Mother Shipton is England's most famous prophetess. She foretold the fates of several rulers within and just after her lifetime, as well as the invention of iron ships, the Great Fire of London in 1666, the defeat of the Spanish Armada... and even the end of the world.
Mother Shipton was born Ursula Sontheil in 1488, during the reign of Henry VII, father of Henry VIII. Although little is known about her parents, legend has it that she was born during a violent thunderstorm in a cave on the banks of the River Nidd in Knaresborough. Her mother, Agatha, was just fifteen years old when she gave birth, and despite being dragged before the local magistrate, she would not reveal who the father was.
With no family and no friends to support her, Agatha raised Ursula in the cave on her own for two years before the Abbott of Beverley took pity on them and a local family took Ursula in. Agatha was taken to a nunnery far away, where she died some years later. She never saw her daughter again.
Ursula grew up around Knaresborough. She was a strange child, both in looks and in nature. Her nose was large and crooked, her back bent and her legs twisted. Just like a witch. She was taunted and teased by the local people and so in time she learnt she was best off on her own. She spent most of her days around the cave where she was born. There she studied the forest, the flowers and herbs and made remedies and potions with them.
When she was twenty-four she met a young man by the name of Tobias Shipton. He was a carpenter from the city of York. Tobias died a few years later, before they had any children, but Ursula kept his name, Shipton. The Mother part followed later, when she was an old woman.
As well as making traditional remedies, Mother Shipton had another gift. She could predict the future. It started off with small premonitions but as she practiced she became more confident and her powers grew. Soon she was known as Knaresborough’s Prophetess, a witch. She made her living telling the future and warning those who asked of what was to come. After a long life, she died in 1561, aged 73.
Since the mid-17th century there have been more than fifty different editions of books about Mother Shipton and her prophecies, some purporting to tell her life story in considerable detail. One of the earliest accounts was said to have recorded the sayings of Mother Shipton, as told to a Joanne Waller, who died soon afterwards at the great age of ninety-four. That would mean Joanne, as a young girl, had listened to the old lady not long before her death in 1561.
Although we cannot be sure how much of the legend is true, what must be certain is that 500 years ago a woman called Mistress Shipton lived here in Knaresborough and that when she spoke people believed her and passed her words on.
The prophecies may not be all historically correct and the stories may have been embellished slightly over the centuries, but she remains one of those legendary figures of romance and folklore entwined in our imaginations and the local surroundings.
Come and see for yourself the cave where she was born and the historic forest in which she grew up and lived.