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Shipton, Mother (supp. fl. 1530), supposed witch and prophetess, is a mostly legendary figure. The only historical support for her existence as a woman living in Tudor York is found in the slim pamphlet The Prophesie of Mother Shipton in the Raigne of King Henry the Eighth (1641), which opens with an account of the prediction which apparently brought her national fame. In 1530, when she heard that the disgraced Cardinal Wolsey was intending to make his very first visit to York, of which he had been made archbishop by proxy in 1514, she declared that though he might see the city he would never reach it. According to the pamphlet Wolsey went to the top of the tower of Cawood Castle, saw York some 8 miles distant, and vowed that when he reached the city he would have Mother Shipton burnt as a witch. He also sent three of his high-placed friends to her house to interrogate her. It is a matter of record that Wolsey, on 4 November 1530, three days before his planned lavish enthronement in York Minster, was arrested at Cawood on a charge of high treason. He became ill on the journey to London and died in Leicester Abbey.

This 1641 pamphlet also contains Mother Shipton's prophecies concerning York, including one which could be said to have anticipated the siege of York at the time of Marston Moor (1644). There are gory descriptions of forthcoming wars, one between England and Scotland, and the concluding lines of this short pamphlet refer to the master of a ship sailing up the Thames and finding that London has been devastated. This was taken to be a prediction of the fire of London, as we know from a reference in the diary of Samuel Pepys (20 October 1666), who stated that when Prince Rupert on board ship heard of the fire he simply said ‘now Shipton's prophecy is out’ (Pepys, 7.333).

The 1641 pamphlet was reprinted in various forms, some with woodcuts showing Wolsey looking out from the tower, confronted by a hideous witch, some with commentaries on how the prophecies had been fulfilled, notably in William Lilly's Ancient and Modern Prophesies (1645). The York provenance is confirmed by accurate local references in the 1641 pamphlet and by the description of Mother Shipton as the ‘Sibylla Eboracensis’ (‘the Sibyl of York’) in the early pamphlet Nuncius propheticus (1642). Her birthplace, however, is later given as ‘Naseborough’ (Knaresborough), some 16 miles to the west of York, in a grossly fictitious and salacious version of her life by Richard Head, The Life and Death of Mother Shipton (1667).

Head claimed that she was born, a daughter of the Devil, in a house near the Dropping Well in 1486 or 1487. It is significant that John Leland, who, unlike Head, visited Knaresborough and its petrifying well (about 1538), made no mention of the prophetess. By this time she would have been well known for her prediction concerning Wolsey, and any Knaresborough connection would presumably have been noted by an antiquarian as close to Henry VIII as Leland. Head added to his account of Mother Shipton's phenomenal ugliness and supernatural powers (levitation, poltergeist effects) a number of fabricated prophecies—all relating to events which had taken place by 1667—such as
The Western Monarch's Wooden Horses
Shall be destroyed by the Drake's forces,
purporting to forecast the Spanish Armada.An anonymous pamphlet based on Head's version, The Strange and Wonderful History of Mother Shipton (1686), adds that she was baptized by ‘the Abbot of Beverley’ as ‘Ursula Soothtell’ (in later versions ‘Southiel’ or ‘Sonthiel’) and that at the age of twenty-four she married a carpenter named Toby Shipton of York. It also states that she died (presumably in York) at the age of seventy-three, having predicted—as Nostradamus is said to have done—the day and hour of her death. Alleged tombs of Mother Shipton, both in York and near Williton, Somerset, have no historical basis.

Interest in Mother Shipton's prophecies was maintained over the next couple of hundred years by the steady appearance of reprints, sometimes in chapbooks of fortune telling. By the end of the eighteenth century she was well-known as a pipe-smoking puppet and a popular pantomime dame, with a song (set to the tune of ‘Nancy Dawson’) referring to her role in several Covent Garden productions, from about 1770 to Mother Shipton Triumphant, or, Harlequin's Museum (1793). In these pantomimes she was a kind of ugly fairy godmother responsible for spectacular transformation scenes. Her face, with the classic hooked nose and upturned chin of a witch, was now sufficiently familiar for a British moth (Euclidia mi, later renamed Callistege mi), with a similar profile on its wings, to be officially named the Mother Shipton.

A boost to flagging interest in Mother Shipton was provided in Victorian times by Charles Dickens, who printed a story by Dudley Costello in Household Words (1856) linking her with the Rollright Stones, and especially by the Brighton bookseller Charles Hindley. In 1862 Hindley printed a set of bogus rhymed prophecies, claiming they had been found in a manuscript in the British Museum. (After they had been reprinted in Notes and Queries he wrote to the editor in 1873 confessing he had written them all himself.) In these much-quoted fabrications Mother Shipton is supposed to have predicted railways, iron-hulled ships, wireless telegraphy, and so forth. The last lines of Hindley's doggerel aroused much interest and alarm:
The world then to an end shall come
In Eighteen Hundred and Eighty One.
In a version of the prophecies printed in Knaresborough in 1910 this date was changed to 1991, and there are still local claims that Mother Shipton predicted that the world will end when Knaresborough's High Bridge collapses for a third time. This story can be traced back to the actual collapse of the railway viaduct over the River Nidd in 1848, after which it was alleged that the prophetess had always said it would fall down twice and stand for ever when built a third time.

Although traditions or sayings concerning Mother Shipton have appeared in Somerset, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Oxfordshire, London, and elsewhere, she is now especially associated with Knaresborough, where much of the legend and fabrication has for years been presented as fact. Until about 1908 visitors to the town were being shown a house near Low Bridge where Mother Shipton was said to have been born. Now her birthplace is commercially promoted as a cave near the Dropping Well.

Although almost everything written about Mother Shipton and attributed to her has been invented, she was in all probability a veridical woman living in York about 1530. Whether her prediction concerning Wolsey was shrewd guesswork or genuine clairvoyance, it was sufficient to assure her a unique place in English folklore as its best-known witch and prophetess—a convenient peg on which to hang many a fanciful claim.

Arnold Kellett

Sources  

The prophesie of Mother Shipton in the raigne of King Henry the Eighth (1641) · Pepys, Diary, 7.333 · W. Lilly, Ancient and moderne prophesies (1645) · Nuncius propheticus (1642) · R. Head, The life and death of Mother Shipton (1667) · The strange and wonderful history of Mother Shipton (1686) · A correct account of Harlequin's museum (1793) · C. Hindley, The life, prophecies and death of Mother Shipton (1862) · N&Q, 4th ser., 11 (1873), 355 · W. Camidge, Mother Shipton, the Yorkshire sybil (1898) · Palatine Note-Book, 1 (1881), 64 · A. Kellett, Mother Shipton, witch and prophetess (2002)

Likenesses  

portrait, BL; repro. in Head, The life and death of Mother Shipton, frontispiece · portrait, BL; repro. in New Wonderful Magazine, 2 (1793), 225 · portrait, BL; repro. in R. S. Kirby, Kirby's wonderful and eccentric museum, 2 (1820), 146 · woodcut, BL; repro. in Foure severall strange prophesies (1642), title-page · woodcut, BL; repro. in Fourteene strange prophesies (1648)