Mother Shipton’s Cave is a small cave in North Yorkshire, England, associated with the legendary soothsayer and prophetess, Mother Shipton.
According to text by the 17th century authors, Richard Head, and later by J. Conyers, Ursula Southeil (known as Mother Shipton), was born in 1488 in the market town of Knaresborough.
Both authors note that her mother, Agatha Soothtale, was a poor and desolate 15-year-old orphan who had fallen under the influence of the Devil and engaged in an affair, while some legends suggest that Agatha was a witch that summoned the Devil to conceive a child.
Shipton was born in a cave on the banks of the River Nidd during a violent thunderstorm. She was described as deformed with a hunchback and bulging eyes, cackling away at the rumbles of thunder that caused the raging storms to dissipate.
The cave sits next to a geological wonder called the Petrifying Well. The waters of the well are rich in sulphate and carbonate that encase objects with a stony exterior. In the past, this was believed to be the result of magic or witchcraft that could turn objects to stone, but this is a natural phenomenon due to a process of evaporation and deposition in waters with an unusually high mineral content.
After her birth, Agatha was dragged before the local magistrate, but refused to reveal the identity of the father, leaving both Agatha and her daughter to be ostracised from society and forced to reside in the cave for shelter. There she studied the forest, the flowers and herbs, and made remedies and potions as an herbalist for the townsfolk.
Growing up, Shipton was taunted and teased by the townsfolk for her crooked nose, hunchback and crooked legs, with one account in 1686 describing an incident where chief members of the parish called her “hag face” and “Devil’s bastard”.
Despite the distain of the townsfolk, she found love in the arms of a carpenter called Tobias Shipton and took his name following their marriage. Tobias died in 1514, leaving Shipton heartbroken and in despair, but despite her grieving, the townsfolk blamed her for her husband’s death and claimed witchcraft was afoot.
Shipton retreated to the woods, continuing her craft in herbalism and embraced her reputation as a healer, soothsayer and prophetess. Her prophecies may have even caught the attention of King Henry VIII, who wrote a letter in 1537 to the Duke of Norfolk where he mentions a “witch of York”.
In 1666, Samuel Pepys recorded in his diaries that, whilst surveying the damage to London caused by the 1666 Great Fire in the company of the Royal family, he heard them discuss Mother Shipton’s prophecy of the event.
She is also referred to in Daniel Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year” written in 1722, referring to the year 1665, when the bubonic plague erupted in London: “Here lives a fortune-teller, Here lives an astrologer, Here you may have your nativity calculated, and the like; and Friar Bacon’s brazen-head, which was the usual sign of these people’s dwellings, was to be seen almost in every street, or else the sign of Mother Shipton.”
Today the Petrifying Well is England’s oldest visitor attraction. It was first recorded by the king’s antiquary in 1538 and has been visited by millions of people since 1630.
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