Witch Prophetess: Mother Shipton
By Kara Newcastle
You know that traditional image of a witch, the one you always see at Halloween? The old hag with stringy hairy, craggy face, hooked nose, wearing a tall pointed hat? Well, it might interest (or unnerve) you to know that the image of the pointy-hatted, ugly witch is actually based on a real woman—Mother Shipton, an illiterate English witch renowned for her incredible ability to foresee the future.
As the story goes, Ursula Southeil (sometimes called Sountheil, Southill, or Soothtell) was born near the magical petrifying Dropping Well, in a cave in Knaresborough, Yorkshire, sometime around 1488. Her unmarried, teenage mother, Agatha (or Agnes), was already reputed to be a witch who could control the weather, heal people and predict the future. Her father … well, no one knew who Ursula’s father was. Most of the townsfolk believed that it had to be the Devil either because witches were associated with the Devil, or because Ursula was said to be astoundingly ugly. However, Gardnerian witch and writer Doreen Valiente has since pointed out that male leaders of witch covens were often been referred to as the Devil by non-pagans, so it’s possible that Ursula’s father was her mother’s coven’s high priest.
It’s unclear what happened to Ursula’s mother; some accounts say that she died in childbirth making “strange and terrible noises,” while others say that Agatha abandoned her daughter and fled to a convent. Either way, Ursula, said to be horribly ugly even as a child, was taken in by a local village woman. However, the kindly lady came to regret adopting Ursula, as bizarre things happened in the house whenever the girl was present, such as furniture moving of its own accord, and food mysteriously vanishing off plates.
One story recounts how the frightened woman ran from her home, leaving little Ursula alone, and returned with her neighbors to show them the activity. As soon as they entered the house, the neighbor’s wife was yanked off her feet by an invisible force, flipped upside down and made to hang by her toes to a pole that floated in midair. Her horrified husband was then grabbed, levitated, and had his neck yoked to the other end of the pole.
Other stories claim that if young Ursula was angry at the local village women, she’d cast a spell to make them dance around in circles uncontrollably. If they tried to stop, Ursula’s familiar (a demon servant in the shape of an animal, in this case, a monkey) would pinch them painfully. The village children would antagonize her about her ugliness, so little Ursula would fight back with harmful spells. As a young woman, Ursula once bewitched guests at a breakfast party, prompting them to laugh hysterically and be chased out of the house by demons.
Ursula’s spellcasting and demon-summoning became such a problem that after enchanting the breakfast guests she was summoned to court on charges of witchcraft. Unimpressed with the judge’s accusations, Ursula threatened to do a hell of a lot worse to him and the townsfolk if they tried to prosecute her. As the unnerved crowd watched, Ursula then shouted, “Updrax! Call Stygician Hellenei!” A winged dragon magically manifested before the terrified people. Ursula calmly climbed onto its back, and the infernal reptile flew her away from the courthouse.
Despite her terrifying power and breathtaking ugliness, at the age of twenty-four, Ursula married Tobias Shipton, a local carpenter. Neighbors were stunned, whispering that Ursula, must have cast a love spell on Tobias in order to get him to marry her. However, Tobias disappears from town records not long after, and a now apparently widowed Ursula, now known as Mother Shipton, moved from town and back into the cave where she was born, living there well into her 70s.
If Mother Shipton moved to the cave to get away from her nosy neighbors, it didn’t work; rumors of her powers spread far and wide, and Mother Shipton soon found all manner of people coming to her for spells and prophesies, some traveling for miles to see her. Probably because of the rumor that she had captured her husband with a love spell, young women came to Mother Shipton seeking love potions. Many came seeking hexes to use against their enemies, and some came searching for cures to illnesses and wounds. In time, Mother Shipton became most famous for seeing into the future.
What did Mother Shipton predict? Cars, phones, the telegraph, iron-hulled boats, airplanes, the English Civil War, the Great London Fire in 1666, the invasion of the Spanish Armada in 1561, the discovery of the New World and the potatoes and tobacco found there, World War 2, the radio, women wearing pants, the women’s liberation movement, the death of Cardinal Wolsey in 1530, and said the Apocalypse would occur in 1881 (this caused people to panic that year, abandoning their homes and spending the whole night praying in fields and churches.) Samuel Pepys, the administrator of the English navy during the reign of Charles II, wrote in his diaries that following the Great Fire the royal family spoke of Mother Shipton’s foretelling of the disaster.
Mother Shipton predicted so many things that ultimately came true that she became known as the English Nostradamus … except that these “prophecies” weren’t revealed until almost eighty years after her death. Her supposed predictions appeared in a book written by Richard Heard, which was published in 1667, then in a pamphlet called The Strange and Wonderful History of Mother Shipton, by an anonymous writer in 1668, and again in 1871 by some guy named Charles Hindley. The biggest giveaway that some of these prophecies were written much later is that they are written using language and structure not used in the 15th and 16th centuries, prompting Hindley to admit that he made it all up. Later reprints of The Strange and Wonderful History of Mother Shipton moved the end-of-the-world dates to 1989, and then 1991, casting even more doubt of the veracity of the predictions.
We don’t really know what Mother Shipton foretold, but it must have been impressive enough to keep her legend alive after so many centuries.
After many years of prophesizing and spellcasting, Mother Shipton died around the year 1561. A memorial has been set up by her cave, now known as Mother Shipton’s Cave, and is a popular tourist spot (and has been since 1630, making the oldest admission-charging attraction in England.) If you go, you can see a collection of items that people have dipped in the Dropping Well. The waters contain large amounts of sulfate and carbonate, which hardens as it dries, making the items look as though they have been frozen in stone. There are two pubs named after Mother Shipton (one in Knaresborough and another in Portsmouth,) and in 2017 a statue of the famous witch was erected in Knaresborough Market Square.
In addition, the Callistege mi moth, classified in 1759, is also known as the Mother Shipton moth. If you look closely at the pattern on its wings, you can clearly see the profile of a craggy, long-nosed witch’s face!
Mother Shipton works referenced:
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Wicca & Witchcraft, by Denise Zimmerman et al
The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, by Judika Illes
The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft, by Rosemary Ellen Guiley
The Weiser Field Guide to Witches, by Judika Illes
The Witch Book, by Raymond Buckland
Witches and Magic Makers, by Douglas Arthur Hill et al
Witches and Wiccans, by Rosemary Ellen Guiley