Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Curious "History" of Mother Shipton


Sometimes in books and articles dealing with prophecy, especially those written from a Roman Catholic perspective, you will see quotations from an English prophetess known as Mother Shipton. Since very little background information is given about her, I did a little research of my own.

It is not certain that Mother (Ursula) Shipton actually existed. Whether she was historic or not, many of her predictions are known to be forgeries. Supposedly born in a cave around the year 1488, she was reported to be hideously ugly. Despite this she was married to Toby Shipton, a carpenter, in 1521. She worked as a fortuneteller although she was never prosecuted for withcraft. A "biography" was written in 1684 which contained eerie details about her birth and life. Accounts put her death in 1561.

No texts from the 1500s mention Mother Shipton by name. Her prophesies were first published in 1641, some 80 years after her death. This is the first time the name appears in print. Some twenty versions of her prophesies were printed between that first one and 1700. A letter written by King Henry VIII written to Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, refers to the "witch of York" which might be the source of the story.

A tourist attraction, called Mother Shipton’s Cave, operates at Knaresborough, North Yorkshire. It alleges to be the cave where Mother Shipton was born as well as a well where objects are reported to turn to stone. A gift shop sells memorabilia and wishing-well water in various colors.

Although often cryptic, she predicted wars, rebellions and all matter of natural disasters. Samuel Pepys writes in his diary that, while surveying the damage in London after the Great Fire of 1666, he overheard people saying that it had been prophesied by Mother Shipton. ("Mother Shipton’s word is out.")

In 1881 panic spread through England because of a prophecy attributed to Mother Shipton. The prophecy read "The world to an end shall come, in eighteen hundred and eighty-one." However this "prophesy" is not found in print prior to 1862. This same prediction included "A carriage without a horse shall go; Disaster fill the world with woe; In water iron then shall float; As easy as a wooden boat." Although there were no horseless carriages in 1862, the battle between the iron-clad Monitor and Merrimac in the American Civil War too place on 08-09 Mar 1862 so iron already floated.

The first famous man about whom she "prophesied" was Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the minister to Henry VIII until 1530. According to biographer George Cavendish, Wolsey was disturbed by a prophecy he heard toward the end of his life: "There is a saying, quoth he, that When this cow rideth the bull, then priest beware thy skull.” It was believed that the cow was a reference to Anne Boleyn. In his biography Cavendish did not attribute to this prophecy to Mother Shipton. That was left to later writers.

When all of the evdence is weighed, it is unlikely that the person who has come to be known as Mather Shipton actually existed. There may have been a woman by that name who operated in a local village as a fortune-teller whose name was used to give credence to a view that someone wanted to promote and the legend just grew. Anything attributed to her is most likely fraudulent.

© 2016 Gary J. Sibio. All rights reserved.

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