Did you know Britain had its very own Nostradamus? She was an enigmatic figure known to history as Mother Shipton, and debates have long swirled over her life and prophecies. So, just who was this woman, and what exactly did she predict?
A dramatic beginning
Mother Shipton’s real name was Ursula Southeil, though different sources also spell her name Southill, Sontheil and (reflecting her reputation as a prophetess) Soothtell. It’s generally agreed that she was born in North Yorkshire in 1488, under circumstances that can only be described as dramatic.
Her mother, Agatha, was a teenage orphan who had refused to divulge the identity of the father, even when hauled before a local magistrate. Later, as Mother Shipton’s legend grew, it was rumoured that Agatha conceived the child with none other than Satan himself.
Desperate and presumably ostracised by the community, Agatha gave birth in a cave near the town of Knaresborough, allegedly during a vicious thunderstorm. The young mother and the infant Ursula continued to live in the cave for a few years before a sympathetic abbot finally intervened, placing Agatha in a convent and Ursula with a foster family. Mother and daughter would never see each other again.
The cackling child
Even as a young girl, Ursula was said to resemble a classic fairytale witch, complete with a hunchback, ‘great goggling’ eyes, and a crooked nose ‘of an incredible and unproportionable length’. As one historical source described her, Ursula’s appearance was ‘a thing so strange in an infant, that no age can parallel’.
Ursula’s behaviour was strange, too. According to one much-told tale, her foster mother returned home one day to the unearthly sound of ‘a thousand cats’ wailing, and to the spectacle of the naked child clinging to the wall over the fireplace, cackling demonically.
Mocked and bullied by the community, with locals dubbing her ‘hag face’, Ursula sought solace in the woods by the cave where she was born. She gained a deep knowledge of plants and herbs in the region, eventually gaining some respect as a herbalist and becoming more integrated into the community. Much to the disbelief of many, she even found a husband, a carpenter called Toby Shipton.
The Witch of York
Ursula was destined not to have a normal life as a carpenter’s wife. Toby Shipton died just a few years after they wed, with dark rumours spreading that Ursula was somehow responsible. Once again an outcast, she embraced a new life as a wood-dwelling herbalist, which seemed to pay off. She was increasingly consulted for her medical remedies and became known for her visions of the future.
This was when the legend of Mother Shipton really began to take shape. Such was her reputation that she even came to the attention of King Henry VIII. The monarch’s mention of a ‘Witch of York’ in a letter of 1537 is thought to be a reference to the mysterious seer who dwelt in the forests around Knaresborough.
Prophecies and propaganda
Some of Mother Shipton’s prophecies were focused on local events – such as the destruction of a local church in a storm, which she apparently foretold with the words ‘what is built in the day shall fall in the night, till the highest stone in the church be the lowest stone of the bridge’.
But did she also make predictions about pivotal, world-historical events? As with Nostradamus and Baba Vanga, the words attributed to Mother Shipton are highly lyrical and ambiguous, allowing for creative interpretations. It’s said that she had visions of Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, the break with the Catholic Church, and the dissolution of the monasteries, all of which she described in allegorical terms using the king and Anne’s family heraldry: ‘When the cow [Henry] doth ride the bull [Anne], then, priest, beware the skull.’
She’s reputed to have predicted the rise of Elizabeth I (‘A Maiden Queen shall Reign anon’) and the destruction of the Spanish Armada, even going so far as to namecheck Sir Francis Drake (‘The Western Monarch’s Wooden Horses Shall be destroyed by the Drakes forces’).
She’s also supposed to have foreseen the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (‘A Widowed Queen, In England shall be headless seen’), and warned of a great calamity that 'comes against London'. This was later interpreted to mean the Great Fire of London, with even the great diarist Samuel Pepys, who lived in the city during the fire, noting that ‘Shipton’s prophecy was out’.
Whether Mother Shipton really made such predictions is an open question. Her legend was brazenly burnished by biographers and myth-makers, who often weaponised her for their own reasons. As noted by the academic Dr Ed Simon, ‘Pamphleteers during the years of the English Civil War took ample opportunity to enlist Mother Shipton as a convenient authority in propagandistic causes, both Parliamentarian and Royalist.’
What’s more, the most famous prophecy ascribed to Mother Shipton – a vision of the apocalypse reading ‘The world to an end shall come / In eighteen hundred and eighty one’ – was definitely fabricated by a Victorian writer, whose handiwork caused widespread panic at the time.
The legacy of a legend
Whatever the truth of the real Mother Shipton’s life and visions, there’s no denying her unique place in English folklore. Mentioned by famous writers like Samuel Pepys and Daniel Defoe and mythologised by countless lesser-known scribes, she’s also had numerous pubs named after her over the years.
There’s even a Mother Shipton moth, so called because the markings on its wings resemble the craggy face of a witch. And, if you’re ever in Knaresborough, you can always visit the soothsayer’s birthplace, a bona fide tourist attraction called Mother Shipton’s Cave.