'The Messenger Should Not Be Hanged': The Enduring Mystery of Mother Shipton, England’s Most Famous Prophet
That there were witches in the olden times is true, else the Bible fights against shadows: for it tells us not once but many times that there were witches.
According to printed sources dating to the 1600s, in 1530 Archbishop of York Thomas Wolsey (former Cardinal and Lord Chancellor to King Henry VIII), one of England’s most powerful men, threatened to burn Mother Shipton as a witch when he reached her Yorkshire village. As she predicted, he failed even to reach Yorkshire let alone burn her at the stake.
Although the details of Mother Shipton’s life are speculative, the predictions attributed to her were widely accepted as reliable. She inspired imitators for hundreds of years after her alleged passing in 1561 at the age of 73. But Ursula Sonthiel (through marriage Mother Shipton) was inimitable except perhaps as her profile was noted on the wings of a moth classified in 1759 by Carl Alexander Clerck, a contemporary of Linnaeus. Can you discern the mirror-image faces of an elderly person with a prominent nose and chin?
Mother Shipton was conspicuous both for her lack of physical beauty and for the clarity of her mind. A mention of her on July 13, 1786, in the Exchange Advertiser (Boston, Massachusetts) pays her grudging respect by likening her to the “Sybills of old,” meaning the women oracles of Ancient Greece. The writer then defames both her looks and her character in describing a “sham-plotter,” a thoroughly depraved (and unchristian) person. In contrast, by most accounts Mother Shipton was a genial and gracious woman who accepted her interlocutors regardless of class or circumstances.
And first methinks I see my sham-plotter; I know him by his looks, which are as full of melancholy and despair, as the Sybills of old, or mother Shipton; meagre and wan, as always poring on revenge, and meditating and remembering his latter end, I mean hell and the torments thereof, which have begun to commence in his own bosom.
Here’s an interpretation of what she might have looked like, painted around 1830 by an anonymous artist. It’s held by the Mercer Art Gallery in Harrogate, just a few miles west of Knaresborough, the village associated with her. Whoever the model or intended subject might have been, this portrait captures the quiet dignity and confidence of a woman who has seen much of life and is not afraid to engage the viewer directly. It’s easy to imagine Mother Shipton embodying these qualities, and the painting humanizes her more readily than the popular depictions of her as some frightful, withered crone consorting with the Devil.
She was reportedly born in a cave in Knaresborough, Yorkshire, around 1488. Knaresborough has long been known for the “Dropping Well,” a mineral spring that deposits limestone onto objects left in its highly calcified waters. William Shakespeare mentioned the locale in Act IV Scene VII of Hamlet. In the relevant passage King Claudius explains to Laertes why he hesitates to prosecute Prince Hamlet despite the latter’s apparent plots against them both.
… The other motive,
Why to a publick count I might not go,
Is, the great love the general gender bear him:
Who, dipping all his faults in their affection,
Work like the spring that turneth wood to stone,
Today Knaresborough’s Dropping Well complements “Mother Shipton’s Cave” as England’s oldest tourist attraction. From details we can glean from Readex’s Early American Imprints, Series II: Shaw-Shoemaker, 1801-1819, Ursula Sonthiel’s birth was attended with supernatural signs and her own unusual behavior.
Several curious events are recorded to have happened upon her birth. A raven croaked upon the chimney-top; an extraordinary noise was heard about the house for several nights before, and a violent storm of thunder and rain was the immediate precursor of her arrival in these nether regions.
Her entrance into the world was announced by various wonderful presages. It was also observed that as soon as she was born she fell a grinning and laughing, after a jeering manner, and immediately the tempest ceased.
Ursula demonstrated astonishing cognitive abilities as a girl. An account from the June 2, 1877 Patriot (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania) sketches her early life:
Mother Shipton, if books do not lie, was the possessor of a remarkable amount of sagacity. She is said, even in her school days, to have had such a discernment that when her mistress told her the names of the first three or four letters of the alphabet, she completed it without further assistance, pronouncing every letter correctly. Then a primer was given to her, and she did as well with that. And the same of every other book. Indeed, she was such a prodigy that she knew without being taught! Every day, it is said, she muttered strange things, and people flocked to her to “get their doubts resolved;” in later English, to have their fortunes told. There came to her old and young, rich and poor.
It’s not unreasonable to imagine that the combination of her unconventional physiognomy and her precocious intellect made her a target for cruelty, and there are indeed stories of her mistreatment by both children and adults along with fanciful accounts of her revenge.
Eventually her forbearance with her neighbors and the keenness of her foresight won the day to the extent that she married Tobias Shipton, a local carpenter, at the age of twenty-four. He died several years later but by then she carried the name by which she has since become known. She seems to have been consulted in all manner of concerns, local and national, mundane and spiritual.
So what was she known for predicting? The English Reformation; Francis Drake’s defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588; the Great Fire of London in 1666; the ascension and execution of kings and queens; the collapse of a church and a bridge. Here’s an example of early prophetic verses attributed to Mother Shipton and expressed in the doggerel style associated with her, along with the commentator’s interpretation:
“When fate to England shall restore
A king to reign as heretofore,
Great death in London shall be though
And many houses be laid low.”
This prediction seems to have been extensively believed in London, for at the time of the great fire (shortly after the restoration of Charles II) the Duke of York found his efforts to induce the humbler classes to stay the progress of the flames impeded by the superstition of the people, who insisted that as Mother Shipton had predicted the destruction of the city it was labor lost to attempt to prevent it.
There is an older and likely more authentic version of her prophecy regarding the Great Fire of London printed in Richard Lownd’s 1641 The Prophesie of Mother Shipton in the Raigne of King Henry the Eighth. Fortelling the death of Cardinall Wolsey, the Lord Percy, and others, as also what should happen in insuing times. Writer M.D. Conway transcribed a portion for Harper’s Magazine in 1881, which was printed in the Daily Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana):
As a specimen of the “Prophesie,” I have transcribed from the ancient book itself the concluding sentences: “Then shall be in the North that one woman shall say unto another, Mother, I have seen a man to-day, and for one man there shall be a thousand women: there shall be a man sitting upon St. James’ Church Hill weeping his fill, and after that a ship come sayling up the Thames till it come against London, and the Master of the ship shall weep, and the Marriners shall ask him why hee weepeth, seeing he has made so good a voyage, and hee shall say, Ah, what a goodly Citie this was! none in the world comparable to it, and now there is scarcely left any house that can let us have drinks for our money.”
The attentive reader will notice that a number of the excerpts cited in this article were written in the few years leading up to and including 1881. The reason for this involves a hoax perpetrated by the English writer Charles Hindley in 1862 to boost sales of his book on Mother Shipton. The Macon Weekly Telegraph described Hindley’s deception in 1880.
In 1862, Mr. Charles Hindley, of Brighton, England, issued what purported to be an exact reprint of “A Chap-book Version of Mother Shipton’s Prophecies, from the Edition of 1448.” In this, for the first time, there were pith and point, and special application. All modern discoveries were plainly described, and one prophecy which began,
“Carriages without horses shall go,” and set forth the railroads, telegraphs, steamers and other modern inventions, wound up with:
“The world unto an end shall come
In eighteen hundred and eighty-one.”
This, of course, quite startled the public. If all other important events of the nineteenth century had been so aptly described, why should not the last prediction be fulfilled?
Although Mr. Hindley came clean about his deception in 1873, by 1881 his confession did not prevent a great many persons from looking for the imminent apocalypse in all the usual places. For instance, in the sky from Proctor’s comet:
Astronomy does not stop short of an utter extinction of life. A comet is declared to be projecting its vaporous head directly toward the sun, moving with frightful velocity, and dragging after it some millions of miles of train. The impact of this wanderer upon the sun is expected to cause an increase of the light and heat of the centre of our system, brief indeed, but sufficient in intensity to raise terrestrial temperature beyond the point at which animal or vegetable life is possible. Every vestige of life would be destroyed, the earth swept clean of vegetation, the sea perhaps converted into vapor. Such is the universal fate predicted for the earth and the dwellers upon it for the month of July next. The weight of Mr. R.A. Proctor’s name is supposed to have been given to this theory of the direful consequences to ensue if the comet aforesaid should precipitate itself upon the sun.
Some people faced death with renewed religious fervor; others not so much. One person of the latter persuasion found himself in court answering for his end-of-times spree:
He was a little jerky, as far as his nerves were concerned, and presented the appearance of a man who had been horribly drunk. He gave the name of Anthony Cowling. He pleaded guilty and paid a fine of $5, and, when he had been hoisted out of sight on the judicial elevator, a tramp indicted the following lines to his memory on the wall:
Anthony C. has paid his fine,
Sing hey for the legal machine.
He preferred to do that to doing time,
Hi, ho for the legal machine.
He got very drunk and went out prowling,
This wayward, foolish Tony Cowling,
And was jugged for a little too much howling,
Hurray for the legal machine.
Old Mammy Shipton’s prophesee,
Sing hey for the legal machine,
The young cuss thought would come to be,
Hi, ho for the legal machine.
But Tony lost his reck’ning there
As “Old Probs.” said, the day was fair,
And Tony will now remark and swear,
“Hurray for the legal machine.”
Among other portentous events, the “Yellow Day” occurred in New England on June 6, 1881. Owing to vast fires on Michigan’s “thumb” north of Detroit an ochre haze settled upon the Northeast to such an extent that gaslights were lit throughout the day while the spectrum devolved to unnaturally vivid yellows, greens and blues.
Yellow assumed the mastery of all the rest. Nature wore, it may be said, a jaundiced look. During the forenoon hours this appearance in color was less marked, but the clouds had a treacherous look, and in the perfect stillness of the atmosphere—so perfect that the leaves upon the tallest trees did not quiver—it was difficult to resist the impression that some frightful outbreak of nature’s forces was about to ensue. Many of the weatherwise presaged a hurricane which should become, as nearly as were possible in our temperate zone, a typhoon, and ancient mariners who had tales to relate of their experiences with wind currents of this sort in the Indian seas held undisputed possession of “the floor” and the unflagging attention of “the house.” Not a few regarded the strange conditions with still deeper apprehension and dread, and the devout among them reverted to certain passages of Apocalyptic Scripture, and the superstitious among them to the prophecies of Mother Shipton.
Speaking of atmospheric conditions, in 1893 the U.S. Weather Bureau came in for harsh criticism as foretelling events after they had occurred, by analogy with the Hindley hoax.
The weather bureau is becoming the companion of Mother Shipton and Merlin. Mother Shipton’s prophecies were never heard of until after all of them except the last in each job lot—which always remained to be fulfilled—had come to pass. One of these which fore- or rather hind-told of steamers, locomotives, &c., and ended with the dismal, lame and wobbly prophecy that
“The world unto an end shall come
There is where Mrs. Shipton made a mistake; she foretold and it has told badly upon her. During the past fifty years this lady’s—we shall continue to call her a lady, though she seems to have been several men—prophecies sold well and brought in pretty good returns to her publishers. Now they are not worth the paper they are printed on; the people know she is an after the ball prophet.
America had its own version of Mother Shipton’s prophecy called “Columbia’s Prophecy to Master Mage,” which was discovered in Canada in an 1809 scrapbook that formerly belonged to a family from Albany, New York. With explanatory notes it reads in part:
Edison’s phonographe is thus foreshadowed and possibly Keeley’s motor.
Men shall speak to brazen ears
That shall be mouths in after years,
Words spoken shall be sent by post,
And no syllable be lost
A drop of water shall have then
The force of many thousand men.
The prophecy refers to what the correspondent regards as the success of woman’s suffrage, change in the Presidential term, etc.
Women shall be turned to men.
All these things shall happen. when?
They shall happen—not before
Six years shall be reckoned four;
During the American Civil War, U.S. Secretary of State William Seward was extensively criticized in the Charleston [South Carolina] Mercury as a latter-day Mother Shipton:
On the 10th May he has a vision of a Yankee millenium: “Less than a year will witness the dissolution of all the armies; the iron-clad navy will rest idly in our ports; taxes will immediately decrease; and new States will be coming into the Confederacy, bringing rich contributions to the relief and comfort of mankind.” On the 10th July he says: “The reduction of Vicksburg, the possession of Chattanooga, and the capture of Richmond would close the civil war with complete success. All these three enterprises are going forward. The two former will, we think, be effected within the next ten days.” And in September he actually bites his thumb at the Emperor: “We have not been misled,” he says, “by any of the semblances of impartiality or of neutrality, which unfriendly proceedings towards us in a perilous strife have put on. When any government shall incline to a new and more unfriendly attitude, we shall then revise, with care, our existing relations towards that power, and shall act in the emergency as becomes a people who have never yet faltered in their duty to themselves while they were endeavoring to improve the condition of the human race.” Compared with these prophecies, the ravings of Mother Shipton became respectable oracles. Yet on them was founded the entire foreign policy of the Federal Government. The complaints that foreign statesmen and other sane persons would not confide in them were incessant: and they were the lights by which American envoys were expected to steer.
Another man tasked with crafting foreign policy in tumultuous times was Thomas Wolsey, with whom we began this article. As his influence was waning in the court of England’s King Henry VIII, he learned of Mother Shipton’s prediction that “Cardinall Wolsey should never come to Yorke.” He decided to call her bluff.
As a diplomatic man, however, he sent emissaries to reconnoiter the situation. Namely, he sent Henry Grey, 1st Duke of Suffolk; Thomas Percy, 7th Earl of Northumberland; and Thomas D'arcy, Steward of the Honour of Knaresborough. These three were guided by a local magistrate in Knaresborough, Reynold Beseley, the son of a former sheriff there. As her most famous prophecy and one in which prominent people were named, this story is described in many accounts of Mother Shipton’s life.
…then they went into the house, where there was a great fire, and they dranke and were very merry. Mother Shipton, said the Duke, if you knew what we came about you would not bid us so welcome; shee said the messenger should not be hanged: Mother Shipton, said the Duke, you said the Cardinall should never see Yorke; Yea, said shee, I said he might see Yorke, yet never come at it. But, said the Duke, when he comes to Yorke thou shalt be burned: Wee shall see that, said shee, and plucking her handkerchief off her head, she threw it into the fire, and it would not burne; then she tooke her staff and turned it into the fire, and it would not burne; then she tooke and put it on againe. Then said the Duke, What meane you by this? She replyed, If this had burned I might have burned.
In response to further inquiries she then proceeded to accurately predict tragic fates for her three noble guests.
As the story continues in the Sunday Dispatch, in 1530 while gazing from the tower at Cawood Castle about eight miles distant from York, Wolsey declared his intention to carry out his threat. The “Laske” condition said to be fatal to him corresponds to the disease known today as dysentery.
“Not long after the Cardinall came to Cawood, and going to the top of the tower, he asked, Where stands Yorke and how far it was thither; and said that one said hee should never see Yorke; Nay, said one, shee said you might see Yorke, but never come at it. He vowed to burne her when he came to Yorke. Then they shewed him Yorke, and told him it was but eight miles thence; he said that he would soon be there; but being sent for by the king, he dyed in his way to London at Leicester of a Laske.” Thus was her prophecy fulfilled here.
One might wonder why so much time elapsed between the death of Mother Shipton in 1561 and the first regular publications of her biography and prophecies around 1641. Beyond the rarity of printing with movable type that began in Europe just a few decades before Mother Shipton’s birth, part of the reason may involve the political uses to which prophetic claims could be put.
Embracing a claim that was not fulfilled or quashing a claim that raised impolitic questions, and/or was popularly perceived as coming to pass, was fraught with peril. For example, Wolsey’s opponents could have held Mother Shipton’s claims and his response to them against him no matter what he did. Perhaps censoring or discouraging their publication was the best approach, especially in days when printing was not common to begin with.
David Hume, in his History of England, from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution in 1688, noted that “fantastical prophecies” and similar supernatural challenges to the status quo thrive upon official persecution.
There was, likewise, another point, in which parliament, this session [i.e, in 1563], shewed more the goodness of their intention, than the soundness of their judgment. They passed a law against fond and fantastical prophecies, which had been observed to seduce the people into rebellion and disorder; but, at the same time, they enacted a statute, which was most likely to increase these and such like superstitions: it was levelled against conjurations, enchantments, and witchcraft. Witchcraft and heresy, are two crimes, which commonly increase, by punishment, and never are so effectually suppressed, as by being totally neglected.
Witchcraft’s relation to prophecy also raises interesting questions. As there were witches in the Bible, so too were there prophets. The former were typically persecuted; the latter venerated. But which is “witch?” The biblical “Witch of Endor” has been described as conjuring at the sufferance of or as a vehicle for divine justice rather than on her own behalf. In that case Saul’s persecution of witches was misplaced since they were a necessary adjunct to divine work. Notwithstanding that persecution or heresy, Saul successfully consulted Samuel through the witch’s agency only to learn of his own impending downfall. The following account from the Cleveland Plain Dealer gives an abstract of the story.
David fled to Gath. The Philistines gathered together. And Saul was afraid and asked the Lord what he should do. The Lord would not answer him. Saul had put all witches and wizards out of the land. Disguised he went to see a woman who had a familiar spirit at Endor and asked that she bring up Samuel. Samuel who had died rose up before him and told him the Philistines were making war against him and that God had departed from him and would deliver him and Israel into the hands of the Philistines. Saul was afraid because of the words of Samuel.
A passage from Advocates for devils refuted and their hope of the damned demolished (1796) by Calvinist preacher William Huntington describes the subtle distinction between heresy and prophecy:
And, as for the Song of Solomon, every line of it proclaims its own author; for there is none that speaketh like him; and, it being a sealed book to the wise and prudent, shews plain enough that it is sacred; and, were all the worldly wise upon the earth to undertake to make a book like it, there would be no more resemblance between theirs and the original, than there is between the prophet Isaiah’s predictions and the whims of old mother Shipton. That which flows from a divine spring has both a fulness and satisfaction in it; but that which is pressed from human brains is nothing but a sound from emptiness, and proves a broken cistern to all that seek entertainment therein.
And yet, witches in Christian societies were apparently not only necessary but pervasive enough to suppress through force of law and at pain of death. In that respect if Mother Shipton did not in fact exist, perhaps it was inevitable that Christianity would invent her or someone like her as a foil for orthodoxy.
It’s significant that she and witches generally are overwhelmingly identified as women. In The history of women from the earliest antiquity, to the present time (1796), author William Alexander speculates as to why that might be:
How the original idea of witches was at first suggested to mankind, is not easily accounted for; it is still more difficult to assign a reason, why this idea was in all ages so intimately connected with women, and particularly with old women. The witch of Endor is introduced as an old woman, and in every subsequent period historians, painters, and poets, have all exhibited their witches as old women; nor can we without pain relate, that a majority of those unhappy creatures condemned a few centuries ago in all the criminal courts of Europe, were old women. Might we hazard a conjecture on this subject, we would suppose that in the earlier ages of the world, while women were only kept as instruments of animal pleasure, and only valued while they had youth and beauty, as soon as these were over, they [were] deserted by society and left to languish in solitude; a situation which is of all others that in which the human mind is most susceptible of wisdom, which wisdom soon making them more conspicuous than the ignorant crowd from which they had been exiled, might give birth to a notion, that they were assisted by invisible agents.
So far as we are told, Ursula Sonthiel was ostracized from birth; are we to wonder that such a veritable lightning rod for public fear and derision might become preternaturally perceptive and diligent in the pursuit of, well, enlightenment?
Of course, Mother Shipton may have been both a witch and a prophet. Proof of her dual nature could be the honor which accrued to her in Knaresborough. The sterling reputation of England’s most famous prophet stands in opposition to the New Testament statement that “No prophet is accepted in his own country”’ (Luke 4:24).
This Mother Shipton lived till she was of an extraordinary age, and though she was generally believed to be a witch, yet all persons whatever, that either saw or heard of her, had her in esteem, and her memory is to this day much honored by those of her own country.
A stone was erected near Clifton, about a mile from the city of York, from which the following is taken:—
“Here lyes she who never ly’d,
Whose skill often has been try’d.
Her prophecies shall still survive,
And ever keep her name alive.”
We predict that you’ll meet with auspicious and timely results when pursuing your research in Readex’s Archive of Americana.