Mother Shipton

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Mother Shipton

Frontispiece to an early printing of Mother Shipton's prophesies.

Today, in the bottom of the dramatic chasm that splits modern Knaresborough in two visitors can, for a small fee, visit the home of Yorkshire's very own Nostradamus: Ursula Southeil - better known as 'Mother Shipton'.

One of the earliest and most notable publications of her verse and prophesy gives us much of what scant biographical detail we have. It is thanks to this pamphlet, published in 1684, that we know she lived in the cave and was reputed to be hideously ugly from birth. Some versions of her legend tell that her unbecoming looks resulted from the fact that she was born out of wedlock.

According to legend, her childhood was also marked by what we today would know as poltergeist behaviour - with crockery and furniture flying around the room whenever she was upset.

Despite her grisly visage and apparent powers of telekinesis, she is said to have married a local carpenter, Toby Shipton and began her career telling fortunes and issuing predictions - many of which became famous for their accurate foretelling of events centuries after her death.

Like the famous quatrains of Nostradamus, her predictions are often vague and offer little in the way of verifiable information, except with hindsight and reinterpretation.

A myth?
None of Mother Shipton's supposed verse was published within her lifetime - the earliest being some 80 years after her death. Indeed, even some of her most famous verses are in fact Victorian inventions. Charles Hindley, author of a book of her prophesies published in 1862 admitted to making several of the verses up out of whole cloth.

Even her first biographer - the unfortunately named Richard Head - seems likely to have invented many of the stories and legends associated with her. While he may have had access to oral legends and traditions ascribed to her, there is little to separate his words from folklore.

Despite all that, and whether Mother Shipton was ever real, or merely a folk legend, visitors in their thousands still visit the dank and gloomy caves where she is said to have spent her life. And those caves offer, at least, a genuine wonder. Items left in the Petrifying Well are, over the course of decades, turned into eerie stone facsimilies and adorn the cave as a tourist attraction in their own right.

See also: folklore

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Author: Ian Freud   |  Last updated: 8th August 2014 | © Weird Island 2010-2020
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