The Legend of Mother Shipton

Mother Shipton’s Cave is England’s oldest tourist attraction. People have been visiting since 1630. The area is a beautifully landscaped park, lending atmosphere to an already magical place.

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As a child I didn’t know the story of Mother Shipton, just that she was a local witch who lived in a cave. The witch part doesn’t exactly tell the whole story.

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The River Nidd

As the legend goes Mother Shipton’s real name was Ursula Sontheil. She was the daughter of Agatha, a local girl who found herself pregnant, but unmarried, at the age of 15. When she refused to tell the identity of the father, and with no parents to support her, she was shunned, banished from the village. Poor Agatha found shelter in a cave on the outskirts of Knaresborough by the bank of the River Nidd, below Knaresborough Castle. And there, one stormy night in 1488, with thunder banging, lightening crashing and gales blowing, she gave birth to Ursula.

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Knaresborough Castle

Shortly after her birth, the Abbot of Beverley took an interest in Ursula; he placed her with a local family. Her mother was sent to a convent in Nottinghamshire, where she died a few years later.

Poor Ursula had a large, crooked nose, her back was bent and her legs twisted. She had to walk with a stick. And although not a handsome child, Ursula was bright and surprised her teachers with her intelligence. However, she only attended school for a short time; she was teased and taunted by the other children. There were claims that Ursula got her revenge; hair being pulled or children being tripped and falling to the ground… when no one was near.

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Mother Shipton

She eventually found her way back to the cave in which she was born, preferring the solitude of the woods. At the age of 24 she met and married a young carpenter from York, Tobias Shipton. Some say she had bewitched him, as she was too hideous for him to be attracted to her. Their life together was short, as he died 2 years later, before they had any children. The name ‘Mother’ Shipton came years later, when Ursula became the oldest woman in the village.

Ursula made a living telling the future and fortunes of those who asked. She soon became known as Knaresborough’s Prophetess.

Ursula’s prophecies became famous. The King sent messengers from London to hear her prophecies but she became a target of Cardinal Wolsey. Wolsey became the subject of one of Ursula’s predictions. She told him that, though he would see York, he would never set foot in it; while Wolsey retorted that when he made it to York he would build a huge pyre on which to burn her as a witch.

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Cardinal Wolsey

As it transpired, Wolsey made it to Cawood, on the outskirts of York; where he was arrested for treason by Henry Percy, 6th Earl of Northumberland. As he made his journey back to a trial in London, Wolsey fell ill and died at Leicester on 29th November 1530.

Mother Shipton is also said to have foretold the Black Death of 1665 and the Great Fire of London that followed it in 1666. Among her other predictions were aeroplanes, cars, the English Reformation, London’s Crystal Palace, the American Civil War and the French Revolution; and, possibly, the internet;

“Around the world thoughts shall fly in the twinkling of an eye”.

And, of course, she predicted the end of the world:

” The world shall end when the High Bridge is thrice fallen”.

The High Bridge at Knaresborough has fallen twice so far….

Mother Shipton died in 1561 at the grand old age of 73. Having being refused burial by the Church her grave is lost to history.

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The Wishing Well

But, of course, we still have Mother Shipton’s Cave and the Wishing well beside it.

For your wish to come true, you have to put your hand in the well’s water and silently make your wish; let your hand dry naturally, and keep your wish a secret until it comes true.

I remember going there as a child, visiting the wishing well and making my wish. I have never quite forgiven Mother Shipton for the fact I asked for a doll’s pram for Christmas – and got a doll’s pushchair instead.

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The Petrifying Well

Just before Mother Shipton’s Cave is also the Petrifying Well. The Well is fed by a spring that comes from a natural lake a mile underground. The water travels through a band of porous rock,called an aquifer, in order to reach the surface, and a huge amount of minerals are dissolved. The magical water turns all things to stone; it takes 3 months to transform a teddy bear.

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Angel carving on Beech Avenue

Mother Shipton’s Cave is a wonderful place to visit. With play areas and a trail quiz for the children, wonderful carvings among the trees and even the chance to meet Knaresborough Castle’s Ravens and the Raven Keeper.

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Knaresborough Castle’s Raven, April, with her keeper

Mother Shipton herself will tell you her story and Cardinal Wolsey is not far away, trying to cause mischief and full of threats against the Prophetess. And, of course, there’s always the chance that your wish may come true…..

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Article and all photographs are copyright to Sharon Bennett Connolly, 2015.

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Sources: Mother Shipton’s Cave Guide Book; http://www.bibliotecapleyades.net; The Prophecies of Mother Shipton by Sean David Morton; pyramidtlc.org; mysteriousbritain.co.uk

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My book, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK and worldwide from Book Depository. It is also available on Kindle in both the UK and USA and will be available in Hardback from Amazon US from 1 May 2018.

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16 thoughts on “The Legend of Mother Shipton

  1. susanappleyardwriter 14/08/2015 / 12:49

    Great post. As a child growing up in Yorkshire lass, I visited the cave a few times but I knew nothing about her.

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    • Sharon Bennett Connolly 14/08/2015 / 13:40

      Thank you, Susan. As a child, I found the place rather spooky, but going back as a grown up, it was simply mystical and I found her story fascinating. They have done a wonderful job with the attraction – it’s very child-friendly – and all the staff were wonderful. I was very impressed. 🙂

      Like

  2. Antoine Gehlhausen 28/08/2015 / 16:56

    Though never fully expressed as such, on a subconscious level, the connection between Mother Shipton and the Well is there, if only because of the presence of the Wishing Well, in which wishes are supposed to come true. Starting out by helping and advising the townspeople of Knaresborough, her reputation apparently began to spread.

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  3. Jesse Donica 02/09/2015 / 06:58

    Visual representations toned down the witch-like features of the hooked nose and warts, whilst her witch s familiar was replaced by a scroll of prophecies. In the Fleet Street Rackshaw Museum, a figure of Mother Shipton was detailed in the catalogue in 1792 as a prophetess and not a witch.

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  4. valerieholmesauthor 02/09/2015 / 19:15

    I haven’t been there since I was a child, but after reading your interesting article I think I will revisit it. Thanks for sharing.

    Like

    • Sharon Bennett Connolly 02/09/2015 / 19:41

      Thank you Valerie. I was very impressed with it, and Knaresborough is so beautiful – we even went boating on the river. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Peter 16/10/2017 / 15:43

    Why is a child friendly venue celebrating a “known witch” anything other than a money maker for the local economy in the same fashion as the Lambton Worm or Nessie, but much more sinister?
    There is nothing to celebrate about the abuse and torture of women who did not fit into the mould of the time and were brutally murdered through ignorance and men having absolute power! Where is the beauty? If you are referring to the landscape then fine but to associate it with an outcast women then shame on you.

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    • Sharon Bennett Connolly 17/10/2017 / 09:31

      I think you’re missing the point. Mother Shipton’s Cave is so much more than a moneymaker. It celebrates the fact that we are not all alike, that there are things in this world we can’t explain. There is nothing sinister about it and it is highly likely that the whole story is untrue. But the supernatural is a fascination for us all, at one level or another, and there is no reason to ignore or vilify it.
      Mother Shipton’s Cave certainly does not celebrate the abuse and torture of women, rather its story about Cardinal Wolsey shows that Mother Shipton had the upper hand, she was more a prophetess than a witch, and a symbol of what we can’t explain, rather than absolute truth.

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