Reflections on Mother Shipton

I couldn’t let my birthday go by without posting about one of my favorite astonishing topics: Witches. Today, I’ll be exploring the fascinating, tragic tale of Mother Shipton (who was never actually a Mother). Mother Shipton’s story begins in Knaresborough, Yorkshire, England...but by centuries later the stories of Mother Shipton have traveled the four corners of the world.

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Mother Shipton wasn’t born a mother at all, nor did she just happen into existence. In fact, we know quite about the girl who would become Mother Shipton. She was born in 1488 and named Ursula Southeil. Her mother, Agatha Southeil, was just fifteen years old and unwed and would never name Ursula’s father. Her mother chose to give birth in a cave on the banks of the River Nidd. Ursula was unusual from the start and was said to be one of the ugliest babies to ever exist (now, how much of this is just rumor that became glued to the legend is unclear). I do find it interesting to note that Ursula means ‘little bear’ so, perhaps Ursula was a bit unusual or even hairy and her mother felt inspired to give her that name (although that’s just conjecture on my part).

Ursula and her mother would not be together long, though. In some versions of the story, Agatha dies in the cave during childbirth and Ursula is happened upon but in other versions of the story, Agatha remains with her child until she is two or three. However, most stories agree that by the time she was three Ursula was being fostered by another family.

Strange things began to happen around this strange looking child. It was said that objects would often move, go missing, or shift about when no one but baby Ursula was in the room. In one particularly outlandish tale, it was said her foster-mother stepped out for a short while and left the sleeping Urusla tucked away in her crib. Soon after she left she heard a great racket coming from inside. When she thrust upon the cottage door she found Ursula was not in her crib and there were a dozen or so imps (who allegedly took on the appearance of monkeys. The imps set upon the foster mother but she shooed them away, searching for baby Ursula. She was finally discovered swinging up the chimney and retrieved.

It was said her mother abandoned her and refused to name her father not out of intense shaming or abuse, but because Ursula’s father was the Devil himself.

As she grew, she continued to appear strange to the community she found herself in. In Yorkshire Legends and Traditions by Rev Thomas Parkinson, it was noted that “She was of an indifferent height, but very morose and big boned, her head very long, with very great goggling but sharp and fiery eyes; her nose of an incredible and improportionable length, having in it many crooks and turnings, adorned with many strange pimples of divers colors, as red, blue, and mix’t, which like vapors of brimstone, gave such a lustre to her affrighted spectators in the dead time of the night, that one of them confessed several times, in my hearing, that her nurse needed no other light to assist her in the performance of her duty. Her cheeks were of a black, swarthy complexion, much like a mixture of black and yellow jaundices, wrinkled, shrivelled, and very hollow; insomuch, that as the ribs of her body, so the impressions of her teeth, were easily to be discerned through both sides of her face, answering one side to the other, like the notches in a valley, excepting only two of them, which stood quite out of her mouth, in imitation of the tuskes of a wild boar, or the tooth of an elephant. The neck was so strangely distorted that her right shoulder was forced to be a supporter to her head, it being prop’t up by the help of her chin. Her legs were crooked and misshapen. The toes of her feet looking towards her left side, so that it was very hard for any person (could she have stood up) to guess which road she intended to steer her course, because she never could look that way she resolved to go.”

This description, if you take out the colorful language, doesn’t describe a particularly devilish woman. However, if you consider that it was a popular belief at this time that people’s outward appearances were representative of their inner-selves you may understand why she was so ostracized.

As she grew older her repuation began to percede her and she became known for not only strange happenings surrounding her being, but also having the ability to cure sicknesses and even tell the future.

At 24, she found a partner who she would remain with their entire lives. His name was Toby Shipton and although there were crude jokes that he “must be blind” or under a spell to fall in love with Ursula he nevertheless stayed with her. The couple themselves were never scandalous or even ill-spoken about (except the jabs about Ursula’s appearances) of. They would never have children but Mother Shipton gained the moniker all the same. Unlike his wife, Toby made a more traditional living as a carptener. However, it was said that he was proud of his wife’s abilities and talents.

Mother Shipton likely gained the nickname “Mother” because of the care in which she dispensed prophecies, cures, and spells. She’s often described as a soothsayer or healer and was often turned to in her community and even surrounding communities for her wisdom and talents.

One of Mother Shipton’s most profound visions, and what gained her quite a bit of fame, was a story that Cardinal Wolsey would one day see York without reaching it. In 1530, just a few years after this alleged prophecy, Wolsey fell out of favor with the King and set out to shelter in the North where he’d be out of the King’s crosshairs. Although he could see the town of York, towards the end of his travels a Lord arrived with an official summons back to London. He was later charged for his actions and never made it back to York.

At this turbulent political time, Ursula became a beacon of knowledge so far away from court. It is said she predicted the rise of Lady Jane Grey and the fall of Mary Queen of Scots. All of this was written down many decades later in 1641. But there were earlier mentions of her, such as “In 1665, London suffered because of the Great Plague, one year later the Great Fire destroyed much of it. Samuel Peyps wrote in his Diary “See - Mother Shipton’s word is out.”

It is also important to note that the story of Ursula is so well known, in part, because it was featured in Heinrich Kramer’s infamous Malleus Maleficarum, the most popular witch-finding (and hunting) manual of the age.

Unlike other famous witches, Mother Shipton was not put to death. She is believed to have died sometime between 1561 and 1567. Because of her practice she was buried on unconsecrated ground.

Throughout the centuries the legends and her prophecies have grown and while we know that there was a healer in a small village known as Ursula Shipton it is believed that her prophecies (perhaps one or two were real) were mostly made up by Richard Head, the writer of her life story and prophecies, 80 years later.

I wanted to take today to write about Mother Shipton because it is an interesting, famous narrative about not an evil witch, but a witch that was motherly and intelligent and, perhaps feared...but also loved. Perhaps she was scorned for her appearances but it seemed she didn’t let that stop her from sharing her gifts, being kind, and falling and love.

The image in this blog post is a scan of the frontispiece of Mother Shipton investigated: the result of critical examination in the British Museum Library of the literature relating to the Yorkshire sibyl (1881). This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 70 years or less.