despite being its Archbishop. The Duke of Suffolk, Charles Brandon, together with Lord D’Arcy from Yorkshire and the Earl of Northumberland, Lord Percy, approached Mr Beasley in York and asked him to take them to Mother Shipton’s house, to talk to her about her Wolsey prediction.
She was very welcoming, calling her maid to bring refreshments, inviting her callers to come and sit down by the great log fire. She is said to have realised who they were and why they had come. She told them that she “didn’t say he should never see York, but that he would never reach it.”
Some time after this meeting Cardinal Wolsey left London for York. His penultimate destination was Cawood, a village ten miles to the south of the city. Just miles from proving her wrong, he was told to return to London immediately, where he had to stand trial for high treason. At Leicester, Wolsey’s illness became worse and soon afterwards died. It meant that Mother Shipton had been right – and it sealed her reputation. At the same time, every prophet needs to have a major nemesis and we can only wonder whether the unpopular Wolsley was written into her story to become just that.
She apparently went to predict the downfall of the Church’s hegemony, as well as the death of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the achievement of peace in war-torn Ireland. Finally, it is said that she predicted her own death in 1561. No-one knows where she was buried, but some believe it was not in or near Knaresborough. Speculation has it that she was buried in non-consecrated ground on the outskirts of York. One tradition states that a stone on her grave read: “Here lies she who never lied, Whose skill so often has been tried Her prophecies shall still survive And ever keep her name alive.”

Her prophecies were printed in 1641. When the Great Plague ravaged London in 1665, there was talk of Mother Shipton’s image: “Triumphant death rides London through.” A year later the Great Fire of London started in Pudding Lane and Samuel Pepys recorded in his Diary: “See - Mother Shipton’s word is out.”
What are we to make of these statements, which seem to apply to our own age?

“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.”

Though it may be an accurate vision of our time, she was definitely wrong about one thing: “The world to an end shall come, In eighteen hundred and eighty one.” Her legends were also attached to the local bridge. She stated that the world would end if the bridge collapsed. It has collapsed twice… Nevertheless, the local inn at the end of the bridge is called The World’s End, and carries an image of the prophetess.

Mother Shipton's Cave, viewed from Petrifying Well

Though the first known edition of Mother Shipton’s prophecies appeared in print in 1641, “The Prophesie of Mother Shipton in the Raigne of King Henry the Eighth”, the most important editions of her work appeared in 1684, edited by Richard Head, and in 1862, edited by Charles Hindley. It was Head who provided the first biographical elements of her life – half a decade after England’s premiere tourist attraction had opened.
It is now clear that Mother Shipton’s prophecies are mainly hoaxes. Most of the prophecies were written by others after the events had happened. For instance, the first record of her prophecy about Cardinal Wolsey dates from 1641, long after the man had died. Her prophecies about future technology, and about the world coming to an end in 1881, first appeared in print in the 1862 edition of her sayings. Specifically, Charles Hindley, the editor of that edition, later admitted that he had composed them.

It means that in the end, the existence of Mother Shipton herself is uncertain. Her 1684 biographer, Richard Head, may have invented most of the details of her life. Still, in his recent study ‘Mother Shipton, Witch and Prophetess’, historian Arnold Kellet believes the 1641 pamphlet is “historically convincing” and contains proof that Mother Shipton did exist because of its restrained account of her prophecy. He argues that if this had been a fabricated tale about a mythical figure, a far more fabulous and sensational prophecy could have been written. Playing devil’s advocate, I would argue that if it had been far more sensational, it would have attracted far more sceptical investigations, which may have uncovered evidence that it is all bogus.

Wishing Well

Mother Shipton has so far largely remained under the radar of sceptical prodding, which is vastly different from the fate that befell Nostradamus, who was contemporaneous.
Perhaps it is indeed with that famous French seer that we may have a reason why Mother Shipton came about. Did the English need a famous prophetess also, a person on equal par with the French visionary? Even if totally historical, it is clear that Mother Shipton never achieved that status… for one, she never wrote down the prophecies herself – and as a consequence, it left much room for improvisation and improvement… Nostradamus’ fame went worldwide; Mother Shipton has remained largely a visitor attraction in her native Knaresborough…