Where it all started, who was Mother Shipton?
Mother Shipton , the Prophetess, may be unheard of to some in the UK, so I can pretty much guarantee that she will not be known elsewhere enmasse. To tell you about Mother Shipton we have to go back to North Yorkshire, England, during the medieval year of 1488. She lived near the River Nidd.
To understand who Ursula Shipton was and why the times made her powers more suspicious, let me tell you what the situation was in the British Isles just before, and during her life.
During the century before her birth, the land was over populated, full to the brim. By the time the century was through, the land was decimated by the Plague ( Black death). Could do with something similar now with nearly 7 Billion people on the planet! ( Sorry, bad joke).
It hit the British Isles so badly that there were very few people who were of an age to carry a baby, so numbers struggled, villages were abandoned, and agriculture was suffering badly. This is because the areas we come to know as agricultural farm land, such as East midlands were the areas badly affected.
There were not only illnesses around the time of Mother Shipton's birth, but also natural changes that made life harder. Remember, the British Isles was not yet industrialized. Weather records show that about half a century before Ursula Shipton was born, temperatures dropped and weather became wetter. Flooding and temperature drops, as well as sea levels coming higher, meant certain crops became impossible to grow.
The air was melancholy and pretty much hopeless, much like today it seems, for different reasons.
The monarchy was also going under some changes, and she was born under the rule of King Henry VII. She would live through a time of big changes, and through the tribulations and bloody rulership of his son, Henry VIII th.
The birth of an illegitimate child, Ursula Southeil.
Ursula was born an illegitimate child, on a summer's night in 1488, inside a cave. This baby girl was born to a young unmarried girl. This was quite common and would not have made Ursula special just from that fact alone, but she was to become a revered and feared Prophetess. There are a few factors that possibly made her revered before she even opened her mouth. She was illegitimate, ugly as sin apparently, and her mother allegedly died giving birth to her. Ignorant people have always feared anything different, but in the 16th century that could go either way for a female like Ursula.
It was reported that Ursula was so ugly, it was hard for a foster-mother to nurse her. However, a woman on the edge of Knaresborough did foster her. Whilst she lived her childhood with this foster family, strange things started happening. Items would fly around the room on their own. She herself as a small baby in a crib was said to have gone missing and was found half way up a chimney, whilst the people looking for her were said to be pricked by imps etc. This does sound like wild exaggeration on the part of either time or the superstitious villagers.
A cruel description of her implies that her nose was bent this way and that and longer than most. She had " goggly eyes" and a protruding chin. Funnily that sounds much like a caricature witch. I wonder which came first, the caricature of the witch that we still see at Halloween, or the image of Ursula?
A sketch of what Mother Shipton may have looked like.
Sketch by Daniel Parkinson
Ursula, better known as Mother Shipton in Adulthood
Her looks aside she ended up the wife of a Carpenter called Toby Shipton. She was 24 years old. She set up home in Knaresborough. This is where people started to spread the word of this wise woman come prophetess. Mother Shipton as she became known was even visited by people of status. One of those being the Abbot of Beverley. This after all was the time of the Dissolution of the monasteries, I suppose their Pagan superstitions were not as dead and gone as they would like to have believed.
So what did she prophecies?
Mother Shipton like many prophets, made many declarations, of things local and of larger events.
Once she produced a thief in her local Market area. A woman had brand new garments stolen, and Mother Shipton promised and indeed physically produced the thief, another woman, who went away with her head held in shame. The woman probably came clean out of fear of what would happen to her at the hands of Mother Shipton and her "otherworldly " powers.
More widely she predicted in riddles, and events stuck to those riddles well. Here are a few.
"When the Cow doth ride the Bull,
Then, Priest, beware thy Skull;
And when the lower shrubs do fall,
The great Trees quickly follow shall.
The Mitred Peacocks lofty Pride
Shall to his Master be a guide,
And one great Court to pass shall bring
What was never done by any king.
The Poor shall grieve, to see that day,
And who did feast, must fast and pray.
Fate so decreed their overthrow
Riches brought Pride, and Pride brought woe."
This was the prediction of the dissolution of the monasteries. The Bull was Anne Boleyn. Her family crest was a black bull. The Cow was King Henry VIII th, his coat of arms as the Earl of Richmond being a cow. The irony and the amusement this caused, he must have looked like a cuckhold from the start, with images role reversed.
The lower shrubs were the monasteries, and the large ones were the more prosperous monasteries.
Mother Shipton was known to call Cardinal Wolsey "The Mitred Peacock" and he was not all that fond of her. He threatened that when he got to York, he would have her burned, as a witch probably!
She was correct that the poor would grieve, as they lost all that the monasteries provided. That being schools, homes for the sick and destitute and alms. The poor had lost their saviours.
One of but many of her predictions that came to pass. But I wonder how many were just forgotten because they did not fit?
So what does Mother Shipton have to do with the Ancient forest of Knaresborough, and the Petrifying well?
Mother Shipton's estate was on the edge of a very special geological place. The ancient forest of Knaresborough and the cave from which she was born holds a magical find. The Petrifying well. The what? I hear you ask. The Petrifying well is a well that when items are placed will turn to stone! They don't really, but in the times of Mother Shipton this natural phenomenon was associated and attributed to witchcraft.
What really happens is the water has an excessively high content of minerals, this does not replace the molecules, which would be petrification, but rather covers the item in a thin layer of stone. This is called Petrifying. Confusing I know.
Many people visit the Petrifying well at Knaresborough and it has become custom to leave something to tie up and let the well Petrify. Hanging teddy bears do somewhat take the devilish nature and eeryness away from such a place. Although for me, I would be at home in such a wonderful place, and indeed have been lucky enough to visit there.
So with everything in her life, being born illegitimate, in a cave, in medieval times and a time of high suspicion of witchcraft, in a geologically magical area, you can see how her person became a legend.
The Petrifying well at Knaresborough.
An image at Mother Shipton's cave
Knaresborough, cave and petrifying well.
Knaresborough, North Yorkshire, UK